modern mixtapes

I flick my laptop open.

Music, stifled when the screen was last closed, resumes abruptly. It’s jarring when a song launches from the middle, like waking up mid-flight, momentarily unsure of where you are, where you’ll land.

I smash the pause button and punch in my password.

Unlocked, my screen is a collage of open windows, half-formed thoughts. Chrome with a stack of tabs – maps, unfinished articles, shamefully titled porn, swell reports, the Aftmth – all of which I close rapidly, not wanting to be reminded of yesterday’s highs and lows.

Spotify looms in the background.

I bring it to the front and scan the listening activity of my Spotify buddies – D-man‘s deep in an ambient playlist, flowebrother‘s stuck on some bad 90s rock, which I’ll give him a hard time about later, el gringo is doing his stomp and holler thing, Francois is playing Ciara, odd for him, but then again, the guy listens to a bit of everything. Most people are dialed into new Travis Scott.

I think about listening alongside D-man but quickly reconsider, I’m feeling too blue for the ethereal sounds of Tycho. If I go down that road I’ll probably end up with a joint in my hand and really turn my day upside down.

Nope. Instead, I scroll through my playlists, our modern mixtapes.

For decades, friends, crushes and lovers, shared albums and made mixes. We, music listeners and music lovers, expressed ourselves by cassettes, or through the prismatic shimmer of a scratched CD.

Now we use playlists, which allow for shared, disparate listening. Two people, or millions, worlds apart, can simultaneously jam to the same set of songs.

Which, of course, brings me to her. Back to her playlist. It’s what I select now, what I knew I’d be listening to before I opened my laptop.

Her playlist… it’s a mountain of alt-rock, that, according to time stamps, she’s been consistently piling for the past couple years. I tuned in a couple months ago, after meeting her briefly and finding commonality in our musical affections.

We have no contact outside of Spotify. We’re not familiar enough to text back-and-forth and I’m not engaging in the flimsy like-this, like-that tennis of social media. Our only connection, the only signs of her being out there at all, is every couple days she adds a song to her playlist.

And when I listen to that song, her newest jam, latest anthem, I find myself above my desk, a thousand miles away from Portland, somewhere in her atmosphere. I hear RKS wail and I can’t help but imagine her working in the coffeeshop she described, or aux-ed in on the drive to one of the weekly folk-rock shows she goes to. And overtime, patterns emerge. Moods take shape. This music, her playlist, is the soundtrack of her days. It stethoscopes her nature. She’s happy, she’s sad, in love, heartbroken.

In college, I’d sometimes ask girls I was sleeping with, or wanted to sleep with, what they were reading. That way, when time passed inevitably, and they disappeared from my twin bed or from that semester’s class, I could pickup the book and share with them the words on the page. To read the words they’d read was to participate in something together again.

Sometimes, feeling pathetic about my musical voyeurism, I snap shut my laptop. Get a life, quit listening to someone else’s. But curiosity and catharsis bring me back. Music has the capacity to fill (and yes, also widen) the voids of longing and loneliness. Not with her in mind or body, I can be with her in the shared experience of her playlist. In memories made, in futures possible, and now, above my desk, silently listening to the musical choreography of her days.

She’s just added a song. Let’s listen together.

Photo by Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash
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Watching the River Freeze

I moved in August to a little apartment alongside the river. The river is wide and fast flowing. It’s the vein through which industry and pride pumps into and out of this region, from the time of trappers and traders to battleships and cruise vessels.

My new apartment has a big glass door that faces the river, unobstructed. Best damn view in the city said the elderly homeowner before me, boxing his model trains.

And so, day in and day out, I watch the river. In late summer, full of boats. In fall, reflecting the colorful canopy of its bank. And now, in winter, I’m watching it freeze.

Being a wide and fast river, it will not freeze easily. It will take a fearsome cold, months of fearsome cold. But winters here can be fearsomely cold. To watch a river freeze is to watch elements wage war. Ice conquers water from the shore, near and distant, while that fire in the sky liberates.

