Sufjan Stevens “Fourth of July”

Some of my favorite songs hurt too much to listen to very often. They send me plunging into those forlorn corners of memory that I spend most days avoiding. I try to remember these songs, play them, and appreciate what happens when I open the flood gates to total despair.

All year long, I keep an ongoing list of the music that really touches me. Even if I’ve only heard something once, it won’t be forgotten. So long as an album really strikes me, it remains on the list. It’s a gentle reminder of some of my best moments, light and dark.

I’ve realized this is a  perfect way to keep track of the more sharply emotional music I encounter. When something makes me cry, striking a deep feeling that I can’t shake for hours, I don’t often want to dive right back in. It’s too much. The music I listen to while driving, for instance, doesn’t often involve a lot of harsh emotional places. Some albums don’t beg repeat plays, yet stil wear a groove into my mind. The list helps me conjure those overwhelming artists for a reappraisal. It’s a practice that I find profoundly rewarding at the end of each year.

This year’s list included Sufjan Steven’s latest album, Carrie & Lowell. It’s a harrowing, autobiographical experience that’s eerily stripped down and direct, compared to his grand, overstuffed earlier albums. Lyrics trade heavy in both spiritual and personal tones, and despite the light atmosphere, the narrative settles uncomfortably on the heart. The deceptively simple collection of guitar and piano driven tunes are connected by a gauzy atmosphere, with blurred beginnings and endings. Tracks emerge from the hissing fog of memory, embracing and then leaving before they can be fully grasped.

This one, though. Fourth of July just cuts me right down. Before I’d even read the backstory of the album, named after Stevens’ estranged, recently late mother and stepfather, the lyrics rang painful. Structured as a conversation between Stevens and his mother on her deathbed, it’s full of aching verses that express the regret of a mostly missed relationship. Since she’d left when he was a child, Stevens was saying goodbye to a stranger that he nonetheless loved and forgave completely.

While my relationship with my own late mother couldn’t be more different, one verse felt immediately like a message from her. It struck like a knife through the ribs, sucking the air from my lungs. It felt like what my mom would have said if she’d known she wouldn’t see me again, that day I waved goodbye in the snow.

Shall we look at the moon, my little loon
Why do you cry?
Make the most of your life, while it is rife
While it is light

I have to admit: I shake just typing these words out. Some thoughts act like a portal, ripping me directly back to the moment I knew my mom was gone. There’s no fighting it; I just let it wash over and move on. Sufjan Stevens has captured this feeling more accurately than any contemporary musician I’ve heard, painting that exquisite combination of sadness, regret, acceptance, and dawning relief that forever trails after the black hole at the center of memory.

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Just as Fourth of July is an emotionally cathartic listen, it’s equally as disruptive to write about. I’m staring down my blog while my sinuses disintegrate, tears falling. Just as profound depths of sadness allow for a unique bounce into tear-streaked laughter and relief, music like this warms a smile on my face as I reflect on it. Writing about why something nails my gut, poking at the connective tissue of emotion itself, is why I started writing about music itself.

When I find myself avoiding art that makes me truly feel on a visceral level, I try to puncture that safe bubble. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the nearly four years my mom has been gone, it’s that I need to let those darkest feelings out, at least occasionally. I might fall into an ugly, sobbing mess, but I need the perspective. I never appreciate the mundane bliss of everyday life without consistent reminders of what it’s like back at rock bottom.

Perhaps this is why Stevens ends the song with a refrain that feels more affirming than despairing. In a warmly gentle tone, he ushers us back toward the rest of our lives, repeating:

We’re all gonna die.

I Am Thirty Three Today // Here’s The Smashing Pumpkins

Today is my birthday, and in celebration I’m sharing the incredible stop-motion video for The Smashing Pumpkins‘ timeless love song, Thirty Three. It’s not just one of my favorite tunes of all time, but one of the best videos from my childhood.

and for a moment I lose myself
wrapped up in the pleasures of the world

The band was already huge at the time, but when the double album Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness dropped in 1995, it was like a massive bomb clearing away the last remnants of grunge. The Smashing Pumpkins may have broken through in the age of Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots, but their sound was always deeply indebted to the heavy metal of Black Sabbath and the narcotized psychedelia of early Pink Floyd. There was no direct connection to the understated rage of indie punk or college rock; instead they thrived on bombast, taking excess as a Platonic ideal.

A two-plus hour juggernaut was just what was needed to launch the band into the stratosphere. The album veered from brutal noise to the most delicately poisoned acoustic ballads, with massive stretches of unabashed pop and hard edged psychedelic rock in between. It was practically my entire life in 7th grade. As a 13 year old, I’d play one disc, then the other, rotating in my little boombox all night long at points. It was a sound world to live inside and I made it my own.

