What happened when I listened to every song I owned, non-stop. 10,513 MP3s = 30 days of continuous audio.
The complete A Month In Music is now available as book for Kindle. It features all of the posts from this site, and all of the photos in colour, so it looks great in the Kindle app on an iPhone or iPad. I did have to remove some of the lyrics as the book is a paid-for product; there’s no YouTube videos either, but that said, I think it works well as a book. It’s fairly long (20,000 words or so), and a lot of the pieces are, despite being about music, quite self contained.
You can buy a copy now if you’d like.
Mentioned: The Low Anthem, Vampire Weekend, Local Natives, Belle & Sebastian
It is not down in any map; true places never are.
- Herman Melville
It ended quicker than I expected, with a random, scrappy selection of songs free of big hits but still with a ragged charm thanks to OMGCD from the Low Anthem, the gorgeous, plinking Taxi from Vampire Weekend and Stranger Things by Local Natives which seemed perfect; light, but still emotional.
If I have realised anything from the Month In Music, it is that a music collection is a place. An occult dimension, an electric Eden, a secret garden, where I can go, and forget my life or find it reflected or find it rendered understandable, beautiful, transformed and strange.
This place is always present and it changes every time I come to it. Sometimes the songs are uplifting, sometimes annoying, sometimes mere background, sometimes tight clasped scripture, learned as litany and repeated, repeated, repeated.
The songs are always the same – MP3s don’t change, they don’t age, degrade, evolve or mature – but the memories do. They are far softer and the listener is a different person over time. Memories change, because the past isn’t real, it is a separate thing entirely.
People move through time and space. They don’t fit a structure, they don’t always repeat in the same ways; they’re not recordings. They change, and they spend their whole lives following a tune which is often just out of reach. Sometimes they come together and are in sync, playing on the same rhythm, but sometimes not.
The last track is playing now:
If You’re Feeling Sinister by Belle and Sebastian – long, with sweeping strings and a sense of climax that comes because it’s the title song of an album, the one that ties together a bigger structure.
The band’s principal, Stuart Murdoch once said he thought Sinister was the group’s strongest set of songs but their weakest recording. Ten years after its initial release, they played the album live at the Royal Albert Hall, and it’s this version that played in the study at the end of the month. It’s beautiful and lush, delicate and perfect. Compared to the original, it is so light and so complete: it leaves nothing out, but contains nothing extraneous. It’s clearly the same song as before, but it is entirely changed.
It’s a live recording, so it finishes with applause, the crowd wrapped up in the truth of a sound that they had been looking for all along, fading away gently.
When she is gone, changing the house will be a process of many months. It will be what I turn to in the long slog of loneliness, the slow walk out of being someone with something missing. There will be empty moments in empty rooms with the dust passing slowly. In blank moments, there will be the feel of my toe, pressing into the edge of the drawers, a little touch just to check the nerves still work. Then the rooms will be cleared and repainted, the pictures on the walls will change, and the drawers will be emptied. The house will become mine, and space for new things and new thinking will open up. This end will seem natural, and all the miles in your heart will lead you back home.
Mentioned: Neutral Milk Hotel, John Lennon, The Rural Alberta Advantage
Imagine you are a camera. When you watch a room for only a split second the people in it will be captured in perfect focus. Watch the room for three or four seconds and the people will begin to blur. Even if they try and keep still, their eyes will pink out when their eyelids flutter and if they smile their faces will smudge. Keep your glass eye open for an hour, for an afternoon, and the people will become dark trails as they move to and fro.
Pluck all your silly strings
Bend all your notes for me
We live life forwards, Kierkegaard said, but are condemned to understand it backwards.
The only meaningful memory you thought you had left
Over a month or a year and the only solid thing recorded is the room itself, and the table and the walls, the books on the shelves they will all be drawn just as solidly as you see them right now. Long exposures capture the things humans build, but they melt us away. These thoughtless things that we buy and build and give each other, they outlive and outlaw us so easily. Sitting here, every night, I am fading in front of the music.
That place you go to, it doesn’t exist
I was sitting in the study at the desk in front of the window. Outside the overgrowing trees swayed in the wind and the lowering darkness. What was it that John Lennon said about rock music?
