Molly Long reminisces the ‘repeaters’ of her life—albums that gradually defined her identity through repeated listens.
Here’s an exercise. Make a list of every album you’ve ever listened to more times than you could possibly count—every album you recognize within hearing the first fraction of a second, every album your friends have gotten annoyed that you put on too many times. You know the kind of album I’m talking about. I like to call them ‘repeaters.’
Pick one. Listen to the first song, and let it pull you into the second—realize you have memorized even the length of the pauses. What does it remind you of? Who does it remind you of? Does it bring you back to a moment the same way a scent would? How did it feel to breathe in the air that winter? Who sang along to all the words with you?
A couple weeks ago, I started making a list of my repeaters. At first I wrote every one that came to mind. What was I listening to during my vegetarian phase? What did I keep putting on when that guy I dated in Denver would come over? I would think the list was complete and then, two days later, realize I had left out one of my favorite albums, and along with it some era, some experience that shaped me.
Then I began to arrange them in order. Soon they formed a constellation. It was as if my experiences had an arc to them, a plot. They told my story, maybe not as someone else would tell it, but as I would. Listening to them was like listening to the soundtrack of my life.
It would be impossible to write about every single one of my repeaters without writing a full autobiography. But the albums below are a few of my most significant repeaters and the memories they bring back to me.
I’m eleven years old at a sleepover, and my friends and I are having a fierce debate over who gets to be which Spice Girl. We’re all on a basketball team together and usually fight over who gets to be Sporty. I don’t mind being Baby instead—when I take the quiz at spicegirls.com to see which one I am, sometimes I get Sporty and sometimes I get Baby. One of the answers to a question on the quiz is “ribbed condoms.” What are ribbed condoms?
After we’ve decided who’s who, we line up in a row and play “Wannabe” on my friend’s CD player. Having studiously reviewed the lyrics insert while listening to my own copy of Spice in my room, I’m ready to recite every word, even the fast talking parts. We dance and sing along in unison, “If you wanna be my lover / You gotta get with my friends / Make it last forever, friendship never ends.” We pretend to be our designated Spice Girl as the rest of the CD plays, awkwardly imitating their British accents. I go to the bathroom, put my hair in pigtails and look in the mirror. I tilt my head to the side and twist one pigtail around my finger the way Baby does in Spice World.
Back at my house the next day, I put on Spice again and replay last night in my mind. My brother comes into my room and makes fun of me for listening to the Spice Girls. I feel a vague shame, like I’m being silly, like he knows something I don’t. I shut the door and keep listening anyway.
I’m in the living room, watching whatever my brother is watching on MTV. The video for “Buddy Holly” comes on, and he perks up and says, “Oh man, I love this video, it’s so cool.” I’ve never seen or heard anything like it. It looks like they’re on this old show—it’s Happy Days, he tells me—and they’re dressed up in these weird old clothes. I don’t understand what he means he says he looks just like Buddy Holly, but I like it.
A few weeks later he buys the Blue Album. Sometimes I hear it playing from his room, or he plays it in the living room. We like to sing along to “Undone – The Sweater Song” together. I like the funny image of this guy’s sweater unraveling from his body and the prick of embarrassment I feel when I sing the word “naked.”
The summer after 7th grade, I go on a trip to London and Paris with my geography teacher and a few other students. Before leaving, I sneak into my brother’s room and take the Blue Album from his CD rack. During the trip, when I’m feeling bored or overwhelmed, I play it in headphones on my Discman and let the fuzz fill my ears. I realize I haven’t listened that closely to the whole album. I begin to love the moodiness of “In the Garage,” “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here,” and “Say It Ain’t So.”
In 8th grade, I meet another girl who knows all the words to “The Sweater Song,” and we become best friends.
I’m in 9th grade, laying on my bed and listening to a mix CD my friend made—the same one who knew all the words to “The Sweater Song.” I’ve been spending a lot of time in my room lately. I recently had a meltdown and started seeing a therapist. I feel weird that everyone knows I cry for no reason all the time. They don’t understand what I’m thinking, and I don’t want them to. I’m reading The Bell Jar for the second time in a row.
