I’m fortunate to live in a part of the world where we experience four distinct seasons. Summers are comfortable – the sixteen hours of daylight is usually warm without being stifling, so you can still get to sleep at night. Winters are fine – aside from a few nasty arctic outbreaks, the sub-zero temperatures and occasional snows are completely manageable. Spring is awful – the pot-holed streets look like downtown Beirut, there’s garbage and dog turds poking out of snowbanks everywhere you look, and the few outdoor surfaces that happen to rise above the slimy meltwater are probably covered with snow mould. That said, my favourite season has always been fall.
Part of the appeal of fall is that it’s like summer with less potential nuisances. After the Labour Day long weekend, humidity is unheard of. All it takes is a few cool nights to freeze off all the mosquitos. Sure, it can be ten or fifteen degrees cooler than mid-July, but that’s what jackets are for. The parks are less crowded, while the highways aren’t so jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive.
Another thing that makes fall intriguing is that you’re never quite sure how long it’s going to last. At my 53-degree latitude, fall typically lasts from the first light frost (usually in early September) until the first big snowfall (usually around Hallowe’en). But lovely double-digit days aren’t unheard of in November… and neither is waking up to 10 cm of snow in the first week of September. Fall is usually about eight weeks long, but any nice days after mid-October feel like gambling with house money.
Fall is probably the best season for strolling around the neighbourhood. There’s essentially no need for sunscreen or bug spray. Dehydration is rarely a problem, so you don’t have to lug a water bottle around with you. On top of that, the scenery is wonderful. Every time you set out on a walk, you’ll find that some of the foliage has changed from just a few days before. There’s something soul-restoring about walking the trails with the muted crunch of fallen leaves underfoot and the unmistakable smell of decomposing leaves in your nostrils.
I set out for a quick spin around the neighbourhood today to test some new trail shoes I picked up in Denver. I meant to hike briskly for an hour, but ended up clicking off 13.3 km in a little over two hours instead. I think it was the autumnal songs that kept popping up on my iPod playlist – I was so immersed in the music that time ceased to be all that important.
To celebrate the season, here are five songs that are tailor-made for walkabouts in fall.
The Autumn Defense – “Once Around”
Frankly, pretty much anything by the Autumn Defense would make a great soundtrack for a walk in September or October. This is the side band that was put together by John Stirratt and Pat Sansone to explore a different 1970s singer-songwriter vibe than their regular gig in the alternative rock band Wilco. Layers of acoustic guitars and pensive vocals build up to cathartic releases of energy, before dissolving back into a laid-back groove. You can pretty much feel the late-day sunshine filtering through the amber-hued trees as this song unfurls in your headphones.
Fleet Foxes – “Mykonos”
Another mid-tempo number propelled by acoustic guitars and choral vocals. Perhaps this is the type of song that the adjective “autumnal” was coined for. “Mykonos” is the high point of the Seattle band’s Sun Giant EP, and sounds like a lost transmission from the early 1970s. The galloping beat and intertwining layers of voices make you feel like you could zip your fleece jacket up to your chin and keep strolling all the way to Greece.
The Grapes of Wrath – “All The Things I Wasn’t”
This short little number always transports me back in time to high school. The Grapes of Wrath were better known as Canadian purveyors of upbeat psychedelic jangle rock, something of a cross between R.E.M. and Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd. The wistful and acoustic “All The Things I Wasn’t” plays against type, painting a tapestry of golds and reds in an all-too-brief two minutes and eighteen seconds of yearning and regret.
Bon Iver – “Holocene”
While the name that Justin Vernon chose for his band cheekily references winter, I always think of fall when I hear “Holocene”. Maybe it’s partly because the abstract lyric mentions “laying waste to Hallowe’en”. Like the other songs on this playlist, “Holocene” unfolds in waves of acoustic guitars and wistful vocals. I think I’m drawn to the melancholy tones of Bon Iver’s music for the same reason that I like the fall; the fear and uncertainty in the music tidily parallels the tenebrific approach of another harsh winter.
R.E.M. – “Drive”
I gave up trying to understand Michael Stipe’s lyrics years ago. From what I’ve read, he often relies on his subconscious to pull words out of the ether. I suspect that even Stipe can’t pin down what “Drive” is all about. There’s certainly a sense of middle-aged malaise, of dissatisfaction with the status quo, of not knowing where to go next. But exactly how all this existential angst is supposed to congeal into coherent thoughts is anyone’s guess. From a musical perspective, “Drive” is about as stately and autumnal as R.E.M. ever got. Peter Buck’s looping acoustic guitar motif is overdubbed by searing electric lead lines. Bill Berry’s sparse drums and Mike Mills’ accordion drop in and out of the arrangement at precisely the right times. It all creates a melancholy atmosphere as thick as Brunswick stew, and is the perfect soundtrack for wistfully kicking aspen leaves along the trail.