Lennon: I said ‘cranberry sauce.’ That’s all I said. Some people like ping-pong, other people like digging over graves. Some people will do anything rather than be here now.
Immediacy, naturalness, authenticity, those are the prizes, because our temporal hold on the world is far weaker than we think. These songs and these memories – why did I ever want to record them? Because otherwise the long exposure of life just overwrites and overwrites. A self-portrait in sound. I don’t want to just leave behind the songs.
And all these things will pass
It’s the good ones that will last
And then Oh Comely, eight minutes long and one of the finest songs I own; Described as ‘easily in the top five best eight-minute acoustic songs about saving Anne Frank in a time machine’, it is a rough strum on a guitar, a swirl of brass and a fearsome buzzing that delivers an intense vision. The whole song is a description of a memory that never happened because it’s happening right now.
The lyrics, which I know by heart, are heartbreakingly sad:
I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine
Soft silly music is meaningful music
The movements were beautiful
They’re full of half-rhymes and assonance, little rhythms like whirpools that build with terrible power, an obsession with reproduction and reliving, rescuing and reaching back into this past. But you can’t go back, because it would probably kill you if you could. The past isn’t real, not any more. It can’t be, or else we’d never be anywhere else.
Day something, do something
Mentioned: Bruce Springsteen, The Silver Jews
I was washing up, so can’t look at the stereo to see the display, but I knew it’s Springsteen, and I knew it’s not from one of the older, famous albums. I just knew. The lyrics strain for a religious figure and the song loops lazily around the sounds of 25 years ago; but how clearly it falls short of Thunder Road or Born to Run. It hits me then how easy it is to chase your older self – and how much an audience tends to want that.
What it is to be sure of the past. Unlike most catastrophes, the death of a marriage doubts not just who you are, but who you were. It ends the future and it leaves you questioning where you came from. It becomes what you made it through. The road you are travelling on falls away in both directions, leaving you on a little island with nowhere to go.
It is clear she will leave. He will be the one to ask, but she will already have her answers, a place to go to and a bag to pack. The only thing she will need is a lift to the station, and there’s no particular train to take, so on the final day of their marriage, they will end up sitting on the sofa, watching TV and not really knowing when it’s finally time to go. They will have no language to talk to each other, so it falls to me now to tell you this will all happen. You will have no rhythm to move around each other and no way to hold your bodies in the same room. You will be pulling yourselves apart, and so you will come back to the start. They are no big, snarling arguments to destroy the bonds between you, just a hundred disappointments and so you will have to undo yourselves and slowly, slowly, and gently and gently, you will be cutting out your heart.
Cut through the ventricles, the big arteries. Some of it is soft and buttery and gives greedily to the knife. Some of it is rough, tough and leathery, old and aged, the sinews catching.
And when that is done you will still be left with the tremendous urge to self-harm. The urge to plunge these words into your heart and know if there is only ice left there.
All this is to come, and even though you don’t know it yet, at the edges of things, in the echoes of moments and things said, it’s already there. Like the songs you know so well, the recordings made permanent on tape years ago, what follows can only follow.
On the speakers now, a song by The Silver Jews called How To Rent a Room. The singer’s voice is deep and direct, the lyrics clear and dry. The song sways along, flirting alternately with blackness and bitterness, as the main character considering leaving:
Chalk lines around my body
Like the shoreline of a lake
Your laughter made me nervous
It made your body shake too hard
It is considered, wry, witty and reserved. All this in time. You walked up the stairs to a quiet point in the house, and thought about when you first heard the lost Nirvana song, You Know You’re Right, and the chorus was just PAAAYYYYYYYNNN, Kurt’s voice a witch’s brew of bile.
You sat in the bedroom, in the cool darkness, shadows as bandages for the hot tears; in she came, sad that you’re sad, unable to ask what’s wrong.
- What do you want, she asks.
- I want you to love me like I love you.
She has no answer. The words don’t work and within him the knife forms. Their bodies left each other, the goodwill and the good feelings too, and now they are just two shells, empty and used up.