“Case of You” comes on, and I sit up. The woman singing sounds sad, but there’s a wistful optimism in the way she bends the melodies upward. “I could drink a case of you, darling, and I would still be on my feet, oh I would still be on my feet,” she sings. I’ve felt that, exactly that, but I couldn’t put it into words. If anyone can understand me, it’s her. By the end of the song, I’m crying. It will all be okay, I think.
I figure out the singer is Joni Mitchell, and the song is from the album Blue. I’ve heard my mom talk about her before. She happily buys me the album, and I listen to it over and over in my room. It indulges my angst but is so beautiful that it also leads me on a path out of it. When I feel awful, I listen to her sing, “Oh I wish I had river I could skate away on.” But then, closing my eyes, I imagine the places and the characters she describes in “Cary,” “Little Green,” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” Maybe when I’m older I’ll be like her and live in interesting places and meet interesting people. In the title track, she sings:
Songs are like tattoos, you know I’ve been to sea before
Crown and anchor me or let me sail away
I think I’d like to go to sea someday.
It’s junior year. I just lost a lot of weight, and my acne cleared up, and I got a new haircut. And I got contacts. And I started wearing cardigans and flats instead of t-shirts and sneakers. Everyone treats me differently now. I’m starting to hang out with a new crowd, the ones who get good grades but also drink on the weekends with the cooler older kids sometimes. They’re all listening to The Shins, so I go out and buy a copy of Oh, Inverted World.
While giving a ride to this girl I’m trying to impress, and I put on “New Slang” and say, “If you turn this song up all the way, as loud as you can, and drive fast, it kind of feels like you’re smoking a cigarette.”
She nods approvingly and says, “Yeah, you’re right, it does.” Later, at a party, I hear her repeating this observation to someone else.
I’m 18 and painfully close to graduation. My boyfriend is an intelligent but dysfunctional 20-year-old. He knows a lot about music. He doesn’t have a car, so we always drive around in mine. We listen ironically to the cheesy classic rock stations that play Rush and Journey all the time. He doesn’t like that kind of music, but his knowledge of it is encyclopedic. We both get good at making jokes about it.
I start hearing some friends talk about this Beach Boys album Pet Sounds. I used to listen to The Beach Boys a lot with my parents when I was a kid, and it just seemed like fun pop music. But it sounds like people take this album seriously. My boyfriend says it’s good, so I buy it, and we start listening to it all the time instead of laughing at classic rock. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older / Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long,” Brian Wilson belts from the speakers. I want to be older, too, I think. I project myself into a future where I am some better me, more experienced, more adult.
We break up before the end of the school year because he’s making me sad all the time. He has some problems I don’t know how to handle. For months, I think I’m still in love with him. When I listen to Pet Sounds, I think about us driving around together. I hate that my associations have ruined such a good album.
A few months later, I listen to it again and again until it doesn’t remind me of him anymore.
I’m 19 now, driving 100 miles an hour on the highway to Norman, Oklahoma with my roommate. “Molly!” he says, “Slow down!”
Until yesterday, I hadn’t heard of Grizzly Bear, but now we’re listening to Yellow House and driving four hours from Arkansas to see them. One of the kids who lives at the DIY venue told my roommate he should listen to them and go to the show. He asked me along, and it seemed like something I would regret missing. I haven’t seen that many real shows before.
Now I’m getting so excited listening to this CD and thinking about the show that I keep forgetting how fast I’m going. We make it there early and mill around until the DIY venue kids get there. I’ve been eyeing them from a distance for a while. They intimidate me. Wayne Coyne is at the show, and one of them challenges him to a foot race. He says no. Finally, the show starts, and the full, lush noise sweeps me into hypnosis. I can hardly tell who is doing what. They sound like angels who fell from heaven into a forest. It’s the best show I’ve ever seen.
For the next few months, I listen to Yellow House during my aimless drives down tree-lined country roads. Sometimes I want to have the sensation of going somewhere. I’m waiting to transfer from the university in my hometown in Arkansas to Sarah Lawrence in New York in the fall. I gravitate over and over again to “On a Neck, On a Spit,” as it whispers to me, “You can’t come home again / Each time it’s different,” the wind cutting against me through the open windows. I certainly hope so, I think.
