THIS MUCH we know: Music will never, ever sound as good again as it did when you were 16. It will never be as powerful, moving, all-enveloping, or seem as important as it did when you were a prisoner of your parents and your own hormones.
But that’s not to say we can’t be reminded of those grand old days of acne and the Velvet Underground (I’m speaking for myself here) from time to time.
It’s been a while since a song took me back to my days beneath an Andy Warhol poster; maybe the last time was my first encounter with Crying In The Streets, by George Perkins and the Silver Stars. (Disclaimer: I had absolutely no involvement with the struggle for black civil rights in 1960s USA.) But All I Can, from the Sharon van Etten album Tramp, does the job. A song about the debris of a failed relationship, it makes me want to laugh, cry and possibly, in its latter stages, fight a chair.
Some people might note that the track bears certain hallmarks of calculated emotional impact. (The harmonies; the driving rhythm; the slow-burning start swelling to a crescendo.) But those people are loveless mechanoids into whose clanking hearts joy will never penetrate. It’s a great, powerful song that follows many others by transmuting loss into anthem, and it deserves to make people stop and reach out for their loved ones. After all, how do we know how conditional that love might be?
That feeling is the same one that makes teenagers turn their stereos up loud, and write out song lyrics on their school bags and bedroom walls. That half-pleasurable lump in the throat is the sense that, just for a moment, your perspective has been renewed. (The difference being that when you’re 16 and every little thing burns you up, you believe it’s permanent.) It makes you want to hear the song over, and over, and it’s surely to be treasured.
“But my memory steals every moment I can feel,” Sharon van Etten sings on All I Can. And here’s the thing: when we find a song that makes us feel changed, we know it won’t last. That throat-lump (yes, I compounded that noun. What about it?) won’t always appear on demand. I could count off on my fingers the songs that have done the same down the years: Radiohead’s Black Star; Cat Power’s version of Sweedeedee. I remember when cranking up Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ would reliably bring up emotions I didn’t quite know what to do with.
But my memory has stolen the moments I could feel. Now when I listen to those songs, they’re so familiar that I hardly hear them. Or rather, what I hear sounds like a tired retread of what I used to hear, an efficient cover version without the original’s spark. Just as the tics of a lover can lose their arrhythmia-inducing power and become everyday, so van Etten’s song will gradually slough its special status, until it’s just one of the dozen or so in its little corner of iTunes.
That’s no great tragedy, though. Loving music isn’t complicated, or difficult, like loving people; it’s free and easy, and you can have it all. You’ll never be left, like our Sharon, “beyond all sleep/and I can’t speak” when a tune loses its lustre; you don’t have to take down photos of the two of you together and remember who bought which books. In fact, you can just casually move on to whatever else takes your fancy, like the robe-wearing leader of one of those polygamous cults. Your old favourites will still be there – well-worn, maybe, but faithful – if you want to return to them. And some day, with half a beer in you and a hankering for old times, you just might.