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The Smashing Pumpkins are the one band that’s been with me longest, the only one that’s survived a fandom stretching well over two decades. I was into bands before them, and I’ve grown to love many artists even more over the years, but they’re the one musical remnant from my childhood that I’m thankful to have never let go. It’s wild to think that when I first heard this song, I couldn’t fathom being 33 years old. Now here I am, an Actual Adult, relishing in the sounds that swelled my heart so long ago.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I live out a never ending quest for The Next Thing, the weirdest and newest sounds, the greatest adventures possible in music. Yet anyone who knows me personally is well aware of my penchant for radiant nostalgia, that hormonal impulse to shout along to the lyrics that tattooed my youth. It’s no shame to indulge in the past, especially when my pleasures are anything but guilty.

I hope you can appreciate the corny grandeur and earnest wonder of this song as much as I do. It’s a real pleasure to find myself at this age feeling as youthful as I’ve ever been. This is an affirmation that I will never let that optimistic outlook die.  I’m excited for what’s next.

Roy Orbison “In Dreams”

In dreams, you’re mine
all of the time.

There are a handful of beloved pop songs that somehow fill me with the most profoundly dark imagery, contrary to their buoyant reputation. In Dreams is one of those songs, a lifelong favorite and classic radio staple that shakes me to my core every time it plays.

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Walking With Jesus

I had a conversation with a friend today about Christian music and why it mostly bothers the hell out of me. (ha) I realized it’s that sense of overt politeness, the way it’s crafted – an official Christian musician seems to have all rough edges sanded off, as pious as a politician tries to look – that takes away any depth and feeling in the lyrics or music itself. It lacks almost anything that I could normally grasp as enjoyable.

Then I thought, you know what? I love a lot of artists who are either Christian themselves, make music about Christ-like ideals, or simply use the forms of traditional Christian music as a foundation for their own thing. Spiritualized does the latter, employing the language of early blues and gospel to speak directly to my soul.

Here’s the band playing a timeless live staple, Walking With Jesus.

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Tame Impala – Yes I’m Changing

They say people never change / but that’s bullshit; they do

Tame Impala‘s new album Currents is flat out fantastic. You can hear the synth-laden psych rock epic before it’s officially released or stick with the official singles for a couple weeks.

Or you can check out one of the best tracks from the album right now. It’s a deep cut called Yes I’m Changing, and it gives me some serious feels.

Edit: found a new video centered on the gorgeous Audrey Horne of Twin Peaks!

The backing synth pads remind me of Avalon-era Roxy Music, while the hum-worthy bassline is one of those timeless earworms that dives through pop music history, from girl groups to modern hip-hop. The lyrics evoke that goosebump-raising, optimistic-yet-spiritually-heavy yearning that the Beach Boys perfected with Pet Sounds, almost 50 years ago. The couplet posted at the top of this page, obvious as it is, puts a chill down my spine when heard in the context of this tune.

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I’ll probably share more about this album once it’s released, but in the meantime, remember that you can still preorder it right from the band!

Kendrick Lamar’s arresting new video: Alright

Watch this right now. Just do it. You don’t need to thank me.

If you want to see an artist at the peak of his powers absolutely nailing the zeitgeist, click play.

Kendrick Lamar dropped To Pimp A Butterfly just a couple months ago, and it’s already one of my favorite albums of all time.

The brazen mixture of politically, socially, and psychologically aware lyrics with an incredibly nuanced and evolved delivery; the dark and deeply funky production, shot through with an entire jazz band’s worth of all-star live players; the live-wire theatricality of the entire endeavor… all of these parts coalesce as Lamar’s ambition and talent meet in in the stratosphere.

It’s both incredibly audacious and earnest to a fault. The album feels embarrassingly personal at times, the rapper spilling his demons in a drunken crying jag. At the same time, everything’s wrapped in a sense of universal struggle, the intrinsic knowledge that we’re all in this together. There’s no wonder that it’s proven as divisive as it is beloved.

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Arca – Xen

This sounds like towering columns of shattered light, the kind of futuristic timbres that I associate with crystalline sky cathedrals in some imagined Final Fantasy game.

Arca‘s constructions remind me of the fierce creativity that bursts from the most surprising Aphex Twin singles. I don’t mean to put him on the same level; this music simply conjures that same joyful sense of surprise that only a handful of artists seem capable of. Surprise isn’t everything, but it makes a huge impression here. You haven’t heard anything quite like this before.

The music video for the title track cements that nascent Aphex Twin connection in my mind. If you’re a fan of I Care Because You Do or the Rubber Johnny video, you’re going to love this. You also know exactly what I mean about cementing the connection.

Here’s a favorite track of mine, halfway between the relaxed and spastic-laser-beam ends of the album:

The album itself is buttoned together by a sweeping sense of narrative and pacing, with slow dreams buffering the sharp edged experiments and deep bass explorations. It’s far more than an intriguing experiment; it’s lived in, thoughtful electronic storytelling.

You’ll probably find this cutting through your mind, if you’re a fan of the alien architecture of Oneohtrix Point Never, the neon contrast footwork of DJ Rashad, the depth charge techno of Andy Stott, the weird end of Warp‘s catalog, or even Kanye West. Seriously: Arca helped craft his ear shattering album Yeezus.

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This was the first album I discovered well into 2015 that I might have included on my best of the year list. You can buy Xen via links on Arca’s Soundcloud page, or listen free on spotify right now.