The Spin Cycle

I love this cartoon:

I feel like Charlie Brown’s kindred spirit at the best of times (premature chrome-dome, no fashion sense, unrequited love for the little red-haired girl).  This cartoon just cements it – tomorrow I go shopping for zig-zag shirts.

Mr. Schulz has posed a question for the ages.  Does listening to depressing music make you sad, or do depressed people simply choose to listen to melancholy music?

Here’s my two cents worth on the matter.  From my perspective (and I swear this isn’t meant to be a cop-out), it’s a bit of both.

I have always had a symbiotic relationship with my record collection.  In many ways, it is my best friend.  I’ve been told that I tend to put a noticeable distance between myself and other people, even my closest friends.  I doubt that anyone knows my favourite colour (cobalt blue), or what I want to do when I retire (putter around a cabin in the mountains, watching wild creatures wander through the yard), or even what I find most attractive about a woman (her voice and what she has to say).  The metaphorical wall I’ve erected around myself has been remarkably effective at limiting the number of emotional relationships I’ve shared with people.

But despite the impenetrable Fortress of Solitude, music is always right there at the centre of my soul.

My music is there when I’m out for a three-hour walk through aspen parkland.  My music is there when I’ve had a particularly good day at work or a good night at hockey.  My music is there as I sit around the campfire, summit a new pass on a hike, or wait in a departure lounge for a plane.

And, yes, music is there when I’m feeling blue.  It waits for me with open arms and a reassuring embrace.  It doesn’t judge.  It doesn’t mock.  It simply understands that not every day is going to be euphoria.  It knows that someone who has to work so hard to suppress his roller-coaster of emotions just to stay on an even keel is going to melt down from time to time.

Today is an odd day.  The calendar says it is springtime, but it’s been snowing since 4 a.m.  The pavement is wet, while big wet flakes continue to accumulate on my back lawn, now 4″ thick.  Maybe it’s the strange weather that is lending everything a sense of disorder.  Something just seems off-kilter, out of balance, incomplete.  I want to be somewhere else, anywhere else.  There’s an emptiness, a void; a yearning and a burning that can’t be extinguished.  Like the wise man once said:

I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields…
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

Right after I post this meandering collection of words, I’m going to take the fourteen steps down to my basement, cue up the stereo, and re-establish my usual dent on the sofa.  At times like these, my record collection is my salvation.

I can’t speak for everyone.  But I know that when I’m feeling dislocated and disjointed, music helps to ground me.  I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that depressed people listen to sad music, or the act of listening to sad music will depress someone.  Reality is more complicated than simple cause and effect.  I do think that there is something incredibly powerful about music, something that taps into our humanity.  Something that makes us feel a little less lonely on a snowy Saturday night in April.  Something that defies a proper explanation, but is still very real and profound.  I think people in a certain mood are always going to gravitate toward a certain kind of music, just to remind themselves that someone else out there feels the same way.  The music doesn’t depress them – it offers them a refuge.  An arm around their torso and a head on their shoulder.

A quick check of iTunes will reveal the tracks you listen to the most.  Apparently, the top of the Craven Hermit charts goes something like this:

  • “England” by The National
  • “Undisclosed Desires” by Muse
  • “Lucky” by Radiohead
  • “Adventures in Solitude” by the New Pornographers
  • “How to Fight Loneliness” by Wilco
  • “Mess” by Ben Folds Five
  • “Transatlanticism” by Death Cab for Cutie
  • “What I Have To Offer” by Eels
  • “The Scientist” by Coldplay
  • “Naked As We Came” by Iron & Wine
  • “Both Sides Are Even” by The Boxer Rebellion
  • “Drive” by R.E.M.

So, not exactly AC/DC’s greatest hits then!  But there’s very few things in this world that I would take in trade for my relationship with these tunes.

I wonder if Charlie Brown ever managed to find a copy of Transatlanticism on vinyl.  I bet he’d love it.


Fond But Not In Love (part one)

keep in contact with old friends
(enjoy a drink now and then)
will frequently check credit at (moral) bank (hole in wall)
favours for favours
fond but not in love

– excerpt from “Fitter Happier” by Radiohead, 1997

2011 was a very good year for music.  I hope you enjoyed the Top Ten list of my favourites that I completed on New Year’s Eve.  One cool side-effect of those posts is that I actually enjoy those albums more, now that I’ve had to take a step back to constructively describe what I liked about them.

There were a number of records that were in the running but just missed out making my list.  Over the next few blog posts I’ll talk a little bit about the albums from 2011 that I liked a lot but just never quite grew to love.  They are still really good albums, and I plan to enjoy them for years to come, but maybe one or two missing elements prevented them from being great.

Beirut – The Rip Tide

Beirut make interesting records that tend to start with an orchestral pop blueprint and then jump off on various tangents from there.  For The Rip Tide, Beirut revisit some of their usual touchstones (Eastern European melodies, indie rock sensibilities) and toss in some new-found Mexican grooves for good measure.  “Santa Fe” and “Port of Call” are wonderful singles, but more than a few tracks on this record failed to engage me.  It’s an undeniably good record, but is missing something.  It’s pretty without being sexy, if that makes any sense.

