One of my favorite books of pop-culture philosophy is Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy from the early Aughts. In this text, de Botton takes the reader through a short survey of philosophers who offer solace to everyday disappointments and quandaries. Think Seneca, Epicurus and Nietzsche. However, philosophy is not the only thing in life, obviously, that can offer consolation. For me comfort often comes in aural form. Music often articulates emotions or a particular mood that words somehow cannot. The songs that make me feel better are often deep-seated, taking me back to a simpler time. Nostalgia is often, as a friend pointed out to me recently, fallacious. However, a beloved song doesn’t feel or sound fallacious. Music and memory are often entwined.
More to the point, music offers a proven healing power, lowering the blood pressure, decreasing anxiety and depression, among other things. According to a piece in Psychology Today by Dr. Michael Friedman, “We know now through controlled treatment outcome studies that listening to and playing music is a potent treatment for mental health issues.” Music is even frequently offered during medical operations or even MRIs as a calming device, a means of benevolent distraction.
Specifically, I’m talking about listening to the music at the core of your being—the childhood music, the music of your college dorm room, the summer night music (all of which usually come accompanied with positive memories).
Here are a few instances of music that does this for me:
- Van Morrison. Van is my go-to pick-me-up music. This makes sense on so many levels, as his music offers the listener such affecting, soulful melodies and a generally spiritual frame of mind. Van Morrison’s oeuvre is steeped in the blues and R&B, but his fingerprint is conjoining this with a seeking inwardness. “Into the Mystic” is, among other things, the aural equivalent of a fuzzy blanket on a chilly night for me.
- Lloyd Cole. One of my first concerts (Shawn Colvin opened), listening to Lloyd Cole with or without the accompanying Commotions brings me back to these early moments of discovery. His songs are sometimes ironic, witty and even spiteful, but his delivery is suffused with Scottish melancholy, the kind that makes this listener realize someone else is likewise afflicted. A song like “No Blue Skies” does the trick.
- The Cure. I didn’t jump on the Cure bandwagon until I was about 18, and even then I wasn’t a Goth sporting black eyeliner. I liked the songs. Disintegration is, of course, extravagantly depressing (on the surface at least). This was the appeal of so much indie college music from the 80’s and 90’s—the bands verbalized the disaffection that teenagers feel innately. Yet, for me the slow build of Disintegration provides a kind of relief. I’m not alone, I think. I think back to repeat listens to Robert Smith and the boys during the summer between high school and college and afterwards—these were heady times and this album in particular was one of the soundtracks to my life.
- Al Green. I discovered Al Green, as many others in my generation did, in the Pulp Fiction era (“Let’s Stay Together features prominently early on in the film). I was aware of Al Green before that, but hadn’t really listened. In many respects I am ambivalent about Tarantino, but one service he certainly did provide the world is to open its ears to lost or previously undiscovered gems. How did I ever do without songs like “Tired of Being Alone”? In terms of healing music, the Reverend does not disappoint, and now that I have seen him live I know the roses and pleas of “Can I Get a Witness” are no mere conceit.
- Chet Baker. Chet Baker holds a singular place in my heart, since his rendition of “How Deep is the Ocean” was my first dance at my wedding in 2004. However, the music he created despite a life of addiction and his aching phrasing (voice and trumpet both) somehow act as both a pick-me-up and balm.
There are many more. Saint Etienne. The Smiths. Cesaria Evora. Is it possible to feel depressed with Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” uncoiling in the background? I could go on and on. Perhaps this is the great contribution music makes in everyday life—it greases the wheels; it eases.
Everyone has his or her personal comfort music. I love listening to new music as much as anyone else and believe it’s vital to discover new tunes. However, let’s not forget to listen to those old gems that just make us feel better for whatever reason. It’s not always easy out there; music often makes it easier.