This post originally appeared on Medium.com on June 9, 2014
When you buy a new pair of jeans, if they’re cheap Levis or Japanese selvedge, they’re not comfortable at first. You can’t know that they’re going to be your favorite pair in a year and a half. Maybe they won’t be. But you won’t know until you use them—until you wear on a first date, or while moving into your first apartment. That’s why people are so attached to jeans. You create a multiplicity of associations and meanings with an object that ultimately reflects your life. Initially, it’s just a pair of pants, but after a year and a half, they’re your pants.
And albums, I think, are the same way.
When I write album reviews, I tend to review albums that I’ve known for a really long time. Like a favorite pair of jeans, I lean towards albums that I have broken in, and worn repeatedly. Questlove, drummer and musical director of the Roots (and general music savant,) seems to agree with me.
In a recent article on Esquire’s website, he admitted that he really likes Todd Terje’s album It’s Album Time, but that he’s only “lived with it for two months.” What he seemed to imply was that he can’t know how good an album will really be until he’s had it around for a while. That’s just it—you have to live with the music before you can really know if you like it.
I wrote a review on my blog for Nickel Creek’s new album about two months ago, right after it had come out. I remember being unhappy with it when I posted—I didn’t feel like I had said anything new, and I think my sort of bland writing about it was due to the fact that I had only lived with the album for a little more than a week. I had a grasp of how the album sounded, but didn’t know what the album meant yet.
Now, a month and a half later, I find I have more to say about the album. I understand the emotions behind songs like “Christmas Eve” and “Rest of My Life” in a way that I couldn’t in April—these songs resonate with where I am in my life in a way that they formerly didn’t. Now, I don’t just like these songs—I understand them. And that makes all the difference. I am connected to these songs, and they are connected to me. How could I have know that when I first listened to the record?
But each album is different, and there are some that I still feel like I can’t write about yet. The other day, I tried doing a review of my favorite album of all time, the Rolling Stones’ Let it Bleed. I thought it would be easy—I’ve lived with the album since I was roughly 13 and can sing along to eighty percent of it—but when I sat down to write, I realized I couldn’t. Again, I know it, but in eight years, I still don’t understand it. And until I do, I don’t think I can write about it in the way it deserves. (UPDATE: I gave it a shot–check it out here and here.)
That’s not to say that I think you need to always have some sort of cosmic understanding of a song or album’s soul. If you hear it and like it, that’s fine. That song will work its magic on you in other ways—like a pair of jeans, you’ll make memories with it, even if you don’t understand it. Songs can function as a Proustian madeline, a function just as important as the deeper understanding that I was talking about earlier. My father, for instance, gets thrown back to Jones Beach in 1972 every time he hears “Brandy” by the Looking Glass.
Either way, though, learning to love a record—or not—is a process that takes time. It can be months or years before you reach a verdict on a collection of songs.
And I think at the end of the day, that’s what excites me about music writing. Reflecting on a favorite album or a special song is actually a process of reflecting on the associations you make with the song—where you went with it, when you understood it, who you sang along to it with in the car. Writing about music is writing about life.