I’m by no means old, but I’ve lived long enough that I can mark the passage of time by the lives of others: I can remember the events around every presidential election since Bush/Dukakis, the players who were rookies when I started paying attention to basketball are in the process of retiring, and the actresses I have crushes on are starting to play moms.
But there’s nothing quite like following a band over the course of a lifetime.
I had the great fortune of discovering my favorite band, Yo La Tengo, when I was in college and the Internet opened up the entire musical world to anyone who had the fast Ethernet connection to find it. YLT were already well into their musical careers in the late ’90s, and since then they’ve not only remained together, they’ve remained really good, releasing a strong album every three years like clockwork.
When I listen to their albums now they evoke a pastiche of memories and images of where I was and what my life was like and what device I was using to listen to the album.
I went to a now-defunct record store to eagerly pick up And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out in 2000, very deep into the college experience, writing papers, with a sense that the future was in front of me. (CD player)
Summer Sun from 2003 evokes my early adult life in San Francisco, climbing hills and taking long walks home as the afternoon fog rolled in. (iPod)
I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass from 2006 conjures BART stations and hikes up a different hill – I had just moved back to San Francisco after a couple of years in New York and this was the soundtrack of my new commute and my return to California. (iPod with Video)
Popular Songs from 2009 is bittersweet, perched on the transition between being newly married and things falling apart. The song “Avalon or Someone Very Similar” was the soundtrack for a happy end-of-year recap video, “All Your Secrets” encapsulated that sense of hanging on, “And the Glitter is Gone” was a fitting coda. (iPhone 3G)
Now Yo La Tengo just released a fantastic new album, Fade, and I’m in a new place with a new life, and I’m sure in the future it will make me remember this time of transition into whatever is ahead of me. (iPhone 5)
I’ve seen YLT countless times in concerts too, but strangely, even as the audiences age with the rockers themselves, those concerts feel like points of continuity rather than marking the passage of time. Instead of bringing us back to the past, concerts blur into timelessness and remove everything but the now. It’s those quiet moments listening to albums on our own that take us back in time.
Music has such a strange power. It certainly doesn’t feel at all momentous when you’re listening to a new song, but that song places an anchor in your brain and it takes nothing but a repeat listen years later to bring memories rushing back to a time you might never have remembered without it.