I’ve spent most of my life consuming and making music, and yet I feel my musical understanding has only just begun to mature. I have a lot to look forward to. We all do. It was joyful and challenging to carefully listen to and write about these songs MAGNET curated for me. I’m grateful for the opportunity. Peace and love to us all. —David Bazan
Cat Power, “The Greatest” from: The Greatest
One fall night in 1998, after playing our first show ever in the Twin Cities with my band at the time, Pedro The Lion, we drove across the river to the 400 Bar in Minneapolis to catch Cat Power on her Moon Pix tour. Accompanied by a drummer and guitarist, her hair covering her face pretty much the whole set, Ms. Marshall captivated me (and everyone else in the room) with those great early tunes and her coy charm, but most of all with her unbelievable voice. Now, having been an active fan for 19 years, I sit and listen to 2006’s The Greatest, and I notice her voice is loaded with even more ache, more mournful knowing than before. I’ve heard this song many times but apparently without ever actually giving myself over to it the way one does listening in headphones, alone in one’s room, focused on nothing else but the river of sound and feeling. Turns out this river really breaks me up. I don’t literally understand what she’s singing about and, as usual, heavy thoughts flow through anyway. I hear a funeral march, I mourn the wasteful hubris of youth, I accept that lasting wisdom is hard because it flows from loss. “Secure the grounds for the later parade.”
Bob Dylan, “Saved” from: Saved
This song, whose lyrics imply the basic Christian doctrines of original sin and salvation through faith in Christ, really moves. Dylan is channeling some blessedly rowdy gospel music here, and holy mother, the rhythm section is on fire, pounding out their shifting accents with enough desperate conviction to make you almost believe him … almost. Look, I’m not saying I think old BD was insincere at the time; it’s just a natural pitfall of manically expressing that “just been born again” enthusiasm. Eventually, one has to come back down the mountain and live life, and something about real life makes it hard to take extra-fervent expressions like this seriously as much more than an artifact of a previous understanding. (Whoa, I really bring the baggage.) So, yeah, for me that’s the internal wrestling match I experience listening to “Saved.” Dylan is a transcendent performer and lyricist, this is a great song, and the rhythm section kicks so much ass. So I get to try to turn that other part of my brain off and just feel the righteous energy. And when I can’t do that, I don’t mind wrestling.
Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah” from: Various Positions
This is one of the great songs of all time. So good that there are two distinct versions of the song in circulation, the difference between them being only a change in the lyrics of the third and fourth verses. The lyrics in the “cover” version, first compiled and performed by John Cale (from extra verses sent to him by Cohen), though probably made popular to folks my age by Jeff Buckley, evoke in me the longing of a possibly doomed but deep romantic love to a degree nearly unrivaled in popular song. (“Love is not a victory march/It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah”). By my calculation, this version is heard more often, in part because it’s the one performed by most who cover the song, and in that sense is the more popular of the two. But for me, the version found on the album Various Positions is the even rarer gem, the one that saves my life a little bit. It lays out the size and shape of a crisis of faith line by line, one disconnecting doubt at a time, in a way that might leave one in despair if not for the defiant implication that all reaching out is meaningful even if no one ends up being there to reciprocate.
Ben Gibbard & Aimee Mann, “Bigger Than Love” from: Former Lives
“Stranded in Asheville/Failing to fix a broken head/You’re in California/Doing the work of lesser men.” This song is so lonely. Male and female voices taking turns filling in the details of years of disconnection in their relationship, almost like long-distance couples therapy. Painful. The signature ache in Mann’s voice really adds depth to the melancholy. But the very catchy chorus, “It’s bigger than love/Brighter than all the stars combined/It’s dwarfing the sun/Burning within my heart and mind” supplies the listener with an unexplained source of light at regular intervals that alternates with the bad news in the verses: bittersweet but overall leaving me with a sense that this is a postmortem. But then the tail end of the bridge lifts and connects with the final chorus, and a modest gain is achieved: By the end of the song they’re singing together. I’m a sucker for love. It feels like a start to me.
