Eupnea — My Song of 2020
“Please breathe, you made it to here, hold on…”
When in June 2019, in the old era, Pure Reason Revolution announced they were back, and shortly afterwards, that they would be releasing an album in 2020, I was thrilled. I had been at one of their farewell gigs in Bristol in 2011, had multiple t-shirts, all their albums and EPs, and they were up there as one of the bands I’ve seen most live. I missed their music fiercely, and still recommended it frequently.
Their new album, Eupnea, was released on 3rd April, a day before I turned 31, and at the moment where it was becoming very clear that 2020 was not going to be the year we expected. I really enjoyed the whole album — Pure Reason Revolution are still very much a band who think in terms of albums, and thus the experience is always best when one listens to their work as an album: One will find lyrical echoes, motifs recurring, to create a journeying whole.
But the title track is the song that stuck with me. It stands, of course, on its own, a prog masterpiece lasting 13 minutes and 23 seconds, longer even than their previous megawork Bright Ambassadors of Morning. It rises and falls, pauses and rushes, is somehow both tender and urgent. You can hear it below:
I want to talk, rather than purely a review, about the meaning of Eupnea, the word and the song, and why therefore it’s been to me the iconic song of 2020. Eupnea is a Greek-derived word, from the words for good and breath, meaning in medical terms that a person’s breathing is as it should be — relaxed and not straining, inhaling and exhaling the right amount and without damage or difficulty.
In an article in Louder Sound, Jon Courtney, the band’s male singer and key creative force, explained that:
“Eupnea means normal unlaboured breathing or quiet breathing. It’s what we’re doing now, breathing without volition, it’s just happening. When my daughter was born at 32 weeks, weighing just 3 pounds (your average bag of sugar!), she couldn’t breathe properly, her lungs hadn’t yet formed or sprung into action. We were fleetingly in high dependency, before being transferred to intensive care. Here we stayed for a few weeks. Most of Eupnea’s lyrical content comes from this turbulent time — a real emotional rollercoaster.”
To Courtney, he and his wife had experienced this experience of deep deep fear and deep deep love. All the album tells this story, but to me this song encapsulates it all. Courtney begs his daughter to breathe, to wait as the surgeons work to help her mother, offers her his very lungs — she sings back, desperate for help from her parents as the surgeons have to operate on her spine having already done so on her lungs, longing to let her parents know she’s OK, and then, at last, to be held by them. Being trapped behind the literal screens of the Neonatal Intensive Care, the figurative screens of the doctors whom Courtney likens to robed priests speaking in tongues, and the impossible distance of communication, this song musically interprets the panic, rage, desperation, and beautiful adoring relief for mother, father and daughter as the song echoes towards the end — “death’s [become] just fantasy.”
What a year to release a song about a loved one being in intensive care, being aided to breathe by begowned doctors? Immediately, this second meaning jumped out to me, though I knew some of the background to the album and heard some of the interviews with Jon Courtney and Chloe Alper, the band’s permanent members. Through COVID-19, the salience of our breathing has become so much greater — those with chronic breathing difficulties more greatly at risk, the people with severe cases who need ventilation, the longer-term impacts on breathing capacity. We know our exhalation and inhalation might well be dangerous, and the core part to be at risk is then that very exhalation and inhalation.
At the same time, therefore, we know think of our breathing, and manage its effects, with face-coverings and masks. When I walk into the supermarket, I can feel the warmth of my breath caught by the mask. I feel my breath tighten as I pass someone in the great outdoors, even though I know it is not the place of greatest risk. I do not want my breathing, relaxed, involuntary, without volition, to casually cause harm. And so COVID-19 disrupts Eupnea — both in the most direct sense of creating the desperation for breathing in those suffering most deeply, but also in the hyperconscious, fearful, tight manner in which nearly every person is now breathing. Our society is longing to breathe well again.