The freeze weaponizes night. It wins territory while the sun is hiding somewhere beneath the horizon, resting before tomorrow’s thaw. Day arrives and the sun fights back. It’s tenacious, the sun, even during the coldest of months. The freeze is relentless; however, and by December, ice that was once wafer thin and broke like fine china condenses into ranks of hard purple. But this beginning is merely a skirmish, launched by an icy vanguard, and at the turn of the new year begins the all-out assault.

For ten days the temperature doesn’t rise above -10° at night or above freezing by day, the longest cold streak in forty years. The sun hangs perilously low in the sky, bleeding dull warmth, gasping last gasps. The ice fortifies its position on both shorelines and charges across, clamoring to meet in the middle. By the tenth day, a ribbon of blue, no more than a few yards wide, traces a line between sheets of white. A last stand.

And then the gods intervene.

The USCGC Penobscot Bay, an 140’ icebreaking behemoth, with a kettle black hull capable of cracking ice 30 inches thick, steams upriver, past my glass door. I run outside, overcome with excitement, crushed by disappointment. I don’t know which. The tug claws through the ice and around a nearby bend, out of view, onward to the river’s source.

That afternoon the carnage floats downriver. Goliath icebergs, shattered and drowning, exhausted from months of battle. The survivors will be dragged until the salty, temperate waters of Casco Bay melt them like hubris into humility.

They’ll sing you a lullaby

I don’t know what to tell you but of the ambiguous pain and assuring wonder. Of being lulled into a vulnerable and purposeful state by music. This isn’t a sad blog, necessarily, but just one that concerns itself with what happened over the course of a few weeks at the tail end of 2017. The transmission of a few songs and circumstances that, over this fortnight, could, perhaps, coalesce into a block of thought worth relating to the internet. (A sad blog would be one that dealt with the minutia of Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger,” I imagine.)

I know, I know. There’s a lot of music out there. No amount of round-ups and Spotify missives will reckon with the fact that particular songs resonate with us more than others. They seem to stay on repeat long enough as to be an affect—like a particular pair of shoes or the tab you won’t close on your browser even though you’ve exhausted its contents. Still, there are, should you choose, songs that haunt as well. And deliberately so—you don’t seek exorcism necessarily, rather you invite these tracks to remain a companion presence such as they preoccupy your thoughts and state of being. A song begins to become a strain of emotion that, yeah, maybe, feels like more than what you’ve ever admitted to yourself or your friends, or anyone at a party. This is by virtue understandable since music is performative, in transit, and confessional. It awaits an audience.

All of this is quickly slipping into sloppy emoting territory, however, should I not establish any worthwhile stakes in this matter. So, my crutch: “I Can’t Do Without You (Tales of Us & Mano Le Tough Remix).” One of the best/worst things of this century, musically speaking, has been the drop. While it rightly so is a cliche and frequent MacGuffin maneuver of very middling EDM, the beat drop—when the bass or rest of the instrumentation (re)enters the song at a louder, deeper pulse—is executed well, it can be, um, riveting. When done to a degree beyond the professional grade, the beat drop can shake you, rattle your bones, make your hair stand, etc. Or, at the minimum here, I can prescribe this sole song as example.

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As the writer Nora Khan’s suggested, electronic music, perhaps because of the durable length of songs that are double the pop standard, have a capacity to “collapse our sense of time.” How much and in what way is music identity forming and how much of it is misplaced nostalgia, she asks. The chime and plod of this remix of an already standout Caribou track was especially revelatory for me after I heard it in the Polish voyeuristic film “All These Sleepless Nights.” A camera closely trails two college-age friends through Warsaw, following them on many late nite tramps through clubs, raves, and silent discos. The women and friends who fall in and out of their lives, the crushing pleasures of hedonism and sensory overstimulation, are all caught by a camera at once too intimate and sincere. It is a loving look at even the minor tragedies and falling outs between the duo and the persons in their orbit. That sincerity, however, is entrapping, held together by the music that courses throughout and over the film. It is so comforting as to upend me in almost-naseua at how much the tableau of “All These Sleepless Nights” means to me.

