Music is an extraordinarily important part of my life. I’ve never been good at creating music myself, but I need it around me all the time and I’ve always been drawn to musical people. I have dance parties to bad ’80s songs in my kitchen. I like going on road trips by myself, because I turn them into massive sing-a-longs. I associate certain songs with certain people, and I like being able to connect to people through shared musical taste.
But it’s more than that.
I realized something recently about my relationship to music, and I wondered if it held true for other people. Then I read this quote from Frank Ocean: “When you’re happy, you enjoy the music, but when you’re sad, you understand the lyrics.”
And that’s exactly it. I usually connect most strongly to music, and particularly to lyrics, when I’m struggling.
Good News for People Who Love Bad News by Modest Mouse was released on April 6, 2004.
A Ghost is Born by Wilco was released on June 22, 2004.
I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning by Bright Eyes was released on January 24, 2005.
I feel like if you listen to these three albums, you’ll know who I am. And you’ll probably know me better than you would from years of conversation or spending any amount of time with me. I’m in “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now.” I’m in “Hummingbird.” I’m in “World at Large.”
These albums have something in common. In addition to just being really damn good, they all—musically and lyrically—have elements of melancholy and intelligence and quiet desperation. In a word, me.
The peculiar thing to me, though, is that these three albums, probably the three albums that mean more to me than any others (except maybe Jeff Buckley’s Grace or Simon and Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme) were all released within a year of each other and incidentally during the most miserable time in my life. I have absolutely no nostalgia for that period in my life, no bittersweet memories, no distant fondness, no lingering ties or connections—instead of all those things, it’s almost as if I have replaced my memories of that time with these albums.
It was during this period of time when I established some important elements of my character—good and bad. Even today it stands very important to me to remember that I’ve struggled and to remember that no matter what I face in the future, I’ve climbed out of some very dark places.
Because the thing is, all three albums have these tiny threads of fatalist hope in them of the sort I relate to:
“Even if things end up a bit too heavy. We’ll all float on okay.”
“Fill up your mind with all that you know, don’t forget that your body will let it all go.”
“You’ll be free, child, once you have died, from the shackles of language and measurable time.”
Maybe I was more introspective in my early 20s, and that’s why I’ve been unable to connect so strongly to any albums since. But I’ve always thought art was meant to make us feel less alone, and maybe that’s why these albums still hold such a profound meaning to me. I was all alone during that period of my life (on purpose). I’ve never been good at asking for help, but I didn’t have to ask Conor Oberst, Jeff Tweedy, and Isaac Brock because they were there when I needed them. And they’re still there when I need to revisit them.
I can still listen to them and cry—not because they make me unhappy, but because they point to things I believe are profoundly true, about the world and about myself. I can also listen to them and they make me feel good, less alone, because they link me back to a time when I was alone and they were the only connection I had to being a living, functioning human being.
And I just wonder if anyone else clings to albums like this. I wonder if other people define themselves this way. I wonder what albums saved other people from themselves.
In Diary, Chuck Palahniuk wrote: “It’s so hard to forget pain, but it’s even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness. We learn so little from peace.”
I think this is probably true. And if these three albums are my scars, then I wear them gladly.