The writer Dave Eggers says that one of the reasons we listen to songs over and over is to figure them out. The implicit comment there is that once we solve the puzzle of a song, it will start to lose its mysterious hold over us. For a lot of pop songs, that’s true. The average tune is only three or four minutes long, after all. How much mystery and puzzlement could it hold on to after months, or years, or decades, of continuous play?
I’ve been thinking about Eggers’ idea lately. First, because I’ve been separated from my very large record and CD collection for five months now. After the fire at the condo, most of my possessions were taken away to be cleaned, disinfected, and de-smoked, and they now reside in a large metal pod container in a parking lot about half an hour outside of Nashville. It’s too sad to dwell on that thought for very long. Most of my possessions I haven’t missed all that much. But my records, I have. Not a day goes by when I don’t wish I had a particular title. Something Else by The Kinks, Toby by The Chi-Lites, the soundtrack of Sunday In The Park With George. I have almost 2500 songs on my iTunes, but it’s not the same as having my entire record collection. Also, I had (have) a vintage Marantz receiver, a high-end NAD CD player and good Ohm speakers, all to convey the music with warmth and air. No matter how much you love a song, it just doesn’t sound all that great coming out of an iMac.
Second, because I’m a fortysomething person, and I have more frequent thoughts of mortality, part of that is considering what music I’d like to listen to in the time I have left. If Eggers is right, I’ve solved the puzzles of many songs that have brought me pleasure over the years, and probably don’t need to hear them anymore. Let me glance at my iTunes for a random selection. “You Are The Girl” By The Cars, “Oblivious” by Aztec Camera, “Everybody’s Out Of Town” by B.J. Thomas (an uncharacteristically dark, apocalyptic lyric from Hal David and a song I need to blog about), “Bluebeard” by Band Of Horses, “You Keep It All In” by the Beautiful South. . . haven’t I listened to these songs enough to know their intimate secrets? Probably. But I can’t deny that at the right moment, in the right setting, they can still bring me pleasure, and I’m not ready to delete them, or sell them off from my collection. For example, that Cars song. There’s a lot of pleasure for me in just hearing Ric Ocasek’s voice. His cool, nasally sound. It’s like an old friend. And Eliott Easton’s feisty, melodic guitar solos always tweak my love for the instrument. I might be the only person I know who is genuinely excited that the Cars are releasing a new album this spring, their first in over twenty years.
I think that when I’m finally reunited with my record collection, I may see certain titles with a clearer, colder eye, and that certain titles may end up at one of the local second-hand shops. That’s okay. Maybe they can become new puzzles for new listeners. In the meantime, it’s exciting to know that there are still so many artists I haven’t explored, new and old. Did you ever hear “3 O’ Clock Flamingo Street” by the Bachelors? That’s an old record that I discovered lately. It’s like a poppy take on Morricone western themes, weird and dense, with a lyric that puts me in mind of those lonely paintings by Dichirico. I haven’t solved it yet. Or to choose something new, how about “I Wanna Go To Marz” by John Grant? Grant’s Queen Of Denmark album is great start to finish, but that song in particular, has had a strange hold over me for months. I wish I hadn’t read an interview with Grant where he explains that the imagery in the lyric is related to a candy store that was a favorite of his as a kid. It kind of took some of the mystery out of it for me.
And I’m ashamed – and delighted – to admit that I’ve never heard Astral Weeks by Van Morrison. Surely, there are beautiful puzzles there to be solved.