Damien Jurado, “The Way You Look” from: I Break Chairs
This song brings back a flood of fond memories. Jurado and I started playing in a band together in 1991, both still in high school. After years of playing in the different forms of that band together, then solo and band projects apart, he asked me to produce the album that became I Break Chairs for him in 2002. “The Way You Look” is from that LP. This song (and album) represent a rowdy but sweet rock ’n’ roll side of Damien that he hasn’t often shown, which is more than OK because the musical vein he’s currently mining both with Richard Swift-produced LPs and live with a band or solo is special to me, too. It all is with Damien, so I’m glad we captured it a little. I’m a fan of the dude’s tunes. He consistently makes music that inspires me.
Radiohead, “Let Down” from: OK Computer
For some reason, I didn’t want to like OK Computer when it first came out. One day, within a month of its release, my roommate, sensing my resistance, recommended that I go up to his room and listen to “Exit Music (For A Film)” and “Let Down” one after the other, turned up loud, on his nice stereo amplifier and his Yamaha NS-10 speakers. I’d heard “Let Down” wafting around here and there and liked it, if a little reluctantly, but this would be the first focused listen all the way through. So I took his advice, and it stands as one of the most memorable musical experiences I’ve ever had. I quickly fell in love with OK Computer. “Let Down” is still a top-five favorite song of all time for me.
The Long Winters, “Shapes” from: When I Pretend To Fall
I watched my friend and Long Winters songwriter/frontman John Roderick play this song solo electric one night in the summer of ’06 at an outdoor venue in an ancient town square in Zaragoza, Spain. I remember the hammer-on guitar playing vividly; so musical and inventive without being distracting. John’s warmth and wit come through so clearly here (as in all his work, really). There’s a playful, sparring almost-vulnerability in his lyrics and vocal delivery that never fails to pull me in. One of my favorite songwriters. Speaking of “pulling me in,” later that night I had the bizarre pleasure of being pulled behind a carful of my tour mates, hatchback open, me riding in Vic Chesnutt’s wheel chair, holding the back of the car Back To The Future style through the streets of Zaragoza, en route to the hotel.
Neutral Milk Hotel, “King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3” from: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Like with so many others of my favorite records, this one took a minute to sink in. “Jesus Christ, I love you” was hard for me to relate to initially for some reason. Maybe I couldn’t tell if he was mocking or sincere and couldn’t easily deal with the ambiguity. Still not totally sure. But at some point I found a way to open up to it all, regardless, and I’ve since had some pretty wonderful and heavy times listening to Aeroplane Over The Sea. There’s a sort of feral earnestness to all these songs, a desperate frankness that indicates just how enormous the stakes are. One of the heaviest records I can think of.
Joni Mitchell, “Blue” from: Blue
This is the first time I’ve listened to this song all the way through to my knowledge (now half a dozen times in the last couple days). There are many gaping holes in my musical education, and I’m realizing now that Joni Mitchell is a huge one. The first thing this song says to me is that anything is possible in folk songwriting, and that I’m uptight without even knowing it. The freedom and fluidity of the musical phrasing is stunning. I hear a formidable thinker and experiencer of the world communicating at peak level. I believe my Joni Mitchell immersion phase just began.
The Shins, “New Slang” from: Oh, Inverted World
Before she was in kindergarten, I took my daughter to see the Shins play at Showbox Market in Seattle. (She loved the song “New Slang” more than any other at the time and could often be heard chirping the falsetto vocal hook around the house.) Night of, we got bundled up, met a buddy for dinner before the show, had a little dessert, then finally found a spot near the back of the main floor to watch the band (kiddo up on my shoulders). They played “New Slang” within the first four songs, and she was ecstatic. She grabbed my chin with both hands and yanked my head up so that my eyes were looking straight up into hers: “They’re playing it!” Tears in her upside down eyes as she started singing along. Once the next song started, I felt a tap tap tap on the top of my head (our signal for when she was ready to go home). “I’m still hoping to hear ‘Caring Is Creepy,’” I pleaded. “OK,” she said, “Three more chances, then can we go?” I agreed to her very reasonable terms. “Caring Is Creepy” is the next song they played. She grabbed my chin again. Tears in my eyes this time.