Distancing #1: Automatic for the People

A homebound registry of other places and times and the albums that take us there.

Olivier in the apartment upstairs plays the piano some afternoons. Haltingly, but with emotion. I assume it’s him playing and not Inés because I can usually hear a male voice too, and I have trouble picturing the two of them in a Rockwellian family singalong scenario, but what do I know. Whoever it is, their repertoire is limited. “Life on Mars?” is a popular selection; so is “Sleep the Clock Around,” surely the best possible Belle and Sebastian song to have to hear tapped out at surprise intervals as the months come and go. Yesterday he—let’s just go with he—was playing a song I couldn’t quite place but whose little pre-chorus riff haunted me for a while until I lost track of it, as I eventually do most things these days. He started playing it again just now, as though he heard me down here typing this. Still can’t identify it.

A couple of weeks ago he added “Nightswimming” to the rotation, and I couldn’t get over how good it sounded drifting imprecisely through the ceiling, how refreshing and soulful and rich. I’ve been listening to R.E.M., consistently if never religiously, since I discovered popular music; I heard “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” last month at a bar in Key West and it too sounded marvelous, unsullied by its obvious age, though Kristina didn’t agree when I played it for her later. And I know that at some point I spent serious time with Automatic for the People, from which “Nightswimming” was the fifth of six singles, but I can’t remember exactly when and where that point was. So I’ve been returning to it, while washing dishes or staring sleepless at daybreak or watching the sky float from blue to gray against the rooftops across the street. Following it to see where it leads.

Music transports us. That’s what they say, right? That’s the premise for this column, to talk about the places and times we’ve been escaping to through this or that album, slipping the bonds of our confinement by getting lost in familiar melodies, etc. etc. I’m not trying to talk about how delicious a nighttime swim sounds right now, or about how eerie it feels to listen to a song called “Try Not To Breathe,” much less the awful topicality of its lyrics: “I have lived a full life, and these are the eyes that I want you to remember.” I’m not trying to talk about how it’s been the end of the world as we know it for years and years now. I’m trying to see through the music, I guess, to find a way out of the present rather than deeper in.

But so far Automatic for the People has resisted going transparent, has neither revealed itself to me nor revealed me to myself in the way I’d hoped. The telltale landmark I’m looking for keeps shifting. One minute it’s the click of the cassette deck in Mom’s car on a long trip to Wisconsin or Michigan or something, endless beige out the window; the next it’s the plod and wheeze of a CTA bus taking me home from a late rehearsal, past houses that look like the one on the back cover of the album, which I had to look up online. Did I even own the CD? Did I steal Arielle’s? My infatuation, such as it was, predated the MP3 era—didn’t it? There’s no way to look this kind of thing up, I find myself noticing, lamenting, ever more often lately. So yes, it’s taking me somewhere, but it turns out to be just a broom closet in my own memory palace, four walls of nostalgia and no windows. An early-evening melancholy that isn’t a place, or rather is too many of them.

Coming back to it now with such pointed focus—whatever I was up to with this album the first time around, I evidently wasn’t scrutinizing it for psychogeographical clues, which thank god—I find it busier than I recall, patchworkier and more crowded, bristling with details not harmonizing so much as competing for attention. I remember it understated and almost monochromatically sad, and yet here are these flourishes of instrumentation, these weird moments of incongruous gaiety, these borderline too-eccentric Stipe-isms, these resplendently anachronistic touches that seem calculated to make the whole record sound like a transmission from a dozen venues at once, an arena and a wheat field and a circus tent and some kind of Avatar soul-forest. It’s jarring, like thinking back and suddenly realizing your middle school science teacher was a drag queen. What were you paying attention to? Not the time at the time, not the place. I remember it understated and almost monochromatically sad, but maybe I’m just describing the self that fell for it.

Which, sure, could be from a lot of times and places. Upstairs in the campus house in Lake Forest, in front of a computer game on a grayscale monitor; upstairs in the house on Belmont, on the boombox on a stool in the corner, quietly. It’s plausible for me to have played and replayed Automatic, to have imprinted it, at any point in the last quarter of a century—which means all that’s left to do with this curiosity is crunch the numbers, build a timeline, triangulate the facts to get at some objective version of the story. I trust you’ll understand when I say that doesn’t sound like solace right now, not the way the one song does coming from upstairs.

—Daniel Levin Becker
Paris, day 33


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