"How do you know when you are finished with a piece of writing?"—Evie, age 10 Evie, you've asked a stumper. I wish I had a clear, concrete ... Read More
If you’re like me, you have some childhood and early adolescent memories of listening to certain songs that gave you a magical impression of seamlessness, as if they had always existed in all their wholeness, just the way they met your ears. You may remember exactly where you were and what day it was when you first had an experience like this with music—it may very well be that these memories act as threshold moments marking your awakening to the sheer scope of music.
I was in the backseat of my parents’ Pacifica during an excursion to Nashville, my big sister riding shotgun and my dad driving, when he turned on the radio to Lightning 100. They were playing “Smoothie Song” by Nickel Creek. It was love at first listen; it is no overstatement to say I’ve never been the same. That moment shaped my taste for thoughtful, vibrant, harmonically inventive acoustic music.
On vacation in Florida, my sister picked up a weird-looking CD, immediately recognizable to my eager, thirteen year-old eyes as a token of college coolness that I was surely on the cusp of “getting” if it weren’t for my premature ears. It was called Come On Feel the Illinoise by Sufjan Stevens. She put it in the CD player and I recall feeling overstimulated by a bright density of kaleidoscopic melodies bursting from the speakers.
When I was in eighth grade, I was in my bedroom one evening reading Mat Kearney’s blog (because that’s obviously what you do when you’re in eighth grade) and I stumbled on his recommendation of a new Nashville artist named Brooke Waggoner. I clicked the link to her MySpace page and listened to “Hush If You Must” through my headphones. An elaborate, gorgeous strings section followed her piano through a non sequitur change in time signature immediately after the first chorus; I encountered for the first time a melding of through-composed classical music with pop sensibilities.
I’m certain that this sort of experience can be had with other forms of art, too, but there’s something distinctly timeless, inalterable, and enduring about a pristine recording—every sound occupies just the space it must as if by some cosmic moral obligation, and to think of a recording like that in the process of being made feels almost scandalizing. To consider that there was a moment in time when Jeff Buckley sang the final take of his song “Grace”—or his legendary version of “Hallelujah,” for that matter—feels like an irreverent insult against the completeness of those recordings in their final form. And perhaps it’s just that characteristic of completion that I’m trying to articulate. Music, as a uniquely time-bound art, has the astounding ability to lift us out of the sequential time of which it consists and into an eternal sort of time for which it reaches. And in an age proliferated by studio recordings, the chiseled changelessness of the music we consume only augments this feature.
Sadly, as we grow up, we learn to spot the seams, even in what first appeared to be exhaustively seamless to our younger, more impressionable selves. Alas, I’ll never forget when I heard a moment in Buckley’s “Lilac Wine” when two vocal takes were clearly cut and spliced together. Or even, maybe more subtly, the moment when I first thought, “I’m not sure I love every little thing about Sufjan Stevens’ songwriting anymore.” As we grow and mature, the scales fall off our eyes, we peer behind the curtain, and we see the toil of our favorite art: the hidden struggle of incompletion. Our standards rise higher. More and more easily, fresh new music stales.
Which makes it that much more impressive when we encounter exceptions—when a song so captures our imagination that once again, we do not see through the magic to the artifice beneath, but are, against our better judgment, transported to another time and place, one that seems always to have been there waiting for us.
It was December of my first year out of college and I was an intern with little work to do and much time to fill when I pulled my headphones out of my backpack and listened to Remember Us To Life by Regina Spektor. And I might as well have been eleven years old again in the backseat of my parents’ car.
The entire album successfully evaded each of my watchful dragons, who, I might add, are very watchful. Much joy has been stolen from me by the watchfulness of my personal dragons, but, like judges with insufficient evidence, they shrugged their shoulders and pronounced Spektor’s record spotless. Every lyric, every melody, even every instrumentation and production choice shimmered with the completion of a piece of art fully, but not overly, wrought. I felt like Mary Berry confronted with the possibility of a perfect pastry. This was a good, good bake.
A previous album by Regina Spektor called Far had enamored me when I was in tenth grade, but in the years following, I began to discover elements of her craft that left me craving more. Certain songs survived my criticism, but others seemed, to return to my Mary Berry analogy, a bit under-baked.
Spektor has described her style as “surreal”—her lyrics fit together not with the logic of wakefulness, but of dreams, where abrupt and fantastical images demand not intellectual explanation, but affective response. Consequently, Spektor’s music has always struck me as gimmicky at worst (she makes playful seal noises in her song “Folding Chair” and overdoes this weird, abrasive breathing thing in her otherwise gorgeous song “Open”) and strikingly perceptive at best (as in classics like “Samson” or her breathtaking song “Laughing With”). However, in Remember Us To Life, Spektor’s penchant for giving voice to the pre-conscious stirrings of our imaginations has developed to full maturity—and for the first time, her voice as an artist has been expertly supported by an intricate web of instruments, produced to completion.
The album’s cohesion is established by this thread of her dreamlike imagination woven inseparably with a production style that brings it to life. The result is an experience, both sonic and lyrical, of purposeful fragments, seemingly unrelated, swimming hazily around like the day’s fleeting memories flashing in your mind as you drift off to sleep.
“Bleeding Heart” tells the tale of adolescent angst with poignant accuracy:
Someday you’ll grow up and then you’ll forget
All of the pain you endured
Until you walk by a sad pair of eyes
And up will come back all the hurt
And you’ll see their pain as they look away
And you want to help, but there’s just no way
‘Cause you won the war, so it’s not your turn
But everything inside still burns
“The Trapper and the Furrier” is a cultural critique whose music embodies the primal sins that its lyrics condemn:
The lawyer and the pharmacist went walking in paradise
And all the sick were around them with fevers unbreaking
Crying and bleeding and coughing and shaking
And arms outstretched, prescription collecting
“Obsolete” describes with arresting clarity deep fears of emptiness:
This is how I feel right now:
No one needs, no one reads
Pages lost, incomplete
No one knows what it means
The climax of the album, “Sellers of Flowers,” unfolds like a cryptic riddle pleading our human need for life beyond death, for meaning beyond banal evil:
The sellers of flowers buy up old roses
They pull off dead petals like old heads of lettuce
And sell them as new ones for cheaper and fairer
But they die by the morning, so who is the winner?
Not the roses, not the buyers, not the sellers
In moments when my ears are tired, when the familiarity of the most common musical tropes obfuscates my ability to hear and resonate with even the truest of songs, it is helpful to remember that what I need is not—contrary to popular belief and the spirit of our age—more novelty. I don’t need a word or a melody that I’ve never heard. Tolkien himself famously and unfashionably argued not for freshly-paved roads of originality, but for the well-trod paths of convention. It is not the tree’s fault that we have forgotten the wonder of trees; it is rather our eyes that have grown weary of the seeing.
In Remember Us To Life, Regina Spektor has awoken me to the sweet desire for a world I have never visited, but which is a truer, realer version of the world as I know it. The magic of this record is not in newness, but in a gracing of tried and true conventions with unwearied ears. The normal realities of daily life—the images and memories, the desires, the fears—are all there in recognizable form, but portrayed by a narrator searching for meaning, for answers, for the slightest trace of a world more lasting than our own. It is this commitment to the integrity of her dream-like songs that gives Spektor’s album a lasting beauty—the kind of beauty that reminds us to hope for our very own world made seamless and whole.