By Louis Greenstein
Janice Deal has compiled a playlist to accompany her wonderful volume of short fiction, Strange Attractors: The Ephrem Stories. I’ve now listened to the playlist around eight times while I reread the book. I suggest you open the playlist, published on Largehearted Boy, to have it available while reading this essay.
Strange Attractors takes place in and around the small town of Ephrem, Illinois. Janice has written poignantly about each song on the playlist—how each evokes a mood, a character, or a place in the book. I want to dig down into the songs themselves, comparing and contrasting them, not to characters and stories in the book, but to one another.
Each song belongs on this list in the way that certain characters belong in a small town. Each song is a citizen of the playlist. Each thrives here. Each inhabits a place nearby the others.
This is arguably the world’s first playlist to include Nick Cave (“O Children”) and Selena Gomez (“People You Know”), whose songs appear back to back, making them unlikely next-door neighbors. Or maybe not so unlikely. Cave’s lyrical territory is serious stuff—death, darkness, betrayal—while Gomez works more in pop music’s break-up-song sub-genre. Yet, like Cave, she is an excruciatingly self-honest artist, as revealed in her bold documentary about mental illness, Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me. Both songs are in a minor key. They belong together, like houses in the same development. I’d like to think that Cave and Gomez have interesting conversations over the hedge.
This is a great playlist for anyone with even a passing interest in indie rock, pop, and hip-hop. (One minor exception: “Spinning Song” by Albert Ellmenreich, a nineteenth-century Norman Greenbaum—a one-hit wonder remembered today solely for this jaunty, syncopated instrumental. Unlike the other songs on the playlist, “Spinning Song” actually appears in Janice’s story called, appropriately, “Spinning Song.” All the other songs are more subjectively tied to their stories; each features lyrics that speak to or reflect something about the characters in the story.)
Each song on the list contains a declaration. “I can ease your pain/Get you on your feet again” declares Pink Floyd; “I want it all/I want it all/I want it all” demands Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner; “The dog days are over/The dog days are done” proclaims Florence + The Machine; “Forgive us now for what we’ve done” intones Nick Cave; “And what hurts the most is that people can go/From people you know to people you don’t” insists Selena Gomez; “Come on and save me” states Aimee Mann; “We either think that we’re invincible or that we are invisible” pronounces Courtney Barnett; “Him and his men come in the club like hooligans” asserts Lauryn Hill; “Don’t get sentimental/It always ends up drivel” contends Radiohead; “Been around but now I’m gone” announces Kurt Vile. These songs assert themselves, like strong characters in a story, like neighbors you can’t ignore. The common themes are alienation, loss, and betrayal, with equal measures of redemption, hope, and justice.
Like neighbors, these songs inform one another. They declare—in a tone of quiet anguish—a yearning to connect, a desire to make meaning, a stubborn pushback against the ordinariness of life, a rebuff of loneliness, an urge to unify, a warning of encroaching darkness and a vague promise of light. When we tie these songs together, they really do behave like neighbors: individual lives with a degree of shared experience.
Pink Floyd starts off the list with “Comfortably Numb.” Numbness—comfortable or otherwise—isn’t generally a shared experience. One is numb alone. What is another way to describe loneliness? A diving woman, deep underwater, a “woman of regimen.” At the end of “Diving Woman” Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner sings, “You’ll have it all/You’ll have it all/We’ll have it all/We’ll have it all/I’ll have it.” That promise of abundance leads to the opening lines of “Dog Days Are Over”: “Happiness hit her like a train on a track.” More abundance, but there’s change in the air. When happiness hits like that, beware! “You better run” sings Florence Welch. Run from what? Nick Cave offers a clue in the next song: “Forgive us now for what we’ve done/It started out as a bit of fun.” “O Children” is a song of regret; it’s about a generation’s acceptance of its own hypocrisy. The next song, “People You Know,” is about the hypocrisy of friends who change into people you don’t know anymore; it’s an acknowledgement of time wasted on phonies. What pulls us out of the mire of fake friendships and hypocritical lovers? What will save us? Aimee Mann thinks it might be you. The song ends with “God bless you,” and before we know it, Courtney Barnett “can see Jesus and he’s frowning at me.” Why would He? Did you disappoint him? Are you on the wrong path? In “Doo Wop (That Thing)” Lauryn Hill raps about “Sirat al-Mustaqim,” the straight path to God. This song pulls together previous themes of hypocrisy, shame, and rejection.
Radiohead’s “Let Down” begins the completion of the cycle that started with “Comfortably Numb.” It’s a song about the uncomfortable numbness of modern life, the alienation, the existential loneliness, and the eventual letdown. From “Let down and hanging around” we join Kurt Vile “standing on the top of Mount Airy Hill.” He was around, he declares, but now he’s gone. Like a neighbor who left town overnight. Like a story that lingers in your mind long after you close the book. Like a song on a playlist you’ll listen to again and again.