IT’LL GET SO QUIET WHEN THIS RECORD ENDS.
I am now six weeks in to this project of writing about a different record every week. Not much of a landmark, admittedly, but, if I’m truly honest with myself, it’s already further than I thought I would get, making it a long enough time to have prompted at least a little self-reflection.
Namely: reflecting on why it is that I even like listening to music on vinyl in the first place.
Now, I know what a lot of you are thinking: “aren’t you just a pretentious hipster who has spent far too much money on buying music in an impractical, heavy, and (above all else) expensive format that had been rendered commercially obsolete by cassette tapes and CDs before you were even born? Aren’t you just jumping on a bandwagon captained by music snobs in the vain hope that by aping them, some of their authenticity and authority will rub off on you? Aren’t you just a hypocritical millennial, who thinks that buying music that you could just listen to on the streaming service that you already pay monthly for anyway makes you somehow better than the rest of us?”
Well, my response is thus:
“How dare you say all of these entirely true things about me?”
In all seriousness, though – my record collection is very important to me, and I do think it’s worth exploring why that is. Anyone who has read any of these posts before knows that I’m in no way averse to a playlist or fifty, but to me, there’s a very different feel to analogue music. And it comes down to three main factors:
OK, so I’m hardly the first person to have pointed out that collecting things feels good; the enduring popularity of Panini football sticker albums is a testament to that. (Anyone got any Euro ’96 swapsies?)
But there is something special about collections of records (or films, or books, or games). Every entry represents a choice: why did this person pick this record, by this artist, in this version? How did they come by it? Why have they kept it? How do they organise their collection?
These choices and all these individual pieces of art are juxtaposed together to create an abstract profile of the person that owns them, reflecting their taste, temperament, and past and present obsessions. Give me an hour with a stranger’s record collection, and I can discover all sorts of things about them.
There’s a practical element to ownership of physical media, too. In 2019, so much of the media we consume is delivered to us via online platforms, lorded over by tech-bros. The content available on these platforms is subject to the ever-changing whims of licencing laws and big-money agreements between labels and streaming services. There’s a tremendous comfort, to me, in knowing that no matter what happens in the tumultuous digital world, I’ll always be able to listen to my favourite songs. Spotify and Tidal could go under tomorrow, YouTube could delete all music from its videographic library, leaving only far-right propaganda and make-up tutorials, and Apple Music could hold everyone to ransom by demanding exorbitant membership fees to gain access to music that the Apple corporation played no part in creating, and I would still be able to fire up the turntable and listen to Dreams Never End.
Financially, too, there are great reasons for buying vinyl: compared to the pittance that artists receive per every thousand streams on online platforms, with huge companies taking the lion’s share of dividends from membership fees and ad revenue, the cut of the profits that artists see from vinyl sales is enormous. If, as you definitely should, you buy from an independent record shop, you’re contributing to a wider musical economy: giving money to people who are passionate about and support music (and who pay taxes for local services, too). The recent resurgence of vinyl has been a lifeline for small record shops and indie labels, and without these crucial parts of the musical ecosystem, we’d all be at the mercy of the venture capitalists and tech-bro founders. But, comrades, let’s go no further down the social(ist) line of enquiry before I make a ham-fisted joke about revolution.
Because, as an item to collect, records are just so gorgeous and intriguing. I could (and do) spend hours pouring over beautiful artwork and reading intricate sleeve notes. The whole thing is fascinating: the weight of the pressing, the colour of the vinyl, the revolution speed (and whether it’s even marked on the record), whether a longer album has been squeezed onto a single LP or given the deluxe package of a double LP in a gatefold sleeve. Some records (particularly older, jazz and folk records) come covered in detailed liner notes about the production of the record, the commercial and critical reception of the music on its initial release, and biographical facts about the artists, rendered with an obituarist’s attention to detail.
