Pride rarely stretches my chest. But I swear some contrary euphoria swells whenever I evade a certain class of meme, pass-me-down question, or digital translation of the icebreakers I’ve tried to dodge most of my life.
Music is the mold of my life and, if I recover enough distance to see this moment made of other moments, certain songs sound the depths.
I stand fast—until music breaches the conversation. Lately, I keep seeing variations on “10 Songs to Know Me,” “10 Albums to Know Me” or the more commonplace, but still-powerful, “10 Best Songs.” Like a three-minute earworm absorbed from the radio in 2007, my brain won’t quit humming, won’t stop circling the possibilities.
Especially when the spirit of John Cusack comes over me like some miserable Holy Ghost, encouraging me to offer my picks not alphabetically or chronologically, but autobiographically. Songs to know me, right here and now, while this day keeps its hours.
Music is the mold of my life and, if I recover enough distance to see this moment made of other moments, certain songs sound the depths. They explain me to myself—and to anyone else who might be listening. Reserving the right to remain a little contrary, these songs number 11.
Whole lifetimes inhabit Joe Pug’s “Hymn #101” in four minutes, 40 seconds. “I’ve come to say exactly what I mean / And I mean so many things,” the folk singer intones.
“Hymn #101” confirms my experience: turning 42 feels like crossing one wilderness after another, facing an endless series of mettle-shaking tests, harboring faith God will take serious your meager seek-and-ye-shall-find prayers. Especially when you keep praying to read the map of your own soul.
“I’ve come to test the timbre of my heart.” Damn. Sing it again, Joe—and he always does.
Murmuring the very “whatabouts” and “what-ifs” rattling me, The National’s “Eucalyptus” questions what to keep and what to discard—the flora and fauna and cities and indie-rock bands of one’s existence—in hopes the well-examined life eventually splits open like a seed. “What if I reinvented again? / What about the moon drop light?” What if?
How much more bitter and sweet “Doubting Thomas” by Nickel Creek grows with time. Its lilting motion ushers in all my fears about who I am, how my life may bend the nature of God.
In Chris Thile’s bruised-reed timbre, I hear my inability to say anything concrete at all. In the lines “Please give me time to decipher the signs / Please forgive me for time that I’ve wasted,” I hear the only prayers I pray anymore—other than “please help” and “enough already.” O me of little faith.
Before this all becomes too much, the gentleman Josh Ritter comes around with “Homecoming” and a reminder. Grace lurks.
Early piano notes sit like stars splayed across the canopy of novelists like Richard Powers; the whole song, like a tree growing in The Overstory, gives up its awesome shelter, a place to taste “the universe on a night like this.”
“Homecoming” voices how I want to live out my days: huddled with my lover and loved ones under bowing branches, passing around a bottle of communion wine, all whispering, “My heart is there (don’t go away now).” This is the sound of me and mine coming home to ourselves.
If The National sounds like the interior wilds of my brain, Spoon resembles my nervous system: all staccato and twitch until it’s otherwise, some evanescent falsetto or overtone shimmer. As a newsman whose journey home each night is Central Standard—through the changing Midwest light around 5:15 or 5:30—the lovely desperation of “Rainy Taxi” sticks.
“I came home last night / I had no good news,” Britt Daniel sings, and it’s true. Driving toward my wife and son, I rehearse all possibilities then arrive, bearing no promises the world will be any better tomorrow.
Songs 6 and 7
Two songs feel something like a lock and its key. Could I feel more known than through the opening lines of “Bird on the Wire”? Leonard Cohen hears my slurring voice lift what psalms, hymns and spiritual songs it still knows, then transcribes the music: “Like a bird on the wire / Like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried / In my way to be free.”
Low comes behind Cohen, clothing me in the sound of “Laser Beam,” hushing me as the late Mimi Parker coos her lullaby, awakening the only words that matter: “I need your grace alone.” Whole new books of the Bible could be devoted to Parker’s reading of the word “alone,” falling with uncertainty, rising with newness of life, stripping the word of remoteness.
Could I feel more known, Part Two: Here and now, couched in misunderstanding and withdrawals, Bruce Springsteen knows what I want and cannot hold: “I ain’t looking for praise or pity / I ain’t coming round searching for a crutch / I just want someone to talk to / And a little of that human touch.”
And few bards better express my own experience of redemption in the day-to-day, down the longer line of time. “Yeah, I know I ain’t nobody’s bargain / But hell, a little touch-up and a little paint,” Springsteen sings on “Human Touch,” leaving the phrase to hang, leaving the heart to fill in the blanks of what’s possible.
Stick to surface roads and “Telling Stories” seems like the most straightforward member of this set. Hear its arpeggiated opening guitars and clean vocal track, the starburst sound of the B3 organ. But Tracy Chapman stares down the same troubles as any good storyteller.
We wring words for meaning, for some higher truth. Just as we commit something to the permanent record, doubts creep back. I really want to know and be the version of myself alive on the page. Yet I feel less confident at the last period than I did with the first word. Have I slouched into truth about myself—about the elusive us—or am I “just telling stories,” spinning believable fictions, knowing “sometimes a lie is the best thing”?
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis craft songs for those of us who experience the Holy Spirit less like the dove on Jesus’ shoulder, more like a sledgehammer wreaking mercy in its own manner.
“Hand of God” conveys this awful presence through musical language: dissonant divine interventions, swelling baptisms, inconvenient chants. This is the God I know—he ruins me yet I don’t wish to shake him, even if I could.
In lesser hands, I mistrust the piano in all its crackling Technicolor; in lesser hands, I flinch at full-throated expressions of hope. But John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats never failed me yet. With “This Year,” the band offers an anthem that abides, reaching back and forward to lay hold of something eternal (“There will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem next year.”)
For someone who spends seconds too many on each intrusive thought, and often questions when a life grows too long, I need this refrain. I hum it beneath each breath in mid-April; play it loud enough to rouse my soul, quiet enough not to wake my kid in late June; will make it my personal “Auld Lang Syne” in the eleventh hour of December 31. I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.
Can a man be known in 11 songs, in just under 48 minutes of music? Perhaps no more than through an essay that takes five or six minutes to read. But I cannot disentangle myself from these songs; their chords prove the worlds around and inside me spin with nothing less than intention, maybe even something like beauty. Maybe that’s all any of us need to know.