Have you ever had an experience so closely linked to music that hearing the familiar chords of a song is like pressing “play” on a memory?
I know that hearing the happy birthday song probably reminds you of celebrating birthdays and I imagine things like the first dance at your wedding would stick with you, but I’ve found it also happens with more mundane recollections.
For example, whenever I hear The Avett Brothers’ “Tear Down the House” I remember a very specific time I was listening to it while eating a croissant. Man, what a great song. Man, what a great croissant.
Anyway, I don’t know why my brain decided that that particular moment was so crucial to record in my long term, musically-prompted memory, but there you go. The mind is ~a mystery~
Similarly, Arcade Fire’s 2007 album, Neon Bible immediately triggers memories of the summer after my freshman year in high school. When I hear the rhythmic, pounding bass of “No Cars Go,” it’s like I’m there.
I went to summer school for freshman English after having lived in Sweden for a year. It turns out English class in Sweden means learning English as a second language, not reading To Kill a Mockingbird or learning the form of a sonnet. Which is to say, I killed it at English class. Watch me conjugate these irregular verbs like a pro, suckers! But when I got back, I was very behind. So every morning I would bike to the nearest Max station (Portland’s equivalent of a subway), hop on a train, cross the city, and go to class.
The stop was some 250 feet underground (the deepest in North America as it happens), buried into one of Portland’s hillsides and accessible only by high-speed elevator. Claustrophobes beware. The tunnels were eerie and silent except for cave-like echoes emanating from somewhere deep and dark and the occasional crescendoeing roar as trains arrived.
I was usually alone. It was dull, dark, and slightly creepy. This proved to be the perfect environment to listen to Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible.
In fact, the first track, “Black Mirror” begins with an amplified noise floor that sounds extraordinarily similar the ambient sound of the tunnels. The noise builds and grows, like the rumbling approach of a train, but instead of the screeching, metal-on-metal arrival of a subway comes a triumphant burst of piano and drums. Phenomenal.
Plus, the album delivered a hearty dose of angst, which paired well with my general lack of enthusiasm about having to go to summer school.
Amidst a dramatic organ, Win Butler sings on “My Body is a Cage”: My body is a cage that keeps me//From dancing with the one I love.
So is summer school, Win, so is summer school.
When the train eventually surfaced and glided through downtown Portland, Arcade Fire’s music, rife with a beautiful sorrow and a grungy, urban sound, paralleled the increasingly downtrodden neighborhoods the train passed by.
The hip, gentrified parts of downtown gave way to vacant buildings of the saddest Chinatown you’ll ever see. These are the parts of Portland that won’t be graced with any airtime on the hit TV show, “Portlandia.” The homeless population intensified. I thought about the growing gap between the haves and have-nots of this city. Of this country. I thought about social injustices and environmental degradation and the innate unfairness of life, the world, and high school.
As I looked out the window, Win crooned:
Their names are never spoken
The curse is never broken, the curse is never broken
Un, deux, trois, dit miroir noir!
The torment! The shame! The French! It was perfect. The music just fit in a way that cemented those melodies with that commute.
With three days remaining in my six-week class, I was biking home from the train stop after a long day of worrying about the state of humanity and composing couplets when the strap of my bag broke. In a deeply unfortunate piece of serendipity, the bag fell down my shoulder and lodged itself into the spokes of my front wheel.
I came to a very, very sudden halt. Or rather, my bike did. I kept going. Newton’s stupid law of inertia and all that.
I’ve heard that sometimes when something bad happens, everything seems to move in slow motion. For me, it was a rapid and disjointed succession of three moments:
- I was on my bike
- I was suddenly not on my bike
- I was picking myself up off the pavement, wondering exactly what I was doing down there in the first place and why the right side of my face was so wet.
When I realized that my helmet had cracked in two and the substance pouring down the side of my head was, in fact, blood, the situation became much more concerning, but in a strangely objective sense, like I was watching a movie of someone else.
One short hitchhike to the nearby Oregon Zoo’s first aid station, a couple bandages, a visit to urgent care, the repeated expelling of my stomach’s contents, and one sleepless night later, it became clear that I was very concussed.
To be honest, though, I was pretty happy about not having to attend the last few days of summer school.
I didn’t go to that train station for a long time after that. More because of circumstance than ambivalence. Summer school had ended, I took a bus when school started up in the fall, and pretty soon I was off to college and my family had moved away from Portland anyway.
So, why am I telling you all this? Because just yesterday, with a click of the “shuffle” button, the familiar strummed octaves of Neon Bible’s “Windowsill” began to float like a melodious cloud of nostalgia from my speakers. This produced an immediate and potent recollection of getting a concussion, summer school, the most decrepit parts of downtown Portland, and standing alone in a dark tunnel.
These are not nice things.
And yet…I listened to the rest of the album and proceeded to fall in love with it all over again. Which tells me that Neon Bible must be a pretty gosh darn great record.
So that’s my music review. Go listen to Arcade Fire. And wear a helmet.
Cover image via arcadefire.com