Blitzen Trapper – American Goldwing

On their new record, Blitzen Trapper consciously drift away from their woodsy, folksy alt-rock past and seem to be aiming for a more mainstream country-rock vibe.  American Goldwing is a great road-trip record.  Rocking songs like “Might Find It Cheap” and “Your Crying Eyes” are augmented with enjoyable Jayhawks-style mid-tempo country-soul tunes like “Love The Way You Walk Away” and “Taking It Easy Too Long”.  “Astronaut” is a nice throwback to the sound Blitzen Trapper mastered on their breakout album Furr.  All very enjoyable, but based on the band’s track record I expected something more from American Goldwing.  Maybe it plays things a little too safe; a few diversions to the ditches would make it feel less middle-of-the-road.

The Boxer Rebellion – The Cold Still

The Boxer Rebellion make records that harken back to the glory days of Radiohead, with a similar moody atmosphere and melancholic undertow.  Slow-burning songs like “No Harm” and “Locked In The Basement” will appeal to just about anyone who was engrossed by Radiohead songs like “Street Spirit” or “Let Down”.  “Step Out Of The Car” and “Organ Song” are more upbeat, with memorable melodies.  “The Runner” might be the best single that nobody heard in 2011, and the simply gorgeous “Both Sides Are Even” should be gracing the closing credits of a brilliant indie film any day now, if it hasn’t already.  The Cold Still just missed out on my top ten by a whisker.

Cut Copy – Zonoscope

Aussie danceable-indie-rock group Cut Copy released a very fun record in 2011, infused with sunshine and optimism.  Zonoscope features tunes and ear-candy rhythms galore, as evidenced by songs like “Need You Now”, “Pharaohs and Pyramids”, and the riotous fifteen-minute closer “Sun God”.  “Take Me Over” even nods to the unmistakable “Down Under” rhythms and melodies of fellow countrymen Men at Work.  Zonoscope is unmistakably front-loaded, and tends to linger in ‘Air-without-the-Parisian-mystique’ territory over its second half.  An uneven record, but still enjoyable.

Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys

The unfortunately-named Death Cab For Cutie were on a wonderful roll.  Plans and Narrow Stairs built on the momentum generated by breakout album Transatlanticism, and the band carved out a niche for itself with catchy indie pop songs that weren’t quite as muscular as modern rock but not quite as treacly as emo.  Codes and Keys features a few excellent songs, namely “Home Is A Fire”, “You Are A Tourist”, and “St. Peter’s Cathedral”.  Bouncy single “Stay Young, Go Dancing” is also enjoyable in its own way.  But overall, the album seems to be missing the sense of heartbroken misery and post-modern isolation that made previous Death Cab albums so compelling.

Music Challenge Day 22 – A Song That You Listen To When You’re Sad

In retrospect, I think I missed an opportunity to explore an interesting idea over the last three challenges.  Days 20 through 22 have been about songs you listen to when you’re angry, happy, or sad.  My first inclination was to blog about angry songs on Day 20, a happy song on Day 21, and a sad song today.  But perhaps a more rewarding tangent would have been to consider what kind of song I’d pick to calm me down on an angry day, or what song I’d use to likewise moderate my spirits on a happy or sad day.  Does listening to sad music make someone sad, or does the sad music just help a sad person cope with being upset?  Let’s shelve that idea for now; maybe I’ll come back to it in a future post.

Death Cab for Cutie is a good band with a terrible name.  Wikipedia gives a reasonable explanation of where the name comes from (obscure 1950’s and 1960’s British pop culture), but it doesn’t really change the fact that it’s a stupid name.  Having said that, this band does have a sound that is pretty unique in pop music.  Their songs are quite often heart-on-sleeve melodramatic, which tends to really connect with some people and drive others away.  I think people that like DCFC almost certainly gravitate towards the emotional honesty and the strong melodies.  There is probably a healthy Boolean intersection of Death Cab fans and Coldplay fans; there are important differences between the bands but they do seem to share a lot of the same songwriting reference points.

My favourite song by DCFC is “Transatlanticism”, the title track from their 2003 album.  Like a lot of my favourite songs, this one unfolds slowly in a widescreen, cinematic fashion.  I love the tone of the guitar(s) and how it dances with the piano, percussion, and background sound effects.   A lot of the time, sadness is about feeling displaced from someone you love (or perhaps disconnected from someone you think you love), about the physical and/or metaphorical distance that prevents you from being together.  The melancholy is even deeper if you suspect the other half of your displaced pair doesn’t miss you the same way you miss them.

The words and music in “Transatlanticism” work together to paint a portrait of someone who stands face to face with an obstacle that blocks him from being with someone he loves.  The metaphor could have just as easily been a mountain range or a barren desert or the vastness of space, but in this song Ben Gibbard uses bodies of water (an ocean, a lake, a moat) as the source of isolation.  It’s plain that the protagonist of the song is despondent about being alone, and he seems to be struggling with letting go of a situation that has irrevocably changed.

I don’t know if misery loves company.  But in the wee hours of the morning, when I’m lying awake on my sofa entranced by the flickering candles on my coffee table or watching snowflakes dance around the streetlights, it’s comforting to know that I can cue up an appropriate soundtrack.