Soundtrack for a Memory

You may have one. THE ALBUM. THE SONG. It may not have been good then, when it was new, and it may not have aged well. But its sound is a time machine. The moment it takes you to is far back or deep down, and the memory aches in a way that makes you smile. That’s the whole reason you sometimes pull the CD out of its case and pour yourself a glass of something — maybe wine, maybe whiskey — and remember.

My album is Hard Candy by Counting Crows. I don’t remember why I bought it, but for the fall of 2002, it had a near permanent home in my car’s CD player. Beginning to end and end to beginning. The songs were a strange intensified echo of what was going on in my life.

These are the circumstances: I thought I was trying to be in love with two men at the same time. The real situation, in retrospect, was that I didn’t realize I wasn’t in love with my boyfriend of four years, and I found myself desperately infatuated with someone else. Inevitably, without being technically unfaithful, I was lying to everyone, myself most of all. My boyfriend had to have been willfully ignorant (he was pretty smart except when it came to me) because not one of my friends was fooled by anything I claimed. Hence, the comfort of Adam Durwitz’ voice cracking on emotion that melodies could not contain.

The intervening years (and the influence of my husband) have changed the way I listen to music. Reactions are still viceral, but the depth of the experience flows more from the music itself, and less from outside associations. So a couple of weeks ago, I started wondering how I would react to this album if it came into my life now. Because of those few months, a bloated emotion experienced within a negligible duration, I have a relationship with these songs that colours any objective evaluation of their merits. But the real question is does that matter? Do I need to be able to extricate the music from the memory to evaluate it in terms of present experience?

As a mini-experiment, I put Hard Candy into heavy rotation on my iPod (listening from start to finish once every few days) to see if the separation was possible. For the first few listens, the memory was so vivid the experiment seemed like misplaced nostalgia. I could recall the roads I drove, the texture of the air: late autumn, late night sharpness spiced with fallen leaves drenched in late season rain and early frosts. And of course, each song had underlying harmonics of emotions that had absorbed too much of me for too long.

I should have known it was all related to Pavlovian conditioning: the dogs eventually stopped salivating at the sound of a bell. Each time I listen to the album now lessens previous associations. By asking the question, I began being able to evaluate this one album on its own terms. Eureka. Or something. Because it isn’t quite that simple. Complex neural patterns have been established in my brain; I still enjoy the memories and want to maintain some aspects of their intensity while understanding that none of those people really exist in present terms. Weakening the link is valuable only if I want, on occasion, to enjoy the music itself.

I’m not sure these questions will have any long-term effect on my relationship to music in general, but I’m glad I took the time to explore. I know now that Hard Candy appeals to me on a level beyond objectivity. Guitar riffs, lyrics, over-dramatic production burrow deep into my skin and feed me on a level deeper than analysis. The memories can slide in and out of the experience as they please. I’ll just pour myself another glass of wine. And listen.