Another Day Full of Dread by Bonnie “Prince” Billy (from I See a Darkness)
By dread I’m inspired, by fear I’m amused. The phrase was cursived on a cocktail napkin and folded into my handshake by a steel-haired young woman two weeks before my 20th birthday. Not a portentous date or a lasting exchange (we weren’t friends, didn’t become friends) but on that day I was feeling that birthday feeling, that slowly dying feeling, that how do I make good decisions feeling, and this, coupled with the napkin’s mysterious language and mysterious source, made it feel like a fortune of the future-telling kind. Later in the decade Google would ruin the second mystery (it’s a Will Oldham lyric) but could not reveal the heart of the first: What does dread inspire? What joke does fear tell? Oldham’s abstraction calls attention to what any comparison might imply: difference. Fear and dread are different. What I already knew but would come to understand: That difference matters. That difference can help.
La Familia by Mirah (from You Think It’s Like This But It’s Really Like This)
It’s not what the lyrics were telling me to do: sleep with my friends, move away, “choose a path and follow it, take a pill and swallow it.” It’s the air in Mirah’s voice when the bridge of “La Familia” shoots her to the rafters of the song and lets her bounce around up there. From the ground we hear something high and free—I won’t call it a bird—something restless that’s best caught in a car stereo on the drive out of town, before the final chorus brings her back down. It’s a song best sung from a mattress on the floor, alone. It’s what it feels like to be barely adult, bad at love and better for it. The sort of song you listen to when you’ve cut your bottle-black hair into baby bangs and can’t play guitar and can’t relate to men. It’s the sound of passive wanting. It’s twee as fuck.
Wise Up by Aimee Mann (From The Magnolia Soundtrack)
Around the time my long-term memory chewed up the finer points of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and left “Yeah, I’ve read it” where a narrative used to be, an image from the book began to haunt me: A young woman framed by an apartment window drapes a thin bright scarf over a table lamp. This girl lives in the dormer of my memory usually reserved for earworms and Old Spice and forgiven insults, which makes me wonder if I made her up.
What I’m certain of in this image, whether it’s mine or Dave Eggers’, is how that gesture recalls for me my first apartment. A box of smaller boxes that housed four young women, each of whom tried to create space for beauty in ways that made the rest of us wish we lived alone. And how that gesture was also extremely foolish, a scarf on a lightbulb being a perfectly fine way to burn an apartment building down.
In that first place where I lived with my childhood best friend, I did not take out the trash or clean the tub. I cooked pots of macaroni and abandoned the leftovers to crust in the sink, while Lindsey listened to Aimee Mann from her room behind the kitchen. We were obsessed with Bachelor No. 2 and the first half of the Magnolia soundtrack, which we loved because the songs weren’t danceable. While we listened, we had to sit there and feel—anxiety for undone schoolwork, steam from our teapot spaghetti, burn from butterscotch schnapps, and our private fantasies about the boys next door, while the boys next door played Nintendo until malt liquor dulled their chances of beating Super Mario.
I’m writing about this song instead of “Save Me” because “Save Me” is Lindsey’s song, and for us these songs are in each other’s pockets, as we were in each other’s those years. I can’t hear the lonely piano of “Wise Up” without the acoustic guitar of “Save Me.” Nor could you ask for my company without receiving Lindsey’s, because, despite the boys we loved that year, we were each other’s primary relationship.
Mann’s voice and lyrics in these songs are desperate and forgiving and huge. They feel specific to one relationship but descriptive of all the wounds we try to heal with romantic love. Insecurity, abandonment, the not-yet we call “young and dumb,” the vague and barely manageable broken feeling conferred by being born, performed on us by family, regifted to us by lovers, smiled at by God, soothed with music or a poem or the attempt to write either, fixed by self knowledge that’s years away. Mann’s songs feel like the musical equivalent of the lamp-draping girl I remember from Eggers’ book. Exuberant and beautiful, stupid with hope, wise with the self-loathing of the newly, deliriously free.
