What Does Love Sound Like?:
Why 1996 May Be the Origin of Love, or:
The Effects of Time and Space on the Perception of Popular Music
I am staring out at my back yard as the late afternoon sun drifts along the green pasture-like grass. This is the view from my kitchen through an old set of sliding glass windows (they slide up, if that helps). One of the windows is open to let the warm breeze of the day waft through the house. On a tree/bush growing next to the window I see a spider on its web. And the album “Now in a Minute” plays on the kitchen stereo. This whole setting is magnificent and I am as content as the spider before me.
I ask myself: What does love sound like?
I doubt that I have ever thought to ask myself this question before listening to the album “Now in a Minute” by Donna Lewis. Now in a (minute) post-NiaM world I have begin to recall other albums which beckon the same question but never with the potency necessary to bring about the formation of such an internal inquiry.
How did I get to this state? Purposefully seeking out this pop album from the mid-90s? The radio of course; hit pop songs reverberate for a great deal time on these invisible waves before their echo dissipates; some will echo on for eternity.
Waiting outside the Spitfire Bar & Grill with my friend Victor in his mid-90s Honda, sans modern stereo deck (making the relation of the car’s age to the song all the more solid), we passed the time with this device invented by Marconi. After the classic desperate search for a frequency band which contained more than just clever-ways-of-selling-us-junk we landed on a ‘good enough’ channel and began to chat. For some amount of time—a moment?—an eternity?—we sat in conversation before our ears were awoken by the sounds of “I Love You Always Forever.” I had, of course, heard this specific tune before (as I am sure anyone born before ’93 has), but at the height of this song I was too young to appreciate music in the particular way I do now. For nearly four minutes there was a silence between Victor and I as the song washed over us. The only words created by us were those of the nearly-unforgettable chorus (common to many a pop song) which sprang from our mouths like a long covered spring let loose, vaulting from the vaults of memory.
After the song finished, I asked Victor who it was. He did not know. And I attempted to file the song into my memory. But for some reason it did not hold firm. For hours I had to keep asking Victor to re-sing the chorus so that I could re-assemble the forgotten tune (as well as to hear him sing; fun times). Why had this song gotten me so excited yet, despite its pop structure, continuously slipped through the metaphorical fingers of my mind? The primary reason I wanted to remember the song was so that I could sample parts of it. But what about it did I like‽
That evening a bunch of us, including a friend of mine who earlier in the day utilized modern air travel and was essentially the catalyst allowing for me to hear this song, convened at Victor’s apartment. While there, in the casual atmosphere of a small group of friends, I was able to get Victor to place the song on the evenings playlist. Once again, a group of people, in light-to-deep conversation, were pulled away into non-speech broken only by the emulatory singing of the spell-like-chorus.
Here it was again. So soft. And smooth. Washed out and utterly sweet. With pads like velvet and a reverb sheen which envelopes the song and listener alike. The quiet but piercing muted guitar acting as constant rhythm following the computer-like hi-hats playing offbeat to the 4/4 pattern of the kick drum (reminiscent of music which emerged in the decade prior). So very clean, like fresh linen.
And then the chorus, with a change in the pacing of the pads, even more minimal than before, and the introduction of a fantastic clap. And those spell-like lyrics.
And then the bridge, with a piano which cuts through the soft, velvet like, wall of noise.
And back to the beautiful chorus.
Dream-pop. A musical style which exists in our current times but without near as much radio-play as it had seen in the past.
“you’ve got the most unbelievable blue eyes I’ve ever seen.”
I returned home later that night and got the album into my virtual-hands. I had not expected to enjoy it.
Sitting next to this album in my digital media list is “Endtroducing…..” by DJ Shadow. It was also released in 1996. This makes me feel torn, like being in two places at once. How is it that I can love both? If in 1996 I was the age I am now there would have been (likely) no chance I would listen to both Donna Lewis and DJ Shadow; it would have been one or the other; pop music or other. But now, with the insulation of time, things are different. I have experienced this before with other pop music. It always seems so crisp, clean, and polished. Is this really what I want from music? Sometimes, the answer is yes.
But you may be asking, with deep anticipation:
What about the likes of Lady Gaga(degoop)? Will she one day be something enjoyable? Or how about Britny Speers? Some of her music already has already seasoned for a decade, is she now enjoyable?
And to this I say, in extreme confusion, I don’t know. I already respect the Gagady for her understanding of how to ‘play’ the pop market. But do I want to listen to her music? No. What about The Britters? The answer is quite plainly, no. I dislike and will continue to dislike her music for the years to come (or if not, place a gun in my hands and give me directions for I will already be too far gone to even know how to operate this death-bringing machine. Then what is the difference between these pop-artists and Donna Lewis? In short: I don’t really know. I do, however, have a guess. This album reminds me a great deal of the album “Does You Inspire You” by Chairlift. Both have similar pop-æsthetics which manifests as soft, gushy, and utterly sweet music and lyrics. So perhaps these particular values of beauty are cyclical, re-surging after 10 years. Perhaps these values of beauty are reflexive and at some point the members of Chairlift listened to Donna Lewis and something about it resonated with them—nesting in their egg like minds and hatching 12 years later.
I simply do not know.
Another thought is the actual production elements of this album. All the music is written by Donna Lewis (with the exception of “Without Love” which has lyrics written by Dave Taylor). This immediately sets it apart from many mainstream pop music (although not all).
The list of equipment used for the album, as presented by our friend Wikipedia: Omnichord, Prophet, Mellotron, percussive scissors, and regular type stuff. The item which interests me a great deal is the Prophet. Yes, synthesizers are common on pop albums but, aside from ABBA, The Pet Shop Boys, and Eurythmics (all stunningly great pop bands), as well as MJ’s Thriller, the list of bands using this particular synth is rather… good: Radiohead, The Talking Heads, Pink Floyd, Cyndi Lauper, Kraftwerk, et cetera, et cetera. This is not to say that the instrument is used on this album in a mind-blowing way BUT IT SOUNDS NICE. AND I LIKE IT.
So, I praise and praise this album. Is there anything wrong with it? Yes. It is by no means a pinnacle of human creation. Some of the songs are dry, with uninteresting production choices. There are times when the audio effects, especially some the reverb on the vocals, are not of the type which I enjoy (think less gushy and more tin-robot-hallway-t-pain). Beyond this, some of the songs are boring with vocal work that can be a bit annoying. One could say, in a negative tone, that the lyrics for all of the songs have a single focus. But I do not count this as a negative because for most pop albums I don’t really care about lyrical diversity. And the focus is on LOVE so if that annoys you, fuck, I think you need to reassess your priorities (but really I think if you are on this blog you at least partially believe in the importance of love).
Like it or not, well made pop album are solid. They are not often remarkable from a compositional standpoint but, more often than not, the production quality is amazing. Sometimes they are lifeless. Other times they are truly amazing. Sometimes you get Heino and sometimes you get The Beach Boys. And maybe sometimes you like Heino, hell I don’t know. Just listen to what you think sounds good. Me, I like Donna Lewis. and Love.
- S. A. Bjørn