There’s nothing quite like pulling down an album from the shelf to invoke a little nostalgia. I smile at the hairstyles. Chuckle at the fashions. Recall the scenery. Each picture stirs a memory. The day I got dumped. My first paycheck. Best buds.
I’m not talking about photo albums, however. I mean album-albums. LPs. Records. The way people used to experience music. Back in the days when you had to bring something of yourself to the listening, rather than just take what you want.
Now, I am glad to have music always available. But, reading appreciatively of the current renaissance of vinyl, and envying the man with the largest record collection in the world, I am reminded of the ways in which CDs and digital files can rob us of a fuller experience.
First, the album provides a lesson in intentionality and delayed gratification. You don’t just hit “play,” but take part in a small ritual. Once selected, you pull the disc from its sleeve and do that little flicky maneuver with your fingers, turning it over to check for dust and scratches without touching the grooves. Then comes the hiss and crackle as the needle goes down.
When the music eventually starts, it’s so much more satisfying. It’s like a cup of tea poured from loose leaves and allowed to diffuse in a teapot. Somehow, it seems much richer than one from a teabag mashed against the side of a cup with a teaspoon.
Then, as you listen, you discover that you can only appreciate content in its full context. Playlists and mixtapes are fun, but they are just a collection of songs. An album is a selection of songs, the rhythm and order making a greater whole than the parts.
You know you’re of the album generation when a track on the radio or your digital player ends and you start humming the bars of the next song on the original record, only to get irritated when another completely random number kicks in.
Born to Run may stir you in a stand-alone playing, but you won’t really appreciate the appeal to Wendy without understanding how it springs from “trying to learn how to walk like heroes” in the preceding Backstreets. It’s a bit like just reading chapter 4 of The Return of the King because you like it when Frodo talks about being at “the end of all things,” without bothering with the rest of The Lord of the Rings and so fully understanding what they are.
Not all songs on an album are strictly sequential in a narrative sense, of course, but they are part of an emotional arc that gets lost when you slice and dice.
As a teenager, albums were my inner-language primers. They helped me give words to the emotions I was experiencing but could not clearly explain. They also gave me some of my identity: in the days before every piece of clothing had a logo on it, carrying an LP under your arm at school (ostensibly because you were going to lend it to someone else) was a way of quietly declaring your style.
This had its drawbacks, to be sure. If there was anything cooler than to be seen clutching the latest release by a major band, it was to have an album that no one recognized. This meant you were really hip. As a result, I ended up with a few LPs that had great covers but didn’t bear listening to more than once. With some, even once was too much.
Sadly, my album collection has been severely thinned by a couple of international moves and a season of excessive piety. But I am restoring it bit by bit, delighting in being reunited with some old friends in the dollar bargain bins at Orlando’s Rock and Roll Heaven. It’s good to see and sit with them again.
I’ll listen thankfully to music however I can: streaming, downloaded, or on CD (which sacrifices the tactile and visual experience of the 12-inch cover). I can even still play some of my old cassette tapes through my system. But there’s something about an album that engages all of me in a way those other forms don’t.