An Autumnal Playlist

By Michael W. Harris

The first frost has hit the Boulder, CO, area, and there is snow in the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains. Playoff baseball is here, and jackets are being brought out from storage. And a subtle change in music selections has taken hold on my iPod.

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Fall colors appearing in Boulder in September.

I have never been a person whose musical tastes shift that much with the seasons. I don’t have “summer jams” that I break out every summer, and my personal “Top 100” playlist, carefully curated, is a mix of many different styles and time periods. I consider myself a musical omnivore and will usually give most music a try, even if it takes a few years to finally getting around to listening to it.

But in the past few years, since I moved to Boulder from Longmont and have started spending more time walking places—especially to work and back—I have found myself adjusting the music I listen to when the autumnal chill starts to creep into the air.

Last fall, two albums that found a heavy rotation on my iPod were Bruce Springsteen’s dark and brooding Nebraska and Van Morrison’s lyric and melancholy Astral Weeks. And this fall, two more albums have begun to enter that rotation: Sigur Rós’ ( ) and Bon Iver’s debut album For Emma, Forever Ago. For years, friends had been trying to get me to listen to both of these artists, and I had actually given both a listen around 2011/2012, but for whatever reason, though, they failed capture my attention. It probably has something to do with being knee deep in dissertation research, but they were also not what I needed at the time musically. During those days I needed minimalism, and lots of it. It was the best music I found to accompany my dissertation writing.

But thanks to yet another suggestion by a good friend, I decided to give them another try and this time I heard them with open ears and was awed.

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The view of student housing looking towards the Flatirons this weekend.

What makes ( ) and For Emma so perfect for autumn is their fragility, their weariness, and the cool distance evoked in their sounds. Vocals and instruments work together to create an aural version of autumnal melancholy that sets in as leaves turn and eventually fall. The feeling of the first flakes of snow falling to the ground as you have to hold one another just a bit tighter to fight the oncoming cold air.

Interesting facts: with the exception of ( ), all of the albums I have mentioned are largely acoustic, and two of them (Nebraska and For Emma) were initially just demos recording by the artist alone and eventually released in their initial “demo” state.

Taken together, these four albums are perfect companions for a hot drink (bolstered with a shot of the liquor of your choice), a warm blanket, and good company. It would also serve as a musical companion for a walk through the woods or a casual drive through the back country. Anything to keep one away from the hectic lifestyle of twenty-first century, always on America.

Autumn is a time of reflection, of sadness and melancholy. Twinges of nostalgia, and pangs of regret. The vacations you didn’t take, the people you didn’t see. Students return to school as we reflect on autumns past, filled with alternate waves of sorrow and joy. Friends far away and glory days long gone.

We can never go home again, and autumn is both a symbol of that while also being a reminder of home itself. Annual homecoming football games, many times connected to reunions, are a triggers of memories of days ago, encouraging us to try and return to where we grew up, to say nothing of American Thanksgiving. And yet, autumn is the season most associated with death and ageing. Both Halloween and the autumn harvest are celebrations of the dichotomy of life and death—the fragile line between the two, and how the cycle of seasons reflects the cycle of life. We all must die eventually as our bodies return to the earth that gave us life while sustaining us during our many seasons upon it.

And I hear all of these things in these four albums: Astral Weeks; For Emma, Forever Ago; Nebraska; and ( ). There is a fragility reflective of the passage of time, the melancholy of nostalgia and regret, and the embrace of our mortality. Each artists approaches this in different yet strikingly similar ways. The falsetto voices used by Bon Iver and Sigur Rós, the strict acoustics used by all except Rós, the poetic and melodic lyricism of all of them, and the gentle sensitivity demonstrated in each song on every album.

This is not hard rocking party music. Leave that for summer. Even the Springsteen album on its most “rocking” tracks have more in common with folk singers than with his Born to Run sound with the E Street Band.

These albums just glide along, sweeping the listener into autumnal soundscapes. Crashing against the listener with wave after wave of nostalgic memories and wistful thoughts. Put them on in quiet moments when you truly have time to listen and reflect.

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