Friday, May 11, 2007

Which Came First, the Music or the Misery?

Driving home from work yesterday, I had to turn off Joanna Newsom’s phenomenal album Ys. I had once thought the thirty-minute commute a perfect opportunity to delve into the album. Perhaps this time I delved a little too deep. At one point in “Sawdust and Diamonds” – I believe it was the line “And though our bodies recoil from the grip of the soil, why the long face?” – I started to choke up a bit.

This got me thinking: how can some albums take on such monumental, life changing status that they become torturous? Distressing? Unbearable?

Case in point: Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The album encapsulates our journey from birth to death beautifully and harrowingly. In the opener, “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1,” the protagonist reflects on his father’s suicide attempts. Or more accurately, his father’s inability to realize those attempts: “Each one [was] a little more than he would dare to try.” We traverse the album’s often bumpy, unforgiving terrain, and see how one could be driven to such a dark place. We see bliss and sorrow intermingle in the titular track, when Jeff Mangum reminds us that one day we will all die. In the meantime, he implores the listener, “Let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see.” We see the haunting vision of “Holland 1945,” perhaps the band's finest example of combining boisterous music with melancholy subject matter. As in life, Mangum wants us to feel the joys and horrors and everything in between.

Few albums can bring me to tears – you haven’t claimed me yet, Ys – but Aeroplane is an album I cannot listen to now without feeling, well, pretty bummed out. Perhaps I’ve brought this on myself. Once, in a drunken stupor, I told my husband that I wanted the album played at my funeral. (Hey, he understands getting worked up about the album. I can distinctly recall him being heavily intoxicated at sunrise and screaming the lyrics to “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2-3” whilst throwing full beer cans at our apartment building. The phrase “I love you, Jesus Christ” never sounded so compelling.)

Many of us turn to music when we’re down, whether it’s to seek comfort or wallow in the mire. So it’s no surprise that when we are in a good mood, we would want to avoid somber tunes, no matter how amazing those tunes might be. Thus I gravitate to Takk over Agaetis Byrjun or even Neon Bible over Funeral. When I need my Neutral Milk Hotel fix, On Avery Island is a much more upbeat alternative, that is until we get to that bit about “carving holiday designs” in one’s flesh.

In some cases my album avoidance stems from my wanting to keep that album sacred, special. Like, “We’ll only listen to Aeroplane on the night of our first child’s birth,” or something like that. Maybe it’s not wanting to ever completely “crack” an album – or at least not wanting to wear it out entirely. Thankfully these complex, often mysterious albums can stand up to repeat listenings. This is particularly true of Ys, an album so dense there’s likely far more to cry over than I’ve unearthed to date. For now I’ll keep pondering the question Rob Gordon poses in High Fidelity: “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

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