Before we begin, I want you to keep this song’s title in the back of your mind. “I Trawl the Megahertz.” It’s the kind of odd, striking title that rolls around in your mind for a while before you even listen to the song itself. Maybe you’ve heard the words “trawl” (dragging nets through water to catch fish) and “megahertz” (a unit of sound frequency) before, but never together. What do you think it might mean? What might its context be?
I used to dread the new year. I still do, to some extent, but it used to be worse. I would spend New Year’s Eve on my computer, playing video games or writing or doing something else to distract myself. I was obligated to watch the ball drop with my family, so I would give them kisses goodnight and go to bed three lines into “Auld Lang Syne.” I reminded myself that this was all arbitrary, that this was just the Earth returning to some spot around the Sun for twenty-four hours. All the same, I began taking note of the last word I had written for each year. (2014’s was “down”; 2015’s was “still”; 2016’s was “afternoon.”) It was a morbid act, driven by a fear of–and preoccupation with–finality.
Because when the ball drops and the new year arrives, the old year is gone, fossilized in history books like a fly trapped in amber. You can still remember it, sometimes even fondly, but it’s relegated to memory, growing more distant and abstract with each passing year. And how many of those years do I have? We think of the human lifespan as lasting a hundred years, but most of us will die in our seventies. If we’re lucky, we make it to our eighties or nineties. One day, I’ll reach a New Year’s Eve that will be my grandparents’ last, and then my parents’ last, and then my last–and then what?
I knew on some level that that finality doesn’t make life futile, that it’s about the destination and not the journey, et cetera, et cetera. But it was something that haunted me for a long while when the new year rolled around. I’m still not completely over it, but I’m better about it now. I have this song to thank.
When Paddy McAloon wrote “I Trawl the Megahertz,” he was almost blind. McAloon, the erudite frontman of the seminal sophisti-pop outfit Prefab Sprout, suffered detached retinas in 1999, and the resultant surgery left him housebound for an extended period of time. McAloon, already a sensitive, depressive person, was deeply troubled by this, as well as the impact it had on his usual writing process. To pass the time during the dark, lonely nights, McAloon turned to the radio and the television. In the liner notes, he described himself sorting through “phone-ins, chat shows, citizen’s band conversations, military encryptions–you name it, I was eavesdropping on it.”
Although he found most of the material “boring,” certain words and phrases emerged from the static. He began to take note of them, and soon some of those phrases began to form a “loose narrative.” The music soon followed, and by the time McAloon was well enough he had the material for I Trawl the Megahertz. If the rest of the album is overshadowed by the title track, that’s just because the title track is a work of career-defining genius: the rest of the material is lovely and evocative in its own right, from the quietly poignant “I’m 49” to McAloon’s sole vocal contribution, “Sleeping Rough.”
But it was the title track, all twenty-two minutes of it, that captivated me on New Year’s Day of 2020. In three months, the entire world would be where McAloon was twenty-one years before: housebound, trying to find a way to make life go on. But I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that I was on the precipice of a new decade, and for a moment, there was nothing but possibility.
“I’m telling myself the story of my life, stranger than song or fiction.” Those are the first words spoken in “I Trawl the Megahertz,” after the introduction of the painfully beautiful motif that recurs throughout the song. It may be a loose narrative, but “Megahertz” really does feel like the story of a life: motifs recur, hearts are broken, days go by, and there’s beauty everywhere, even in pain.
The song is long and dense, and unpacking every line would make this article run over ten thousand words. But to sum it up briefly, it concerns life, love, and loss, narrated by a woman whose calm surface conveys infinite depth. As the music sways and swells, common experiences are described in lofty, poetic language, and the imagery tingles the skin on the back of your neck: a misty orchard, a lover barking at the moon like a dog, a plane coming down behind enemy lines. This only makes the more plainspoken lines hit even harder. Early in the song, the narrator speaks in the voice of what may be her mother, gently breaking a divorce to her daughter.. “‘Your daddy loves you,’ I said. ‘Your daddy loves you very much. He just doesn’t want to live with us anymore.’”
