A cheerful, raspy, ballading epic of refusal, my favorite kind of sonic territory, is the song “I Can’t Forgive You” that Actress’s 2014 album Hazyville orbits. Through clicking, clipping, sparking, and pawing at the will relentlessly it delivers the unspoken feeling of criminality or at least illicit behavior, and a looping hollowed moan where the innocent taunt and jubilate. The criminal or guilt-ridden soul stands accused and exiled in the sound, beautifully irredeemable, a frequency trying to get through to a spirit that has risen above its antics and moved on. The effect is of two uniquely captive souls existing at one another’s mercy. Have no mercy, let them feign isolation to establish union in this way for the almost four subtly dramatic minutes the song gives us, to bask with it in the eternal mutual damnation of the unforgivable and unforgiven. This space of impossibility Actress arranges for us feels so bleak as to be triumphant. When you admit what you cannot overcome, you are actively overcoming it, and that sneaky paradox gives the song its illusive pep and grandeur. We’re here to celebrate a grudge and in celebrating it, we release it.
But first, we glide on it and ride it, dance resentment into the spotlight, and take the playful withholding announced in the song’s title as an opportunity to misbehave and engage abstract revenge fantasies or reminisce about events we’re supposed to have dismissed and outgrown. The song has no words, just faint but steady moans, so we get to impose our own stories and biases onto its fabric. We all carry one dominant upset that we feel scorned or schooled by, and then the many subconscious wounds that we think that lesson protects us against reopening. This song forces them all askance to nudge and jolt one another like tumbling dominos. Finally we’re impelled to confront everything for which we haven’t forgiven or apologized to ourselves.
I’m coasting with the music trying to find exes to associate it with because that’s the reflex in this age, to think of everything in terms of romantic relationships, though we’re slowly evolving past that. For the time being, romance remains the most invigorating or addictive way to contextualize the unedited self because of whatever self-worth issues being loved or being in love assuage. I’ve forgiven or forgotten most of those grudges, however, many of them contrived as distractions from my own calls to duty in other areas of life. And then I’m distracted by this bright doorway lit up by flashlights and fleshlight.
I’m the height of half of the legs of all the men standing on either side of its threshold. Two police officers on the outside, my father on the inside, in our house. I had woken him from his barbiturate induced afternoon nap, telling him it was his brother/my uncle at the door so he would eagerly descend the stairs into this nightmare. The look on his face when he saw the officers: betrayal, hurt, disbelief, fear, remorse, helplessness, sorrow—no rage, he had forgiven us on the spot. My mother was somewhere in the house bruised up as evidence and then at the door also, speechless. Maybe he’d be right back or maybe he’d be gone forever. How is one to know at 4, my age then, or 27, my mother’s age, 8 months pregnant with a broken jaw. Battered woman is such an ugly label, nowhere near wife or lover or friend, an object some man decides to try and love or try and ruin. This could be the time she really means to leave or this could be another evening and he’ll be back for dinner and a night of songwriting. How is one to know. This ends up being the last time I ever see my father in person. The last words I hear him utter: If you guys leave me, I’ll die, a smirk of shock in his eyes.
I forgave him for dying as promised, but who knows if I’ll ever completely forgive myself for standing between realities, seeing it all play out like kids see ghosts, like a child oracle turning her black father over to the slave catchers, the police, in the great white state of Iowa, where we lived then. It’s not that I feel guilty, it’s that I carry this impulsive commitment to repairing every damaged black male genius I’ve ever loved, often at my own expense, as if that might allow me to forgive myself a little better or as if that is somehow my karma, the endless replay of that doorway and the choices we made there renegotiated forever in my heart and my romance. When the door closed and he was taken away and we moved into a battered women’s shelter until heading to California to live, I didn’t realize that the door never closes. Every time I’ve fallen in love or out of love I’ve stood at that brutal threshold turning some part of myself in, loosing another layer of attachment to martyrdom, gaining another moment of my father’s broken guidance. That loop for me is part of my karma. It makes me good at love, and lately even better at letting go of anything that constricts my heart even a little bit—sweet, a little ruthless, obsessed with where experience must become music to be understood.
Later, Actress would title an album Karma and Desire (2020 )and I would understand his leaps between invented worlds and received ones, and his sound which attempts to bring the invented and received registers together to coexist and clash if they have to, and heal one another—the sound of psychedelic reckoning with the dense chords of industry and systematized manual labor, and intimacy reckoning with absence and surrogacy. The loop that drives “I Can’t Forgive You” elongates throughout the song as if it’s on its way somewhere, a bubble about to burst, like in some movie scenes, like Buffalo 66, where two characters are on a drive and only one of them knows the destination. My dad had tried to take me on a drive like that before that doorway, to leave my mom and go somewhere where he wouldn’t be subjected to the consequences of her not being able to forgive him. He asked me while we waited in the car outside of a grocery store she had gone into to grab some milk should we leave her? No, I said, aware of it all but not wanting to be so keen. And he listened to me. Sometimes I live in the alternate movie, a disaster flick not unlike the real life one, out with my dad on some road to nowhere, on the run. And when he visits me in dreams, he’s often driving me somewhere, wearing a Stetson cowboy hat like he always did, and very sure of where he’s headed, very protective, also making sure to never let me know or even give me cause to wonder.
Forgiveness is a skill we develop so that we don’t become hostages to guilt and shame. Shamelessness also works but only in collaboration with forgiveness, otherwise it’s just self-sabotage. When Billie Holiday wrote hush now, don’t explain she was in the process of forgiving everything, don’t you know you’re my joy you’re my pain she went on, eager to take this person in unconditionally. For decades this anthem has driven men and women to forgive almost anything to return to the swooning feeling of difficult love. Actress intervenes with a quiet suggestion that balances the scale a little: “I Can’t Forgive You.” Liberation. Still don’t explain, but this time don’t explain because it’s no use. One long thrusting exhale that marches boldly into the world of its limitations with an ominous cheerfulness. “I Can’t Forgive You” gloats about its boundaries and repeats and loops them while “Don’t Explain” promises to stop at nothing to make peace with unfaithfulness or other drama. Both songs are valid and necessary, both are true on that threshold we never leave between choosing ourselves and choosing masochism or hedonism or allthem.
The song sort of veers off its slick unforgiving highway into an abyss of the unknown where both magic and doom are available and we get to choose as it fades out, as that memory card door closes and swings. No amount of suffering brings absolution and peace to someone who can’t forgive herself; but no crime is too large to outrun for someone who has. For one who remains ambivalent and refuses to believe anything is any one person’s fault and thinks blame is usually denial, and Actress’s open-hearted torment is comforting and dad’s open-hearted torment is too, it’s nice to find a song like “I Can’t Forgive You” that promises to sort it out on the altar of the dance floor where nothing is definitive. As long as you don’t ask where it’s taking you, the song will drive you home. Not to the warm fuzzy side of home, but to the shadow side you need to revisit if you’re going to make it through to the light. And it might still be the glaring flashlight shining on someone you love and lost. I’m glad that you’re back, Billie intervenes, slyly, having lured us there.