Listening to the same music over and over is closing down, opening little windows of the self only to the parts of the world one likes best: bits of the past, certain people, certain feelings. It’s a sick trick we play on ourselves when we’re down: just listen to the music (again) and everything will be OK, when really for the most part music enables a slightly more dignified kind of dwelling. It’s something I think we’re supposed to get over when we’re teenagers: the act of brooding while listening. As teenagers we are busy, overbooked. Yet we still find time to brood, to lie face-down on our beds with headphones on. Now I shove obligations out of the way to leave more room to brood, though I am far too old to be sitting idly, and sadly, for this long, and I have far much to be grateful for, too much to justify feeling that I have lost much of anything.
This is a mostly private selection, the darkest of the dark. I share a lot with him, but I don’t share these songs. It’s almost too hard for me to listen to them anymore, much less share them with another person. But he seems to give me a lot of his heart musically, or so I like to believe: so much rawness and pain transcribed into song. In his choices is a blueprint, maybe not of how he feels, but of who he is, what makes him tick. I already know some of his secrets, but I’ll never know them all. I’ll never know enough. The music gets me a little closer.
“Hold My Liquor” – Kanye West
I ask myself almost daily: am I in an inherently bad situation or an inherently good situation? I don’t trust him, though I have little reason not to. I don’t trust him because he makes me feel a way that causes me to no longer trust myself. I blame him for that, though it’s not his fault. Listening to “Hold My Liquor” I become convinced of some sinister element in all this. The song taps into the darkest, most negative parts of my mind. The song is about falling apart, about losing control and disappointing other people — scaring other people, even. Listening to this song I am made aware of my own capacity for darkness, of my own capacity to scare.
But darkness is just what happens when a strong feeling spills over the surface allotted to it. It is what happens when a feeling is so powerful that we don’t know what we might do with it — destroy others, destroy ourselves. The darkness comes on quicker with alcohol, the villain at the center of this song. It is a mistake to think alcohol will shine a light on the darkness, make it go away. I’ve been slow to learn this lesson. If it does shine a light, it’s a stark one, a strobe, and in that light we see a cowering, guilty, fearful thing.
“The One” – Twin Shadow
I can’t believe sometimes / that I’m wanted, he sings. I can’t ever believe I’m wanted, which is how I got into this mess. I can’t ever believe he cares. I convince myself he doesn’t care at all, because he doesn’t care enough, and really, what’s the difference between “not at all” and “not enough” when it comes down to it? I’m in love with my memories, he sings, and god forbid anyone try to fight my memories with new ones. But memories are tougher than the people who made them, tougher and many more things besides: more elegant, more admirable. They stand the test of time when the very person they’re upholding doesn’t, or wouldn’t. Over time the memory stays the same, perfect and preserved, while the person inevitably makes mistakes, forgets, moves, changes, makes his own memories elsewhere. He could have done that. The problem is that he came back, or that I brought him back. There’s something that’s missing / but there’s something about you.
“Leonard” – Sharon Van Etten
It’s been a long time since a song caused me to feel as fragile as a leaf. It’s because “Leonard” is about the end, unequivocally the end, of a relationship. It is about crossed wires, miscommunications fed by fear. It is so powerful that I actually feel ill listening to it. My heart is in my throat, my arm hairs stand on end. Her voice is clear: she’s still wounded, the sadness is fresh, trapped in the song forever. To listen to it multiple times is to feel that sadness as acutely as she did, and acutely as you did the first time you heard it. It only reopens the wound.
Surprised he loved you. The chorus builds from I am bad to I am bad at loving to I am bad at loving you. Each time it sounds plaintive, but by the end she has admitted a little: that maybe she won’t always be this way, maybe she won’t make this mistake again. We hope that she doesn’t. We hope that no one does.
“Only If For A Night” – Florence and the Machine
It used to be my own, this song, so secret and personal to me, and then he made it his, and shared it with me, and it took on some monstrous quality. I didn’t let on that I’d already had it in my life, had held it tight for a year. A better song for us would be the next one on the album, “Shake It Out.” I’m always dragging that horse around, she sings there. Tonight I’m going to bury that horse in the ground.
But “Only If For A Night,” about a ghostly muse, is our chosen dance, and we dance it down steep hills in the middle of nowhere, and it says what we’re unable to, unwilling to, not allowed to. We’ve built other lives around ourselves to protect ourselves from problems like this, problems like each other, and we can’t step inside what each other has built. Not really. If we want to demolish what we’ve spent so much time constructing, so be it, but there would be no way around that, no way around destroying to create. There is no back door. So I pretend the ghost telling the singer “to concentrate” is you telling me to concentrate. But I don’t concentrate. I just distract myself with other things and other people, and it almost works.
“Song Of 27” – Richard Buckner
I want to know exactly what happened between the singer and the subject of this song, because relating doesn’t seem to be enough. He’s miles away from her, but just how many miles, and why? Is he heading home to her, or just heading home to the place where she used to be?
I need someone else’s story to overwrite my own, to make me forget. Yet I seek the saddest stories, only the ones that remind me of him. It was impossible to live with this woman, maybe, but the singer still makes a heroine out of her. He remembers her standing in a doorway staring a hole through it all. And in that image we see all her recklessness, all her judgments, and how they scathed him.
“Mississippi” – Bob Dylan
I think irrationally: Don’t cry because he can see you. I think of him sometimes haunting an unfamiliar place and then later find out that he was there, in the moments I was imagining him there. And I think of him writing to me when he is writing to me, so who can say he’s not watching right now, from some place outside of recognized space and time?
This is a strong song from a strong man. Or at least he’s trying to be strong. But listen closely and you realize he’s only affecting an air of strength. He’s finished with her, and then in the next verse he’s asking her to come with him. Chronology has never mattered much to this singer. He likes to play with it, distort it, perhaps to confuse us, or confuse himself, make the truth in the story more bearable. There’s nothing you can sell me, he says, I’ll see you around. But then moments later: I’m gonna look at you / ’til my eyes go blind. And the crux of the song — or is it? — Stick with me, baby / stick with me anyhow / things are going to get interesting / right about now. That’s my message, at the back of everything. Overwritten with claims about escaping, not caring, but they always get scraped away, and this remains: Stick with me.
“Acrobat” – Angel Olsen
This song is nothing short of a monument to its subject: You are the crazy acrobat, she sings, You are the witch / I am your cat. The subject is an acrobat — what is she? There is no parallel role for her. She is just on the ground, staring up, motionless, hoping the subject doesn’t fall. There is no pride, there is no hiding, there is no withholding, no pretending, in this song. It’s all there: I want to be a bit like you And: I love the way your body’s made / I love the way your voice is sex / To be the whisper upon your ear / I want to be the bed you miss.
At all times now I hear five songs playing in my mind, including this one, like five radios playing five different stations are positioned around my head. And it sounds not chaotic but beautiful. This ever-evolving collection of sonic messages to him and from him. So I am dwelling. Then I think, how convenient that dwelling is also another name for home.
So this is where I want to live, then: at an intersection in the air through which the sound waves travel back and forth from me to you. In some ways I think it’s bigger than love, or that at least it endures when love can only change form, or erode, perhaps to be built up again, or just to die.