When I was eight, I was given a book about the discovery of the wreck of the Titanic. It is both beautiful and horrific, alternating between two voyages, 74 years apart: one set in the here and now, about the search for the wreck, and the other from April 1912, the Titanic’s first and last journey.
Each begins with preparation and planning, high hopes and anticipation. As the Titanic sinks, the stories collapse together. The boat pulls down, away from the surface and you can feel the modern story trying to hold onto it: every minute detail matters. In every new dry fact about metal stress and sea temperature, the water clears and recedes. The story becomes the evidence explorer Robert Ballard and his team pick over as they try and find the wreck.
And when the ship is found on the sea floor, the stories of the passengers are found there too. People’s belongings – scattered carelessly in the cruelly, coolly titled ‘debris field’ – are placed next to images from when they were new.
I get the Titanic book down from the shelf. Stuck in the front, a bookplate
This book belongs to Alexander.
Full name, abandoned when I was 13 or so. The curlicue x, written softly back then, close to two cs back-to-back. A faith in unity. He flips the pages to the exact point where the two journeys collide, the place where Ballard’s sub catches sight of the wreck. The sub is tiny, bright white, windows bulging, wide-eyed, with spindly pincer arms: it looks hopelessly naïve, like a little robot child. It’s small enough to picks its way along the deck, and slip through the gashes in the hull. It drifts up the stairs, lost and lonely, a giant iron debutante. Ballard describes looking out of the submarine:
Then, without warning I found myself looking into the ghostly eyes of a small, white smiling face. For a split second I thought it was a skull – and it really scared me. Then I realized I was looking at a doll’s head, its hair and clothes gone.
Here, on the floor of the Atlantic, where the deep finally stops to rest, the passage of time is a tide that covers and gently corrodes. It creates a near past which you can visit: a place where the people are gone, but their traces aren’t. It is as if you could go back into all the old houses you used to live in and look at what has been moved, the new furniture and pictures, and note the same old wallpaper and the kitchen doorjamb you leant on while eating cereal.
Why does it appeal now? Nearly four weeks into the Month in Music, and there is a tiredness in me, a rotten damp. The sounds are starting to run together, and worse, the constant juxtaposition of the new, creates an exhausting need for narrative. My marriage is failing and there are terrible memories and fears coming towards me. Or perhaps they aren’t moving to the surface: perhaps my eyes are closing and I am sinking towards them. For where, where am I now? Thousands of songs deep in the briny drink, dear.
I am diving and my real life is fading. This project was supposed to be something positive. Now it is intruding in my sleep driving me slightly crazy and even as I write – that usual salvation – voices of weakness come whisper and say this has been done better before. And so I sit and wait, expecting a song to come and save me. Either that or sink me, an iceberg in the cold water, tearing me open and leaving me to float slowly down into the darkness.
Mentioned: Dinosaur Jr, The White Stripes
Everyone knows the Spinal Tap gag – it goes to 11, so it’s one louder – and like all the best jokes, it’s both stupid and true. No matter what volume they’re played at, some songs just sound loud, carrying a fucking gorgeous heaviness in their bones, and the pleasure in listening to them is classic input amplification: you press play – this one tiny little button – and from nowhere comes a huge amount of force.
Volume is so easy now. The dial on the computer’s cheap speakers is nowhere near the top but the song currently playing fills the house. The White Stripes are playing and they do volume brilliantly. Where most bands aim for loudness by heaping on layers and layers of sound, Jack White excavates volume as if it’s the purest thing in the world, a diamond hidden in the dark rock of every guitar note, the hardest, clearest, purest substance in sound. Icky Thump is playing now, a mix of weird bagpipe keyboards and him yelling la-la-la-la – and binding it all together is a buzzsaw riff on guitar strings, so sharpened by electricity they can slice the entire world in half.