Other sleeves have virtually no information at all. And, fascinatingly, this is just as intriguing – more so, even! As the stream-of-consciousness ramble of BARR’s The Song Is The Single has it:
What if it’s blank white, with really no cover? /
Well that leaves the meaning clear. /
No wait, it’s more vague, with no hints as to intention, /
Except that maybe the intention was to seem vague. /
Or not to have a cover. Maybe just there’s no cover.
To return to Movement, for a moment, just look at the artwork here. It’s sparse, minimalist, with vast swathes of space around the words and shapes – design elements it shares with Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. Yet, there’s colour where before there was none. It references New Order’s musical heritage, their clinging to the stylistic elements that characterised Joy Division’s sound before Ian Curtis’ suicide, but also hints at their future direction: their journey towards creating something lighter. The blue that would eventually become Blue Monday.
I’m lucky enough to have Movement in its original 1981 pressing, with its gorgeous sleeve in heavyweight cardboard, inherited from my Dad when he decided to get rid of his record collection.
And it feels like it carries some extra significance because of this. This piece of plastic encased in turquoise card has significance – emotional weight.
And that’s what I mean when I talk about personality within a collection. As well as the choice of records, there are the idiosyncracies of the individual records themselves: imperfections like little scratches and skips that burrow themselves into your mind’s ear, until they become a part of the composition: like a Pavlovian response. I now feel a sense of cognitive dissonance when I hear the Smiths’ Reel Around The Fountain without a tiny jolt between the first chorus and second verse. Through repeat listening, this little imperfection has become embedded in my version of the song.
There’s other wonderful mistakes within my collection, too: a King Khan & BBQ 7″ single which turned out to have a different record inside – I have no idea of the title of the song, but it’s good! My copy of Coltrane’s classic Blue Train has been erroneously labelled with two ‘Side One’ stickers, so to work out the correct order in which to play it, I have to count the grooves (or take a 50/50 punt).
All these little idiosyncrasies add something to the memories associated with acquiring, playing, and falling in love with the records in my collection. These associations simply aren’t made when interacting with music only on a digital level: I can recall the smell of the Newcastle record store that I visited once nearly a decade ago to buy an obscure noise record that I barely ever even play these days. Can anyone say the same for sitting at their desk and clicking on a new Spotify playlist for the first time? Maybe, but I certainly can’t.
One common defense of records as a medium for listening to music is that “vinyl is so much more textural”. I confess, this is a line that I used to readily nod along to, but, to my deep, private shame, never really understood what it meant.
There is, I’m sure, a technical explanation about how compressing music into a digital file flattens the sound, rendering the elements too smoothly into a single unit, while analogue music allows you to hear separate instruments more distinctly.
But to be honest, I’m less interested in that than I am in how it feels to listen to a record. (Maybe my opinion on this would be different if I could afford swanky audio equipment and a top of the line turntable… if anyone from Sonos, Audiotechnica, Richer Sounds or B&O is reading this, I’m more than willing to take back every bad word I’ve ever said about influencer marketing and sell out – have your people call my people.)
An incredible book which I never seem to stop recommending to anyone who’ll listen, called What We See When We Read by author and designer Peter Mendelsund, explores what happens in our minds as we turn the pages of a book. (It’ll probably come as no surprise that I much prefer reading actual books to digital versions.) If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to take a similar, phenomenological approach to the process of listening to music on vinyl.
There’s a great lyric which opens Songs: Ohia’s The Big Game Is Every Night – a track which I picked up on vinyl as part of a posthumous special edition reissue of Jason Molina’s masterpiece: The Magnolia Electric Company. I’ll probably write something about the whole record at some point, but for now, I just want to focus on the opening two lines of this bonus track:
“It’ll get so quiet when this record ends. /
You can hear the first hour of the world.”
As well as breaking the fourth wall – which, as a pretentious post-modernist, I am a big fan of – this reveals something about the act of listening to music on vinyl. From the moment the stylus touches the wax and that little crackle sparks up, the sound begins to occupy the space around me.