Glad to Be Unhappy by Frank Sinatra (from In the Wee Small Hours)
For the past nine years I’ve whistled Sinatra’s tune as part of an absent-minded medley that braids “Glad to Be Unhappy” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” with the last track on my ex-boyfriend’s second record. Boyfriend isn’t the right word. He wasn’t my husband either. After he was neither, he wrote, “I've seen nothing lovelier in all my life as when I spied you in the garden, whistling while you worked.” I didn’t believe him, but that doesn’t matter. When my guard goes down, his song sneaks out of my mouth.
In the Wee Small Hours is a collection of sixteen songs where the listener can imagine Frank walking around Manhattan late at night, let’s say 2:37 in the morning, smoking under streetlights and looking for life in upstairs bedrooms so he can feel less lonely…or more bereft. On the album cover, Frank flicks his cigarette at his feet. The street is in blues and so is his suit. No one’s around to witness his suffering. It’s nothing like My Way or It Was a Very Good Year, where he gloats from the top of the world.
In “Glad to be Unhappy,” Old Blue-Eyes is wrung out by hubris. He prostrates himself with song, spinning a ragged yarn that’s stronger than it looks, the idea that the lover would “rather hurt than feel nothing at all,” as Lady Antebellum would sing 50 years later in another genre and a woman’s voice, more pathetic but equally narcotic because of its bald confession of need. Their line, “I’m a little drunk and I need you now,” is too obvious for Sinatra, but it’s the spine of what and how he sings.
Why should we be glad to be unhappy? To remember, we listen to music.
What It’s Like by Arthur Russell (From Love is Overtaking Me)
I’d made a rule—“No musicians, no poets, no retail”—and broke it by dating a roadie. During our short courtship he bought me a t-shirt from Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, gave me his copy of Arthur Russell’s Love is Overtaking Me, and colonized my bedroom until the next tour started in a few days, which was too many days. I drove him to his bus early but kept the t-shirt (which was not at all lousy) and Arthur Russell.
Russell dated women and men, but mostly men, and didn’t identify as gay until he was 25, at which point he had fifteen years left of his too-short life to fuck and love. For much of Love is Overtaking Me, a collection of previously unreleased recordings, he sings to a female pronoun, or to “you,” or circumvents pronoun trouble with third-person storytelling.
Many of the tracks are unfinished and unmastered, collected with their flaws intact. Arthur’s voice runs off-road before re-correcting, or doesn’t quite reach the note before moving on—might as well—to the next. He can be right on or just behind the beat, with phrasing that never quite divides the song from speech.
In “What It’s Like,” Arthur tells the story of two young Iowans who lie down in the tall grass, “the field where nothing is planted,” a farmer’s version of wilderness. Arthur doesn’t sing what they do there but I assume they’re fucking. After a time the young man, a preacher, casts the girl off. In the empty church, just behind the beat, he calls her name.
“Kate!” he calls, with an aaay that scrapes the roof his mouth as he hurls it into the sanctuary. “Reverend?” she calls back, with a sticky r that hints she knows what he’s about to do. I imagine that she’s younger than him, but smarter. “I’ve been touched by the Lord!” he says. “I don’t need you anymore!”
Arthur Russell died from complications of the AIDS virus in 1992. He died poor and obscure, but he still sings. My favorite early lesson of writing about art is the grammar: use present tense, my teachers said. Dickinson writes. Rothko paints. Arthur Russell sings. In verbs, the artist is immortal.
Arthur, not just the preacher, calls Kaaaaaate. He’s a good storyteller. He becomes the story. Which is the song. He’s the tall grass, the sanctuary, the guitar solo that shreds the distance between the speaker and your ear the moment after Kate explains, The only reason I did it...was to find out what it’s like.
Made-Up Dreams by Built to Spill (from Perfect from Now On)
I want to know what kind of wisdom songs can offer us, what kind of wisdom we look for when we go to them for advice. But telling you about my favorite songs is starting to feel like I’m telling you my dreams, which is horrifying. Everyone knows talking about dreams is boring. I’m not done with this playlist, so I’m taking Doug Martsch’s advice: “No one wants to hear/What you dreamt about unless you dreamt about them/Don't let that stop you/Tell them anyway.”