It’s almost impossible to believe that “I Trawl the Megahertz” was pieced together from radio chatter. Not only are the lyrics beautiful, they form a loose but clear narrative, a bittersweet epic. There are lines here that I wouldn’t be able to write on purpose, not even if you gave me fifty years, and McAloon found them floating in the ether. But in another way, it makes sense. Even the most minor lines have a spark to them, some kind of sound or rhythm that catches your ear like they might have caught McAloon’s. “You learn some, if not all, of the language.” “So what if this is largely bravado?” “Forgive me, I am sleepwalking.”
Even the most beautiful lyrics can feel overwritten and precious if they’re not delivered right; thankfully, “Megahertz” has Yvonne Connors. An American stockbroker living in London, she was recruited by McAloon and recorded her lines in a hotel room; somehow, you can hear all of that without knowing the backstory. She sounds like a person who is far from home, someone who knows hotel rooms better than she knows her own bed. Her voice is calm and reserved, but it’s a practiced sort of calm. One gets the sense that Connors, or the song’s narrator, is trying to distance herself from her own passion and heartache. Her matter-of-fact delivery helps ground fanciful lines about cherry Madonnas and the heart’s accountant, but it always feels like she means them.
And that’s why “I Trawl the Megahertz” lands with such an impact. It heightens the beauty and agony of everyday life, expressing emotions you’ve always felt but never knew how to put into words. Have you ever felt like love helps you forget the banality of everyday life? “Trains are late. Doctors are breaking bad news. But I am living in a lullaby.” Have you ever worried about what a loved one’s behavior might mean? “I will analyze your gestures like centuries of scholars poring over Jesus’ words.” Have you ever given yourself over fully to love? “In short, I am asking to be scalded. It is the onset of fever.” Billions of people felt it before you, and billions more will feel it after you. You are not alone. You have never been alone.
Maybe it’s an odd song to consider “life-affirming.” There is pain everywhere on “I Trawl the Megahertz,” and the lingering wounds of heartbreak are discussed frankly. Late in the song, as cinematic strings and dream sequence harps echo around her, Connors muses that there are two different ways to approach the process. The first is to gnash one’s teeth and try desperately to forget, possibly aided by drugs and alcohol, growing steadily more self-destructive until it’s too late. Then, the music grows quieter. “There is, of course, another way of looking at this,” Connors says. “‘Your daddy loves you,’ I said. ‘Your daddy loves you very much. He just doesn’t want to live with us anymore.’”
Then, that warm, familiar chord progression comes back in, stately and dignified. This is around when I started crying the first time I listened to this song. It had only been about fifteen minutes, but it felt like a journey worthy of an epic poem, brought back to the beginning: an act of kindness and understanding, soothing a frightened young girl and trying to preserve her relationship with her father. When Connors applies that spirit of acceptance to her own heartbreak, it feels perfectly right, the way only the best stories manage. It’s the kind of moment that doesn’t feel significant until you look at it the right way; when you do, it may as well be a microcosm of the human condition.
I hope you’ll forgive this review, which is long and indulgent even by my standards. But all of this is to say that I found this piece of music exactly when I needed it most. At the start of a decade that promised to be turbulent even before the pandemic, I needed to be reassured that all of this mattered in some way, that there was something beautiful and significant about simply going about your life. There is finality, of course–there always is–but there’s also opportunity, and dignity, and the peace that comes with connecting to something greater than yourself.
I started keeping track of the first word I write every new year. In 2021, it was “spring.” In 2022, it was “laundry.”
Do you remember what I said about keeping the song’s title in the back of your mind? Well, here’s its context.
Towards the very end of the song, our narrator has found something like peace, but she can’t keep herself from hoping for something more. She considers the devices scientists use to detect extraterrestrial radio signals, and she finds comfort in the idea that nothing is lost, even through the expanse of space. “So I rake the sky. I listen hard. I trawl the megahertz, but the net isn’t fine enough, and I miss you.” The song ends on an uneasy ellipsis, the narrator still looking where she last found her love, “signal urgent but breaking, before you became cotton in a blizzard, a plane coming down behind enemy lines.” Maybe she’s still searching. But there’s beauty in the search, the refusal to turn off the radio, the desire to connect.