This week’s playlist is pretty heavy. I rediscovered Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea after a few years away from it, and I was surprised how hard it hit me. I felt the same way I did when I first heard it. (Overwhelmed, mostly.) So this week’s playlist opens with what I’ll go ahead and declare as the greatest song on the greatest record ever made. “Ghost” is an old soul, it crackles with druidic intrigue and pulses with an ancient lifeblood. It will hurt you if you’re not careful.
Aeroplane bears such a strong resemblance to Astral Weeks in the way it feels, in the kind of emotional response I have to them both, and I thought for a blip of a second that maybe I was the first to make this connection—but of course I wasn’t. In an age where most knowledge is ubiquitous, I quickly confirmed that some 400,000 people before me had reached the same conclusion. In fact, this magnificent essay explains the relationship far better than I can.
Without too much floundering around in an attempt to articulate these ancient feelings, we go from “Ghost” to “Madame George”—from a roaringly chaotic headspace to what appears to be a much more subdued one. You learn as it goes along that there is an incredible amount of potential energy in this song, as there is on the entire album, and that it gets harnessed and then channeled in exactly the way it should be: powerfully, gracefully, supernaturally. You could call it catharsis, but that seems so inadequate.
Now we have a theme, or nearly so. Two points makes a line—we need a third point to dial in to the specific plane of this playlist, so we can close our eyes and sit suspended in the breadth of our emotions. Feel what needs to be felt. Let go what needs to be let go. And grip everything else with the obscene white-knuckled force of the criminally angry or the deathly afraid.
“Ordinary” is that third point. There’s an emotional space inside me occupied by late 90s/early 2000s Christian rock that I feel no need to account for, other than it was the music of the moment I was in, and I took what I could from it. At the time, those songs represented a weird, sad hope that maybe the world made as much sense as the people I looked up to said it did. Now I can only think about how disconnected I was, how I was encouraged to repress and self-censor and how it all became toxic in the end—but the songs have retained their power and sadness as a warped reminder of that time.
In this way, while “Ordinary” is a very good paean to the comfort and security of routine (not a new concept to him; 2006’s Eat Sleep Repeat explored it quite thoroughly) with the grand hope that “perhaps when the day is new / we’ll find tomorrow is just ordinary too”, it triggers something much more melancholy for me, and twists the intended sentiment a bit towards the dark. I don’t think the scenario depicted in this song is real, and therefore irony turns it into a desperate attempt to find stability that doesn’t exist.
While I was looking for this video:
…which you should bookmark not only because it’s amazing but also because it’s impossible to find, I learned that Ixora Twin is more than just a re-imagining of Ixora. It’s designed to be played simultaneously along with the original to create a third version.
It’s the greatest achievement in the history of recorded music. I’ve always been interested in this kind of manipulation—The Flaming Lips conducted a 4-disc experiment called Zaireeka that achieved a legendary 0 score from Pitchfork—but to actually construct an album of pop songs and then deconstruct them into three separate versions like this is genius. It must have been incredibly difficult to do.
I love Monster. I don’t care if the band has disavowed it and the fans act like it doesn’t exist. It’s how I got to know R.E.M., from all these loud strange songs on the radio. Words I couldn’t process. Sounds that didn’t quite fit with the contemporary scene. This was all I knew of them for a very long time, long before Eponymous was my gateway back into the past. But before then, sometime in the distant haze of the early 90s, the local rock station played this live version of “Half a World Away”—MTV Unplugged was monstrous then, it was everywhere, radio played the acoustic version of “Plush” more than the studio version—and I had a tape rolling in my cassette deck, just in case it was good. I was stunned. “Half a World Away” is, like most R.E.M. songs, highly evocative without being tied to any specific narrative. I listened to that tape for nearly ten years.
“I’ll Be You” is a great example of Paul Westerberg’s passionate loserism in full effect, which culminates in the use of the title as a mini-refrain. That three-word phrase is incredibly powerful in its deliberate skewing of identity, and I’ve always wanted, as I imagine most inwardly-attuned individuals have, to switch lives with someone, anyone. The idea is presented here in such an offhand manner that it would be easy to read it as sarcastic, but that goes against the grain of the rest of the song. It’s a very earnest wish that invokes pathos in its impossibility.