In May 2020, we were reminded that it was not only disease that could take away Eupnea. George Floyd’s racist murder by the state came through them taking away his breath. His words, echoed by protestors across the world, so cruelly and catastrophically ignored by the police who killed him were: “I can’t breathe.”
He was not the first Black man to be murdered by the hands of the police repeating such a cry — Wikipedia has a page about the phrase which counts a number of people, with Eric Garner and George Floyd only the most well-known.
I was trained how to restrain people in a previous job. The first thing we were taught in learning to restrain when I worked in secure mental health was the high risk of suffocation and therefore the importance of avoiding neck or back pressure. My first, ignorant, assumption of the police was that they must not know how dangerous it was. Since then I’ve learnt more about how black people are over detained and have disproportionally died in mental health detention, and that suggests that the police, as well as mental health workers, may well have all the theoretical knowledge and fail to apply it.
That moment affected me strongly — the close discussions of suffocation caused me to faint.
I am thankful, and perhaps ashamed, that that was my first contact with the idea of suffocation through restraint, and that it was in the context that I was the person who needed to avoid it, who might be the perpetrator of it, not the victim.
If COVID-19 has robbed some of the Eupnea of society, how much more deeply has endemic racism? If I hold my breath a little as I pass a person, not wanting to inhale or exhale dangerously, what is it like to be a Black young person passing by a police officer? What is it like to hold in your very life and spirit to try and progress through the hoops of institutional discrimination? To know what it is like to beg for family members to be able to breathe, as in the song; to face “deep waves of violence” and “a death swarm” coming from those in power and those with force. How hard is it to hear the instructions to “hold on” when it’s been so so long since it was safe to breathe easy? That from suffocations in the holds of over-crammed slave ships to those under the knees of police officers, that Eupnea is never a promise to you?
And for those of us who benefit from the privileges wrought by that violence, is our Eupnea at all deserved? Oughtn’t we to wail? To get on our knees, as Courtney does in the song, to pray and urge and beg? To steal people from their cages, battle the storm together, be led by the life force of those so long restricted in sharing it?
The final meaning I found in Eupnea is the widest of all. I thought of Pnea, breath, so often figuratively used, at least in biblical Greek, in the word Pneuma, translated as spirit. As in Hebrew, the breath and the spirit of the person, or of God, are deeply connected. Aristotle, also, apparently used Pneuma in the same way. Aristotle is famous for a word that seems to me very closely connected to metaphorical views of Eupnea, which is Eudaimonia. (The biblical writers did not use a similar word to mean one’s inner or whole self as Aristotle — for them any word derived from daimon referred to a bad and external spirit. But then again, other Greek writers tended to use daimon-derived words to refer to various spirits more than their own or those of other humans).
Eudaimonia is one of those difficult to translate words. Often it is rendered as happiness. This is probably too thin a word to use. Human flourishing or holistic well-being might be closer, though they might miss Aristotle’s point, in one of his famous aphorisms — that just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, so too you cannot say over a short period whether a person’s life has been eudaimonic — this fulfilment has to extend over a significant amount of time.
Our whole world is struggling to breathe. Take it literally, and think of climate change — our environment’s Eupnea is slipping, bit by bit. Take it more metaphorically, and we live each day with the sickness and the oppressor’s boot of capitalism. And for so many of us, I think it can feel like we’re staring through the intensive care window, quietly urging things to be better, for us all to breathe, to hold on, waiting for the things that seem outside of our power to change at last. For many others, it can feel like we are that fragile premature baby, feeling love but at a distance, uncertain as to whether we shall be free from the wires.
At this moment, I do not know what remedies to speak of. But I think of the idea noted by the review of the album by The Progressive Aspect — “undeniable LOVE permeates every note and beat of Eupnea.” The permeation of love, even desperate, impossible, bewildered love, is the emotional heart of what moves me in this song, and what gives me the “tears cast in hope” for our recovery of Eupnea, in our bodies, our societies, our spirits, and our collective earth, humanity and one Spirit.
“Breathe in new life…”