Once, I took a cross-country journey that found me in the empty highway lands of Idaho. On Interstate 84, between Ogden and Twin Falls, a storm amassed in shades of grey and green. Stretched across that open canvas, without buildings, past mountains, the storm loomed larger than anything I’d seen in the tameness of my Midwest-suburban rearing. I had the benefit of a partner with good cell phone service, and she received alerts that warned us not to go further. We obliged, and stopped at a “gas station” that indeed offered gas, but also served as a port of call in the emptiness. There was a two-llama petting zoo, one pen conspicuously empty. Upon entering, visitors were greeted with a warning sign: Baby Rattlers! Investigating further, one would discover a barrel filled with rattle toys for babies, surely a farce cribbed from Jonathan Swift’s own notebook. It seemed to entertain the family of four that stood ahead of me in line, at least.
We decided to hang back, buy gas, and watch the storm cross the highway in the distance. The family elected to trudge forth in their SUV. We gave it an hour and were back on the road when things looked clear, navigating the wake: receding floods that had crept onto the highway’s shoulders, freshly formed cairns of August hail on faraway greens, misty traces of storm that loitered behind. Submerged, upside-down in one of those roadside lakes, was the SUV, and nearby an EMT providing rescue breaths to the mother. Her skin was a sort of sickly grey not unlike the storm that had just rumbled its way through.
After, riven with anxiety, I popped a few Ativan. I also had my partner turn on “Rhubarb” by Aphex Twin. The song has always served as a cocoon for me, with its soft leads that decay into atmospheric serenity. I imagined the sound waves gently billowing above and around me in the light that broke through the storm’s lingering canopy. “Rhubarb” invoked a spirit of calmness in its tonal alchemy. The effect was, and always is powerful.
With this experience in mind, I’ve attempted to compile some other songs that so clearly evoke a mood. In the process, a revealing, manic-depressive narrative emerged, one of love and loss, of promise and recovery. This process of discovery was instructive in helping me understand how I’ve both used music and how it has informed my own misadventure through life. We continue to learn how music can both affect and shape our perceptions, and how even after study the experience of music can be wholly subjective. This list may make no sense to you, but that’s just fine by me, because it’s mine.
MY MOOD SONGS:
- Pharoah Sanders: You’ve Got To Have Freedom
This version, a cut from Sanders’ late-80’s record Africa, is the essential performance of this song. The characteristically fierce playing makes it sound like Sanders’ saxophone is molting, or melting. This is what happens when you breathe fire. It’s where the song’s get-up-and-go comes from, but the melodic glue is applied in skillful strokes by pianist John Hicks. He knows just how to jump when the horn is in flames, he can smoothen things over, and he can erupt again. His right hand commands a tremendous amount of attention and soaks up minutes all over this song with its melody-making. Ultimately this is a song to move to because it moves you; it’s up-tempo tumult, and must have been exhausting to perform. Sanders transitions from the silver-tongued to the hectic, from overblowing to silken breath, seamlessly, but the whole orchestration is as much Rube-Goldberg as Coltrane. We owe it the performance to at least bounce along.
- Camp Lo – Luchini
Join me, for a moment, in reverence of the abstract Gullah dialect that Bronx rap duo Camp Lo spit all over this track. Why the hell does “Luchini” mean money? What is so damn great about Amaretto and Spanish Fly? Despite the lyrical complexity, this song is clearly triumphal; it’s about getting hype for the best days ahead, making money, getting drunk, and fucking. It’s about winning. Featuring a fairly straightforward sample of Dynasty’s “Adventures in the Land of Music”, the song’s optimism permeates the listener’s being. It’s in the hook: This is it. Endless opportunity.
- Neil Young – Harvest Moon
Love whips us up into something not entirely physical. When love strikes the heart, it resonates in other planes, and we carry it with us like a valence. The framing device of harmonics that Neil Young plays remind me of this kind of feeling, a four-note counter melody with a different texture yet integrated into the sleepy whole of the song. Down-tempo, but absent the lurch of darker music, the song’s rhythms match those of loving so comfortably. All tones are soft, welcoming, inviting. Neil Young articulates the lasting nature of love, much like he does in the classic “Unknown Legend” from the same record. His affection abounds so truthfully, so simply, over harmonies performed by Linda Rondstadt, a perfect embrace to curl into.
- Herbie Hancock – Butterfly
The record this track comes from is called “Thrust”. This is music best listened to while fucking, plain and simple. Telltale signs include the way Paul Jackson’s bass bubbles, or the way Bennie Maupin’s wind instruments diagram the slow highs and lows of orgasmic connection. Meanwhile, Hancock layers textures throughout, occasionally carving curious leads, the way a tongue might explore the surfaces of a body. The orgasmic nature is further highlighted when we feel the mounting tensions, the central repeating four-note bass line like a thrust in and of itself, gaining sexy momentum with each repetition. Sexual desire comprises so much of how we feel and think, of what we do, and it’s a surprise more musicians don’t attempt to chart the course of orgasm the way Hancock does here.
