Baustelle, “Il futuro” (“The Future,” 2013). By Corrado Confalonieri (Wesleyan University)
In Youth, a 2015 film by Paolo Sorrentino, there is a scene in which Mick Boyle, the elderly director played by Harvey Keitel, makes a trip into the mountains along with a group of young screenwriters assisting him in writing Life’s Last Day, his final film, which will be his cinematic testament. Along the trail the group meets a family descending the mountain: Mick stops for a moment to watch the child, two or three years of age, being carried on his father’s shoulders, then, having reached the summit, he calls aside one of his assistants and invites her to look into the observation telescope: “Do you see that mountain over there?” he asks. “Yeah, it seems really close,” she responds. “Exactly. This what you see when you’re young. Everything seems really close. That’s the future. And now,” continues Mick while he reverses the instrument’s position and asks the young woman to look at her companions just a few feet away from her through the backward spyglass, “That’s what you see when you’re old. Everything seems really far away. That’s the past.”
The perception of time changes depending on one’s age, a principle which this scene from Youth represents in its temporal extremes (young screenwriters, the old director) and meta-represents in spatial terms (the mountains in the background, the group of people close to the observation point). What happens, then, when reflecting on the same theme not at the beginning or the end of life, but—as Dante would say—midway on the path? Baustelle’s “Il futuro” speaks precisely of this circumstance, namely of the passing of time in the moment in which we realize that the future toward which we looked in our youth is now here. Having arrived, however, it turns out that the future is very different from how we saw it back then—”The future is no longer what it once was,” according to a famous verse—and now the emotional investment has transferred to what is lost, to the now distant and, more precisely, the “small” past (“il passato adesso è piccolo, / ma so ricordarmelo” [“the past is small now, / but I can still remember”], we hear toward the end of the song).
The quotation from Dante is not gratuitous. In many interviews accompanying the release of the album containing “Il futuro”—Baustelle’s sixth studio album, the 2013 Fantasma (“Ghost”)—singer and songwriter Francesco Bianconi has explained how, for the first time in their career, the group decided to write a “concept album,” thus selecting a theme around which to compose every song. The theme was time, already treated in other of the band’s songs—in “Le rane,” for example, one of the singles from the previous album, I mistici dell’Occidente (2010), and throughout their debut disc, the Il sussidiario illustrato della giovinezza (2000)—, but foremost at that particular moment for the fact that it fell, as Bianconi often recalled, “nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” (“midway in the path of our life”), when the three members of Baustelle (including, along with Bianconi, singer and multi-instrumentalist Rachele Bastreghi and guitarist Claudio Brasini) were all in their thirties and forties.
The perspectives offered within Fantasma from which to view time are multifold. Following the order of the tracks, there is an age difference between the two lovers in “Nessuno” (“Nobody”: “Arrivi e dici dolcemente / che vecchio stupido che sei / ed accarezzi con la mente / le rughe che ti regalai” [“You arrive and say gently / what a stupid old man you are / and you caress with your mind / the wrinkles that I’ve gifted to you”]), a song that also contains numerous political references to Italy under Berlusconi and post-Berlusconi. There is the instance of happy love that conquers death in “La morte (non esiste più)” (“Death [No Longer Exists]”: “Poi improvvisamente arrivi tu, sorridi e penso che / non ho più timore, lascio correre / il dolore non c’è più / e niente muore” [“Then suddenly you’re here, you smile and I think that / I’m no longer afraid, I let go / there’s no more pain / and nothing dies”]). There is the contrast between the static scenes of urban reconstructions in Milan’s Civic Museum of Natural History and the flow of time in “Diorama” (“Nel diorama il tempo non ci può far male, / non c’è prima non c’è poi / Solo il culmine di vite singolari, / l’illusione che non marciranno mai” [“In a diorama time can’t hurt us, / there is no before there is no after / only the culmination of individual lives, / the illusion that they will never spoil”], one of the album’s most complex songs, inspired by a poem by Antonio Riccardi, Maschio alpha [“Alpha Male”]). There is the sepulchral poetry of “Monumentale”, Milan’s cemetery, a place which listeners are advised to visit in order to break up their routine and find a more authentic life:
Quindi lascia perdere i programmi coi talenti, i palinsesti,
per piacere non andare a navigare sulla rete,
stringi forte chi ti vuole bene tra le tombe del Monumentale.
(So forget those talent shows, tv schedules,
Please don’t go surfing the Web,
Hold tight the one who loves you among the graves of the Monumental cemetery.)
