Songs and smells have a particular way of unlocking memories. Visceral sensory experiences arise as if we are reliving the emotional ghost of a past version of ourselves.
Recently one of these sonic time capsules brought up the shell of my 18 year old self, with all her hope/fear/pain/joy intact. I could feel that person so clearly. She was idealistic. Naive. Fiercely self-righteous. Unaware of how they next six years would change her into the person she is today.
During my freshman year of college I listened to a lot of Iron & Wine. Before I left my hometown my boyfriend gave me a 26 song mix that spanned three of their albums (Woman King, Our Endless Numbered Days, and The Sea & The Rhythm).
I sat at my dorm room desk, drinking coffee at 1 AM, drawing in the peaceful slowness of the early morning, with Iron & Wine as the perfect soundtrack. The grey northwest weather practically begged for a sad singer-songwriter to render the layers of fog and mist into a living landscape. “Trapeze Swinger” jumped to the top of my most played songs in three weeks with 137 plays. Almost a full 24 hours of my first weeks away were spent listening to one song.
Sam Beam’s lyrical style is infused with an intense cinematic nostalgia. This struck me the first time I heard his songs. He made me feel like I could remember an alternate past. Something beautiful in slow motion.
After my first laptop died and I lost my iTunes library, I almost forgot about Iron & Wine. I bought Shepherd’s Dog and listened to it every day for a few months. Then it floated into the background.
Years passed and I kept listening to my core group of sad songwriters (Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits) and added a few new ones (The Tallest Man On Earth, Jessica Lea Mayfield). A few days ago I was at work, listening to Cat Power when the music service suggested that I may like Iron & Wine. It made the mix and went back to work, thinking idly that it would be nice to hear something familiar in a new context.
A few songs deep, when “Passing Afternoon” came on, I started to cry. Tears forging pathways down my cheeks and rolling onto my desk, this song tied me to the seasons, to my past, and to a collectively remembered past, as only a spell woven by music can do.
There are things that drift away
Like our endless numbered days
Autumn blew the quilt right off
The perfect bed she made,
And she’s chosen to believe in the hymns her mother sings…
That song gave me a time capsule that held a window into my past thoughts. I was overwhelmed with this technicolor view of the former me, her views and positions and experiences. She had suffered a small share of trauma and heartbreak, and she harbors an excessive share of bitter worldliness. She thought of herself as world weary and capable, but with my viewpoint I knew so intimately the structure she built to keep herself safe from the world would crumble. The forces of love and stubbornness would tear down the fortress and leave her to reevaluate her relationship with the past in order to stay alive.
It’s strange how our personalities are in their infancy when our bodies reach legal adulthood. We’re blessed with the confidence of hormones and the certainty rough to us from rationalizing our limited experience into a comprehensive worldview. These factors pulled my adolescent self in two directions, coupling confidence and certainty with confusion and low self-confidence. How I managed to change at all with these obstacles staring me down is a testament to the silent power of time.
There are names across the sea
Only now I do believe
Sometimes with the windows closed she’ll sit and think of me
And she’ll mend his tattered clothes
And they’ll kiss as if they know
A baby sleeps in all our bones so scared to be alone.
So thank you music for reminding me of who I am and how far I have come. If you have heard Passing Afternoon, it’s a beautiful song and I obviously recommend it highly. Especially with fall in full swing and winter ahead.
What songs make you nostalgic?
What do they remind you of?
Do you have any time capsules that bring you back to a past event or feeling?