There was a time when I could tell you exactly how I was feeling. I had this innate sense of my own emotions. I look back on it now as a sort of superpower. But like any superpower, it came with a built-in vulnerability. If my emotional GPS system was precise, it was also impossible to shut up. For the people closest to me, it must have been insufferable. The usual male twentysomething combination of horny and pissed off would have been easier to handle than the needy, intricate emotional implosions to which I was prone. Journal after journal is full of FEELINGS, and they’re all pretty hard to read now. I don’t just mean painful: I mean they read like they’re written in another language altogether.
Who was that person? I can’t relate anymore. My inner life is a mystery to me now. This happened gradually, almost imperceptibly, and my eighteen-year-old self would find my current emotional disconnection absolutely unbearable. But we could still talk about records, the two of us—like I talk about records with my eighteen-year-old nephew now.
I like to live in an album for a long time. One of my favorite feelings in life is that third or fourth listen, when I know for sure that it’s going to be a companion for years— before I discover any of its secrets but after I realize it’s worthy of deeper exploration and consideration, interpretation and reinterpretation. Falling in love with an album, I think, requires the same patience and vulnerability that falling in love with a person does. You have to let your guard down. You have to put a lot of faith in them. You have to trust that they’ll grow with you. This is why music nerds will fight tooth and nail on behalf of their favorite records without any expectation of victory: to love a record you have to accept its shortcomings, and eventually learn to love those too.
Loving a record is, at best, only half about the music itself. The other half, at least, is the imagination and experience you bring to the table. And when you take in a new record, that includes all the other albums you’ve loved. They become your exes. Even when you’ve outgrown a great record, you never really move on. A listen to Counting Crows’ August and Everything After has a lot to tell me about myself at fourteen—my ideas about love and adulthood, about the tenderness I longed for. Maybe I can’t relate, but the music tells me a lot about who that person was.
When the pandemic came I just listened to podcasts, read the Times, and watched the news every day. Texted with friends about it. Let the fear and the doubt and the disbelief all swirl together. But a week into proper quarantine I realized I was digging a hole for myself. I realized that knowing the daily death toll wasn’t going to help me cope, and that art was going to become more central to my life, not less, if shit got weird.
I started listening to this new stream-of-consciousness song from Lady Lamb called “We’ve Got A Good Thing Going.” I played it every morning to pump myself up enough to get through the day, and I was reminded of just how much power I can let music have over me. Then I dipped back into an old high school favorite, Copperopolis by Grant Lee Buffalo, which will always sound like The West to me. And then I let myself get a little sad, listening to the two brilliant solo records from John K Samson, who has restored my faith in music as often as anyone, and a lot of Fiona Apple’s endlessly generous The Idler Wheel…
Then one day I took a walk across Portland, which is the kind of town you can walk all the way across. I watched bees buzz and blossoms blossom and was hit with the revelation I hear a lot of people speaking to right now: nature is still happening. Life is still happening. I felt wonder for the first time in a few bleak and worried weeks. So I searched through my phone for something that would match that wonder and still give me the sadness, too Aidan Knight popped up. Just looking at the cover—two young adults on dirtbikes, the boy crying straight-faced, the girl just staring—I got that feeling you get when you see an old friend unexpectedly, after enough time has passed that any lame fights you had are water under the bridge. And what are we to do with the old friends we run into now? Just smile from afar? Mime a hug or a kiss? Yell excitedly across a street about all the ways our lives are fucked?
Small Reveal opens slow and mysterious and really… regular. Knight says:
Never could be
good but you know I tried
to keep the future close
Closed up like a fist
This is where the strings come in. And the twinkling bells. And the first hints of distortion. Some dial-up modem sorta sounds in the distance. Pieces that are all vaguely familiar, but fragmented and delicately applied. Going nowhere. Until five minutes in, when for the first of many times the album gets unsettled by itself, ruffles up its feathers. And wait, are we rocking now?
On an album where every song seems to have its own stages of grief—an album so unsatisfied with itself that it keeps tossing and turning—it’s hard to call any one moment the emotional center. But “Skip” is the most mantra-like. It’s structured in almost haiku-like fashion, with three pieces (mirroring the album’s own three acts) documenting a protagonist’s fights with reality, his slow slide, the question his life poses for the listener. I must have listened to the song fifty times thinking it was a generic allegory—thinking the song’s “stages” were only in the protagonist’s head—before I finally googled the lyrics and realized it was about the overdose death of Frank Candelori, one of the pioneers of straight-edge hardcore. I hear the swirling flutes that trace an outline of the stereo channels as a loving interpolation of a particularly intricate speed-metal guitar riff, and I like the song even more now.
