Phonogram: The Singles Club #2 is a Saga of Curse Songs and Sadboys
“Staring at you from across the room/Patagonia shirt and some fucked up shoes/He might try to talk to you about bands…”- “Kill Your Local Indie Softboy” by Izzy Camina
Trigger warning: brief self-harm mention
Reading Phonogram: The Singles Club at the end of 2020 is a nostalgic experience in both a personal and universal way. Universally, it creates nostalgia for the indie and pop music of the mid-2000s as well as indie nights at clubs, bars, and pubs, which have been able to take place safely since the Covid-19 pandemic. Personally, it’s sort of creates nostalgia for the person I was in 2014 when I first read Singles Club fresh off travels in England and ready to fuck up a small liberal arts university’s English department with an undergrad thesis on the still uncollected The Wicked + the Divine, but still so clueless, shy, and guilt/angst-ridden. Nostalgia can be a warm hug or the metaphorical equivalent of returning to an earlier stage of evolution, but it also can be a curse.
Or in the case of Phonogram: The Singles Club #2 and its POV character, Marc (Or Marquis to some.), a curse song. Basically, the premise of this issue is that Marc doesn’t want to go to the indie night at this Bristol club because it reminds him too much of an expat girl that he had a fling with in the past. And before this fling happened, they danced to “Let’s Make Love and Listen to Death from Above” by Brazilian indie rock band CSS so he can’t listen to that song without physically doubling over in pain and reliving the experience over again in faded tones from artist Jamie McKelvie and colorist Matthew Wilson while writer Kieron Gillen spit roasts him with his dialogue via this free-spirited girl who calls this specimen of the arms slumped, back of the venue, hipster boy set, “dancingman”.
However, before the extended flashback sequence, Gillen and McKelvie put some meat on the bones of the relationship between Marc and Lloyd (But he wishes you’d call him Mr. Logos) and Penny B and Laura Heaven. Lloyd is just as self-absorbed as Penny B was in issue one, but he’s all about theory and not praxis as he monologues to a half-listening Marc about his concept of his 1960s girl group revival band with “hyper-lewd post-spank rock sex lyrics”. Also, apparently, Laura has a thing for Marc too and flirts with him using song lyrics and the classic asking for a lighter move. Like Penny B, she is attracted to the cute indie boy, but also can’t make any kind of connection with him beyond reciting lyrics verbatim and using the stalest of pickup lines. However, McKelvie draws Marc as turned away from Laura as he goes in, gets a couple beers, and heads back to Lloyd. Lloyd does commiserate with him about the last time he was at the club, but for a single panel as he goes back to talking about his band concept and then fanboys over David Kohl, who shows up in the back of, again, a single panel. So, the girl is right when she tells Marc in a flashback that his friends “are nothing but bullshits with bad record collections.”
Most of Phonogram Singles Club #2 happens in Marc’s head as he recreates the moments and conversation he shared with this unnamed expat girl at this club in the past. Matthew Wilson’s colors are toned compared to, say, the previous issue, but Jamie McKelvie’s art is animated is as ever with all kinds of gestures, hand motions, and dance moves before the past and present collide in a nine-panel grid makeout session. Instead of hiding behind phonomancy like Marc’s other friends, this girl lives like an open book and is blunt about her feelings towards Marc and the music that’s playing instead of posturing with arms crossed and commenting on The Long Blondes. She isn’t afraid to touch, tease his “reserved” (or “boring”) British nature, and make masturbation jokes about dancing. The 8 panel grid that McKelvie gives a nice screwball rhythm to their interactions as well as capture the beat of “Let’s Make Love and Listen to Death from Above” and its ode to hedonism, not being a fucking hipster.
Phonogram and its three volumes are filled with characters, who are defined by their taste and relationship to music, for better or worse. Unnamed expat girl isn’t one of these characters, and Kieron Gillen seems to be having a really good time with her dialogue that also doubles as self-reflection for Marc. She understands that each connection that we make, whether for one night or for a lifetime, has good and bad, or “It is just a things” in her words. It’s okay to feel bad, but you also have to move on and not being controlled by past relationships or decisions. (A lesser author would have named the girl “Carpe Diem” or some banal nonsense.) The girl demonstrates this through both her words and actions. For example, instead of standing off to the corner and complaining about the DJ’s taste in music, she decides to make a move on the cute boy she was dancing with earlier and enjoy his presence even if she never sees him again.
Marc doesn’t feel this same way and fixates on their interaction instead, which is why she calls him the “emperor of whine” and calls him an emo boy, a big insult for mid-2000s indie boys although both genre of artists still make sad songs about women. This term didn’t exist in 2009, but Marc is a textbook “sad boy” or maybe “softboy”. (The semantics are tricky so correct me if I’m wrong.) His life is centered around his music taste even though it doesn’t make him happy as evidenced by his terseness in comparison to Lloyd, Laura, and even Penny B’s overflowing of language and geekery. Also, he’s very sensitive and filled with emotions as shown by the vividness of the flashback he has with “Let’s Make and Listen to Death from Above” creating a whole Sherlock Holmes memory palace of feelings for this time in his life. It’s overwhelming for him and also sucks that he’s surrounded by friends who would rather talk about bands than his feelings.
Marc has to break the “curse” of this song himself, but he isn’t willing to even though Penny B is ready to join him on the dance floor. Jamie McKelvie draws the “Just not with you” sequence from issue one from Marc’s POV this time, and with the added context of this issue and the flashback, we understand why he’s doubled over in pain, and there’s a single tear in his eye. Of course, Penny B ignores this. It’s a smart story move from Gillen and McKelvie to have Marc not experience some kind of big epiphany about moving on, but continue to sulk and see a VHS-static image of him and the girl from the past on the dance floor.
Marc is definitely the wallowing type, and hey, I’ve been there, but maybe it’s time to dance yrself clean, buddy. Breakups are really painful and feel like a withdrawal from drugs, but speaking from experience, you eventually get over him. However, I am not a licensed social worker, and my coping mechanism may or may not work for you. For example, my last one involved a manic episode, self-harm relapse, driving to Kentucky to hang out platonically with another ex, and starting a podcast.
Please don’t try that home, and dance to a fun song instead. I definitely recommend the one that Phonogram: The Singles Club #2 is centered around, which as mentioned earlier is “Let’s Make Love and Listen to Death from Above.”