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April 9, 2004

Aural Pleasure

"I just don't know where to begin" is the line that opens Elvis Costello's Armed Forces, one of the first albums that got me obsessed with music—good music, that is—in the summer before high school. So I guess I could do worse than to say that I, too, don't know where to begin. I am writing a column—one with a title that is part silly pun and part stolen Blackalicious song title—about music and about myself, which is to say a column about my recent (re)discoveries, (mis)adventures, and lovers' quarrels with music. It will, hopefully, be the musical equivalent of Nick Hornby's Stuff I've Been Reading column in "The Believer," but without the big name author. (However, the jury is still out on whether or not I am entitled to a chunk of the High Fidelity profits. I swear Hornby stole the idea I wanted to have).

My most recent musically cohesive time period was spring break, when I got into songs more than albums, despite making one excellent album purchase (Sufjan Stevens' Seven Swans; more on that later).

I think the focus on songs has something to do with the fact that I was listening to the car radio a lot more than I was listening to music on my headphones. What I have deduced about the radio in Tennessee, from my short stay there, is that it consists of three kinds of stations: country, classic and/or southern rock, and mid-'90s alternative (which, despite being marketed as "a mix of world-class rock from the '70s, '80s, and '90s," turns out to be more of "a reversion to the soft rock of 1996-98"). This leads to a great deal of picking and choosing: blasting "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet," cringing with pleasure at Eamon's "Fuck It (I Don't Want You Back)," and ignoring "Another One Bites the Dust" when it comes on for approximately the seventeen bajillionth time.

But despite the opinion that everything on the radio sucks, there is a surprising number of marshmallows scattered throughout the slightly frosted cereal that is modern radio. Because a lot of songs on the radio do, indeed, suck, good songs are even more noticable when they come on. One song I will never, ever get tired of (and you can hold me to this ‘til the day I die) is the Cranberries' "Dreams." Damn if it is not one of finest pop songs I have ever encountered. Every time I hear that song I get all cloudy-eyed and think, "Yeah, my life really is changing every day, in every possible way. Wow!" Plus, any song that can make me excited about watching the part of You've Got Mail it's featured in is worth its weight in copies of The Goonies.

A song I discovered for the first time on Tennessee radio is Norah Jones's "Sunrise." I have very little clue as to what the rest of her second album sounds like (or her first album, for that matter) except for the fact that she sings on it. This means that the songs probably don't sound all that different from each other, but this song is wonderful in its ability to capture a vibe. It's a sunny vibe, a car vibe, and just the warmth I needed after a little too much freezing-my-ass-off-after-jumping-into-the-pool-at-the-bottom-of-the-waterfall vibe.

The full album that I really got into over the break was the aforementioned Seven Swans by Sufjan Stevens. Sufjan Stevens is a Michigan-born songwriter currently living in Brooklyn. His last album, Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State, was an homage to his home state done through musical portraits of ordinary characters who struggle with jobs, growing up, and finding companionship like the rest of us. And if what was great about Michigan was its embrace of humanity (and it was), then what is great about Seven Swans is the directness with which it confronts humanity's relationship to the divine. It's a quiet album, with simpler guitar-and-banjo hymns replacing the orchestration and epic-length songs of Michigan, and the changes make Seven Swans feel more intimate than its predecessor.

What really makes Sufjan Stevens a great songwriter, though, is his ability to use details to convey emotion and meaning in his songs. I read an interview with him in which he says this stems from his fiction writing. He said that songs are more believable when they have concrete images the listener can latch on to, and I think he's right. To use his own lyrics as an example, I have no idea what a "fish stone" is, or how it could possibly be "burning my elbow," but if it's "reminding me to know that I'm glad"—even of the fact "that I have a bottle filled with my old teeth"—then I'll believe it.