Some evening ago, a friend and I sat in the basement of a restaurant. The entire room lit only by a few well-placed Edison bulbs suspended in the dark, while a smattering of candlelight ambulated amid the scattered conversations. Lost in our own world, we reflected upon relationships and addressed their inherent malleability. It seemed, despite our instinct to construct an illusory sense of predictability, relationships take on shapes and forms that we never thought possible. Like the candles lit across the room we were in, connections seemingly cast their own shadow upon the wall of our minds, alluring illusions, that lead us to believe that they possess projected qualities or properties that when viewed under the light of day, can reveal immeasurable alterations in scope. We envision the end of a marriage as all-encompassing, taking over the entirety of our lives when in actuality, the encounter can be both concise and brief. While a friendship bourne from immediate necessity and love of obscure music can be the foundation of a lifetime.
Our culture asserts that romantic partnership is the pinnacle or ideal form of connection. Despite the statistical (and my own personal experience) truth of divorce, the increase in single people over the age of 30, and a high level of discrepancy when it comes to socioeconomic status in dating partnerships (a number of the women in my life who are leaders in their field have been unable to find partners that can match their frequency). Originally, I meant this playlist to be released on Valentine’s Day. I envisioned it as an opportunity to explore the gravity of our relationships, not just that of traditional romantic partnering. This is a playlist created to explore, express, and enunciate the language of love as seen from multiple perspectives. Love has so much to teach us.
At times it teaches us with its presence.
At times it educates through its absence.
Regardless, the only thing left to be done is to embrace, who we are, who we’ve yet to meet and to whom we say: “See you later”.
From the beginning, Frank Ocean's "Provider" presents us with his desire to meet up with his best friend yet finding himself stuck in a loop ( A subtle reference to producing music). The song moves through impressionistic images of all the things he encounters inspiration from Stanley Kubrick, to Talking Heads, to shoegaze music. As we bob our heads along to the textured beats, Frank's chorus reminds us to acknowledge the value in "the feelings you provide". Proposing that we are inherently tied to things that we discover and that it is up to us to decide how we " feel lettin' man speak for me" when we could, of course, speak up for ourselves through our own expression and art. The song ends, optimistically, with a sense that by choosing to provide for others through his work, "tonight I might change my life, all for you".
As the song evaporates, Beck approaches soon after and implores that "heaven bring its hammer down" as he navigates the complexity and nuance of loss. He asserts that in some way :
"something always takes the place
Of missing pieces
You can take and put together even though
You know there's something missing"
This brings us to the questions:
1) What is it in your life that you have lost?
2) How does loss define us?
3) What does it mean to allow this loss to transform us into the entirely new puzzle?
As Beck's melodic confetti shifts and swirls into the Air, "Playground Love" begins to take shape with delicate keys that evoke the nostalgia of an old romantic film noir that we've never seen and have only felt in the innocence of our affections for that unspeakable, unreachable, unattainable and yet dream inducing crush. The rare love in our youth that defined for us the feeling of a rush as we swung on the swings of emotional highs and lows.
Soon after the saxophone fades,"After the Storm" by Kali Uchis draws us into dawning realization that those we fall for have their own unique journey, stories, and "demons". Kali's sultry voice affirms that we have to:
"Just look in the mirror (just look in the mirror)
No one's gonna save you now
So you better save yourself...
The sun'll come out, nothing good ever comes easy
I know times are rough but winners don't quit
So don't you give up, the sun'll come out
But we've been struggling endless days
Someday we'll find the love
'Cause after the storm's when the flowers bloom"
As Bootsy Collins and Kali repeat in falsetto, that we need to "try, try, try" We hear the stirring strings of "Watch Me". This generously beautiful song brings the sheer intensity of asking for the gaze of those we love. Whether it's a parent, a friend, or partner we cannot escape the desire to:
"Watch me when you look my way
See me smiling, be my night and day Touch me in your own sweet way
Feel me tremble you take my words away"
The lead vocalist ends with an uptempo mild scatting of the melody, inducing a playfulness like a child nursery rhyme until "Nobody Other" reverbs like a melodic bird in a cave. The gentle plucking of guitar strings fits the haunting thoughts of sacrifice that the narrator relents:
"Sacrifice for you my love
Take away my heart and flesh for you
Find another you to love"
For many of us, love brings a sense of sacrifice and an asking to be swept away. This sentiment is carried within the wind chime of the approaching track "Hideaway". Such a wonderfully playful tune that, like love, seems to move to its own imaginative structure playing by its own rules and seemingly none at all. By the time Jacob Collier's voice appears, you can't help but fall for the inherent depth of his vocal range.
A standout line ---
"touch me like I've never been loved before".
As the song "falls away", Sufjan Stevens picks up the gentle vibes and relies upon his trusty banjo as he walks blindly, "seeing without his eyes" and fumbles through the cave of vulnerability and stark nakedness underneath the blessed "Mystery of Love". This song was featured in the praiseworthy film (& novel),"Call Me By Your Name" which came out last year and weaves the story of two star- crossed male lovers. Definitely, you have my recommendation to see it if you can.
"Thing Could Be Better" continues to expand the theme of complicated love, relationship, and bonding. To better understand the nature of love, we have to push the boundaries of scope and view. Empathy is about mastering the ability to see not just others, it also requires that we see ourselves with compassion. Steven Bamidele confesses that he might not always "be there for you, I'll root for you somehow". At times, we have to remember that an immediate action may not always yield a constructive result or impact. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't affirm your support and acknowledgment of what another person is experiencing. By doing so, we assert that we respect the worldview and perspective of another person. As we meditate on the lessons of Parkland, I couldn't help but find some deep resonance with this track. You see the youth of today, take a tragedy and attempt to make it seem minuscule in the scope of their choosing to rewrite chaos into a meaningful endeavor.