But I think it was the funeral-dirge horns on the long outro of “The Master’s Call” that first convinced me Small Reveal was a record I could love. They’re a little drunk, the way Charles Mingus liked them to sound, and Knight’s voice is sweet and searching over the top of them. There’s something really devotional about the way the horns soar alongside the crooning. Sometimes I think there’s a precise, strategic poetry to Small Reveal. Sometimes I think it’s more of an accident. Either way is fine. You have to create your own meaning out of chaos now. There’s no other way to live. It’s all chaos and nonsense. The center didn’t hold, we’ve spun out. We all knew this was coming, right? We all knew but we didn’t know.
The more I talk about this record the more I feel myself resisting the urge to fight for it. But you can’t just talk a person into loving music. To me, Small Reveal bears evidence of so much obsessive architecture. It feels like a cathedral that some nut built in his backyard. I hear the hours in the studio, the re-re-re-re-recordings. The patching in and out, the building up and stripping back down again. I hear it as a rambling thing that Knight stopped tinkering with at just the right moment, and I love it for that. But it will be loved or dismissed based more on what’s in you than on what’s in it. And I’m so grateful that love works that way—that there’s an invisible hand working to make sure love is distributed. Perhaps not evenly, perhaps not fairly, but distributed.
The wild things that people love! The dark and the sparkling and the labored-over and the tossed-off works that find adoration! Homemade anime! Campy horror films! Beanie Babies! Tropical fish! Dumplings! Designer sunglasses! Rocks! Cars and office furniture and patterned stretch pants and Disney sequels!
An ex-girlfriend’s mom collected old keys; her dad collected bottles. Neither had to be particularly valuable or rare—just pretty.
A friend in high school built a temple out of all his broken skateboard decks, which were the loves of his life. He even slept with a skateboard every night, until his fiancee forbade it.
I knew a punk who loved pigs. He was all piercings, tattoos and black T-shirts—but at home his room was pig figurines, pig paintings, all hog everything. Pink on black. Now he stocks an elaborate fridge with expensive craft beers that none of his friends will drink with him.
As a child I went to Arizona to meet my new extended step-family. It was a difficult trip for a child of divorce to take. I remember thinking I have nothing in common with these people. And then my step-grandmother, caked in doll makeup under a big beehive of white hair, showed me to her game room. A video game room! She had hundreds of Nintendo games, displayed beautifully, perfectly preserved in their boxes. A top-loader Nintendo with the bone controllers! Arcade pads! A Power Glove! All pristine and hooked to a big new TV. She told me to pick out and play whatever I wanted. She pointed to the puzzle games she loved and the brawlers she just kept around for grandkids. I was in shock. A connection was made.
I knew girls who loved babies. They traded their lives for babies.
I knew boys who loved drugs. They traded their lives for drugs.
I knew a handful of beautiful misfits who just wanted supportive, loving families, so they got together and made one. They’d all go out dancing together. They’d cry and fight and make up, but they never judged each other for what or whom they loved. And they kept each other alive that way for a lot of hard years.
To warn you: Small Reveal is melancholy. But I highly recommend some melancholy right now. Somebody else’s sadness can transmute your own and rearrange it, give it shape.
I live outside of my body most of the time. A quick inventory of my senses finds them all relatively intact, but not exactly communicating with one another. A great record unplugs me and plugs me back in again, connects my listening to my attention to my breathing to my seeing and brings meaning to all the scenes that usually just drift by. Brings meaning to the landscape.
Knight speaks to this. Or at least that’s how I hear these lines:
What a voice
When strangers sing these harmonies
The eyes are wide in discovery
So I eat peaches in the afternoon,
Serenade old men on their balconies
I gave up on trying to pin it down
Those last nine words in particular distill this lesson that’s getting so hard to remember in an age where loving something and sharing it feel inseparable: that somewhere beyond the urge to explain beauty, beyond the desire to research and dissect it, is the legitimately meditative state of just living in it. I don’t know if that’s being present or being somewhere else entirely, but I am always so grateful to arrive.
— Casey Jarman
Portland, day 44