When listening to digital music – especially through earphones – it feels as if the sound is simply inserted straight into my brain – clean, efficient, smooth. With vinyl, I can almost feel the music in the room around me, pounding drums echo in my chest, wailing synths and guitars float above my head, words sung plant themselves front and centre in my consciousness, while words spoken seem to creep up behind me and whisper in my ear. The sound has presence: it occupies space.
And when a record ends – particularly at night in a dimly lit room – the quiet is deafening. When the presence of the music departs, it feels for a moment like pure, perfect silence.
For me, this is what textural sound means.
Barry Jenkins’s criminally overlooked 2018 film If Beale Street Could Talk (based on a novel of the same name by James Baldwin) places vinyl on a kind of spiritual pedestal. The jazz and soul records that adorn the character’s poky apartments offer a portal into bigger, better worlds.
Right at the film’s outset, at a family meeting where Tish announces that she is pregnant with Vonny’s child, her sister goes to the record player and puts on a Nina Simone LP. As the opening strains of That’s All I Ask ring out, the camera, which, for the rest of the film remains at eye level, looks down from above, as if the music has opened a rift into the heavens. Tish’s sister closes her eyes and raises her head in a reverie. The family sit down and talk, and with the pouring of some rum, saved for a special occasion, Nina Simone in the airwaves and hands held around the table, Tish’s mother announces “this is a sacrament.”
Spiritual connotations aside, I think this reflects that there is something deeply meditative about putting on a record. Even if the music is meant as background listening for another task, it is intentional – it demands attention.
To borrow a very 2019 buzzword, putting on a vinyl record is like mindful listening: for a short period, the record player becomes the focal point of the room, the music spilling out around it. Maybe this is just me, but when listening to music on my phone while out walking, I often realise that I’ve not consciously taken in one of my favourite songs; that I’ve missed a particularly perfect line or delicate little riff.
I haven’t been listening properly.
So I skip back and start the track again, but, even then, my attention still tends to wander.
This doesn’t happen to me when I listen to a record. I’m engaged with it – I’m really listening. And this is another wonderful thing about listening to music on vinyl – because it is so inconvenient to skip tracks or jump from record to record, you are almost forced to listen to the records as they were intended to be listened to.
Songs in digital formats are always just a click away. Intro too long? Skip. One album track from a release doesn’t grab you on first listen? Skip. A few tracks stand out to you in an artist’s whole catalogue? Stick them in a playlist, never listen to the rest again. It’s so convenient, but, like lots of things that are convenient, it’s a bad habit. Imagine if no one ever made a concept album ever again, and all that came out was greatest hits compilations. Music would be worse off for it.
When you listen to a great record as the artist devised it, you discover narratives that unfold from track to track. You suddenly hear little moments of magic in the tracks you may not have even listened to otherwise. The more you put into a good record, the more you get out.
That’s why New Order’s Movement makes me think about this stuff, in particular. Beautiful artwork aside, it’s not New Order’s best record by a long stretch. Their first release after deciding to reform the band under a new name following Ian Curtis’ death, it is a document of their struggle to find their own sound and reconcile their own grief at the loss of their friend. The wonderful Dreams Never End, with a sound nestled perfectly between Love Will Tear Us Apart and Ceremony, is the only track that makes it onto playlists that I make for travelling. But there are fascinating depths to be plumbed in the remaining tracks. If I didn’t own this on vinyl, perhaps I would never even listen to the other songs. I’d be missing out on the little synth stabs in Senses and Doubts Even Here, the Kafkaesque, wallowing beauty of The Him, or the surprising moments of light in Denial.
Essentially, I love music. Playlists are great – the convenience of listening to almost any song at any time in any place is incredible. But vinyl is different. For all of the reasons above, it holds a special place in my heart.
So, if you chose to read any more of these weekly posts on my LPs, know this: this is what I talk about when I talk about records.
A playlist inspired by this week’s record, in case your ears haven’t been treated enough yet today.