There are albums that come and go, to be listened to in youth and to be discarded as casually as one disposes of summer days, because there's going to be another one just as beautiful tomorrow, right? These are often the ones that grab you immediately and hit your core with a power usually reserved for sudden crushes or a blow to the head. Oftentimes the fling is powerful and lovely, but inevitably it draws to a close when you can't find the spark anymore.
There are albums that you listen to and perhaps find yourself immediately alienated. Repeated listening, however, breaks down your armor of preconceptions and expectations and opens you to a new experience or if you're lucky, a new kind of experience. You break your own resistance and find yourself changed for it. Sometimes this takes years. And in time, you come back to it and you find nuance and layers that you'd missed before.
Then there are the albums that perhaps you had some affinity for, but you've managed to inextricably link them with events, either good or bad, painful or elevating. In some ways, the music becomes the event in your mind. These are powerful agents of recall, and you know this. Perhaps you're a little (or more than a little) afraid of the depth of emotion that these pieces of music can stir in you.
Finally, there are albums that are all three. These are the pieces of music that literally become the soundtrack of your life. And why shouldn't they? Ever since the Walkman, we've all had the ability to choose our own soundtracks, to reject the onslaught of lousy music that we can be subjected to on a daily basis. Things like the iPod make this so much easier as to be mind-boggling for someone who started with a tape player the size of a brick and only got a few good plays before the batteries began to drain and playback started to pitch down sickeningly.
But to find an album that is all of these at once. That's a wondrous thing. Something to be cherished and celebrated. Even if it's not a piece of music that you play more than once a year. And really, that makes it all the better. You're flipping through your CDs or your playlists and it just jumps out at you. Perhaps fleeting memories race through your mind at that moment, intangible, a school of glimmering that stays just out of your fingertips, but never leaves your vision.
For me, there's only a handful of these. They're as necessary to me as food or drink or the woman I love.
This is one of them. Apologies for the small image.
It's an album called It'll End in Tears, by an amorphous collective called This Mortal Coil, which was made up of artists who recorded on the 4AD label in the mid 80s and into the early 90s. There were three albums, but really, only the first one matters. I first heard it in 1985, the summer immediately following my high school graduation. (Yes, I'm old. Older than Warren Ellis, even, by about six months.) It was played to me by my my near-lifelong friend Brian Faulkner, to whom I owe most of my exposure to interesting music. He'd played the Cocteau Twins for me a couple months before, and that was an ear-opener, but this, this was utterly captivating. It was at turns unearthly, harrowing, devastating, rocking (if only for a moment, thanks to the band that used to be Modern English). I'd never heard its like before that. Maybe little bits and pieces here and there, but nothing that came together in such a devastating fashion.
I immediately put it to tape. The other side, as I recall was Kate Bush's Hounds of Love, which was another sonic odyssey, but didn't have the staying power over the years that It'll End in Tears did. And yes, I was sensitive. But I was never a Smiths fan, or a Cure fan, at least not until I left college. Weird, huh? Still not a Smith's fan really, but for Marr's guitar.
That tape got played often, each of the songs imprinting themselves on my psyche with each application. There were times of groundlessness and hollowness that those songs filled. Yearning vocals and stark atmospheres that countered sunny SoCal summer in a sobering way. The music opened up new worlds, awesome and sparse vistas in the space behind my eyes as the salt breeze rolled into the parking lot by the beach. The sounds were both alien and comforting, and looking at it on the surface, an object as dark and glittering as this even existing was a beautiful monument to aesthetic possibility.
Around the time I was finishing college, some five years after that, I was wandering the aisles at Tower Records in El Toro (ah, El Toro, jewel in the crown of Orange County) and found a copy of It'll End in Tears on compact disc. Import compact disc. Now, this was back in the days when Tower still had an import section, but only barely. It was, as I recall, 24.99, which was a near-fortune in my part-time-working days. Hell, I was upset because an average CD cost something like fifteen bucks. But this, this one I didn't hesitate to burn some more credit on.
See, that tape was only going to last so long. It had gotten me through some rough times, and had further ehanced some moments that I'm going to take with me to the grave. And still, I hadn't gotten all of my joy out of the album just yet. Twenty years on and I'm still getting a solid hit every time I listen to it.
Don't worry, I'll probably talk about comics again sometime.