Sunday, February 1, 2009
been so lonesome, shakin' that morning chill
The winter has obviously long since come to Maryland, and will be gone within the next 8 weeks, hopefully, and as to be expected, it has come to me with the usual accompaniment of a case of the blues, and as any music lover would know, no prescription for a cure for blues can be written without a few key records to help you through. This is not necessarily any different from any other season. For me, each season tends to come along with its set of challenges and changes, and therefore, new blues. For example, I always heavy anticipate the summer until I find myself in the depths of its inescapable, delirious heat waves, feeling as though I’m burning alive.
Along with its blues, each season seems to have its particular set of music. Summertime has its sound of fleeting youth, perfectly captured in the pop punk of New Found Glory or the late night, open roads, dying-to-get-out sounds of Bruce Springsteen. The Fall has its transitional, hot tea and cider, comforting down home earthiness in artists such as Gillian Welch. The spring and its new promises and melting snow bring uplifting, epic music that seem fit to fill the next few Ipod commercials, music like Sigur Ros or Explosions In The Sky. The winter, however demands a soundtrack unlike any other season does.
Maybe it has to do with the hibernal nature of the wintertime. It’s cold as fuck outside and you don’t feel like leaving your bed most of the time. And if you’re like me and you’ve just moved back in with your parents after graduating from college, far away from many of your friends and no longer having peer company accessible at a moment’s notice, you spend a lot of time feeling isolated and lonely. There’s little to do but think about the past and all of the things you took for granted while you contemplate all of the terrifying life decisions you are going to have to make in the next couple years, and how you would rather just not make any of them. Music allows you to suspend this contemplation for the time that you are listening. A dear friend once explained to me in a letter that he wrote, that in unfamiliar places, you cling to the art and music you have in your possession for dear life, as an anchor in a raging sea where nothing is certain. They take on new meaning. You can escape for a little while, perhaps to another time, or another place, and instead of the fears of the future spinning the pistons in your brain, you can allow the sounds of your stereo to move them.
My particular choices have been a combination of things: some oldies but goodies, as well as some brand new favorites. The biggest surprise has been the resurgence of my love for Death Cab For Cutie- particularly their album We Have The Facts And Are Voting Yes. Released in 2000, the album is decidedly lo-fi, and they actually sound like the indie pop band from a small town in Washington State that they were before they were headling Coachella and Lollapalooza. Songs like “The Employment Pages,” “405” and “Title Track” hit me hard. Whether you have a special, previous attachment to Death Cab, these songs seem to drum up instant nostalgia. In the midst of winter, when memories of better times might be all you have to keep you going, these songs take on a new meaning. In addition to their inherent sense of nostalgia, I also listened to this record a ton in my dorm room freshman year of college, particularly in the fall not long after I had first arrived at school. That fall I dated and became very close with a girl who also shared a real love for this band, before they were that popular, which I suppose made our connection a little deeper, as love for music often does for people. Even though we don’t talk anymore, and likely never will again, she meant a lot to me for a while, and in times of isolation like these, you begin to think about connections and relationships where you didn’t realize what you had. I suppose listening to these songs is a way of calling up those emotions, those simpler times, perhaps to relive the past, perhaps to learn from it, perhaps to avoid the present and the future. Likely, all of them.
I suppose that art is truly great art when, to paraphrase something that Lester Bangs once said, you revisit it long after you’ve even thought of it, when it has been sitting still all this time in the vault of your musical collection, untouched, and the second you press play, it moves again. It moves the energy around you and most importantly it moves you. Now that I’m a bit older and a bit wiser, I can understand the context and meaning of the lyrics in new ways. These songs allow me to integrate a past version of myself with the person I am now. It is the glue for the personal sense of self-integration that I have been longing for these days. Whether it's “The Employment Pages,” a song about trying to find meaning and connection in a lonely landscape of apathy, unemployment and alcohol, or maybe “Title Track,” a song about getting involved with someone where things are moving a bit too fast for it to possibly last, but maybe it only began in the first place out of your collective loneliness and desire to push the passing time to the back of your brain, these songs hit home and they hit hard.
The other major band for me this winter has been another group that rose out of obscurity into the upper eschelons of rock stardom, filling stadiums around the world with their epic as fuck rock n roll. Most of my readers and friends will hate on me for this, but damned if U2 aren’t one of the best rock bands of all time. This is another case of nostalgia: U2 were a very popular band at the summer camp I went to as a kid in New Mexico, the same camp I worked at last summer and will again at some point in the future. It makes perfect sense when you consider the thematic content, sound and scope of their 1987 masterpiece The Joshua Tree. It is epic, inspiring, uplifting music intended to fill vast empty spaces, ones like the American desert.
I recently picked up the remastered double LP of this album, and for the last week have been listening to it almost exclusively. There’s something about the opening keyboards in the first track, “Where The Streets Have No Name” that will simply never get old. The deep, unbelievably low chords that have so little treble you barely even notice the song has begun, until The Edge’s famous opening guitar line comes in, skipping around in circles like circling a drain, thanks to his delay pedal. The song sets the stage for the themes of self-liberation and rebirth that are present throughout this terrific album, particularly with the line “I wanna tear down the walls that hold me inside.” Believe me, I hate Bono as much as the next guy, but I’ll still always get chills up my spine when I hear him cry out “we’re beaten and blown by the wind.”
With songs such as “With Or Without You,” “Red Hill Mining Town,” “In God’s Country,” (The Edge at his finest guitar work) “Exit,” the album is a testimony to longing, the desperate hope that there’s an answer out there somewhere. The actual Joshua Tree itself is the only kind of plant that can grow in the harsh, dry, suntorched climate of the deserts of Southern California. I suppose their depiction of the desert is a very romanticized one, their perspective of it not quite that of the bleak, godless landscapes that other artists have attempted to portray it as. The desert has featured some of the bleaker sides of American history. Native American genocide, drought, the dust bowl, lost hopes, lost dreams, for settlers moving west and immigrants moving north. I suppose it makes sense that it would be four Irishmen making this album.
There’s a mythic depiction of the American landscape that is present here, one that is at odds with the facts of everyday life in America, and at odds with the profound political and social consequences that ripple around the world that stem from our power and influence. This duality, the sharp contrast between the hopes and dreams that are thrown around with American ideals and the serious damage that our government has done to the world and its own people, is driven home even more on the songs that are not overtly political: “Where The Streets Have No Name” is the perfect example of this mythic depiction, only made more desperate and emotional when one considers the impossibility and perhaps non-existence of what Bono is looking for. Their political songs largely fall flat, and perhaps I am biased because I can’t stand what has become of Bono’s spineless, neutral, liberal celebrity politics.
All of this is to say, I am really moved by this album, it is timeless, it is perfect for wanting to break free of whatever chains are holding you down. It is epic, it has mass appeal, it is instantly relate-able, and that’s what I love about it, as much as my friends with more obscure taste, or a simple disdain for Bono, would believe.
This isn’t even the half of perfect winter music, it’s just what I’ve been jamming. So what are your favorite winter jams?