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How to escape without leaving your room

By April 5, 2020May 22nd, 2020No Comments

Stuck inside, and with the boundaries between work time and down time more blurred than ever, never has the need for a form of escape been more vital. Music critic Andrea Cleary writes about how listening to her record collection is providing a means of getting away, from the timeline, the desk, the new, the screens.

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It’s before the separation, so I must be six or so. I’m sitting on the floor of our council flat with my dad, playing with one of the only ‘luxury’ objects in the house. It’s an early edition CD of Pink Floyd’s Pulse, a limited release with a flashing LED light built into the side of the packaging. It’s powered by a single AA battery which should have lasted around six months or so. I never see him change the battery, but the box is always blinking, seemingly alive, in the cabinet beside the television. 

This is my first memory of music as an object. It required permission to take it off the shelf, and if you weren’t careful you could break it. I learned the difference between the background noise of our kitchen radio and a full-length record. I learned the tangibility of listening. We weren’t a particularly musical family. Most of my childhood was spent moving from one house to another, and record players were, understandability, non-essential objects. Perhaps that’s why this memory burns so bright – that we took the time to turn the television off and sit with an album feels unbelievable to me now, knowing how close the family was to splitting altogether.

  Image credit: here

Image credit: here

Before pressing play on an album, we’re already forming an impression. For Pulse, it might be that it’s forward-looking – at technology, innovation, creativity. Moreover, there’s something here that is, or at least does an impression of being, alive. It’s a live album after all, why should it not have its own power source, a beating LED heart?

Albums are rarely solely audio formats. Sometimes they’re visual albums (like Beyonce’s Lemonade), sometimes the accompanying liner notes are creative writing exercises in themselves (jazz and classical record liner notes have a particular writing style rarely seen elsewhere in the business), sometimes they’re creative, interactive projects like Father John Misty’s I love You Honeybear workbook. 

Twenty-three years or so on from sitting on the floor with Pulse, I’m a music critic. A lot of my work day is spent with music. Listening to it, researching it, and writing about it. It sounds like a dream for a music fan, and most of the time it is. 

It’s a lot of emails about new tracks, albums, interviews, and debuts. Basically, a lot of admin. It’s become easy – necessary even – to give in to digital music, especially in this job. Most new artists have neither the time nor the resources to send physical copies of their music to reviewers, and most reviewers don’t have the time to listen to it.  This also means that, these days, I’m usually found tethered to some kind of device – a laptop or a phone – by a headphone cable or a Bluetooth connection.

If the screen isn’t in full view, it looms somewhere nearby, inviting me to open a new tab, scroll twitter, check my emails. Listening is work, and work is listening, and at a time when the barriers between work and rest are muddied, this can confuse why I do the thing I love in the first place.  In the corner of my bedroom – as far away from my desk as I could put it – sits my LP player. It’s an Audio Technica LP60, one of the better quality ‘starter’ players. Beside it there’s a small collection of LPs – around 45 or so – stored in boxes with the sleeve edges facing up.

It’s a small corner in a small room that, due to recent global events, has stretched to become the landscape of almost my entire world. It’s easy to get up from my computer desk, walk three steps, and fall into bed. Rinse and repeat until all semblance of routine dissipates, and being alive is synonymous with being moored to a screen.

My records have become an essential aid in walking away from the news, the screen, the timeline and desk.  I’m aware of the snobbery associated with the so-called ‘vinyl renaissance’. I spent many years hanging out with ‘audiophiles’ – a term usually used to self-describe those who think investing in the highest quality, most expensive hardware is essential to listen, like really listen man, to an album. Note: I have never met a woman who identifies as an audiophile. 

They’ll scoff at people who enjoy the ‘crackle’ sound associated with listening to records. Good set-ups won’t give off this sound, they’ll say, and people who enjoy it are listening to music wrong (!).  I love this sound. I love watching the record spin on the turntable, the needle picking up on the microscopic imperfections on the surface, connecting what I’m hearing to the tangible environment around me. When the needle drops on the record there is, for a couple of seconds, a new kind of silence, like the ringing static of an old television set just switched off. Making palpable that which is usually invisible. 

I’m less interested in the sound quality of listening to records than I am in the ritual of the thing. Running my fingers along the stacked LPs. Choosing the right album to suit my mood. Carefully taking the piece from its ornate sleeve – the record itself designed to be held delicately between thumb and forefinger – before placing it on the turntable, and dropping the needle. The sound quality of the room changing – scratchy now, warmer, the physical ridges in a circular disc rising to meet the delicate needle. 

It invites – forces even – attention. Sometimes I’ll lie down and close my eyes, or read the liner notes and lyrics along with the record. Other times I’ll sit and watch the disc spinning on the turntable, my digital-native brain marvelling at this analogue process.  Many of us are spending this strange time learning new skills – baking bread, cross-stitching, knitting. Something about a global crisis, and the anxiety associated with it, invites us to use our hands. To reconnect with the physical world. It’s grounding, and it’s good for us. 

Today, while taking a break from writing this essay, I decided to listen to my copy of Radiohead’s OK Computer. An album which, when I bought it on CD at age 15, changed how I listened to music, and gave me a new vocabulary to talk about anxiety. Today, it’s transformed by the world I hear it in. Though recorded in 1997, the unease of today’s pandemic seemed to vibrate from the turntable, and I heard some of my favourite songs in the world in a new way once more. 

The album is 53 minutes long. While I struggle to sit still through a 10-minute guided meditation on an app installed on my phone, today I managed to lie on my bed and stare out the window for almost an hour, breaking only half-way through to turn the record over. I held the sleeve in my hands, grounded in the physicality of it, reminded of the magic of the LED light box. When it was finished, and the needle mechanically returned to its resting place, I sat for a few minutes more, readjusting to the silence.

Main photo by Travis Yewell on Unsplash

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