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Losing my religion

A story of unrequinted love

March 14, 2019

It’s another run-of-the-mill, cold, dark Scottish morning and I’m on my short train ride to work. I’m listening to my Spotify playlist, the one where I've dumped anything and everything that I’m listening to, old and new, heavy and ambient, rocky and poppy. I’m bleary-eyed and dreaming so I don’t notice I’ve come to the end and of the playlist and Spotify wants to keep me listening so rather than let the music stop, it plays a song next that isn’t on my playlist that it thinks I'll like. The warmly familiar power chords of Some Might Say by Oasis kick in and I’m immediately transported to 1995 and a snowy Christmas I spent with my family at my Uncle’s house in Over Peover in Cheshire.

There are so many albums that take me to a specific time and place, but none quite as hard and as fast as What’s The Story (Morning Glory). I knew this record inside out. I played it so much the disc literally wore out. The case went semi-opaque with a million tiny scratches as a result of being perpetually pawed at. I knew the photography intimately and I’d spend hours drinking in every tiny detail of the cover and booklet.

CDs were quite a new technology in 1995 and I didn’t own any of my own yet. My tape cassette collection was tremendous though, with stone cold classics like.

That Christmas I was getting my first CD player from my parents and my uncle was tasked with getting me a couple of CDs. I’m pretty sure he would have just gone into the local record shop and asked the salesperson “what would a 12 year old like?” and they picked out Morning Glory and Now That’s What I Call Music 32.

From the moment the wrapping was ripped off to the first day back at school after the Christmas holidays I had Morning Glory on repeat 16 hours a day.

The Christmas of 1995 into Summer of 1996 coincides with my final year of primary school and starting my first year at high school. This album was with me through the whole experience and is woven into those memories forever. When I stick Morning Glory on and listen start to finish I’m replaying and reliving two or three years of my life, it’s an amazing, sad, terrifying, embarrassing experience and I love it.

So, back to my morning commute and Some Might Say is about to finish. With 30 seconds left to play on the track, I skip it to see what’s next this is another terrible habit I’ve picked since I started using Spotify in early 2009. Next I hear the unmistakable mandolin and drums that start Losing My Religion by R.E.M.

I couldn’t believe it, again I’m transported, this time to 1991 and I’m 7 years old. I’m in my bed on a Summers night. My curtains are closed but it’s light outside and the evening sun is streaming in through the gaps between the wall and the curtains. I have major FOMO that I’m in bed and the older children are still out playing. My Dad is playing the album Out Of Time by R.E.M.very loudly in the living room and my Mum is out, which is probably why he was able to play it so loud when the kids were in bed.

As I’m lying in bed starting to listen to the music, I hear one song that starts my mind running wild, visualising the very vivid lyrics of “that’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight”. I realise after a few minutes that I like this song, it’s not just some of my Dad’s boring grown up music. The song finishes and I shout my Dad through to my room. “Dad, could you play that song again?”. The glee in his eyes I now recognise as the glee I felt when my oldest son at 3 years old first asked me if I could play the “1234” song for him again. A little back story here. I used to play Hotel Yorba by The White Stripes for my son Hamish when he was younger and he’d sing and dance along.

R.E.M. Out Of Time Record Sleeve

While this one song gives me a specific memory, the real magic happens when I put the album on start to finish. Listening to the whole album, I don’t just have this one specific memory, but with each song I relive some the experiences I had from 7 to 10 years old. I get visuals of my old family home, Summer nights in the garden and playing football with all the neighbours children. I think of the old living room and my parents having friends round and my sisters and I staying up late. The smell of red wine, beer and barbecue smoke comes through. I think about digging out a pond in the garden with my Dad and my wee friend Robert. I think about walking miles along the cycle track in the hot sun to go and catch newts and frogs to fill the pond with.

When I was younger, in my family home, music was loud and in the open. Headphones weren’t really a thing. I did have a small personal stereo that I would play my cassettes on and listen to the radio at night, but I would much prefer to play my music on the big stereo in the living room. The same went for the rest of my family. My parents would also play their favourite albums until the point that they now elicit the same response in me as my favourite albums do.

So, back to my morning commute and I impatiently hit the ‘next’ button, eager to hear what Spotify is going to give me next.

Ugh, some song I don’t know. NEXT!

Fuck sake, a song already on this playlist. NEXT!

Wow! Strung To Your Ribcage by Biffy Clyro. Once more transported but this time to a more recent destination of 2005. It’s a warmish evening in the Spring and I’m on the bus back to my flat in the Southside of Glasgow from my job selling furniture in Giffnock. I would always repeat this track at least two or three times whenever I listened to the album Infinity land.

Biffy Clyro Infinity Land Record Sleeve

I remember in 2002 not being too fussed about Biffy Clyro. I had downloaded Blackened Sky from Napster or Soulseek or something and wasn’t impressed at all so I paid them no mind for the next three years. Then my friend Ronnie strongly suggested I give them another go and listen to Biffy’s latest album Infinity Land. I loved it right away for so many reasons. The singing in Scottish accents (which they didn’t do in Blackened Sky), the manic and grating guitars underpinned by strong melodic vocals one second then blood curdling screaming the next.

