What happened when I listened to every song I owned, non-stop. 10,513 MP3s = 30 days of continuous audio.
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.
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.
Mentioned: Interpol, Eminem
I am sitting in the office as the sun goes down, hungry, waiting for a text from my wife to say she’s finished work so we can both go and eat. The time drags. I watch the logs from the computer at home, and mirror the exact same playlist from the copies of the MP3s I keep on my work machine, listening along on headphones.
Rainbow by Battles is a blurt of relentless complexity. It’s probably the most irritating song I own and it immediately makes me want to kill rather than answer email. It’s followed by another tedious song by The Fiery Furnaces (Up in the North), then PDA by Interpol.
Taught and wiry, it’s nearly ruined by its dreadful lyrics:
Sleep tight, grim rite, we have two hundred couches where you can
Thesecast singer Paul Banks as a particularly desperate and depressed furniture store manager, who, galled at the failure of Linda Barker, has formed a band to get punters into the store.
I’ve been on the internet a long time. In January 1996, I got my first modem. Dad and I drove to PC World on the outskirts of Bedford, and from the range of three on offer, bought an off-white 14.4K US Robotics because it came with free time on CompuServe.
Once I had it up and running, I showed my parents. We watched as the CNN website came up.
- Does CNN cost more to get than the BBC?
- No, why would it?
- Because it’s from America. It’s further away.
- Oh. No, it doesn’t matter where they are.
- Why do people make them?
- No idea. They just do.
- Where do the websites come from?
- I don’t know. Other computers.
It never occurred to me. My understanding of the internet was both naively lacking and instinctively complete. Partly, I suppose it’s easier when you’re young to ignore a complexity and context, but there was something about the locationlessness of the internet that made sense to me. From an early age, we moved with my parents’ jobs and the shifted nature of how I grew up is why I’ve never felt Facebook, email or even the Internet itself was weird.
Where was the least important question. Who really mattered, and when and why was unspoken: why was the same as who: you, me, everyone who can make it. The Internet was just the computer confirming what I already knew was true.
I’m still deeply attracted to the idea of home, albeit as one that seems not to exist in and of itself, just as a place that you leave or one day, can return to.
My best friend, the drummer, has an amazing family home. Here at work, surrounded by quiet photocopiers and black computer monitors, I think back to the last time I was there. The garden, old and slow and so English the Famous Five could drink tea on the lawn, wraps around the house. From a window in the kitchen, you can see over the garden to where the hall forms a little promontory. At night, it’s reduced to just a friendly lamp, a little lighthouse jutting out into the early evening.
His parents let me in and flit about, the TV in the background and after a while I walk through into the dining room to see about finding him. A big old table stretches the length of the room, by the fireplace, away from a sturdy dresser. It sounds like it is raining in here. Through the ceiling water drips fast and heavy. No-one seems particularly worried; a blue towel is folded on the heavy carpet to absorb the water.
The house is in the small town I lived in as a teenager; when I drive there, I go past the turn off to my old house. It’s still there, cleaved from my life, off on its own course. We moved from there while I was at university, leaving me with the weird task at the end of term of taking a train to a new town, and a taxi to a house I’d never seen before. Home became new in an instant.
It’s why I sympathise not just with songs about returning (like Train Song) but with those about leaving. Playing now: Eminem’s 8 Mile. Where Train Song twins the beat of the wheels with the pull of an expectant heart, 8 Mile fashions the train sound into a rhythm that’s both cage and inspiration: it’s about getting out and getting free.
While I could scarce ever cope with leaving, I grew up to love going. I understand what it was that pushed my parents on. Travelling south just doesn’t have the same sense of romance as travelling north but it was the journey which changed my life: coming to London after university with a woman I once loved, having our own flat on a busy road opposite the tube station, and that simple, gorgeous feeling of finally being a place big enough to contain its own journey.
 “Music, instead of getting more and more complex and intricate, is now evolving along a different line. It’s sonic evolution: survival of the fittest. Music competes with all sorts of other things for your attention. For a song to make money, it has to cut through the clutter and instil in you a ‘quick hit’ of something that feels good. That’s why rock-n-roll and other drum-heavy music beat out the big bands. In general, the beat wins out over the tune. I can hear a guy playing hip-hop coming from 200 yards away. The beat cuts through the sonic clutter. Creating music now is a survival of the fittest contest.” – Technology is Heroin.
Mentioned: Elton John, Oasis
It is late by the time I get home and start listening. The desk is a dark well of papers under a black window, the study illuminated by a single low yellow spotlight. The monitor is off, the lights from the power adaptors hidden by books. Only the music makes an impression: Talk Tonight by Oasis, which might just be Noel’s finest song. There’s a beautiful drone to it, a low burr of strings and claps, slow rhymes and the drag of the syllables giving it the tangible quality of jetlag. I’m sure I remember listening to it on a train somewhere in Taiwan, head leaning on the window glass as rain hissed on dark tropical leaves.
It’s followed by Elton John’s I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues, which I remember buying from iTunes on my phone when lying lonely in a bunk in Southwest China. I was passing time in a comfortable place in the backstreets of a backpacker town which even the local police couldn’t locate. This was something of a problem when I first arrived, as the Lonely Planet map of the town was just a grey blob with no streets. It was less of a problem once you found The Jade Emu, as you could easily spend days or weeks there, drinking beer in the bar, using the semi-legal proxied Internet connection to browse the web with impunity and watch torrented music videos on the TV.
The video for the Elton John song came on at the end of a long evening, and reignited a curse long buried in my brain. The melody wouldn’t go: the only way to cauterize it: repeated listening. I downloaded the song and spent the early hours lying in bed, headphones jammed in.
