I take the art of first listening extremely seriously. So seriously, my husband sometimes looks at me like I’ve got two heads and need to be institutionalized for a spell.
I have to listen to a new album on a physical CD in my car, only my car, preferably alone, and on a roadtrip. Sometimes I will buy a highly-anticipated album the day it comes out, but will reserve listening to it until I can make a getaway in my car. This is a sacred ritual to me, and to deviate from the formula can destroy my relationship with the album. Why? Because in my world, music attaches to memory in a symbiotic relationship.
I bought Ryan Adams’s album Gold when I was in community college, and I used to play that album from my house the entire 35-minute drive to school. “Nobody Girl” is the point at which I would arrive the back way to campus and my car would be taking the winding road into the parking lot. Every time I hear that song, and the line, “If your horses could talk, I wonder if they would complain,” I know where my car would be at that point during the drive, and it will always be connected.
I first listened to U2’s landmark album Achtung Baby on a rainy day after I’d gone with a friend and her family to a trip to Decatur. It was a depressing day, and I bought the CD from Circuit City, feeling I’d finally earned the right to listen to it. (My journey into U2 fandom is another long, long story; I gradually bought their albums one by one, leaving the best for last after I’d become familiar with each one.) This was the first listen I can remember not being in a car, and now I associate it with a gloomy day, rain, and being lost in the limbo of teenhood and adulthood. Even though I have since listened to this album countless times, I will always remember putting that CD into my stereo in my bedroom and turning up the volume to the first unfamiliar guitar riffs of “Zoo Station.” When I listen to a brand-new album, I’m not just putting it on as background, I am letting it absorb me into its strange territory; I’m feeling it out like I would the personality of a stranger. This is why I prefer to listen to a new album for the first time alone, so that the music isn’t interrupted by someone else’s take on it, and I can meet it for the first time on a blank slate.
This is why driving is important to me. Since images and memories bond so easily to new music, a changing landscape gives the songs their own unique impression. As can be expected, I try to take different driving routes for different albums and attempt to stay off the same roads. Sometimes an album brings about its own impression and doesn’t retain its first-listen memories; when I first listened to U2’s No Line on the Horizon, I took a drive with it and immediately felt this was the soundtrack for a drive along Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, with the surf crashing to the left, and the magnificent rolling hills to the right. I wouldn’t be able to make this vision happen for another year, but when I finally turned on that road and put on the album, it felt like the record was thrilling from the experience–it was in its proper environment, meant to be. That was the moment No Line blossomed.
I have an iPod, but I refuse to use it in my car. The car is reserved for CDs only. There is something so impersonal about a handheld device with a list of albums and tracks; gone is the tactile artwork, the lyrics on pages, the ease of knowing exactly where a CD is in your car and not having to look down to pop it in the mouth of the stereo. The iPod is for when I’m working and need a portable soundtrack to drown out the silence or the clamor of people around me–it is not a vehicle for picking apart the beauty and intricacy of music.
When I get a new CD my husband is interested in, he immediately wants to burn it to his iPod before I’ve even had a chance to listen to it. Such was the case for the soundtrack of Pearl Jam Twenty, and I would not let him have it until it had its first car ride. It sounds lunatic to utter aloud, but an album’s first use is the instance of it being born, and burning it onto a computer is like sucking out the soul before it’s had the chance to utter a note. Bat-shit I may sound in these beliefs, but music holds a more important role in my life than it may for most people. Music is inspiration. Music is a life force. Music is the one thing that transcends everything. The least I can do is to treat it with respect.
I am not of the vinyl generation, though I feel like I could tumble down that audiophile rabbit hole very quickly if I found the right turntable. My record collection is small, but I can see it growing with the advent of Record Store Day and a new surge in artists releasing special LPs. Maybe that will be my next step, but for now, I will stick to my traditions of the road and the newborn cries of a fresh album filling the cab while an ever-changing backdrop flashes by.
How do you listen to an album for the first time?