When it finishes, there’s a moment of exhaustion. Somewhere, dust is settling, the agitation dropping. Rest is brief: I have left the volume dial up and the next song puts it boot through the black membrane, like a grinning friend arriving already drunk sloppy to a party. Dinosaur Jr’s Freak Scene: a perfect bundle of noise that wants to hug the listener. Where other loud songs can be coolly standoffish (exemplified by Sonic Youth), Freak Scene grabs the listener and folds you into this lurching, gurning, rolling bundle of noise. There’s something entirely goofy and endearing about it, a suggestion that it’s not just the band’s noise that’s being amplified, it’s all us listeners too.
If you know the song and its patterns then as a listener, you feel entirely in control of it. It appeals in the same way as driving fast does, a sense of being more powerful than you are right now. There is part of me that wonders if volume is a male thing. Women can give birth so men turn to tools and machines for self-amplification. Or maybe it’s a thing for the young – wanting to go fast and be loud and put a dent in the world, and it’s children and jobs and the quiet appreciation of the world not falling to pieces that take its place. And when it does fall, I want volume and I want the noise to get right into me.
I am short sighted. Without my glasses I’m not blind, just the beholder of a gently blurred world, one seen through soft rain or low light. When I wake, I wait a while before I put on glasses. Maybe listen to the radio, make some tea, shower and dress. As Jarvis Cocker said in an interview, there’s something inherently gentle and civilised about having the world be a little blurry for a few minutes after waking up.
iTunes has injected itself into this placid morning routine, and now, the first thing I do when I get up is to walk into the study, and put my face up against the monitor, like the mirror in the bathroom, examining the stuff within. There are only 522 songs left, around two days; time is nearing an end and it knows it, so the machine is trying to string it out by periodically stopping playback, despite the fact there’s still songs on the playlist. It’s a weird selection of stuff that it chokes on – some terrible 60s covers by one of the Bangles and Matthew Sweet, Decemberists b-sides, Vampire Weekend’s newest album, Iron & Wine, the Silver Jews, The White Stripes live and Fever Ray.
Mentioned: Vampire Weekend
The house is hot and cramped, the air still and pliable, pushing into in all the corners and under the tables. The study is rattling to Acquiesce, and then a brutal cross-clip from the speakers brings in Vampire Weekend’s Diplomat’s Son.
At this point in the month, everything sounds a little bit like everything else. Consider the beat 1:10 in – you could easily loop that and imagine a rap going over that – but then at 1:50 there’s a beat and some distant, telephone voices that could have been lifted from a Girls Aloud song. This is not to say we just have one global soup, but ideas flow more fluidly. Perhaps the chaotic-busy sound of modern pop is a response to the random way we listen to it, a shuffled jumble of old, new, influences and influenced.
The morning gets busier and louder, iTunes ploughing into Battles and Of Montreal. I leave for work, five minutes early instead of the usual five minutes late, just so that I can walk slowly in the sunlight. London has never seemed more peaceful than this morning, as I walk down the hill towards the station, the Thames a bluey drift slowly dropping behind the buildings. I plug in headphones, but leave the music off, and the world falls into silence.
I live out past the reach of the tube, in an area not yet gentrified, in a place where children walk to Primary school from the house they’ve always lived in, hand-in-hand with their parents. Neat rows of Victorian terraces are arranged on scrappy streets, punctuated by huddles of grandly described turf accountants and fried chicken takeaways.
Only once has London seemed quieter than this. Before we were married, we lived on a beautiful road in a posh area north of the river, in a shabby garden flat that had been overtaken by affordability. The move there had taken all day. It was late when we got the last of the boxes into the hall, so I suggested skipping the inevitable awkwardness of introducing ourselves to the neighbours. She nodded and we collapsed into bed. I lay there in the darkness, listening to the way the big, lush garden blocked out the city, gently getting used to the way evenings sounded in this new place.
Until I heard a scream. A ragged, deep howl, coming from the flat above.
We both lay there in silence, frozen.
Then there was heavy dragging, as if furniture was being pushed across the floor. Another scream followed, loud and boiling with pain. Neither of us moved or said anything.
- Perhaps he had a nightmare, I suggested finally.
More sounds: metal this time, scraping against metal.
- Or he’s an actor. Rehearsing something.
- Just go and see, she said. Please.
I went to the door, bumping into boxes as I crossed the room. I wrapped my hand around the lock and waited. Until I heard a shout coming from another house across the way. A woman’s voice, clear and composed.
