The virtues of musical nostalgia

Tuesday, October 4, 2016 - 12:16pm

Its arrival has been made known by way of an invasion of temporary storefronts, the grossly premature selling of seasonal decorations and, most importantly, the sudden ubiquity of pumpkin-spice products. The weather seems to have officially turned. Fall — or, for the more sophisticated among us, autumn — is upon us.

Though there is a sense of newness to the season, with students returning to college or going for the first time, fall is primarily a time of intense nostalgia, of loss and — at its core — of death. The collective excitement of welcome weeks across the nation has been all but suffocated by the looming presence of midterms, and many new students — even those who have found stable communities at university — are starting to realize that the transition to college doesn’t maintain the glamour that characterizes the first three or four days.

Even now, in my second year, I find myself longing for — craving, even — the days in high school when my childhood friends and I would drive over to Robinette’s, the locally famous cider mill, and take home a dozen cinnamon sugar donuts to devour before debate team practice or the football game. It was easier to think in more immediate terms then, with no worries about meeting major requirements or landing that internship. Especially with schoolwork constantly stealing away any and all free time, finding that same mental space that was so common in high school — those two hours of relaxation void of responsibility — can be a challenge.

Now, let me be honest for a second: my goal in writing this article is one that I believe to be hopelessly abstract. I have no idea whether I am capable of accurately conveying what I want to convey. What I do know is that there is a burning, ambiguous feeling of nostalgia which, in intervals, consumes my entire being. It is melancholic, but in a rosy, comforting way.

It almost seems wrong to connect this feeling to music, associating such an abstract concept with concrete artists, albums and songs. But I would be peddling flat-out falsehood if I told you that artists like Pedro The Lion, San Fermin, Daughter, Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes — among countless others — weren’t crucial contributors to this pure, unashamed nostalgia. In fact, as I sit and write this piece, mournfully observing the dreary weather — forecasted to continue through tomorrow’s football game — a copy of Bon Iver’s new (and, I’ll add, excellent) 22, A Million spins on my record player. When I turn it up and close my eyes, remembering, imagining, reliving the countless late-night, angst-ridden walks soundtracked by For Emma, Forever Ago is effortless. In an endeavor to kickstart the creative process (by throwing myself at the feet of nostalgia), I even bought half a dozen cinnamon sugar cake donuts. Now, only one remains, and an already half-empty gallon of apple cider sits in my fridge.

In the fall of my sophomore year of high school, my then-youth group leader played the song “Diamond Ring” by Pedro the Lion for all of us young’uns at our annual kick-off. The message was clunky, and the lesson didn’t flow well, but the music stuck.

It stuck then and it sticks now. Earlier this week I bought a ticket to see David Bazan — Pedro the Lion’s frontman — on his living room tour show in Ann Arbor.

It’s a funny thing; four years have passed and I’m not sure anymore whether Pedro the Lion’s music is even good. That’s not to say I have any doubt that it is, but that I have too much personal history with it to even try to step back and assess it from an “objective” standpoint. His distinctly agnostic, borderline rock permeates every recent memory I have of this beautiful, sorrowful season. His rich, contoured voice induces the kind of sadness in me that, in direct opposition to intuition, makes me feel good about life in its entirety. As the pressure of midterms increases, Bazan’s deeply personal, yet readily relatable narratives remind me that, even if I were to fail — today, tomorrow, in school, in life — there would still be such divine, absolute beauty in the world that my failure couldn’t possibly matter, even if the beauty I envision is specific to my experience alone.

For your sake, I hope that you have an equivalent. It doesn’t need to be Bon Iver or Pedro the Lion or even music at all. Maybe rereading your favorite book is what catapults you back to simpler times, or maybe it’s a certain food; I really don’t care. The only thing that matters to me — in the context of this article, anyway — is that you find whatever it is that gives you this feeling and that you embrace the hell out of it. It may initially be deeply unsettling; this feeling is one that requires us to confront our most emotionally vulnerable selves. By acknowledging and engaging with it, we are forced to ask ourselves certain questions. Why do we long for the past? Why are the emotions of yesterday so completely inaccessible today? Was I happier then than I am now? It’s often difficult to say.

Nostalgia paints our memories in richer hues — more satisfying and more alluring tones — than the actuality of the memory, but its intent is pure. When I get into that mood, that funk of wishing that I could go back in time and space, one of two things can happen. I can spend the rest of my week lost in my head, burying myself deeper and deeper in the folds of If You Leave, by Daughter, or Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Alternatively, I can relish the melancholy and strive to create the sort of moments that will fill my mind during these same nostalgic days years from now. Making that choice is easier said than done, and there are times when slipping into the former state can be absolutely cathartic, but the message is ultimately simple and cliche: carve a pumpkin or two, drink some cider, go for a walk in the arboretum and live a life you can look forward to remembering.