There is the reunion of two former lovers after many years in “Cristina” (“Come stai? / Che vita fai? / Chiede Cristina / Cos’è che sogni adesso?” [“How are you? / What are you doing with your life? / Asks Cristina / What are your dreams now?”]); there are reflections on diverging times of nature and culture in “Maya colpisce ancora” (“Maya Strikes Again”), “La natura” (“Nature”), and “L’estinzione della razza umana” (“The Extinction of the Human Race”: “Non votiamo gli uomini, non li votiamo più / Tornerà la terra follemente bella / dopo l’estinzione della razza umana” [“Let’s not vote for humans, let’s not vote for them anymore / the earth will return to being insanely beautiful / after the extinction of the human race”]). There are the memories and obsessions of a man who killed his girlfriend in “Contà l’inverni” (“Counting Winters”), a song in Roman dialect on a theme then at the forefront of discussion in Italy, that of femicide (“Ed esiste solo lei / pure adesso che sto qua / a conta’ l’inverni ar gabbio” (“And only she exists / now that I am here / counting winters in the pen,”—i.e. in prison). Finally, there is the invitation to overcome our daily existence, without transcending it in a mystical dimension, In “Radioattività” (“Radioactivity”):
Bisogna avere fede, esplorare
ogni spazio siderale,
Così ti stringo forte, grido amore,
cerco il bene nell’orrore
e l’eterno nell’età.
(We must have faith, explore
each sidereal space,
abolish the afterlife.
So I hold you tight, I scream love,
I look for the good within the horror
And the eternal within our age.)
Among all these songs, “Il futuro” makes the most obvious reference to time, even in its title. The song begins with a verse that identifies clearly its setting and theme: “Sul raccordo anulare, i ragazzi di ieri” (“On the raccordo anulare, yesterday’s kids”). We are in Rome—the raccordo anulare is the GRA, the “Grande Raccordo Anulare,” the beltway circling Rome, made famous in recent years in the documentary film by Gianfranco Rosi, Sacro GRA (2013)—and it describes a group of people who settle their accounts with time, as the first stanza continues:
Sul raccordo anulare, i ragazzi di ieri
hanno vecchi fucili e una fotografia.
Hanno fatto la spesa ed i conti col tempo,
ma la loro ballata finisce a metà.
(On the raccordo anulare,
Have old rifles and a photograph.
They went shopping and settled their accounts with time,
But their ballad ends half-way through.)
Immediately after the lyrics shift to the first person—we do not know whether the speaker is one of “yesterday’s kids” or whether it was the observation of those kids that spurred the man to speak—and it continues with references to everyday life, evoked already in the act of going shopping: “Ho sorriso a mio figlio all’uscita di scuola, / ho guardato la casa che una volta abitai” (“I smiled at my son at the doors of the school, / I looked at the house where I had once lived”). Two people, a father and son, two everyday and, together, potentially symbolic places like home and school, but above all two times, indicated by the past tense (“ho sorriso”: “I smiled,” “ho guardato”: “I looked at”) and the passato remoto or distant past tense (“abitai”: “I had lived”). These are the times of today and yesterday, the two moments that lead to the reflection in the successive verses:
Perché quando te ne vai
è davvero come se
capissi per la prima volta l’uomo che sarai.
Perché tutto ciò che hai
prima o poi lo perderai
in autunno foglie e rami se li porta il vento.
(Because when you go
it really is as if
you understood for the first time the man you’ll become
Because everything you have
sooner or later you’ll lose it
in autumn the wind carries leaves and branches.
With these verses we now shift to the second person, as if the father who had smiled at his son and remembered the house from long ago was addressing himself, but at the same time he wanted to make his own considerations universal with the use of the generic “you.” Indeed, the refrain has universal value, divided between the gnomic tone of its opening lines (“Il futuro desertifica la vita ipotetica” [“the future depopulates the hypothetical life”]) and a longer section sung in the first person plural, which clarifies the meaning of the images of daily life in the initial verses and establishes the theme that will be further developed in the second part of the song, also in first person plural (“Qui la vista era magnifica, da oggi significa / che ciò siamo stati non saremo più” [“Here the view was magnificent, from today forward it means / that what we were we will no longer be”]).
The lyrics do not say so explicitly, but the use of the deictic “here” and the mention of the “view” allow us to imagine a scene similar to that in Youth. The way we reflect on the passing of time changes with the passing of time, just as a change in the observation point—from the foot of a mountain, or from its summit—transforms what we see: “here the view was magnificent” suggests that, once reached, the point toward which we looked in our youth (“then,” implying temporality) is no longer the same “now,” and therefore what once was “there,” now that we have arrived (“here,” as the lyrics say), no longer signifies what it once signified, but rather it means something else, it means that “what we were we will no longer be.” The road has not ended—after all, we are “midway on the path of our life,” not at the conclusion—but the part still remaining, viewed from midway on the path, has changed: the future has lost much of its value as a “hypothetical life” and has become, above all, a time past that will never return.
