Monday, 13 December 2004

The absolute peak of musical ecstasy

I see your eyes light up at the interesting title of this blog posting. Well allow me to elaborate.

It's pretty obvious that the level of enjoyment one experiences when listening to music depends on a wide variety of factors:

  • The music :-)
  • Your mood
  • Where you are when listening to it
  • State of mind (drunk, stoned, [insert state here])
  • Lots of other factors

Over my many years of musical appreciation (and obsession), I have discovered that one of the best places and times to listen to music is driving alone late at night, when I am in a happy mood (i.e. not thinking about work or anything else which may put me in a lesser mood). Some albums which normally sound average when listened to in other circumstances take on a whole new meaning when listened to under these conditions. There's something incredibly peaceful about listening to some brilliantly composed music when driving alone at night.

Why not driving during the day? Well it's definitely not as peaceful. There's more other cars to deal with on the roads. More stopping at traffic lights. Avoiding the brightness and glare of the sun. Why not driving with someone else in the car? Well a lot of my music is an acquired taste, and I love to listen to my music LOUD. And if there's someone in the car with me, it would be very rude if I cranked the music up loud and didn't talk to the person with me :-)

Anyway, some of my most memorable "peaks of musical ecstasy" have been while listening to great music while driving late at night. I remember listening to Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, driving down the Eastern Freeway on the way back to Lorin's from the city. I remember hearing the brilliant songs -- there was Jesus children of
America, All in love is fair, Don't you worry 'bout a thing, He's Misstra Know-It-All. All brilliant songs -- and all after each other. I knew from that listen, in the car, late at night, played loud -- that this was a brilliant album. Yet when I listen to it nowadays, while I still enjoy it immensely, I never reach the same peak of musical ecstasy.

Another time was driving to Lorin's house at night, listening to REM's Fables of the reconstruction. Green grow the rushes came on. Without the distraction of other people, without the distraction of other cars, without the distraction of ANYTHING really (ahem...except my concentration on driving), I started to notice things. I listened to Green grow the rushes, and was overtaken by its immense beauty. Right here, right now, in the car on the way to Lorin's -- Green grow the rushes suddenly became one of my favourite songs of all time. What beautiful jangly guitar! What a sensational vocal performance from Michael Stipe! What a melody! Then there was Kohoutek. Under any other circumstance this would probably be considered an ordinary song. But in the car, driving alone late at night -- this was another moment of exquisite musical beauty. What's this song Good advices? What's this crazy lyric about looking at a stranger's shoes when you greet them? In the immortal words of Tony Martin of the late show -- "What is [Michael Stipe] on about?". Who cares?

All these amazing songs were just waiting for me to discover them. They were waiting for that perfect opportunity for to come out and slap me ever-so-gently in the face and tell me "I am an amazing song! Listen to me! Discover me for my brilliance!". They were waiting for the late night drive alone.

Yet, as good as all of this is, if I was to go for another late night drive alone with either Innervisions or Fables of the reconstruction playing on the car stereo, they will never have the same effect on me again. Why? Well, in both of those moments of musical ecstasy, it was only my 3rd or 4th listen of the said album. And, here comes the next point of this blog posting. I'd like to argue that for most albums (note that I italicised most), the 3rd or 4th listen will undoubtedly by one of the most enjoyable listens of the album. For true grower albums, the first listen is a complete waste of time. My attitude is that if I really enjoy an album on the first listen, I'll get sick of it fairly quickly. Then there are the albums which take 10+ listens to really appreciate. A lot of albums by Tom Waits fit into this category as many of his later period albums are very surreal, avant-garde and difficult. But most albums take about 3-4 listens for the pieces to start to fit together. By the 5th or 6th listen, you can start to differentiate between tracks. But on the 3rd and 4th listen, there is still the element of surprise when a hidden gem can come out and bite you on the ass (in a good way) when you least expect it. And the spontaneity of these moments that is true musical ecstasy. So with the aforementioned albums, I may already be on my 20th-30th listen. The moment is unfortunately over for these albums. I'm out of the honeymoon period now. I'd never reach the same level of enjoyment for them again. Unless, of course, I shelve them for many years and pull them out again -- to emulate the feeling of my first love for them.

So next time you are about to give a new album its 3rd or 4th listen, go for a late night drive. Or alternatively, if you can foresee a late night drive, listen to an album that you have already listened to 2 or 3 times. I'd be interested to know about people's experiences with the late night driven phenomenon, so please reply if you have any stories. A final note -- Tom Waits' The heart of Saturday night is my definitive driving-late-at-night album. Even after many listens, this is how I try to listen to it. And it's even better when driving around on a Saturday night.

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