Gordi: Penumbra by Obscura Hail is the most perfect song of all time

Folktronica singer Sophie Payten dives into a sea of childhood memories when she hears the ‘hypnotic’ track by the Melbourne indie rock trio

When I was a year old, I would sit in the backseat of this little tricycle that my older brother would ride around the paved patio. The tricycle was blue and yellow and had a number plate, and the joyride was enough to keep me entertained for some solid minutes. I can’t decipher whether this is a real memory or if I’ve just pieced it together from stories and photographs. It’s as if my brain is playing a joke on me, though I’m not actually sure my brain is in on the joke.

Whether this memory is a memory or not, it fills me up like other fond recollections do – it expands in the same way, covering me. The first time I heard Penumbra by Obscura Hail I felt as though I was recalling the sound, rather than hearing it for the first time. The notes and cadences were familiar to me, the story being told was like one I knew but asked to hear again.

The song begins with swirling, arpeggiated, double-tracked guitars, creating a sort of limbo, where the tonal and rhythmic centres of the song float around the edges. Something about the velocity of those opening notes makes it seem as though the song has long been playing before you begin listening to it, like you’ve joined in the middle.

The entrance of the double kick, snare and hi-hats give a gentle anchor, with their purposeful smallness. And then the opening lyric: “Out playing on my trampoline.” Perhaps it’s the childlike phrase “Out playing” that acts as a time machine, but suddenly there I am, back playing on my trampoline, the sky moving towards me and then away.

“The perfect song” wraps the memories of the listener in those of the writer until you can’t tell what is yours and what isn’t. Penumbra has this in abundance – with mentions of Game Boys, borrowing an older brother’s stereo, buying singles from “the now-dead franchise Sanity”. As this song blasts in my headphones, I think of which starting character I used to select in the Game Boy edition of Pokémon (always Charmander), recording cassette tapes off the radio on a massive stereo and inevitably missing the start of the song, and buying the single Teenage Dirtbag by Wheatus, which had a B-side I never listened to.

The transitions of Penumbra are masterful in their subtlety – the guitars are hypnotic, the vocal unique and constant in pace and emotion, and just as I am diving down into a sea of my own memories, I am brought instantly to the surface by the line “Fifteen houses, seven schools, foster siblings, half bloods leaving”. It is a poignant emotional whiplash and reminds me that I am inside someone else’s story – they weren’t my memories after all.

I first came across the word “penumbra” in medical school. I was looking over the shoulder of a radiologist at a brain CT scan of a patient who had suffered a stroke. The penumbra, as the radiologist explained, was the area of the brain most affected by the stroke. Unless blood flow was urgently restored, those parts of the brain would be irreparably damaged. My guess is that Obscura Hail may have been more inspired by the word’s relation to a lunar eclipse, in which the penumbra is the area of partial illumination. To me, that is the essence of a perfect song – a partial illumination. It reveals only part of itself so that the listener must fill in the rest.

Sophie Payten (AKA Gordi)

The GuardianTramp

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