That Summer Feeling by Jonathan Richman (From I, Jonathan)
That summer feeling sits eight feet into gooseshit and lily pads on a bench that’s been bolted to the lake-end of a dock. That summer feeling will last much longer than this particular evening, which is merely the length of a sixpack. The day before, though her mother begged her to stay home, that summer feeling attended the Portland date of Belle and Sebastian’s first west coast tour and is now on her way to see their show in Vancouver. Today, that summer feeling watched Wet Hot American Summer at the downtown Seattle movie theater and wouldn’t call it a comedy. Not for years. That summer feeling is jacketless. She has smooth legs and armpits and short hairs in the creases of her thighs that she’d shave if it were time to swim, but it isn’t. It is dark. The surface of the lake has been cleansed by darkness. Yesterday got so dark, 2001 started over. Tomorrow is September 13. When Jonathan Richman opens for the Scottish band in Vancouver, that summer feeling will hear him sing, “some things look good before and some things never were,” and she won’t yet know the name for the thing. He will sing “the time is here for one more year,” and she’ll understand soon how nostalgia without pain is propaganda. He will sing directly to her: “that summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life.” She will see herself as a ghost and be comforted.
Blank Space by Taylor Swift (from 1989)
Taylor Swift’s songs are romantic and catty and easy to inhabit when you feel nostalgic for that time when you fully believed you were right and he was wrong. Her narrators (who are her but not really—even she should get the protection of “speaker” and “narrator” when we talk about her lyric confessions) think love is a binary that ends in “forever” or “flames.”
I like Blank Space because its boys and girl aren’t bummed-out by the meanness of romantic love. They’re enjoying the flames. Sure, there’s the cliché that men are assholes and women are crazy, but in this song, no one is a victim—not the singer, not the sung-about, not the sung-to. Here, attraction is constantly felt but inconstantly expressed, which sounds like a moon-thing, a fucking thing, or a shallow version of finding your soulmate. The music keeps the lovers dependent, in conflict, safe. The song is catchy because it’s full of hooks.
When I hear Swift sing “I love the players/and you love the game,” I hear a slick answer to the criticism that often follows women when they mine their personal lives for art. Her exaggeration is fun. And ridiculous. And awful. There’s anxiety underneath it that can’t be zipped up in swank dresses, 80s pop, or man-eater swagger. The song loops through my head without permission until the lyrics feel like scabs I pick off with successive listens. This is how Blank Space stops being fun and starts filling me with dread.
Here is what I know about dread and fear.
Dread says forget it, that’s the wrong way. Dread is necessary.
Fear says follow it, capture it, marry it. Fear is necessary.
I want the Taylor of this album to sound like she’s in the midst of the thing I’m near the end of: figuring out how pain grows up, moves out, and doesn’t need you anymore.
Blank Space is exactly what it says it is. I am happy to fill it with what I need to hear.
Sleep the Clock Around by Belle and Sebastian (from The Boy with the Arab Strap)
Even now, after fifteen years of listening, I have no idea what Belle and Sebastian are singing about in this song. I have chosen not to solve this problem with Google.
Stuart Murdoch’s singing is often described as marble-mouthed, which means mumbly, which sounds like balls of colored glass will fall out of his mouth if he approaches a microphone. To me he sounds more like gauze. Cotton-stuffed. Because I can’t understand the words, his singing becomes another instrument. The story is melodic, not narrative; something felt rather than understood. The swells of volume and instrumentation in this song—I can’t imagine saying this in any other context, but good lord, those bagpipes—feel like a soft scalding.
I listen to this song when I feel like a future version of Arthur Russell’s Kate. I mean, when I want to remember what it was like. The sound of “Sleep the Clock Around” reminds me that grief is a place where music can pierce us with rapture and comfort. How, with music, we listen for who we are with who we were, making wounds to give ourselves the pleasure of healing.