I was hooked on this album for 6 months to a year. I’d fall asleep listening to it (which was always a terrible move, because the hidden track would make it’s way into my dreams give me night terrors. Skip to 24:25. I’d enjoy every track of it from Glitter and Trauma to Pause It And Turn It Up, start to finish, end to end. So naturally when I put Infinity Land on now, from that very first synth line and kick drum on track one, I’m vividly recalling the crazy two years I lived on Pollockshaws Road In Govanhill.

I remember the parties, cramming 40 people into a two bedroom flat. I remember loudly playing techno records until 8:00am and the awkward conversations with the neighbours the next day. I remember the excitement of going on tour with my band and the unknown of two weeks on the road with some of my best friends. I remember the feeling of optimism when moving home and starting my education again. I remember meeting my wife for our first date and the first time we went to T In The Park together. I genuinely get all of this when I take the time to just listen to an album the way it was intended.

If this sounds contrived and far fetched to you, that I just happened to experience these three songs at the end of a playlist, one after the other, that just happened to have all of these important memories and experiences attached to them, that’s because it does sound contrived and far fetched. But let me give you a little more context. My brain is peppered with dozens of examples of full albums that are weaved into each and every stage of my life from around 7 years old. I’ll give you some more examples.

I’m not suggesting this is an age thing either or to do with how the younger generation consumes music now, it’s how tech has forced us to consume it. I no longer have these experiences with music and it makes me sad. I’m incredibly guilty of hearing a song I like and adding that one song to my playlist and never returning to that album ever again, never letting that track that didn’t blow me away first time round slowly burn into my favourite song on the album.

I think our general disregard for and lack of connection with digital products goes beyond music and video. When we look at early versions of sites like Youtube, Amazon and Facebook on Wayback Machine, we normally express something like “Yuck, I can’t believe it used to look like that” rather than saying fondly “Aw man, remember when it used to look like that?”.

Do you remember when you used to have to buy a CD or record to hear new music? CDs at their height cost £14.99 for a popular album. That was a big investment for me as a 12 year old with no income. Some CD purchases were tap-ins like any Michael Jackson album. But there were others that were a gamble, like Blue by The beautiful South. I loved the single “Don’t Marry Her Have Me” so I bought the album, which turned to be utter dog shit. But I’d spent the money and I knew from previous experience that if you persevere you will begin to like the songs, even if they don’t blow you away in the beginning. I’d spent the money on that record and god dammit I was going to get my moneys worth. Now if you stick a new record on Spotify, it needs to grab you in the first two songs or it’s fucked, let’s be honest. It feels as though people who have never consumed music the way we used to are missing out on this experience. The experience of listening to a piece of work, start to finish and noting the songs they love right away. Then over time the songs they’d disregarded start to grow on them and burn slowly into their favourite songs on the album.

Brendan Dawes echoed some of this sentiment in his New Adventures talk in Nottingham this year. For him it’s about the ease in which we can skip things, throw things away, move rapidly from one genre, artist or album to the next that he struggles with. He loved the discovery aspect of Spotify, but longed for something slower and more considered when actually consuming the music. His Plastic Player was born.

Quite some time ago Brendan bought a box of 35mm slides and thought that they might come in handy for something. As you can see from the video, inserting a slide with the album art of the record you want to listen to immediately starts playing it from the beginning. To do this Brendan programmed NFC stickers for each of the albums to connect to Spotify via the internal Raspberry PI and play the album you chose.

This resonated with me in a big way. Brendan uses his PLastic Player in his studio every day and I love the fact he’s built something to help him consume music the way we used to, one album, start to finish, listening to all of it and letting go.

Brendan’s love for the physical world and making physical objects is infectious and his talk at New adventures was one of my favourites of the day.

I can’t help but feel that artists are desperately reaching out for us to connect with their music the way we used to, to experience these that beautiful nostalgia that gets triggered by unexpectedly hearing an old song from your favourite album when you were 12 years old on a sleepy Tuesday morning. But we’re not listening anymore, we’r not paying attention like we used to.

I believe that we’re losing that deep connection to art that we consume digitally, like music, film, TV and photography. We're still searching for that connection but modern day tech, although it means well, is making it cheap to listen to any albums we want to immediately, cheap to start and stop watching endless TV, film and documentaries for the tiny monthly fee of £9.99, cheap to search google images for “amazing landscape photography”, consume the visual feast, ignore the artist's name and forgo any connection to the content or the creator.

Michael Stipe talks about "Losing My Religion”, the R.E.M. song I mentioned earlier, and how it’s not about losing your temper or civility, or being at the end of your tether as the phrase is actually used in the deep South, but is actually about unrequited love. The situation I’m in just now feels like unrequited love. It feels like 'the album' is still there and wants me to love it back, the way I used to, but instead I choose to pick my favourite track, save it and forget the rest. The way I’m consuming music isn’t loving the art form back, which if this pattern emerges and it’s not just myself and a few like me, that could mean the end of the album or LP as a format, which would be a devastating blow to music.

I don’t know yet how I’m going to tackle this problem personally. Maybe I should build a plastic player like Brendan. Or maybe I should start collecting my favourite albums on vinyl. Maybe for now I should be relentlessly mindful of ’the album’ and force myself to connect with it the way I used to.