NOSTALGIA ULTRA: ALBUMS TO TAKE YOU BACK
by Guiliana Iaconi-Stewart
A music album, despite having a definitive beginning and end, is capable of transcending the bounds of time. In fact, an album is capable of transcending the bounds of time precisely because it has a definitive start and finish. The best ones are compact. They offer you a zeitgeist, a moment, distille. However, the listener has to know that their journey must come to an end as soon as the album does. Perhaps this reality is the source of our musical nostalgia, of the longing for a different time that a listener might store inside an album of music.
I am thinking about a certain album in particular — the self-titled debut record of the band Alvvays. It is an agent of powerful sonic nostalgia in my life. For me, their debut album, Alvvays, defined the latter half of the year 2015 — I listened to it incessantly, completing mindless daily tasks as it provided the background score. When I hear the record now, I am hearing the intricacies and minutiae from a previous time in my life. Perhaps its sound prompts reflection, too. Throughout the record, chimey and celestial electric guitar riffs invite me to soar upwards, away from my body, towards a place from which I can look down on my life. Plenty of echo and a lead singer with an intoxicatingly lax and uncommitted voice create space in the songs, space that houses my nostalgia.
Speaking of nostalgia (what else would we be talking about?), so much music is etched with renderings of my childhood. I always knew it would be a nice dinner when I heard jazz playing in the kitchen. My parents often cooked to the sound of music, and Beyond the Missouri Sky, Pat Metheny’s record with Charlie Haden, was a regular on the kitchen CD player. So was John Coltrane’s Ballads. It wasn’t until I moved away from home that I began listening to both albums on my own. Certain tracks, like Haden and Metheny’s “Message To A Friend” and Coltrane’s “Say It (Over & Over again),” sound like so many summer evenings spent eating dinner outside, pots and pans piled up on the kitchen counter just waiting to be washed. With “Message to A Friend,” the track itself, like my memories associated with it, is extremely intimate — human breath is made audible throughout the conversation between Metheny’s guitar and Haden’s upright bass.
And then there are those childhood albums that I don’t remember as such, like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which I am told I enjoyed as a toddler, but to which I only remember having begun independently listening around the age of nine. It is strange to listen to the same music as your three-year-old self. Nonetheless, my favorite part of the whole album might be the melancholic piano and guitar harmony in the intro of “Lovely Rita.” Maybe my three-year-old self also liked that part.
Booker T. & the M.G.’s released a cover album of the Beatles’ 1969 record Abbey Road only months after its release. Booker T.’s version, which the band called McLemore Avenue, is made up of four tracks (three of them medleys), each of which reimagines one or more songs from Abbey Road. When I listen to McLemore Avenue, I am transported to the moment in which Booker T. and his band heard Abbey Road for the first time and decided they wanted to pay homage to it, to the precious moment of one artist processing and finding inspiration in the work of another artist.
Annie Lennox and Joe Cocker also spent time paying homage via musical covers. In 1995, Lennox released Medusa, a strictly-cover-album of songs by a breadth of artists, ranging from The Clash to Bob Marley to The Persuaders. Under the umbrella of Medusa, Lennox unites a disparate collection of songs from different points in the trajectory of recorded music. In doing so — in placing a variety of musical traditions in conversation with one-other and with her own style of performance — Lennox constructs and transports my mind through a unique musical timeline. In the case of Joe Cocker’s 1970 live album, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, which also comprises only covers of songs, my listening operates a bit differently. Because the album is completely live, it transports me to the moment, in 1970, in which a giant group of human bodies got together to participate in the making and sharing of music.
Joe Cocker also performed at Woodstock, clad in star-spangled boots. Oh, how I wish I’d been there. That was a year prior, in 1969. I wasn’t alive then, but the year still feels significant to me, perhaps because two of my favorite albums were released in 1969: Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Humble Pie’s Town and Country. Young’s record takes its time, and it is aware of my time spent listening to it — it toys with my attention. The longer length of many of its tracks, as well as the album’s use of repetition, of lyrics, of single notes on Young’s electric guitar, of bass and drum patterns over which his guitar solos, embroils me in the music. Humble Pie’s 1969 release also takes its time, albeit more literally. The titles of its first and last songs reflect a transportative process. The title of the first song, “Take Me Back,” initiates my journey back in time to 1969, when the album came to life. Once the last track rolls around, its title, “Home and Away,” represents my return back home, back to my present day.
Before that, though, is 1967, the year of Love’s album Forever Changes. Certainly through its lyrics, but also through dissonance and anxiety in its music, the album comments on the relationship between individual and society, between solitude and the collective. Because of this, Forever Changes feels contemporary nearly 50 years after its release, effectively unsubscribing itself from ideas about relevance.
Music is measured with time and houses time-sensitive memories in its sound. Sounds transport me into different moments, out of the ones in which I physically exist and into ones in which I never existed at all. Any time can be the right time to hear any sort of music, because even if great music masterfully captures a moment in history, so too it transcends our linear notion of time.