There’s nothing quite like a milestone birthday to prompt a period of sober self-reflection. Having turned 30 last week, I’ve been in this mood for a little while now. The increase of that first digit in your age is a sharp, shocking reminder of the ceaseless progression of time. It’s a slap in the face. A voice that whispers, “you too will get old”. And as one grapples around for things to hold onto to make sense of the mass of time that has passed, music is extremely helpful. Songs have release dates. Sound is evocative of atmospheres and moods that you can pinpoint to certain moments in your life. ‘Heraclitus’ said that change is the only constant, but I’d say that music is one too.
I’ve been thinking about the music of my life, and particularly the tunes of my teens and twenties. (Of course, this doesn’t denigrate the importance of those three Westlife albums I cherished between the ages of 9 and 11, nor any of the 7 million plays of Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory on my Discman, but those times were long ago.) Between my 20-year-old self’s feverish anticipation for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and this year’s lockdown highlights from the likes of Yves Tumor and Fiona Apple, a theme recurs. Music matters to me because it has always been there for me.
I’m an introvert which basically means that I draw my energy from solitude. But for a long time, I didn’t know that’s what it meant and felt that it was a fault that needed to be fixed. Something to resent rather than celebrate. I remember periods of intense unhappiness that started in my teens and continued into my early twenties. Music therefore, is where I sought solace from artists who could conjure sounds and moods that resonated with my own.
So when I’ve looked at the 30 previous years of my life, it’s this ‘comforting’ music that has helped me to retrace my steps. A few examples stand out. Discovering Joy Division at 18 as the perfect soundtrack for teenage melancholy. Feeling adrift at 23 but being soothed by the haunting melodies of Arcade Fire’s Reflektor. Frantically attempting to channel the sarcastic humour of Father John Misty to quell first date nerves at 24.
And I think back to this time 11 years ago, as I turned 19. I’d just started university, full of nervous excitement for the biggest, most exciting change in my life. I’d been assured that these would be “the best years” of my existence and, ready to escape what I perceived were the confines of home, I was ready for a rebirth. But there was a problem. The introversion. The anxiety. I hadn’t considered that being in a world of BNOCs, banter lords and peers 24/7 could actually be a nightmare. I struggled and I froze up. I avoided doing the things I wanted to do and tried to just ‘fit in’. But I couldn’t really connect to people or make friends. It was a lonely time.
But in this low moment, I had music. I had my iPod, my speakers and my shitty earphones. And through this, I found grounding when my world was upside down. I started with the stuff I listened to before this madness started. I’d just been to Leeds Festival to see Radiohead. I was bumping Arctic Monkeys’ Humbug, Jamie T’s Kings and Queens, The xx’s debut. My family sent through a birthday stash of much-needed old and new records: The Horrors, The Big Pink, The Manics, TV On The Radio, Kraftwerk. I found a music shop in the city centre and came back with M.I.A, Badly Drawn Boy, and the DJ Shadow album my mate Ben had recommended shortly before we’d headed off to pastures new. I felt alone but I had a soundtrack. And soon enough, things started to get easier.
The joy of music has always helped me to cope when times have felt rough. Of course, it’s been there for the highs too, but it’s in the lows where I’ve needed it the most. The opportunity to tap into an artist’s careful expression of joy, sadness or something completely different is invaluable. And it’s funny how you can draw meaning from things that the artist never intended. DJ Shadow’s ‘Midnight In A Perfect World’ wasn’t written for a solemn walk under a black sky through Leeds’ Hyde Park, but for me it’s forever entwined with that setting.
Music is universal and dependable, and that is why it matters to me. Now excuse me while I find an appropriate score to weep to as I mourn my lost youth.
Words by Tom Burrows