It started out with a New Year's resolution.
I’m not a big-swing resolution guy. I prefer to shoot for smaller, more manageable goals; less “I will run a marathon by year’s end,” more “spend less time on my phone, already.” And so, as 2019 decayed into 2020 (and before 2020 itself decayed), one of my aims was simple, albeit something that will either seem obvious or counterintuitive coming from a music critic: “Play more music around the house.”
The fact is, just about all of my listening in recent years has been quite targeted; I listen while I’m working, or running, or in the car. And these, I’ve come to realize, are almost exclusively solitary habits, except when my 5-year-old is a backseat captive when I’m running errands. So I resolved to put albums on whenever the house was quiet for no good reason. And like all right-thinking Americans, I was doing a great job of failing to keep even such a simple resolution.
Then came the quarantine.
On March 13, my son’s preschool closed, followed quickly by the library, his sports program, the playgrounds, and anything else that might occupy him outside the house. Which means that I’ve been scrambling to fill the hours with something to keep him engaged, distracted from the disruption (and the scary thing causing it), and entertained. There’s been games, there’s been Lego, there’s been books, there’s been crafts, there’s been zoo videos, there’s been dance parties, there’s been his kindergarten activity book.
And there’s been music. As if chastising my lack of action, the pandemic and attendant self-isolation have provided a perfect opportunity to dive into the promise that mine would be a house full of music, if for no other reason than to help make Chutes and Ladders bearable. So the opportunity to fill the silence finally presented itself rather starkly. I just had to figure out what I would fill it with.
Sometimes fate programs the playlist for you. It turns out that if you pick up your request of the eight-disc “The Girl From Chickasaw County” literally the day before the library shuts down, you’re gonna find yourself listening to a whole lot of Bobbie Gentry. As someone who’s had and admired her debut album, “Ode To Billie Joe,” and stopped precisely there, I’ve been enjoying the wild ride through highlights like “The Delta Sweete” and “Fancy” and lights quite a bit lower. Happily, the beautiful hardbound book included in the package readily acknowledges when Gentry was poorly served by her producers and song-choosers, as well as when she barely bothered to make an effort herself. It’s a terrific warts-and-all collection with a full-career sweep. The next time the shutdown of society is imminent, you could do a whole lot worse than to get yourself a massive full-catalog box set of an artist you’re curious about and just let it unfold.
And sometimes fate’s less kind. When Fountains of Wayne/Ivy/Tinted Windows/"Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" musical linchpin Adam Schlesinger died at the start of April from COVID-19 complications, it was inevitable that I’d spend time mourning his loss. As someone with a hand in a great many musical projects I’ve adored over the last quarter century, he occupies a sizable chunk of my CD collection, and it’s been bittersweet to finally, at long last, appreciate Ivy’s “Apartment Life” for the terrific little melancholy pop album it is, as well as pick up on the sporadic charms of “All Hours” and “Sky Full of Holes,” the final Ivy and Fountains records that left me cold at the time.
Curiously, the Schlesinger albums I’ve been reevaluating fit in with the particular musical itch that I’ve been scratching when left solely to my own devices. Where others might be retreating to comfortable, familiar records in these agitated times, I’ve been driven for some unknown reason to shine a light down darker corners . . . of the comfortable, familiar areas of my collection. Rather than revisiting constants and mainstays, I’ve been consistently picking my least-favorite albums from some of my favorite artists.
First came “The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle,” the scruffy street-serenade cycle that was Bruce Springsteen’s last gasp before becoming truly great. Then came Kate Bush’s “Lionheart,” neither as pure a singer-songwriter album as her debut nor as commanding an art-rock statement as what she’d start delivering once she fully blossomed with “The Dreaming.” The Undertones’ “The Sin of Pride,” abandoning punkish simplicity and teenage pop hooks for soulful ornateness and political/religious commentary. Supergrass’s “Road to Rouen,” the Proclaimers’ “This Is the Story,” Stevie Wonder’s “Music of My Mind.”
None of them my usual go-tos when I crave the artists in question, and all of them suddenly calling to me. Maybe it's because my favorites are never too far from my ears as it is; right now, I'm checking back in with the ones that have strayed. They're my Prodigal Albums, and my response to being stuck at home during a global pandemic is to welcome them back with open arms.
There’s one other factor taking control, more fickle and uncontrollable than fate itself: my 5-year-old. He directly insisted on two albums, the “Josie and the Pussycats” soundtrack (yanked from my Schlesinger pile, perhaps because of the cat-eared girls on the cover, and including an instant favorite in the sugar-rush come-on “Come On”) and Gotye’s “Making Mirrors” so he could hear “Somebody That I Used To Know” from his car-ride playlist. (A brief aside: You know what we all collectively slept on, to our lasting shame? Literally any other song from “Making Mirrors.” That should not have been a one-hit-wonder album.)
He also found new obsessions, some obvious in retrospect: There was Sly and the Family Stone’s Woodstock performance (he especially loved the boom-a-lacka-lacka-lackas and the ooh, sha shas) and Bootsy’s Rubber Band’s “Bootzilla,” which featured an instantly appreciated “Yabba dabba doo, baby!” But Ivy’s sweet, unadorned “These Are the Things About You” lacks such exuberant nonsense and became his new favorite song nonetheless. And even with Sons and Daughters’ “Mirror Mirror” prompting one of his few legitimate meltdowns (score one against brittle postpunk), toward the end of “Bee Song” I saw his shoulder — just one — twitching up and down rhythmically. “What are you doing, buddy?” I asked. His reply: “I’m dancing.”
I could go on. And I will, now that I’ve gotten back into the habit of listening to music casually, rather than with determined focus. It turns out that putting a record on as background music, strangely enough, can actually help to foreground it. If it helps pass the time in self-isolation, that’s fine all by itself. If it helps a prematurely-minted kindergartner develop a willingness to explore beyond the confines of our six car-radio stations and his 60-song iPod playlist, even better.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to put on Patty Loveless's marvelous "Dreamin' My Dreams." It starts with "Keep Your Distance." Sometimes the quarantine picks its own music.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacecitymarc