You know what I’ve been doing lately? Listening to music. I know, right?
Apparently, left to my own devices and devoid of outside influences, the stuff I choose to listen to is…pretty goddamn emo. Not that I’m downloading emo crap from iTunes or anything, it’s just that apparently the songs I like are all full of hopelessness and despair. And occasionally elephants.
The lineup: OK Go, Evelyn Evelyn, The Postal Service/Death Cab for Cutie (Death Cab for the Postal Service? Postal Service for Cutie?), Steve Burns, Tegan & Sara, Glen Phillips, Iron & Wine (I have not made up my mind about Iron & Wine), Cat Power, the occasional Tori Amos, a smattering of Pink Floyd. An appearance by Stabbing Westward (oh 90s, you made stalking sound so romantic). That one Nirvana song I like ( – no, the other one). Shuffle. Repeat.
The inclusion of Evelyn Evelyn is predictable enough, at least – there is no possible way that I could not love something which involves circus freak cabaret. By conjoined twins. Who sing about a two-headed elephant. It’s like they made the album just for me. Also: listen to the song Evelyn Evelyn and tell me you’ve never had a relationship like that. Go ahead. I will wait.
The OK Go thing is a little more abstract, but for serious, you guys: Of the Blue Colour of the Sky is amazing. White Knuckles is the danciest song about having your heart ripped out that I’ve ever heard, and the muted refrain at the end of Needing/Getting (“When? When? Why not now? Why not me? Why not me?”) devastates me, even though the song itself is my least favorite on the album. (I know, people really like that song. I just can’t fully endorse anything that uses the word ‘dumber’ in a non-ironic way. Also it reminds me of something, but I can’t remember what. And yes, that is my reason, shut up.)
But add that to Death Cab for the Postal Service and stir in a little Glen Phillips and if you’re not reaching for a Prozac cocktail, you’re clearly dead inside. Or else you’ve been listening to the playlist for so long you can’t drag yourself out of bed. Because the common element in all the Death Cabs and New Explorers and Dust Mites and what have you: loss. A chasm of loss. (And also circus freaks.)
Steve Burns has this great album – this great, underrated album that no one I know has listened to because, Steve Burns, that’s the guy from Blues Clues right? And is pretty much as far as those conversations go – that he described as ‘songs about science and love.’ Which is the absolute perfect balance. All songs should be about science and love. Anything and love, really. Cooking and love. Shuffleboard and love. Debilitating arthritis and love.
Sidebar: I’m not talking about love songs. Love songs are totally different beasts, and while not all of them are utter crap, well. But instead of writing about love, instead of making love the focus, give it to me as the backdrop. Give me your rage or your despair or your disenchantment and then slip in that one line, the one that breaks my heart because I didn’t see it coming.
Of course, I have to also consider that both Songs for Dustmites and Of the Blue Colour of the Sky were produced by Dave Fridmann, so there’s always the chance that the thing that I love isn’t any of the above but is simply the Fridmann’s influence – a theory which I reject on the basis that I’ve never liked the Flaming Lips and also because it’s not like those are the only two albums I’ve ever fallen in love with, obviously.
To wit: Glen Phillips. Glen Phillips has had a place in my geeky heart ever since the days of toad the wet sprocket, and it’s there are days when he’s all I listen to, from Abulum to Secrets of the New Explorers. Songs about space travel? Yes please, as long as they are as hauntingly beautiful and immediate as The Spirit of Shackleton.
there are droplets of crimson
they surround me as they drift
or bursting into mist
so i open up my mouth
and i offer out my tongue
they are salty and sweet
like the memory of love
See what he did there? That one line: salty and sweet, like the memory of love. You know that taste. I know that taste. And it breaks my heart.
Back to Steve Burns for a moment: one of my favorite songs is the unreleased demo version of Mighty Little Man, the one that doesn’t try to tell a story but instead is full of nonsense and revelation. I love it because it’s random, like doodles, and because in the midst of all the randomness he says “I have my mother’s eyes,” and it’s lovely and intimate and it doesn’t matter, not to anyone, but it’s true. (Or at least I assume it’s true. For the sake of argument.)
Burns didn’t like the demo of the song. He said it was too personal. (I would do a quote here but steveswebpage.com is down, so you’ll have to rely on my precarious and malleable memory.) But here’s the thing: the album version of Mighty Little Man? Does nothing for me. It might be a better song. It might have stronger lyrics. But it doesn’t make my eyes spark with sudden tears the way that line does. Also: shut up, I totally wasn’t crying.
I don’t want to hear a story. I want to identify. I want words to put to the things that have only ever existed inside my head. And yeah, it’s too personal. Anything worth doing always is.