A song of primarily a single refrain sung over a beat that develops layers of sonic stratigraphy, the innocuous recanting of “I can’t do without you” sounds as if it were a fading away from someone, a regression to a sullen state, or, perhaps, a reaching out toward somebody. The song builds like an intelligent dance music reissue of a Bach canon or fugue (the patient zero for almost all music that has come since). When Spotify broke the obvious news to me that this particular Caribou song was among my top 5 most listened to of the year, I thought, Well, 2007 me had exhausted all the versions of a particular Bach melody via Limewire that was probably burning a hole in my first generation iPod. Inconveniently enough, I cannot seem to find this gift horse for you, and, so, if/when you ever google “Bach canon,” this unfortunately exhausted song will populate the results. When I find the canon I’m looking for, I’ll follow up. Swear.

Then there’s Khan describing what, without much stretch of the imagination, is a truth anyone with an iota of the sensitivity of Drake has felt: “The music I listen to speaks to the past that I wish I had, the present I wish I had, the future I hope to have. Taken together, it builds a world of limitless potential I can only inhabit in my head.” That is, music as an exercise of one’s woes, one’s self, and one’s shortcomings and potential. Where, just as music can move a listener it can arrest them too.

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“Plastic” is a vivid song that tracks the singer’s frailty to the plight of Icarus—the wax-winged mythical figure from ancient Greece, whose story is a cautionary tale for egotism. Given the gift of flight, Icarus flew too close to the sun which melted his wings, sending him plummeting to a certain doom in the depths of the Icarian Sea—the name of which is a bit on the nose, even for the Greeks, but still.

“My wings are made of plastic, my wings are made of plastic. / My wings are made up / and so am I,” sings Sumney of a sense of fragility in his disarming falsetto. His singing in person was enough to make a guy feel barely contained. And much more so given the circumstances. The four-song set occurred in a structure expressly built for ascension or grace. Grace being a state of levity—when you feel like sugar, or a whistling kettle, or weightless, or, more traditionally, when you can walk on water. At the San Damiano Mission—a church with stained glass likenesses of biblical characters watching from on high, the pitched nave, as is custom, directed toward heaven—was Sumney, who began the show with “Incantation,” a liturgical track which has him singing in Hebrew—ultimately, a not unfamiliar tongue in a Catholic church or for a guy named Moses. Traditionally, this cant is a prayer to the angels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael to help protect one during the night (or Night). And his lyrics felt apposite to what a gathered and packed in crowd of beautiful people in Brooklyn Sunday sundries could expect.

Sumney performed “Incantation” a cappella. His accompaniment for the rest of the tracks otherwise consisting of an electric guitar and grand piano. The watching, and at many times, watery-eyed audience were rapt by Sumney—who was notedly bashful as if he’d rolled out of bed and onto the altar. His voice was clarifying, however. Last night was of sins and indulgences, he seemed to offer. Today was a recalibration. My years of Catholic schooling were being recalled like dust lifted into the light by a footfall: The remonstrations, the scripture, the discussions of homily and the holy—and here, in a time in popular music where openly slouching toward God will not necessarily harm record sales.

There is thankful comfort to be had in a setting where the word savior is invoked with doubtless conviction. Music, in a bit of hyperbole, perhaps, is a salve. Or, it feels like a salve. Sumney’s voice, whether in a church, or through headphones, or some other calibrated machination, is not salvation. It is, instead, a lullaby. Akin to what the critic Max Norman, in viewing a relatively unheralded Edvard Munch painting (from an exhibit curated by author Karl Ove Knausgaard, no less), described as “something else,” a feeling “approaching a kind of comprehension—one of those sentimental moments that move you in spite of yourself.” In the absence of anguish sentimentality may creep in, he suggests. Still, a negative feeling is, when held just so, a reprieve. Someone else, like Sumney, reckons with woes in a manner that feel so relatable as to cradle one away from mortal concerns and to momentarily distract into a state of what Buddhists, Hindus, and Catholics have all called unsentimental love.

