By Robert Masiello
“I sat listlessly on my porch at home, crying over the way summer would not come again, never the same.”—Sylvia Plath
I’ve always hated autumn. I realize this puts me in the minority of New Englanders, most of whom embrace the season’s brisk air, bright foliage, and pumpkin-flavored whatever. Don’t get me wrong, I see the appeal—the nights are more comfortable for sleeping, the clothes are more fashionable, the restlessness of summer finally simmers, and the world slows down. But this season is also tied to an undercurrent of melancholy and decay. The days are shorter, and darkness nestles itself into the workday little by little. The leaves, though vibrant, are ultimately an ode to impermanence. Even the air is sinister, teasing us with a feeling of crispness before ushering in more biting temperatures. Fall is deceptive, masking atrophy with beauty.
I don’t liken my disdain for autumn to emotional maturity. In fact, it may well be evidence of the opposite, of an unwillingness to let go of the past and find hope in transitions. My tendency for bouts of nostalgia probably doesn't help matters, with the onset of fall serving not only as a reminder of the fleeting joys of summer, but also missed opportunities and unmet expectations. By the time fall comes around, we’re well into the second half of the calendar year, and callously reminded that time is relentless. Fall doesn’t care that you worked too much this summer, or that you never made that one last beach trip. Fall is unconcerned with the tedious coursework that awaits you at the start of a new semester. Fall is a cruel gesture, and in its path leaves naked trees and frostbitten grounds.
So maybe you’re like me and embrace autumn the way one embraces a root canal. Or maybe you’d just enjoy a wistful, subdued soundtrack to ring in the cooler months. Either way, here’s a playlist intended to comfort the sad souls this September.
“September Come Take This Heart Away” by Carissa’s Wierd
Before Ben Bridewell went off to make tepid country rock with Band of Horses, he was a member of Carissa’s Wierd (intentionally misspelled), a band that created some of the most elegantly mournful music of the early ‘00s. Any song in their brief but powerful catalogue aches with longing, but perhaps none more so than "September Come Take This Heart Away."
“This room has so many windows, too many windows/I’ve sat and watched the trees framed to fade outside,” singer Matt Brooke begins. It’s the sound of feeling powerless against the march of time, and being forced to confront change and disappointment.
“Immunity” (Asleep Version) by Jon Hopkins
This is the reworked title track from Jon Hopkins’ fourth album, released as part of a gorgeous EP last year. Most of the electronic elements are stripped away in this version, revealing a naked piano ballad with ethereal vocals provided by King Creoste. It’s an unspeakably moving arrangement, with lyrics that mourn broken promises and letdowns. This song’s beauty is almost otherworldly, and proof that restraint and minimalism often yield the most breathtaking results.
“The Mark” by Cold Specks
Canadian singer-songwriter Al Spx, who records as Cold Specks, has a weathered, soulful voice that belies her age of 27. A truly gifted lyricist, she gives just enough detail in her songs to create a storyline, without making anything too obvious. This track from her 2012 debut seems to tell the story of a man who lost his infant son to either miscarriage or illness.
“Cross your heart and remember me, a good father and a bad seed,” she murmurs, downtrodden but resilient. By taking on the voice of her subject, she imbues the song with warmth and empathy, despite its dark subject matter.
“Fields of Our Home” by Tallest Man on Earth
The Tallest Man on Earth’s latest album “Dark Bird is Home” opens with this stunner. It begins as a rather conventional folk song, propelled by Kristian Matsson’s Dylan-esque vocals. But in the final verse, his voice unexpectedly gets shrouded in reverb, lending it both intimacy and vastness. The overall effect induces chills of the highest order, and Matsson closes by asking, “Is this a lifetime or some years?” It perfectly encompasses the way a moment, a year, or a lifetime can feel simultaneously infinite and fleeting.
“Tiny Gradations of Loss” by The Caretaker
The Caretaker captured ears and hearts with his 2011 release “An Empty Bliss Beyond This World.” A poignant meditation on Alzheimer’s and the restorative power of music, this conceptual album sounds beamed in from the memories of your great-grandparents. "Tiny Gradations of Loss” (starts at 36:03) masks a cheerful piano melody with static and glitchy interruptions, as if the moment of joy it captures is just on the verge of fading from memory permanently.
“All Equal Now” by Belong
Belong’s 2006 masterpiece “October Language” is perhaps one of the most mysterious albums in recent memory. Recorded in pre-Katrina New Orleans and donning ominous song titles such as “I’m Too Sleepy, Shall We Swim?,” the album can’t help but feel a bit prophetic. The music recalls Tim Hecker, and the shoe-gaze elements give it a harrowing, claustrophobic feel. This standout cut begins delicately, and builds to a deafening squall of noise. And yet, despite the harshness of the track’s second half, it never loses the warm ambient textures it begins with; the white noise buries the warmth, but doesn’t eliminate it. As such, it’s actually somewhat hopeful and indicative of rebirth.
“Gigantic” by Eddi Front
Eddi Front appeared out of nowhere in 2012 with a brief collection of stark piano ballads that sounded far too sophisticated for an unknown artist. There’s little information available about her, but her debut album is allegedly due for release this year. In the meantime, check out this title track from her earlier EP.
“Ive always been slow to get off of some drugs, to let go of some loves,” she admits, coming to terms with romantic loss. But the song isn’t all hopeless floundering: “I’ll crawl out of this hole soon enough,” she promises, able to see beyond the rubble.
“Never Anyone But You” by The Clientele
Few modern bands sound as distinctly “British” as The Clientele, and even if their discography doesn’t take many risks, the songwriting is reliably strong. Their brand of nostalgic Brit-pop is heavy on charm, but also has a ghostly quality that gives their material added depth. “Never Anyone But You” uses autumn as a metaphor for death, and even if that doesn’t sound particularly novel, the band pulls it off masterfully. The lyrics emphasize the way that memories color our emotions, even well after an event or relationship has ended: “So that summer passed, but I was never the same when I got home… there’s a phantom in the gaps between my bones.”
“Bonfire” by Memoryhouse
As expected given their name, Memoryhouse are unmatched at evoking nostalgia and yearning. The band has been mostly quiet since their debut LP dropped a couple years back, but this highlight is still an ideal soundtrack to chilly autumn nights. Singer Denise Nouvion pleads“lets get cold together,” grasping at a relationship on the verge of disintegrating with the onset of a new season. Her crystalline voice adds comfort to the sparse musical backdrop, like a sweater that fits tight in just the right places.
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