Rediscovering the Album

Quarantine has given one music writer the chance to listen in a way he hasn't done so in years.


Photo by Thanos Pal on Unsplash

We’re all trapped.

We’ve moved from conference rooms and cubicles to couches and kitchen tables. Bars are closed, restaurants are only offering takeout, and the best chance we have at meeting someone new is in the overcrowded aisles of the supermarket. These are dark times.

For the month I’ve been stuck at home at the time I’m writing this article, I’ve tried to cope with the isolation in several ways. I’ve used FaceTime and Houseparty so frequently that I can feel the radiation from my iPhone’s aging battery slowly mutating the cells in my hand. Scrolling through streaming services has become an art form. To maintain some level of physical fitness, I’ve begrudgingly become a runner.

All these activities have played their role in keeping me sane, however, nothing has done more for my mental health than my renewed love of listening to an album from front to back.

“But you’re a music writer,” you might find yourself uttering. “Isn’t it your job to listen to records?” Great question. And yes, that’s what I normally try to do. As an audiophile and someone who has spent more money than he cares to admit on vinyl and CDs, appreciating albums as singular works of art is something I’ve prided myself on. That’s why it pains me to say that the further I’ve progressed in my full-time career in advertising, the less time I have to dedicate to the album listening experience.

I became susceptible to streaming. Scrolling through playlists or my favorite albums in search of an easy dopamine fix became common practice. Choruses were mantras that subtly drew my attention just far enough away from the occasional mundane tasks, quieting the parts of my brain that were screaming “I’m bored.” Ambient songs helped me to lock when I was editing scripts.

But music can get lost in the shuffle while at the office. Verses are punctuated by comments and calls, and even when I attempt to listen to a full record, there always seemed to be a meeting just over the horizon.

The silver lining of being quarantined — if such a thing even exists — is that it’s allowed me to indulge more frequently in deep listening.

Putting on a record has become a consistent escape for me in a way that it hasn’t been since the days of living in my parents’ house with my Pioneer record player tucked neatly into the corner of my bedside table, oversized headphones at the ready.

Back then, I would put come home after a long day, put a record, and find myself drifting into a trance-like state, constructing scenes of prehistoric forests while listening to Yes’ Close to the Edge and imagining Billy Corgan’s guitar on “Silverfuck” as a serpent slithering around in the mist, waiting to pounce. I can’t explain how rewarding it has been to revisit these records over the past few weeks and construct these scenes once again.

It doesn’t hurt that this year has seen a litany of big-name artists returned with sonically expansive, lyrically personal to dive into.

Tame Impala returned after five years with The Slow Rush and Kevin Parker’s opus to the passage of time seems extremely topical at the moment. The album opens with “One More Year” on which he sings “But now I worry our horizons bear nothing new / ‘Cause I get this feeling and maybe you get it too / We’re on a roller coaster stuck on its loop-de-loop.” Yeah, that sounds about right. For nearly an hour, Parker melds his affinity for seismic psychedelia and dance-floor-ready disco with his yacht rock and hip-hop. On paper, it makes no sense, but when blended with Parker’s magic touch, it’s inspired.

Claire Boucher — a.k.a Grimes — gave us Miss Anthropocene, her first album since 2015’s Art Angels, a concept record about an “anthropomorphic goddess of climate change” in which “each song will be a different embodiment of human extinction.” The album is her most varied to drawing on trip-hop (“So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth”) to dream-pop (“New Gods”) to Bollywood-inspired cyberpunk “4ÆM,” offers enough variety that it can work as a philosophical exploration of man’s effect on the environment or as the perfect chill-out record for these dystopian times.

Unlike Parker or Boucher, Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, has always been less concerned with progressing so much as distilling. In his near-decade of existence, the Toronto R&B star has worked to dilute the X-rated persona that appeared on his trilogy of early mixtapes into something so palatable and catchy that even your mom can sing along. After Hours, his seventh album and fourth major-label release is one of his best. All the trademarks of a Weeknd album are here: his Michael Jackson-lite croon, Wu-Tang-style braggadocio, and a penchant for endless nights of meaningless, depraved sex after a breakup. Tesfaye peppers in club-ready singles like “Heartless” and “In Your Eyes,” giving you the perfect opportunity to dance, realize that you’re still not able to go outside, and return to something more melancholy.

Quarantine has also given me the chance to go back and listen to some classic records that I always told myself I’d get around to. The smoky hip-hop explorations of Tricky’s Maxinquaye have been the perfect companion to my more-frequent-than-they-should-be nightcaps. U.K. hip-hop, specifically the hyper-aggressive grime of Skepta and Wiley, has soundtracked many furious basement workout sessions. I’m even starting to talk myself into Blackstar being Bowie’s best record.

I missed having these conversations in my head — quietly reviewing, thinking about how an album relates to the rest of an artist’s catalog and constructing those images. It’s therapeutic. I don’t know how much longer we’re all going to be stuck in this situation, but until then, you’ll find me on the couch, headphones on, listening.


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