It was 60 degrees in Philadelphia this past Tuesday. It’s February. Earlier, in January, it was 70 degrees, and I was out making Polaroid photos in a T-shirt. Hours prior, I was reading on my parents’ deck. I drove from their house to my apartment with the windows down. It was the picture of summer. It was January. For as much as we’re all enjoying the absence of winter weather, we can also agree something is deeply amiss. The unseasonable warmth has a looming quality. It’s foreboding. The earth is dying.
This “winter” reminds me of billy woods’ 2019 album, his second of that year, Terror Management. From the title to the 18 tracks populating the record, we get a sense something is deeply wrong with our narrator, with the world they’re in, too. And yet, we take it on the chin. All the possible rancor passes through us as if we are vessels for the troubles of the universe and nothing more. Not once does woods’ narrator break down at the hands of sorrow. They are merely a reporter. Nothing slows them down as they wind through Brooklyn and experience the very winter I am experiencing now. There is fear, as I have fears, but they aren’t bulky. They simply are.
“Like all things, there are two sides,” woods told me last year. “A person who’s not afraid of anything can be, in some ways, admirable, but is almost certainly a fool. At the same time, it’s a bad thing to live your life from a place of fear. There’s a duality there. Fear is bad and good and necessary.” But, in woods’ own words, that was then, and this is now. And in The Now, there is plenty of reason to be frightened.
The first words woods speaks on Terror Management are as follows: “World getting warmer, we goin’ the other way.” Now, I’m not saying billy woods is some sort of weather-prophet. But I am saying that the man knows what he’s talking about. It should never be 60 degrees in the middle of winter, and T-shirts be damned, I should be freezing. There are a lot of shoulds in life, though, and how infrequently they come to pass is my own personal hell. Every day for the past week and change, I’ve played Terror Management in an attempt to get myself out of this hole. I’ve spun the record to understand how things could be so wrong yet so placid. How the fires could be burning while the buildings are still left standing.
I once wrote that billy woods used Terror Management to highlight the futility of coping. Months removed from that sentence, I feel strongly I was correct. On the album, during this winter, personal coping appears worthless in the face of consistently worsening conditions. What does it mean to feel better when everything around you is going to shit? On “Windhoek,” woods raps: “We survived / We were new in our own eyes / All the lies I’m ‘bout to tell are true / They just had to rhyme / We made it out alive.” As in, we did not make it out alive. As in, we tried our best to survive, but it was for nothing.
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I hate winter. The darkness, the snow, the cold, it all sums up to set off depressive episode after depressive episode. On those 60 and 70 degree days, I felt renewed. I felt alive, and I felt excited to be alive. And yet, I also felt great concern. I shouldn’t have been enjoying myself. Something had gone awry. This weird winter, it belongs to billy woods. Just look at what he says on “Great Fires”: “Catch-22, Catch-22 / When I laugh miss you worse.” Every moment I spent outside, my dread grew. But I took it on the chin. Isn’t this life about me, me, me? Perhaps not. billy woods’ Terror Management, too, is about remembering the life outside of yourself and the role you play in that external life.
“Happy Holidays strung cross Nostrand Ave / Even good news feel bad, I drink drinks fast, I paid cash,” woods continues on the hook. His delivery is grand, for him, and it feels a touch sardonic. The good news feeling bad, the drinking fast, the dipping with a cash tip on your tab, it’s all about this winter. How badly I want to be rid of it, how terribly I feel for being subtly happy, I’m getting my wish. I want to feel for the earth, and I want to feel for myself, and at once, I am a hypocrite. What does it mean to want better for yourself, when it means you cannot want better for the bigger picture? No wonder the good news feels bad.
Take this line from the second verse of “Great Fires”: “It was fine ‘til everybody left / But it was terrible before they did.” The futility of coping and acclimation. We are animals; after all, we can adapt to so much. We react to change, and we respond well. What woods means here is that we are always pushing our discomfort. To be content with and without the crowd is to be displaced within and outside of the crowd. I was fine until the warm weather came in, but it was cold without it. It was fine before the warmth, but with the warmth, I am so worried.
Terror Management is an album about living through the worry—without living well. Quite literally, a record about handling your terror. So much is wrong in conjunction with how much we can enjoy, and the album reflects that through its fragmented schema. Every drink is a bit of poison in the system, but you don’t see any of us staving off the bottle. Every fuck is a complicated matter, but intimacy feels so good. And every warm day is a signal the earth is aching, but I still went outside and turned away from care.
In some ways, billy woods calls us out on Terror Management. He pins us down as the selfish creatures we are, but not before painting himself as just as ego-driven. “I used to love your wife / Used to lie naked looking at the ceiling / We used to get stupid high” he admits on “That Was Then.”
billy woods is no better than the rest of us, and perhaps that is the pure terror of the album and this winter. There is no savior; there is no model. This weird winter, I hear the earth screaming, and I’m turning those yelps into a playground for my creativity. What does that make me? I don’t have the answer, and neither does woods. All I know is this winter belongs to him, to Terror Management, and anyone else feeling guilty for their survival tactics.