When I initially bought The Cure’s Disintegration, I absolutely hated it. I resented the album because it was mopey, shapeless and way too good for me. I could tell it was great, but in some ivory tower sort of way that I would never fully understand.

Then I broke up with my girlfriend.

After that, it was like I was listening to the record through a completely different set of eardrums. Its ambiently undulating odysseys used to bore me to death; post-breakup, they washed over me like a Zen wave of remedial hopelessness. The Cure, indeed. For two weeks, I wanted nothing but to take long hot baths in the band’s angsty brilliance. Before, the record hadn’t even sounded like music to me. There had been no driving force behind it. It would just slosh tepidly in my ears like lukewarm bathwater. But when I listened to Disintegration on a family road trip the day after the breakup, it hit me that it was driven by emotion. What had previously sounded like background music cocooned me like a warm sweater as I slouched bleary-eyed in the backseat of my mom’s car. Heartache had unlocked the door to the ivory tower.

So as I sit here now, wallowing in this bittersweet nostalgia, a burning question springs to mind: What makes me like music? Being a music critic, this is particularly distressing. Had I reviewed Disintegration pre-breakup, I would have panned it as drearily plodding Goth sludge. But if I were to review it now, I would worship it as a slow-burn cathartic tour de force. So when I have only a week to listen to and assess a given album for the Daily, how can I possibly be expected to regurgitate a ripened opinion about it?

Now, I want to make it crystal clear that I am not trying to detangle this riddle of “what makes good music?” for the masses. Not at all. How could I? I’m tangled up enough myself. But what I am doing is letting you ride shotgun while I attempt to cure my own idiosyncratic confusion.

Music could easily hold the throne as the most subjective art form in the big, bad kingdom of art forms. And while we can bicker endlessly about lush arrangements and technical prowess and how fucked-up Bjork is, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, all that truly matters is the way music makes us feel. Plain and simple. It may sound trite, but it’s true. It is for me, at least.

It’s primal, sometimes even sexual. It’s a gut feeling I get every time I hear the guitar solo in “Summer Babe” by Pavement. Or the gooseflesh that explodes on my forearms like serrated Braille whenever Thom Yorke soars into his wraithlike falsetto. That’s when I know something’s working, how I know the music’s doing its job.

But is it?

If I’m driving my car down Main Street on a balmy April afternoon, with the windows down and the tantalizing aroma of restaurants I can’t afford wafting into my nostrils, I’m going to think whatever I’m listening to is a masterpiece. Hell, after having a stimulating conversation with someone, I could probably wax poetic to Lil’ Jon. Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but the point I’m trying to make is that my enjoyment and appreciation of music is strongly contingent on not only how it makes me feel, but also how I’m feeling before I even hear it.

So maybe that’s it. Music is like a padlocked treasure chest, and we need only to be in the right state of mind to ransack its riches. Fair enough.

But what about differentiating between the different creams of the crop, or between the albums I’ve already labeled as “my favorites”? Being a music elitist, I obviously need to have an all-time favorite album. You know, for when people ask. And when they do, I tell them Radiohead’s Kid A. But I could just as easily tell them In Rainbows. While the former may be what I deem “the perfect album,” the latter is my go-to; the one I’ll spin when nothing else is doing it for me. In Rainbows boasts the highest playcounts on my iPod by a complete landslide. It makes me giddy no matter what mood I’m in. But, as a critic, I’ll tip my hat to Kid A for its sheer sonic infinity. Every time I listen to the album, I’ll hear something I haven’t heard before. And I listen to it a lot. So which one is better? Which one is truly my favorite? I have no idea.

I guess the more important question is: Does any of this really matter? I like to think it doesn’t. Sure, this skittish self-analysis can provide for some thought-provoking cognitive aerobics. But if I’m stoned at Lollapalooza, Broken Social Scene is playing “Cause=Time,” and I’m so moved I’m on the verge of tears (hypothetically, of course), I’m not going to waste one second pondering why I’m in such ecstasy. I’m just going to feel it.

Bayer can be reached at jrbayer@umich.edu

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