- Smog – You Moved In
Ah, love. What were we saying about it, again? That it’s a cloud, or a mist, or some shit like that? Well, love can be wonderful and all that, but love can devolve. Who was that calling at this hour? Why would you care if I look at your email? Where are you going after work? Smog’s “You Moved In” is not necessarily about love itself, but is an opus on paranoia by one of today’s great living song writers in chrysalis. Bill Callahan has always been able to evoke emotion, even in his Smog days, but there is no clearer link in his catalog between a feeling and a song. The three-note guitar phrase remains constant throughout the track, only shifting slightly to augment tension, and mounts at a maddeningly slow pace. The song ends in evocative imagery: “And I hope you don’t mind / If I grab your private life / Slap it on the table / And split it / With a knife”.
- Brenda Holloway – Every Little Bit Hurts
Look, I’m not going to presume to be able to illuminate some previously unrealized aspect of the Motown sound, nor can I offer a dissection of this song’s musical qualities. This is Motown at its apex: perfect Pop music. However, let’s talk about the heartbreak induced by Brenda Holloway’s teenaged voice. It’s pure, velvet power. She can shift between notes with a smoothness that recalls Sam Cooke, and belt out “come back to me” with the immediacy and power of Gladys Knight, minus Knight’s subtle rasp. Who, among today’s singing starlets, could achieve such a clear, emotional rendering of a song’s concept? Miley? Katy? Rihanna? Bieber? Even Beyoncé herself lacks this performative nuance to draw such an identifiable sorrow from the listener. While this blurb might have been a disguised marriage proposal fifty years ago, today it is simply an appreciation for the gorgeously rendered heartbreak of young love gone afoul.
- Yob – Burning The Altar
There’s a point past heartbreak when things go black. The darkness of that emotional space allows for little else to occupy the soul. Yob is a band worthy of superlatives, but perhaps no moment in their catalog better captures the bleak churn of recovery’s earliest stages than the opener of their 2009 classic album “The Great Cessation”. Yob’s leader, Mike Scheidt, is armed with one of the great vocal ranges in all of heavy music, and here applies the guttural howling side of his repertoire generously. Down-tempo enough to not induce the get-up-and-go we explored earlier, this track is a sort of pummeling that allows you to stew in nihilistic fury. It’s a primordial ooze of rage. Mapped with characteristic patience, a song that evokes misery so clearly could unfold in no other way. When the song morphs into the technical chugs, Scheidt’s roar serves as an ideal lightning rod for all of the negative energy pouring out.
- Modest Mouse – Trailer Trash
After heartbreak, after rage, what is left? Bitterness, wistfulness, maybe even a tinge of nostalgia. This hard-to-define feeling is central to Modest Mouse’s emotionally charged recollection of life in a trailer park and the pervading meaninglessness of the whole scene. There’s bleakness, sure, but there’s a kind of nonchalance, as if this bleakness is welded to acceptance. Frequently Isaac Brock says “I guess”, which suggests that he’s not so sure about the negativity; when he utters a line like “taking heartache with hard work”, it’s as if he’s attempting to remember that amid this world, there’s some base-level dignity present. Then of course, there’s the magic of Brock’s guitar work, which during this period of the band’s history is creaky and sloppy-perfect. The harmonic bends accentuate those wistful, unstable feelings, which can’t sit still either.
- Phosphorescent – Song For Zula
“Song for Zula” features my favorite set of lyrics from this past year’s crop of records. Few songwriters today could create a musical backdrop as perfect for a stanza as “See, honey, I saw love. You see, it came to me / It put its face up to my face so I could see / Yeah then I saw love disfigure me / Into something I am not recognizing”. It’s a mature acknowledgement of love’s scarring power, the visceral imprint it leaves. Yet this ballad is affirmative, at once an acknowledgement of wounds and a proclamation: “See, honey, I am not some broken thing / I do not stand here in the dark waiting for thee”. The listener is uplifted in a strange and painful way, knowing that we’ve all been beaten by the failed desire and effort to be completed by a partner. Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck is able to wear his scars proudly and become the animal that love makes out of everyone.
- Guillemots – Trains to Brazil
Coming full circle, and cranking the BPM’s back up a bit, we conclude with an up-tempo ballad of optimism amid life’s trying times. Guillemots are a band who never quite figured out their ideal niche in the vast world of same-sounding Arcade Fire clones. However, this track represents their finest work, and one of the few songs whose ebullient horn section is so emotive that it makes me misty. It’s another love-tinged work of pure Pop, sure, but also one that hits home in specific ways that a listener doesn’t always get to hear; the song references “Prophets and their bombs”, connecting the sense of helplessness we feel both when we face our own past, in lost love, and our present, in the chaos of war. Yet the song challenges us to remain steadfast in these times, asking the listener “can’t you live and be thankful you’re here? / See, it could be you tomorrow or next year”.