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But there’s, too, the performative shock of hearing something transcendent for the first time. It pipes in through the ears a sense of grace that is deliberately delightful on, say, a crowded and slothful evening subway ride uptown. Recently and specifically, this meant hearing a couple voices commingle on a track recommended to me through a trusted blogger. It wasn’t so much low expectations but an acquiescing to the rightness of the internet’s suggestion that gave me a feeling of minor incorporeality: myself in intangible forms—a song, a digital file, a lullaby conveyed.

The toy piano sound of “Close But Not Quite”, for its part, should immediately signal a lullaby; but it also is a retreat back to the days of when I listened to the Dresden Dolls following a red-headed girl’s recommendation. Memory is imprecise and shifts to fit the forms we prefer, but, still, I remember reading about this Boston band and fixating on the fact that they, as professionals, would find artistic purchase through a child’s plaything. This was in the heyday of the Strokes and Interpol. I was teaching myself drums by listening to the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps” on repeat, and here was a self-selected admirable tune from someone whose taste I trusted. Though it isn’t exactly the same tinkle. The sound on the track from my minor revelation on the subway appears synthetic, a simulacrum of the analog.

Everything Is Recorded’s “Close But Not Quite” comes a bit under the radar, sure, but it is the EP that was promised. XL Records exec Richard Russell brought, magnanimously, a group of musicians and samples together with his varying production, the title track of which can either meet the listener with the weight of an anchor and the cotton-swabbing cleanse of a lullaby. Besides the not-quite toy piano, “Close But Not Quite” is built around Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings of You,” from 1970. That isn’t clear, however, until the hook which, when directly following a Sampha verse, is a falsetto pairing that can ruin you if you’re feeling vulnerable. It’s a gift, all 3:29 minutes of flourishing Motown and lightly touching drums.

Now, sitting behind a laptop and feeling this out from a distance feels leveling, neither Sampha nor Mayfield can quite square the feelings intangible to them on the song, and, really, what all of the above writing is considering is that tracks such as these can do the opposite for the listener. We can feel a little more whole by having certain falsettos or beat drops reverberating through us. Strange how some things become an earworm and metonym for a particular moment. And others can never shake their nostalgic pull. It’s warped, retrospection. It can appear that a sad song has soothed you. But, even in a lullaby, we often only hear what we want to hear.

Burial – Archangel

William Emmanuel Bevan grew up in the UK, properly. As he tells it, he’s never been to a festival, warehouse, or illegal party. Instead, he experienced the jungle and garage scene through the stories and records of his older brother.

But as the scene shifted toward a pump-up, happy-go-lucky, often cheesy sound, William was fixated on a darker tone: “like finding a body in a lift shaft” [Wire Interview]. By the time William had become Burial, hardly anyone was listening to that type of music anymore.

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Today, Burial seems to be an unspoken yet widely known name. That would be surprising, considering he’s not much of a self-promoter and stayed anonymous for much of his career.

Instead, he’s driven by a deeply passionate fan base. At odd corners of the internet and deep sections of Reddit, you might find ornate anthologies discussing his music, story, and incredibly low-tech production setup.

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I started to get Burial while traveling Europe alone in the rainy winter (I know). In between adventures, a short-lived love, train crises, and overdue reunions, I recall walking dark European towns and clubs with the crushing weight of self-indulgent existential feelings. The setting was perfect. But really, I was just lonely.

Sad music, dark music, is hard for most to connect to and easy to roll your eyes at. Why intentionally impose a negative emotion on yourself? I’ll say this: take Burial’s music, save it in a playlist named “Dark Days,” and listen to it when you need to.

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The National – The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness

Amanda Petrusich describes Matt Berninger’s voice in her recent New Yorker article by conjuring up a somber image: “Listening to it, I often think of a deep-sea diver, weights slung low on his hips, being tugged toward the ocean floor.”

“Beautiful but a tad over-written”, joked my Mom when in awe, I read the passage out loud.  But after a few glasses of wine and the appearance of thunderheads in the backyard, The National’s new album, Sleep Well Beast, and its gloomy opulence, fit the grooves of our night.

The National can either be crushingly depressing or wholly inspirational. Either way, it’s undeniable that Matt Berlinger’s voice is a magnetic force, a polarizing crack that goes straight to the source.

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