8/17/2020: Frances the GOAT—Piltdown Man

The opening of Frances Quinlan’s first solo album Likewise evokes a history lesson.

Dawson’s piltdown man
Teeth assembled from that of an
Why would he do such a thing?
Of course, what a stupid question

Referring to the archaeological hoax that saw Charles Dawson attempt to pass an assembled skull off as the missing link between ape and man, Quinlan not only points to the motivations and lengths that people will go in order to achieve an end, but to the problems that come with dredging up the past and passing off the assemblage of details as the fact of what really happened.

To elaborate on this point, much of the song “Piltdown Man” dances around events that appear to tell a story, but are missing the essential definitions and relationships that help us to understand what’s really going on. Much of it is, in fact, hinted or implied. For starters, the line “Why would he do such a thing?” is immediately followed by the suggestion that the answer has been given at the cost of a condescending or embarrassing remark (“Of course, what a stupid question”). We are led to wonder where or whom the answer came from, and why they have to go and make the GOAT feel so bad.

Consequently, the song appears to orbit the speaker’s relationship with this subject; a “you” of whom she lends the listener some small significant details: they used to go camping out the back of the subject’s house, the subject had a dog, their noise used to wake up the subject’s parents in the early hours of the morning, the subject’s father remained incredibly patient in spite of it all. The last item offered in the speaker’s memory of the subject is of a wheelbarrow they ran around and around. Whenever I hear that line, I can’t help but think of William Carlos Williams’ precarious “The Red Wheelbarrow”:

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

There was a recent stage of quarantine when families all over the country simultaneously began to dig up photo albums—both from the times before and after we were born. In my childhood photos, I am equal parts bouncy and upbeat (essentially a ball of a boy) and I am throwing my arms out around every space that will turn out to be significant in my life. In one such photo that was uncovered a few days ago, my mouth was wide open, signifying a scream of the joyful variety. My sister Melissa told me that this picture was taken the Christmas after we had moved to Cebu as kids. I wondered if I would have picked up that detail from looking at the picture long enough.

For her the telltale sign was the dress she was wearing, a style that she recognized as not her own but that of our cousin’s. I didn’t even remember the picture being taken. This moment of joy, captured just as I stood at the cusp of adolescence, no longer took up space in my head. It’s funny to think about the scene everyone cries to in Inside Out in relation to all of this; I sometimes wonder if the reaction to this scene comes from the fact that we’re all afraid of the kind of oblivion that Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong submits himself to. After all, how many memories have we allowed to fade away, only to process new things that we actively try to forget and end up remembering forever?

The song keeps circling back to the same memory of being out with the subject in the early hours of the morning, belying its importance. It feels like something happened then, but why is it such a struggle to remember what it was? Was it a good memory or a traumatic one? We as listeners don’t know enough to make that judgment. Yet when Frances introduces new details, it’s to tell us that the subject returned to the speaker in a dream, which is no more helpful than any of the other impressionistic glimpses we’ve had of them so far:

Last night I dreamt your face changed through the doorway as I pushed you panicking
Agonize in waking to admit
Moments raging though
So very small, like this

Or is it?

When I was a teenager, I once woke up believing that I had dreamed of someone that I previously met in an earlier dream from my childhood. I had completely forgotten the earlier dream, to the point that so much of the newer dream involved the person trying to remind me what had happened the last time we met. She slowly became embarrassed when she realized that I didn’t seem to remember anything. Of course, I was embarrassed too, and that panic carried over to the waking world, when I came out of that new dream.

Maybe the point is not so much to ask how well we can remember or what does come back to us when we do, but to conjure the agony we feel when memory strikes back without warning. We’ll forget so many things throughout our lifetime, thinking they are irretrievable, that it overwhelms us when something as uncontrollable as a dream suddenly summons that memory out of the woodwork.

I haven’t forgotten that dream since, and sometimes I am led to wonder if my mind is actually a thing of its own, operating independently and perhaps even against me. I’m with Frances as the song approaches its end, musing:

A template, if there is one
I still think of
A template, if there is one
I still think of…
In the afternoon you both fell asleep
Still knowing more than me

Is there anything in the whole realm of human knowledge and experience that can make the quest of capturing the past seem less difficult, less mortifying, less painful?

With “Piltdown Man”, Frances Quinlan invites us to converse with the way we experience knowledge and memory. As a matter of fact, the struggle to understand and be understood in the light of our dynamic natures recurs throughout the whole of Likewise: can we ever really know another person, and conversely, how well can we ever really be known by anyone else? I think Ms. Quinlan is interested in probing the lonely implications of these questions. Subsequently, by recognizing these things and bringing them to light, she makes them feel less lonely for us, the resonant listener.