If there was ever going to be an album that so keenly translated the anxiety of the period that we’re living in into song, it would be Tom Odell’s Monsters. While Odell has always had a penchant for a sad tune, Monsters leaves you feeling more than just lovesick, instead facing every listener towards the wretched and warped panic of trying to navigate through a time like this one.
“It is the first time in humanity’s existence that we’re just bombarded,” Odell observes in our conversation. “And we have been bombarded with news, mostly bad news; a hell of a lot of tragedy, a hell of a lot of anxiety-inducing, distressing news…It’s a tsunami of infinite information and it doesn’t surprise me at all that there’s such a huge endemic of anxiety sweeping the world, because it’s just so hard to understand this information. To absorb it, to make sense of it, is next to impossible. It’s so overwhelming.”
It’s ironic that the feeling of being overwhelmed is one of the only certainties that unites us in all of our lives right now, although when you get to the end of the day and can’t remember how to breathe anymore, it still feels like a solitary experience. From ‘Lockdown’ to ‘Money’, the tracklist of Monsters weaves in and out of examining the forces that have done well to make us feel so isolated, intentionally or otherwise. But it isn’t all about the 2020s – on ‘Numb’, Odell flashes back to a break-up that descended him to his lowest point, and ‘Country Star’ appears to be a reference to his much-discussed 2013 outing with Taylor Swift (he unconvincingly denies that Swift is the subject of the song when asked).
“If I listen to the music now, if I was to listen to ‘Numb’ or ‘Monster’, that’s what I hear,” he continues. “Someone that’s just overwhelmed and dealing with this fucking anxiety issue. Which is a physical thing, mostly, which was a physical thing of just my body going fucking psychotic. Just this little voice in my head saying ‘run, run, run, run’ while my heart’s going a million miles an hour.”
While the record overall is predominantly introspective, there is an outlier in ‘Streets of Heaven’, a jarring collaboration between Odell and his friend Courtney Marie Andrews. Odell was in Nashville working with Andrews when he read a news article about a school shooting that stirred him to try to come to terms with what had happened. Phrases in the track are lifted directly from what was printed that day, and it was important to him that they were preserved in what became the album version of the song.
“What inspired me to do that?” he repeats. “I don’t know. They [shootings] are constantly on TV. Every few months, it’s headline news around the world, and it always seems like such a waste of life, and one of those sorts of modern absurdities that the world is full of…I think so much of the album was me just trying to work out, ‘What is this world that I’m looking at?’ I seem to be so affected by it as well, more affected than my friends.”
For someone who does feel the tragedy around him so deeply instead of trying every method in the book to anesthetise himself to it like the rest of us, art has often been positioned as offering a sense of catharsis. Music specifically is meant to act as a healer, helping you realise your emotions and in doing so, relieving you of the pain that they’re causing you. For Odell, that certainly hasn’t been the case, especially as the sounds of the dystopian world around him continue to pound even more dramatically in his ears.
“I don’t know if music has been that healing at all, if I’m being honest,” he admits. “It’s a great distraction and it’s something that is innately and intrinsically what I do. Without getting too self-prophetic or self-aggrandising, I certainly just feel like it’s my calling. I just have to always make music. And making a lot of this music, honestly, writing it, and recording it, was incredibly not good for me. I became obsessed. It turns from something that’s cathartic into something that’s very destructive.”
With the support of his fiancé and some new habits that he’s assiduously working to maintain, Odell has found himself in a much better place than he was in when he began creating Monsters. Given that, he’s also uniquely positioned to consult on what does help him cope, as he learns to live with his demons rather than letting them control him. “It’s pretty miserable, isn’t it?” he laughs about Monsters. “I think I was also looking out at the world and seeing all the worst sides.”
“I meditate and I find that helps. And I guess I exercise, I find exercise helps. All the sort of classic ways, really. But ultimately for me, the most significant thing that helps is balance. It’s not obsessing, not staying up all night. Just having balance, going for a walk, being in nature, going easy on yourself. Not sitting there on Instagram, torturing yourself about how unsuccessful you are – just leaving all of that. Leave your phone at home, go for a walk and just enjoy being one of the 7 billion people on this planet.”