Ah, alternative rock of the 1990s. Since arriving in Minnesota, I’ve seen Soul Asylum’s name around a lot as a local band. And now the radio is playing their song “Somebody to Shove.” I think my first non-classical music cd, after the Aladdin soundtrack, was Soul Asylum’s Grave Dancers Union, which had that creepy album cover.

My memories of some music I listen to are inexplicably much more rooted, much fuller.* Listening to those songs conjures for me a sense of place, especially, and a moment in my life. Soul Asylum is high school in my bedroom, lying on the floor staring at the ceiling for long stretches of time. Sarah McLachlan’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is the high-ceilinged room of the addition to my parents’ house and hours spent in front of drawing paper and canvases. Tori Amos’s From the Choirgirl Hotel is my cousin’s apartment that I sublet a couple summers in New Haven some five years later. Tori Amos’s To Venus and Back is New York City’s subway system — the trains and stations — as I commute to and from work, to and from friends’ places, to and from all that is New York.

No one album has become as strongly entwined with a place or moment for me since I started graduate school. I don’t know how much that has to do with age, the situations of my life since college, or something else. I don’t listen to music the way I did anymore. I used to browse music stores for hours, sampling many many albums of artists I had never heard before taking one home. I would open the cd as soon as I left the store, pore over the liner notes, and listen to the music on repeat for weeks. These days, I pick up music almost haphazardly, choosing albums by artists I already know or newer ones I’ve heard on the radio. But I often don’t listen to the albums immediately or all the way through, focusing only on the radio singles, the catchiest tunes, the recognizable tracks. I abandon them just as quickly as I pick them up, accumulating them but not immersing myself in the sounds.

I want to lose myself in an album again. I want to find music that pulls me into another world and weaves itself insistently through the places of this world, echoing off the walls of my apartment or through the streets around me.
* It should be noted that while I love the music that evokes a sense of place for me, not all other music I love evokes such a sense of place. For example, some of my favorite musicians like Björk, Christina Aguilera, James Blunt, Holcombe Waller, Erasure, and Mariah Carey don’t do this for me. Also, music doesn’t seem to conjure other kinds of memories and sensations; it’s always about a specific place and moment rather than a taste or a smell or an idea or an emotion.


  1. Nick Hornby actually wrote about this notion of why certain music does and doesn’t evoke a sense of place in his essay about “Thunder Road.” He avers that it is because the music that he loves the most, he has listened to throughout his life; he filled up with all sorts of spaces with it. On the other hand, there are other records or artists he loved during a certain time in his life, and thus the songs are always stuck in that slot of his memory. It’s a very simple argument, but one I hadn’t thought of before. I liken it to Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, an album I listened to repeatedly my sophomore year of high school. I still really love it in many ways, but when I listen to it, it is somewhat like putting on an old, favorite sweater that I have just re-discovered.

  2. That argument makes sense. I wonder where the dividing line is, though, in terms of listening to music in all sorts of spaces. How much listening to something across different spaces leads it to being unrooted? I mean, I remember listening to all the albums and musicians I named as space-specific in different places, too. And I continue to listen to them today. But they don’t conjure for me these other spaces. The feeling of rootedness probably also builds on itself. Like, when I listen to Grave Dancers Union now, I remember my high school bedroom so the fact that I’m here in Saint Paul at my desk gets effaced.

  3. Right, I remember listening to Wilco’s Being There, say, driving through the rainy streets of the Chicago the day it came out. (Amazingly looking back at it, I had to go to several stores that day to find it.) Yet, it also was a really important album to me the year after I left U of C and was hanging around Chicago, and I was still listening to it a lot my first two years in CH. So, if I focus on certain songs of an artist, I might be able to conjure up several distinct memories, rather than those albums/artists/songs that really fit a particular phase in my life and I put them on every single mix tape I made during that time.

    On another pop culture pundit note, Cameron Crowe apparently makes a mix tape for each month of his life and has since the early 80s. A project like that seems totally cool to me, though I don’t have the discipline, particularly for cassettes.

  4. helpful post, paul. the paragraph that starts with “Listening to those songs conjures for me a sense of place, especially, and a moment in my life. ” is so apt. i agree, some music holds no sense of place for me, and I can listen to it all the time (e.g., 70s disco), but, others, mark very specific places and times, and, after being so intense about it for a period of time, i move on and just can’t get into it again.

    p.s. thanks, hermance, for mentioning cameron crowe’s “mix tape of his life.” too much bother for most of us, but wouldn’t that be so fascinating.

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