Neither one of us had a smart phone, or even a Pandora account.
When my album purchasing habits went away, did my ability to track major life events fade along with it?
But we did have CDs, because back then, we were still album people. Cozying up to complete sets of like sounds, dipping ourselves whole in the sonic expression of single artists. These were the early aughts years, the ones that straddled Napster and iPods, when you could indeed fancy yourself a “music curator” (before that phrase was an official thing). However, the process of downloading music and then uploading it to a portable device that only carried 20 songs anyway was so slow and laborious, it was easier to just do things
the old-fashioned way: with plastic discs. So we picked a handful, three each.
Where were we headed? India. Specifically, a tiny village in Kerala, the lush, green tip of the continent known for its cardamom and Communist-Marxist politics, where we would spend the summer living at an elementary school and training in its hands-on teaching approach. My then-boyfriend brought along an album by a Congolese guitarist named Dr. Nico, and shacked up in our small, second story room with glassless windows that coaxed in earthy, about-to-rain smells and sometimes actual rain itself, we listened to that album obsessively. The island-tinged slide guitar, the winsome French of Dr. Nico recalling various lovers – it became the soundtrack for our warm, muggy months there, as indelible a sense memory to me now as the scent of tree-fallen jackfruit that lay everywhere (sweet, funky, rotting) and the daily Hindu prayers recited over the village loudspeakers (urgent, blaring, commandment-like). I was 23.
Albums did use to punctuate my life’s chapters in a way they don’t anymore: Weezer’s blue album = seventh grade, Celine Dion’s Falling Into You = eight (I KNOW guys, I know).
I can’t listen to Dr. Nico now without thinking of Kerala, just like I can’t listen to Cannonball Adderley without thinking of Milan. It was there I spent a semester abroad in college, a robust, muscular Italian city marked by more skyscrapers than vineyards. I was 20 then, and like my time in Kerala, a handful of albums accompanied me on the journey. The opening, foreboding knocks of piano in Cannonball’s version of “Autumn Leaves” still send me back to dizzy nights lying in bed, shot through with sugary cocktails and a sense that I was older, wiser now. Because clearly, only old, wise individuals have passion fruit-flavored martinis for dinner.
Audio trips like these are enough to make me wonder if I’m doing things a bit wrong these days. I’ve mostly eschewed albums, you see, preferring instead to exercise perfect musical control over various aspects of my life through the power of playlists. But in the process, have I lost my ability to link artists to memories? When my album purchasing habits went away, did my ability to track major life events fade along with it?
That’s probably a little melodramatic. Nevertheless, albums did use to punctuate my life’s chapters in a way they don’t anymore: Weezer’s blue album = seventh grade, Celine Dion’s Falling Into You = eighth (I KNOW guys, I know). I remember lounging in a tattered beanbag chair at my friend Kyle’s house my freshman year of high school, discussing the artistic merits of The Maltese Falcon (or really, Kyle was discussing, and I was pretending to understand). Jewel’s first album was turning inside his gargantuan stereo for the hundredth time, crooning in her coffee shop-shaped voice about souls and games and most of all you, whom Jewel wanted to be near, always (“Please don’t say I love you / those words touch me much too deeply”). We concluded, Kyle and I, that Jewel was a bit of a stalker. Still, she would remain Kyle’s unrequited celebrity crush, and Kyle my real-life one. I was 15.
Preceding my Jewel phase (to this day, “You Were Meant For Me” is the only song I know how to play on guitar), I ripped off the Christmas wrapping to my first CD ever, a glittering white case enclosing (God help us) Brooks & Dunn: Hard Workin’ Man. The album art depicts a Kix (real name!) Brooks wearing a flame-covered shirt and his performer companion Ronnie Dunn clad in head-to-toe, Johnny Cash-style black, both in a legs-apart stance meant to indicate the seriousness of their hard work, which apparently involves romancing honky tonk women – the subject matter of 90% of the album, and to which I aspired to become one day. I too would break hearts in border towns, hock diamond rings of the various cowboys that proposed to me, and I too would learn the “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.” Nevermind the fact that my extracurriculars involved way more malls than ranches, and decidedly more afternoons watching Saved By the Bell than roping steers; this would all be corrected once I grew up and found a cowboy of my very own. Preferably one who wore flame shirts.
I am now 31 and far from a music connoisseur, but living in Austin you are almost one by default. My just-so playlists compartmentalize various segments of my life, be it a yoga class, a walk, even grocery shopping (surely a sign of burgeoning sociopathy). But perhaps it’s time to rethink this precious, single song tinkering. Perhaps it’s time to start purchasing albums wholesale again, and to lose myself in one musician’s head for stretches at a time?
Perhaps it’s time to rethink this precious, single song tinkering.
Here’s my idea. Tempted as I am to create a Zen-ified soundtrack for the birth of my daughter this May, filled with Tibetan singing bowls and the chants of various monk choirs, I’ve decided she is instead going to enter the world against a different backdrop, one voiced by a single dude: Stephen Malkmus. I’ve been listening to his new album, Wig Out at Jagbags, and so far, I love it. Is it a perfect musical masterpiece? No. Does it make me smile? Yes. Will it have the potential to make me giggle, as Malkmus often does, during the monstrously intense physicality of labor? Maybe. (Maybe not.) Mostly, I just want to Pavlovian condition myself for the future, so that the next time I crank up the album, it’s her I think about.
So thank you in advance, Mr. Malkmus, for the memories. And to you, future self? Happy listening, and good luck.
Photography: Rodrigo Garrido via Shutterstock
Culture & Lifestyle Columnist
Tolly Moseley is a freelance writer and journalist in Austin, TX.
With a focus on arts/culture and life, her work has appeared in Salon, Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, on NPR Austin, and more.
She is also the voice behind the popular blog Austin Eavesdropper, and one half of the aerial silks performance duo Vayu Aerials.