The trip to China was a sabbatical from work, a five-week loop through the Southwest, all mountains, gorges and little towns. She came with me for the first ten days and we spent our days in temples and teahouses and walking up rainy mountains through wreaths of cloud. The bangs and loud beats of life at home diminished, as if we’d switched our drumsticks for brushes, hitting each other only lightly.
A month of solo travelling later, bearded, fuelled by food that was both delicious and unidentifiable, and having told countless new friends met on buses and in bars desperately unrealistic and romantic versions of how we met, I was the perfect target for a sweet Elton John ballad about missing your other half. On one level, I was of course, still sane, and could recognise it as shlock, and untrue: now, as then, my teeth have the spontaneous urge to grind against each other at the opening tinkle of piano keys. The musical side of the song remains only just less-than-hideous for the four minutes of life it takes. The lyrics are also terrible, juxtaposing children’s giggles with thunderous sex:
Laughing like children, living like lovers
Rolling like thunder under the covers
But still, as a song it’s largely irresistible, thanks to its hardline commitment to doe-eyed sentiment. It shows no mercy when it comes to weaponizing its already potent ingredients. The melody is tailored and elegant, but not overly so – and then, of course, his voice. It’s easy to carry one’s mental image of Elton John – someone wearing a pair of lilac silk pantaloons and glasses sporting a large fruit salad – into how you hear his voice. He might be ridiculous, but good god his voice is not. It’s surprisingly restrained compared to many pop balladeers and it doesn’t plead for the listeners’ approval. Instead, there’s a knowingness which makes the simple logic of the song seem completely true:
Time on my hands, should be time spent with you
And so I lay there in the top bunk, penned in by my rucksack, pillow lumpy as it lay over my passport and rolled up bundles of Chinese cash, the iPhone sitting on his chest, kitten-like, purring out this lie of a love song. I went over and over it until in the morning the obsession with it was gone.
It’s often easier to define something negatively - what it isn’t, what it lacks - than it is to describe what’s really there. This is true about home and it came to be true about marriage as well.
Absence simplified everything, because it freed me to conjure up anything about the place he wasn’t. When I returned to England, it was simply taking the time to realise that.
Back in England and back together, we rubbed along, caring enough to want to be together, but no longer knowing how. We couldn’t hide the fact we kissed lightly when we said good night. We are each listening to our own beat. The forces pulling us apart are stronger than those holding them together.
The final song I listen to this evening is one that has gone down in my head as the first song, because when my phone is turned off and on again, if you just hit play, it’s what you get, owing to its double-a start: Aaron and Maria. It’s one I always end up hearing in airports, from journeys ending and beginning. It’s a hushed story about a young couple trying to make it in the city, running down their savings, worrying about the baby on the way:
Understand it’s the way I am
When we argue and break the hearts we have
We only fight ‘cause you love me right?
And when we lay at night I feel a kick inside
 A friend I met on the journey, a suave Brazillian Googler on a sabbatical, Hugo, took offence when an old Chinese lady offered us weed as we walked into town to buy breakfast. ‘What do I look like, it’s not even 10am’, he replied before seeing himself reflected in a window. ‘She is right. I really need a shave. And some clean clothes.’
Mentioned: The Replacements, Nirvana
History is amoral: events occurred. But memory is moral; what we consciously remember is what our conscience remembers.
- Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces
At some point you’re going to ask me if this is all true. At some point, I’ll want to know how much I’ve told you. I am listening to all this music. It’s not under my control. The feelings that swim to the surface are true. Especially when the music is a memory, some of the timelines aren’t pulled taught, some of the rope is frayed and the knots aren’t tight. And anyone who’s had a relationship die knows that sometimes the future arrives too soon: time just falls away, and two points – happiness and sadness, which were once so distant, just collapse. It’s as true as I can be with words, as near as black and white pixels and ink can get to the blue crackle of neurons and the red blush of blood.
Here then are today’s songs, raw notes, as is:
First: ‘Ramblin’ Rose’ by the MC5. Brothers and sisters, are you ready to testify? It’s a great start, but the song has little to recommend it. Then a bootleg live recording of You Know You’re Right; recorded in 1993, Kurt is silent – it’s Dave Grohl who talks to the crowd, introduces the song – and Kurt’s voice is murky, opiated until the chorus:
And then one, a favourite one, the Shins performing New Slang live with Iron & Wine. Hopelessly infectious with creepy lyrics, I remember putting off buying the Shins album it was from because I was broke, but wanting to hear the studio version so badly. Out of spite, the random shuffle follows it up with a song called Life of Pain by Black Flag, a scaborous sub three-minute rant. Then a rubbish Killers song – Uncle Johnny – and I decide to go and water the garden.
She gets home late from work, and I have cooked. We eat and we argue over money – me asking if she can pay it back, she retorting that she’s fine to as long as I don’t turn horrible. The argument explodes, her making a joke about the couples counselling I have suggested, along the lines of preferring to spend the £70 each session costs on a cabinet or a chair or something, and I leave to go upstairs. Sitting on the bed reading, and my heart is broken by The Replacements’ Left of the Dial, a song about a girl’s voice on the radio, getting lost in the static as you drive out of state.
On and on and on and on
It’s sad to move on
On and on and on and on and…
And if I don’t see you, in a long, long while
I’ll try to find you
Left of the dial
 Left Of The Dial refers to tuning the radio to pick up college radio stations that would play independent records. The chorus sits so late in the song you’re surprised when it comes. And what a chorus: it’s doubled up, backed with a high, fuzzy guitar and a bobbing, friendly bass line. There’s a sense of a lot of people singing, and that’s what makes the song so sad and so powerful at the same time: that there’s a whole generation here, people outside the mainstream waiting to be acknowledged, trying to find themselves without giving up what makes them who they are.