The Soundtrack to My Life is Made Up of Perfect Albums
Photo: Capitol Records
The Perfect Album
Music has always been a very personal thing for me, something I turned to when I felt lonely or sad or bored or curious. Music is a tool, a trigger, a connecting thread, a time machine. I can put on my headphones to escape from the din of a crowded room to a private space between my ears. I can put on a record and move the furniture for an instant dance party. Bonding over shared tastes and favorite artists is a quick route to new friendships. Recommending the perfect song or album to show how well you know someone is a fun way to deepen the old ones. Play “Oh Susanna,”* and I’m transported to the living room floor of my grandparents’ old house in Nashville. The O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack takes me on a long road trip in the backseat of a minivan. I have no desire to return to 6th grade, but, if I did, all I’d have to do is watch the music video for “Beautiful Soul” by Jesse McCartney and I’d be back in a spinny office chair, trying to clear the browser history from my family’s desktop so my mom wouldn’t find out about my secret Facebook account.
I’ve heard the term “addictive personality” thrown around quite a bit in my life. I don’t think that’s me, but I do tend to latch on pretty hard when I like something. Mine’s more like a “full immersion” personality, if you will. I started drinking coffee when I was 12, for example (wtf, Mom?), and now, after increasing my lifespan by over 100% since then, I have transitioned from a Starbucks vanilla latte fiend into a full-fledged coffee asshole, owning not one, but two pour-over systems and a stove-top espresso maker. I’m in this thing, and, unlike the delicious black juices of my finely ground beans, I will not be extracted!
A good - no, a perfect - album captures me in much the same way coffee and its highkey douchey culture has. When I find a record I really like, I dive the heck in and I don’t come up for air until I’m positively drowning. It takes a special album, an album whose every song is not good but great, nary a misplaced melody, nary an unnecessary interlude. An album so well sequenced that any alternate order of songs would be inconceivable. To play such an album on shuffle would be blasphemous, to skip a track, delinquent. In my experience, these albums tend to comprise 10-14 tracks, but there are certainly exceptions. They usually don’t have bonus tracks or remixes… they don’t need them.
When I play back a mental montage of any portion of my life, the accompanying soundtrack is almost always one of these perfect, favorite albums of mine. I’m stacking wooden blocks on my grandparents’ living room floor to Britney Spears’ Oops!... I Did It Again. I’m dancing around my room, pining over 4th grade crushes to Avril Lavigne’s Let Go. I’m commuting to class on the Paris metro dressed in all black, pursing my lips and trying in vain to look French, blasting Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz or Lorde’s Pure Heroine in my earbuds. I’m showering in my first apartment to Haim’s Days Are Gone before driving to the classes that were definitely within walking distance. I’m blasting Taylor Swift’s 1989 through, like, three breakups in a row.
When I was moping my way through a desk job I hated, the wistfully happy Emotion by Carly Rae Jepsen got me through. When I’d embark on my 4.5-hour drive home to Little Rock a little too late in the evening, belting along to the Original Broadway cast recording of Hamilton kept me awake. Once the grippingly honest lyrics and soulful beats of Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book and Kanye West’s Life of Pablo lodged themselves in my brain, I found myself unable to get through a day in 2016 without listening to one or both of them all the way through.
All these albums were perfect to me, and they stand the test of time as far as I’m concerned. I can’t separate them from the memories they score, happy and sad, benign and malignant. When I started my walk to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail at the end of March 2018, I didn’t even make it 24 hours before resorting to my favorite tunes to help me through the journey, and, like every other part of my life, many of my 2,064 miles on the PCT were accompanied by a perfect album.
I’ve been back from the trail almost five months now, and I’ve hardly listened to or searched for any new music. I’ve been so consumed in all the busy work that comes with setting up a life and searching for my place in this world of tasks and trappings that I’ve neglected to pause and fully immerse myself in the art I love. To drop everything and absorb the beauty of a perfect album, a gripping book, or a simple conversation. Shame on me.
Despite my lack of looking, however, the beauty I needed to find found me. I couldn’t have avoided Heard It in a Past Life if I tried. I’ve been listening to Maggie Rogers for a couple of years now, having been entranced by the ethereal groove of her song “Alaska” on a spring day of exploring outside with my friends. During the months leading up to the release of her first LP, Maggie was all over the media, to the point that even I - proudly avoiding almost any interaction with the “news” at this point - couldn’t have escaped the hype.
Well, it came as no surprise: the album is perfect, and with its folky inspiration, dancey electronic production, and reverence for nature, it might as well have been a tonic concocted solely to help me transition back from the trail. And that’s what really draws you into a work of art, right? Not only to understand, but to feel, on so many levels, understood.
I’m in love with Heard It in a Past Life. Like all the great musical loves of my life, it’s unlike anything I’ve heard before, and its gravity is slowly pulling me back to a relationship with music I was afraid I might’ve lost. Years from now, I’ll look back on this time in my life - scrolling through photos from the PCT with tear-filled eyes, writing at a picnic table in my sunroom, watching the squirrels from my front porch with a mug of hot coffee - and I’ll hear Maggie.
*I highly recommend you click the link and watch this video of a truly riveting sung-danced-and-fiddled rendition of “Oh, Susanna,” complete with a steamboat in the background. Amazing.