- Are you OK?
There was no sound in reply.
- Are you hurt? Do you need help? Can you hear me?
No sound at all.
I waited. The door to the screamer’s flat opened and slammed. Footsteps hammered down the hallway. The house’s front door clanged open and banged shut. He was gone. Two days later a ‘To Let’ sign appeared outside. We never saw him.
Not long after, a mother and her daughter moved in. This time, I introduced myself. She stood, thin and pale, in the doorway to the screamers’ flat. It was bare and bright. The windows were open, the curtains rippling gently.
- Have you moved to the area for work? I asked.
- No, she said. My husband has cost me £30,000 for divorcing him. My daughter and I needed somewhere to live.
She spoke coldly, and in that way new divorcees often do, forgot her bitterness wasn’t for everyone. I didn’t know how to reply, and after that, we rarely spoke. Her problems proved much quieter than the previous guy’s, even though I know now she could have screamed just as loud.
Mentioned: Bruce Springsteen, Snow Patrol, Dr Hook
The day starts with the end of a Yo Yo Ma piece, sober and dramatic, and then the glissando opening of The Kinks’ A Well Respected Man, as I sit at the computer, blearily bashing out a few pre-work emails.
Next up: Atlantic City, probably my favourite Springsteen track, and one I discovered on a warm night in the Caribbean, as far from the song’s gritty setting as you could possibly be.
It’s from Nebraska, a Springsteen album that’s really just him, a guitar and harmonica, all recorded on a four-track tape recorder. It’s a record full of stories; in Atlantic City a young couple plan their escape to a background of mob violence and a city in collapse and a tightening web of stupid decisions. He’s trying to save, but tempted to gamble, on the trip itself, and what will happen once he gets there. His faith in resurrection – so often used by Springsteen in a straightforward, redemptive manner – is here flattened, a stick-thin macho boast, with no real belief in it:
Well now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City
The song’s skeletal structure and Springsteen’s high voice renders the boast hollow, but there’s compassion, I think, in the spectral finish. It spares the character a brutal finish. Instead, the ghost whoops and trembling guitar fade delicately away in a final moment of poetry.
Nebraska is often described as a depressing, downbeat record; the video for Atlantic City interprets this literally – but it’s something I can’t connect with. In part, it’s because Atlantic City is such a perfect American story, and I can’t help but take pleasure in that. It’s also just a great, great song, with a gripping melody and structure to match its narrative drive.
It’s also the fact that I first heard it in the Caribbean. I’d won a holiday there, staying in a Balinese villa originally built for David Bowie. The house spilled down the side of hill, a series of dark wood rooms and corridors with sides open to gardens and a spectacular view of the ocean. The house had a bar complete with a 50s jukebox, chairs as big as cars with Cadillac bonnet sized white cushions. We sat there as Nebraska played, drinking heavy glasses of gin, watching the glasses sweat as the sun sank and a storm rolled in over the yachts in the bay.
How much then does a song contain definite information about what it is? Music, in its heart, is curiously blank. There is no specificity in music itself. Nothing as definite as in the words, and I know how slippery they are, letters full of holes through which I am draining. The counsellor tells me I overthink and overexplain.
I disagree. I haven’t yet explained a damn thing, because not a damn thing has changed yet.
Perhaps I’ve just been listening to music so long that I no longer know what it is. Or perhaps how you listen – the where, they why, the who you’re with – perhaps that trumps the notes themselves.
His wife comes into the study sometimes and sings along with whatever song is on, as she puts on make-up in the mirror. It’s on the wall on the desk behind him and he turns to watch her: she is so light and every touch just a glancing one.
Then You Ain’t Got The Right by Doctor Hook, as if the computer is trying to purge itself of the chill of seriousness, followed by Snow Patrol’s Run. It is an object lesson in how to reach for greatness. The specificity of Atlantic City is its strength and it seems, strangely, the bigger song, despite the fact it lacks the choral backing and endless studio layers of Run. Run is a perfectly decent indie song, but the juxtaposition makes it instantly clear just what a fine piece of work Atlantic City is.