There’s nothing I can say about “Revenge” that would do it any justice, except that it’s quite literally the musical expression of a mind bent on retribution.
“Let Robeson Sing” is a poignant song about an American I had never heard of before. I thought Paul Robeson was fictional. Later, when I found out who he was, I felt embarrassed that it took a band from Wales to teach me something so important about my own country—but I can’t be faulted for things that aren’t taught here. We don’t discuss Marx, the entire Eastern Hemisphere is framed in contempt, and there is no room in our gloriously imperialistic narrative for a man who stood up to injustice and was so casually swept aside in a tide of hatred.
Mike Skinner, while exploring emotional territory on A Grand Don’t Come for Free, did not quite prepare me for “Never Went to Church”, a song so earnestly written that you can feel the conflict he outlines by invoking the cynicism of a godless era and pitting it against the deep feelings he has for his father. To then take that idea and set it to a gospel track was a brilliant move and incredibly effective.
“Paper Boats” is a slow burn of a song that builds to a soaring climax, where the imagery of the title is made clear, and then recedes back down to nothing. The dialogue of two bored and depressed lovers provides a huge amount of detail in such a small number of words. (“What’s wrong? / Nothing / Are you sure nothing’s wrong? / Yeah / But you’re sad about something / Yeah / So tell me what / I don’t know.”)
Warren Zevon’s “The French Inhaler” is bitter and desperate in a way that artists don’t seem to be willing to do anymore. It’s been called the greatest kiss-off song of all time, and there’s clearly a current of anger and condescension here (from the very beginning: “How you gonna make your way in the world, woman / When you weren’t cut out for working?”), but it’s subservient to the sadness and pity overwhelming the narrator, the unspoken sentiment being that he wishes it didn’t have to be this way. It makes his vitriol even more depressing.
The penultimate spot goes to “The Only Living Boy in New York”, which is a strong contender for saddest song ever written. Even without knowing the context—that Paul Simon was pissed that Art Garfunkel got cast in Catch-22 and then felt incredibly lonely once he had left for the shoot—the loneliness is expressed not in words, but in the interludes where a tempestuous break fueled by Hal Blaine’s cannonfire collapses into this enormous, distant harmony that is both present and not present—hope and resignation in the same breath—done in a very technically impressive way. Bridge Over Troubled Water was deemed the Best Engineered Album of 1971, which I would call an understatement on the strength of this song alone.
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that Sam’s Town wasn’t worth listening to. On the contrary, if the media had spent any time listening to it instead of excoriating Brandon Flowers for declaring it the best album of the past 20 years and invoking the name of Springsteen in comparison, they’d realize he was absolutely right. I hated it at first. I found the quavering vocals annoying, the production overblown. It’s not. It’s brilliant. We were all addicted to Hot Fuss, of course we were, and by the time Sam’s Town came out two years later we were delusional in our withdrawal. We didn’t get Hot Fuss 2.0 and so it was declared D.O.A. and we moved on to Panic at the Disco or what the hell ever. But it’s better than Hot Fuss 2.0, it’s the next logical step, it’s the same two years Bruce Springsteen took between Greetings from Asbury Park and Born to Run, only the Killers started at Born to Run status, and so the stakes were exponentially higher. Sam’s Town ended up being too big for us to handle, as the band recruited Flood and Alan Moulder to help them occupy as much sonic space as possible—a somewhat bitcrushed Wall of Sound, which of course was Springsteen’s modus operandi as well—and the result is so passionate, so theatrical, so absolutely Vegas that I don’t think we realized how on the mark it was. We end with “Why Do I Keep Counting?” which exemplifies all of these qualities and though Flowers is singing desperate words, he is singing them in such an affirmative way that we already know he’s going to be all right. We all will.
[Post image via Shutterstock]