It’s my second year at Sarah Lawrence. Because my first year was lost to a truly awful relationship, I’m just trying to stay sane. I spent the summer drinking too much, so I wouldn’t think about what happened. I started hanging out with this guy who was into a lot of dark, weird music that sounded how I felt. Now I’m trying to figure out how to download all these things he introduced to me and find music without his help. It’s incredible how much is out there I never knew existed. Somewhere in my internet wanderings, I find Colour Green and start listening to it most nights as I’m falling asleep. Sibylle Baier’s voice is dreamy but precise. I study the way she sings and the way her songs unfold.
At school I’ve been keeping to myself mostly. When I get home from classes in the afternoon, I play covers of Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Neutral Milk Hotel, Fleet Foxes, and Patsy Cline using a cheap mandolin I bought from a friend. I like singing every day. It makes me feel completely present in a way nothing else does.
My friend starts taking me to these dubstep shows in New York City. It’s 2009, and my friends from Arkansas still don’t know what dubstep is. It seems new and different, so I go along with her and observe the spectacle. She’s into tougher music, punk rock, heavy psych, and electronic stuff mostly. She thinks folk is for pussies. She likes beats because beats have no feelings. For a few months, we go to shows almost every weekend. I feel tired and over-stimulated. My brain is being beaten like an egg.
When I get back to my dorm room after our dubstep excursions in the city, all I want to do is hear something peaceful. Listening to Sibylle Baier, I can breathe again. It’s a reprieve from all the neon lights, aggressive bass, and shady dread-locked characters. Next year, I decide that I won’t go to these shows anymore. The sleepy, pretty ambience of Colour Green captures me better than Rusko or Bassnectar ever could have. I spend a lot of time thinking about the importance of intimacy and subtlety. It’s the first time I’ve found music I identify with so well that I could imitate it.
The next year, I find DIA while looking at year-end lists over Christmas break. First I listen to it through laptop speakers while folding laundry, paying only a little attention. It sounds hazy and difficult to penetrate. I give it another go on the way to someone’s house, my laptop hooked up to a tape adapter in the car I’m borrowing from my mom’s friend. By the time I get there, “In Caroline” is playing, and I sit in the car and listen to it until it finishes. It sounds kind of like the Velvet Underground, or in any case I have the same feeling I got when I first heard them.
These sounds unsettle me, and I want to crawl inside them and figure them out. I persist with my listening throughout the week and get hooked on “By the Bridal,” a slow, swelling psych-pop anthem. The more I listen, the more salient the songs become. I learn it’s one guy, Damn McMahon, who recorded it a couple years earlier in a cabin in the woods. He didn’t intend for it to be heard by anyone necessarily. Eventually he sent it to a friend who, after hearing it, asked if he was okay. That must be why I like it—the isolation, the dark honesty of the mood, even when you can’t understand what he’s saying.
I’m not good at saying directly what I’m feeling either, but maybe I could express it in sounds the same way he did. I realize it doesn’t matter what comes out or who hears it. I just have to be sincere. For the first time, I write a song I actually like. I make a primitive recording of it in an illegal copy of Ableton my friend downloaded for me. When I listen to it, I feel relieved. It’s like I’ve excised a tumor from my body. I have to keep doing this. I have no choice.
Listening to these albums now, I try to imagine what they would sound like if I hadn’t listened to them so obsessively. I try to describe them to myself objectively, journalistically—Spice is a dance pop album that succeeded on its charisma, Blue is a piece of finely crafted songwriting, Yellow House is a trendsetting psychedelic indie folk album and on whose wings Grizzly Bear achieved a small semblance of mainstream success, etc. At first it seems unnatural to reconcile their greater cultural significance with my own personal associations. But that’s exactly how albums push culture forward—by embedding themselves into the thoughts and feelings of so many different people.
Right now, I keep going back to Angel Olsen‘s Half Way Home. Sometimes I wonder what it will remind me of when I listen to it in five years, or ten, or twenty. Right now, I don’t know. It’s hard to tell which parts of your life will stand out in your memory, and what shade of feeling will come back to you when you think of that time. Like the fish is the last one to discover water, my current self can’t understand how my future self will conceive it. I have no doubt, though, that when I listen to those two albums in the future, they will transport me back to now.
Do these albums shape my experience, or do I shape my experience with these albums? The answer is both. Art doesn’t just tell us who we are—it lets us decide.