The Heartbreaking Power of Music
The first time I heard She Cries Your Name by Beth Orton was on the television show Roswell. Alex had just died and this was the expected teenage montage of mourning as Liz looks at pictures of him. But the song took the moment from indulgent to absolutely heartbreaking. Listen to it:
The opening sequence alone is enough to pull forward the ancient keening of Irish Women standing along the rocky shores as their men disappear into the distant mist. This song haunted me after the first time I heard it. When I finally found the artist and bought the CD, I was obsessed. I worked in a used bookstore in Brooklyn at the time and would play this over and over during my shifts as I sorted and shelved tomes others had passed on. It was probably the best job I ever had.
Music has the unique ability to drive itself into your body, to fill the space between you and nothingness with it’s power. I love music that reverberates in my bones. That’s part of what gets me with She Cries Your Name, it’s the slow slide at the beginning, it’s willingness to hang in the air and saturate your mind until you’re properly prepared for the experience of the song. It tells you, hold on to something, what’s coming is going to knock you on your ass.
There have been other songs, at other times in my life that represent that deep resounding pain that only music can explain. I try with words, but I wish I had the skill to create music, to divine sound that reached into the soul and infested your being until it crawled its way out of your chest.
Done Wrong by Ani Difranco devastated me what I was in college, dating a man so wrong for me it wasn’t even funny. It felt like someone else had felt what I felt, that someone somewhere understood and had survived.
PJ Harvey has always been my favorite for just this reason. I could pick a dozen songs of hers that would bowl me over without any effort. Their mere existence was enough to comfort me. The raw visceral power of her anger, her un-winnable battle against the realities of being a woman in the modern world, her self-destroying unwillingness to compromise, told me for the first time that there was music out there for me. I loved Nirvana, I longed for the aching perfection of Nine Inch Nails, but there was nothing like that written for me. It was, to put it simply, boy music. When a beautiful girl I had a mega crush on in ninth grade made me a mix tape and included PJ, for the first time I was validated. My inner well of rage had an outlet and as I fell deeper into infatuation with Megan I fell firmly in love with PJ Harvey. This is the first song of hers I ever heard:
As I’ve gotten older, my tastes have mellowed. I’m more likely to listen to Tom Waits or Kristin Hersh, and I’m currently a little obsessed with Bitter:Sweet, but the through-line remains. I long for music that vibrates with truth, that uses every sound available, be it voice, bass, drums or just a harmonica, to express something beyond the words. Music inspires me to write, to feel, to think bigger than myself.
What do you listen to? Why? What songs have invaded your mind and set up shop, unwilling to leave you alone? Link me here and I’ll check them out.