The second part of the song shifts the focus from the perceived subject (the future life) to the subject of perception, clarifying it as the shrinking of possibilities, due not to the simple lack of new things—indeed there will be plenty—but to the different attitude with which these new things will be experienced. It is possible that even from today onwards the future will bring love (“E potremo anche avere altre donne da amare” [“and we will also have other women to love”]) and friendship (“e magari tornare a sbronzarci sul serio / nella stessa taverna di vent’anni fa” [“and maybe we’ll go back and get seriously plastered / in the same tavern from twenty years ago”]), but it will be “we” who change (after the first refrain, as mentioned, the song continues in the first person plural). Of course, the things which life has in store for an aging adult are not the same as those which a young kid imagined when he thought about the future in terms of possibilities to be realized (the evening in the tavern from years ago is threatened by the “storia di un amico entrato in chemioterapia” [”story of a friend going for chemotherapy”], love is threatened by the “potenza di un addio” [“power of a goodbye”] which we know is final); and yet it is us, it will be us above all, who will not be the same: if even “la vita che verrà / ci risorprenderà” (“the life that’s coming / will take us by surprise once again”), indeed, “saremo noi a essere più stanchi” (“it will be us who will be more tired”) as said in the verse that preludes the second refrain.
This last verse, like the previous “in autunno foglie e rami se li porta il vento” which introduces the first refrain, is sung by the group’s female voice, Rachele Bastreghi, who sometimes sings solo vocals (“Monumentale,” “La natura,” and “Radioattività” on the album Fantasma) and other times sings in a duet with Bianconi or performs backup vocals. A Sicilian writer who is a contemporary of Bianconi and an admirer of the band, Mario Fillioley, has said jokingly that in duets Baustelle divides the work so that Bianconi “wears you out” and Rachele “finishes you off,” meaning that it is precisely to Rachele that the most memorable verses have been entrusted, those that embody the sentiment of the song: this is true for “Il futuro,” where Rachele sings only two verses—“in autunno foglie e rami se li porta il vento” and “ma saremo noi a essere più stanchi”—both, however, being key for their metric position, coming just before the two refrains, as well as for their meaning, one containing the only image not directly connected to the urban scenes at the beginning of the song or to the philosophical considerations derived therein, and the other establishing the difference between the future as seen by youth and the future as seen by adults.
The second refrain maintains the structure and some words from the first, but with its few variations it further increases the notion that the future, now, is no longer the time of possibilities: “Il futuro cementifica” (“the future concretizes”)—it makes more rigid, unchangeable—“la vita possibile” (“the possible life”). It then repeats the reference to the view (“qui la vista…”), but its characterization changes:
Qui la vista era incredibile
da oggi è probabile
che ciò che siamo stati non saremo più
(Here the view was incredible
from today forward it’s probable
that what we were we will no longer be)
Here the contrast between “incredible” and “probable” signals the passage from a future that cannot be expected to one that can be the subject of calculation (probability, to be precise), no longer the time of dreams but of plans.
This second chorus is immediately followed by a third that, repeating the same melody, concludes the song. This time it does not speak of the future but of the past, which on the one hand confirms the shrinking of possibilities in the life of the character calling himself “I”—in the end, the lyrics revert to the first person singular—but on the other hand, it allows for partial redemption thanks to a happy memory:
Il passato adesso è piccolo
ma so ricordarmelo:
io, Gianluca, Rocco e Nicholas
felici nel traffico
di un marciapiedi del Pigneto vite fa.
(The past is small now
but I can still remember:
Gianluca, Rocco, Nicholas, and I
happy in the crowd
on the sidewalk in the Pigneto years ago.
After the raccordo anulare at the opening, Rome returns again to the foreground: the Pigneto is a district famous in recent years for having become Rome’s Brooklyn (and more precisely Williamsburg). The name “Pigneto” already existed, but more recently it has been reinvented as an area with a defined identity as a hipster zone. It is to this particular characteristic that Bianconi—who is Tuscan, from Montepulciano (Siena), but who lives in Isola, one of the most famous hipster districts of Milan—alludes, citing the name of the district.
Life today on the raccordo anulare, shopping and raising children, is quite different from what these friends had imagined doing years ago when they strolled through the Pigneto. Rather than to the future, they now look more to the past, but the toponym—in the final words, “years ago”—may suggest a more complex interpretation: if the Pigneto only recently became the Pigneto as we know it now, why do the lyrics say “years ago”? The reason could be the narrator’s new place in the world, from a young man hanging out with friends to a parent struggling with the daily grind; but it could also signal the anticipation of a future moment, later in time, in which the narrator will once again recall those long ago years—the Pigneto was not yet the Pigneto, if the expression “years ago” is understood literally with respect to the present in 2013—of that ever smaller past.
 The GRA or Grande Raccordo Anulare is a toll-free, ring-shaped beltway that encircles Rome.