After days of trying and failing this week, Cult of Luna‘s Somewhere Along the Highway finally got played in full yesterday. Glorious. But why the protracted arsing about just to play an album?
The conditions weren’t right. Nearly, but not quite. It is winter, which is a start. And we had the sub-zeros outside, finally. But it was also TOO BLOODY SUNNY every morning to do justice to Highway’s cold weight.
Winter music. Seasonal listening. Frosty bites. What gets you through?
Scratch that last question – it makes winter sound like the enemy, a battle to be endured and escaped from. It’s not. It’s Optimum Music Season. Short dark days and the great indoors are primed for music, books about music, and winter music selections.
This gives you every excuse to dig out some music specifically for the time of year and then agonise over exactly the right time to play it. You want to turn it into a 3-D experience: surround sound with seasonal mood and vision.
As we know, some albums just sound better at certain times. Not like there are any rules, rights or wrongs about it. It’s down to preferences. But, more than any other time of year, winter encourages this hibernatory Right Moment fixation.
For example, David Bowie‘s Blackstar and The Next Day (and a few other Bowie albums) are never bright-light listens. Not for me at least. They’re autumn-winter affairs or soundworlds for the smallest hours. The dead of night? That’s when they’re most alive. Never the heat.
Henry Rollins touches on music’s relationship with time, season and place a lot in his books, and it’s one of the things that makes him a really good music writer. He writes as a fan, not a critic. You won’t get in depth reviews or high brow critical perspectives, he knows that’s not his space. But you do get words and fanaticism about buying music, playing music, what memories it stokes, when it got/gets played and what it soundtracks in life. And when you read this, you realise you’re not alone in your nerd-world musical indulgences. He’s out-nerding everyone, doing it for a living. It’s on a different scale. But it’s good to know because it validates your own quirks.
Back to seasonal sounds, though. Which albums make for a winter-enhancing selection box?
It starts with the nice long seasonal build-up to Christmas. Childhood pop for the magic-of-Christmas mainline (Frankie Goes to Hollywood ALWAYS, some other pre-teen pop as well usually). Uncool 80s metal for another childhood link. Lyrical storytelling and sparse folk – Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, Michael Chapman – for long nights, low lights and late mornings. Accessible jazz or blues, ditto. Post/Scandi metal for the harsher realities once the Christmas vibe is retired.
On top of that there’s a pull towards music that’s warm. Not sunny warm but intimate warm. Close-up instrumentation warm. Analogue 60s/70s productions warm. Late-era Beatles, that kind of stuff.
Something new that really tuned in to the 70s analogue spirit this winter was a 2021 album:
If Words Were Flowers by Curtis Harding.
Ho-lee shit, go check it. Ultra warm soul with just enough backbone funk to swing a tail. Gospel sweep and widescreen strings. Bass clarinet rasps and tenor sax uppers. Soft psychedelic fuzz. Hip-hop stiffness on the beats. And I dare you not be melted by The One‘s gentle heavy groove.
File near Mayfield, Axelrod, Kiwanuka? This might be glib and obvious (what did you expect) as a batch of references, and maybe I’m riding high on the first-plays thrill of a new discovery that’s fitting the mood, but it’s all we can manage right now. Haven’t even checked the lyrics yet.
Tip? Crank it up on a walk out in the frost. Soul with a scarf on.
Veering off now to a different thought:
When will Nick Cave and Warren Ellis do a winter album? Even wilder, what about a Christmas one?
Surely it would leap to the top of the seasonal stack with Low’s Christmas and the Sufjan Stevens box set. Quiet moods, small-watt ambience, ghost tales, long shadows – Cave & Ellis are surely built for this? COME ON FELLAS! Let’s get the rumour started. They’re a fixture in my seasonal listening anyway, might as well go full hog with an official St Nick Christmas Album.
Right, that’s it for now. Nice talking with you. See below for a few words on three winter aces, lifted lazily with no edits from a previous post. The sentiment’s the same.
BJORK – Vespertine
Top of the winter pops is Vespertine, always. Somehow, it’s the essence of snow in musical form, yet it doesn’t sound like it’s contrived to be a winter album – it feels like it just turned out that way. Hidden Place pushes against wind and snow drifts before the chorus sweeps you up and out, flying over white patchworks. Frosti, Aurora and An Echo, A Stain make for an especially frost-twinkled run of three, but the whole of Vespertine has a softness of sound that is flakes falling, ice forming. Magical. It only ever gets played at this time of year. That’s the deal.
NICK CAVE AND WARREN ELLIS – White Lunar
Where Vespertine exposes your inner wonder to winter’s call, White Lunar tracks the harsh, bleak end of the same season – let your mind go with The Rider #2 or Zanstra and conjure a whiteout. Song for Jesse and Micro Sucker could have fallen from Vespertine’s branches, but really, it’s isolation and loneliness that dominate these heavy scores …. like Srey Leak, disc 2. Plug in for barren, wintry detachment from civilisation this Christmas.
CULT OF LUNA – Somewhere Along the Highway
Or Salvation. Or Vertikal and Vertikal II. But probably Somewhere Along the Highway. Less seasonal than the others here, but I always get more Cult of Luna in the diet in winter. Slow-moving, heavy and intense, the Swedish post-metal masters rarely waver far from their template and yet, like Mogwai, refine it pretty much every time they put a record out. This, their fourth album, may be their best. Dim soars to a higher mellow than they’d managed before, and Back to Chapel Town is a timeless snowbound pounder. Just get the whole album on, it’s a class act.