"Broad Shoulders" featuring local Southside Chicagoan, Taylor Bennett (Brother of Chance the Rapper who also appears on this track) is a stellar track. One that I hold close to my heart and ears, with undeniable intensity and foresight, it captures the power of close family relationships. I personally grew up in a tightly woven family of immigrants. Lyrically, Taylor Bennett captures the struggle of the wisdom passed down by our familial relations:
"Reach for your goal, hear what you're told
Think that you know
See what you're shown,
watch it get old
watch, it gets old"
Eventually, we only know what we know "until someone knows better". This is such resonant concept that I often witness happening right in front of my eyes and in session with my clients. We all wish to be "right like a dad" (or guardian/mother/whatever) the person in our lives who seemed to imperceptibly know what was required at any given moment. As we develop our own sense of self and the world, we start to realize the precarious fantasy we often imbued into these individuals. Later on, we tend to find ourselves at odds if not worse, outright rejecting the ideas we once took on as our gospel. As a culture, we are seeing the fall out from this fantasy, especially when it comes to men. Too often, due to mechanisms of oppression, men are given a role that they could not possibly live up to. Unfortunately, there isn't much space to admit vulnerability, fault, and weakness. Similar to opening track "Provider", this song becomes a gentle reminder that our influences, customs, ideas, and comprehension always comes from that which came before us. One day, our ideas too shall be old. Or as Dave Chapelle recently remarked in his comedy special "I was right once too". Every idea eventually gives way to new one, perhaps the best thing we can do is get out of the way.
Akin to "Broad Shoulders" the next track "Comet" spreads its fiery story of the relationship between mother and her daughter. The description of passing movement and being surrounded by "breakable things". I love this phrase because of how much it evokes a sense of fragility in the things we believe we own be it our bonds or possessions. Everything that happens to occur becomes a blur to be named in a passing moment within the song.
Streaks of glistening light allow for the space expanding "Something New". A graceful R&B track that skips along in sweet harmony relating how often we find ourselves desiring for "Something New" and yet long for that which is familiar, safe, and resonant. The track ends with what I imagine to be sci-fi flick that flows nicely into the melodic & electronic track "W.O.W." (an acronym for the chorus Walking On Water) another song that captures change, transition, and the longing for a relationship that "lets the dreaming get tough". It's important to note how often we ask for love and yet desire to throw away all of the complications that it invites. A loss is an inevitability and the end point of all relationship. There is no way to, "Stay Safe" as Rhye breathlessly laments, "you want to lay low, you wanna stay safe, let's make a home." To create something of any lasting nature, we have to share our space and therefore cannot afford to "lay low and stay safe".
"Sweetest Thing" challenges the character in the Rhye tune and instead offers another portrait of love, one of undeniable transformation. Rather than seeking protection, Dave B exposes himself to all the ways in which his brush with his paramour renders him unable to "recognize the man I've become". With a wonderful guitar, an underlying soulful beat, Dave B interweaves typical hip-hop bravado:
“Now stuck on a nigga
Girl he don't even spend
And it's messed up
But, I’m still here with my chest out
Lets get messed up”
And some humbling insight:
“I use to act cruel
When I found a good woman I didn't know what to do
I use to act up
Now I'm down, now I'm down
So down for your love”
The subtle way that these lyrics interact with each other offers a path to examining our past behavior, in this case, acts of cruelty toward women who were stronger than he was, in the context of present-day changes.
“Crying in Public” is the low-key anthem for falling in love in a city. There is something immediately claustrophobic about the song, observe the tiny clicks and ticks, the UFOish tone, the way that the soundscapes seem to shimmer in reflection against each other. It seems like the composer is using it as a sonic representation to passing mirrors of glass as we are passively pushed towards inevitable destinations. Caroline Polachek remains in a state of reproach toward the image she sees of herself,
“Take all my defenses in two words
And throw them away
Tell me, what kind of monster
Have I been today?”
Yet her lover responds, to her surprise, with an accepting joke that at once disarms and engages her
“It’s a flower in the gun
And your tough guy’s a wreck."
Here, Caroline appears to carry the same acknowledgment of imperfect reaction shared by Dave B and is similarly struck by how another’s acceptance is able to remove the fangs from our teeth leaving us with just a smile.
Later on, Caroline continues to describe the collection of images, sounds, and movement as she progresses on her journey presumably home with her partner. She offers a sort of apology “sorry for making a scene on the train” with a heartfelt proclamation
“I’m falling for you, I’m falling for you”.
The idea of us becoming overcome, overwhelmed, and overloaded remains prominent throughout this playlist. In the context of music, “anxiety” or “panic attacks”, could also be the exhilaration of love and the sense of longing for our lover to “Stir me up, darling”
We cry for the unknown when we are in a state of love. At the same time, the unknown triggers within our anxious mind a sense of apprehension. The song “Dreams” begins with a sense of disorientation as the subject and narrator twists themselves into various forms:
“As the moon rises
And the sun dies”
The group aptly named The Forest and The Trees creates a drifting and floating journey as the singer questions the nature of her current state of dreaming and offers a salve as she commands her lover to “lay down”.
The lazily Shamanistic vibes of “Home Tree” picks up the rhythm from “Dreams” and continues to explore the theme of empathy, place, and illusions of time. A native of Evanston, Kweku Collins throaty yelps collide “with pavement” and the waves of life that erode us all. Ultimately, the choices we make now will always be inherently different when we considered from the context of our future self. Wisdom, love, and light pass through at hyper-speed. Collins asks us to, “It’s gonna be what it’s gotta be”.
When Femdot grabs the mic at around 1:33, we’re confronted with these magnificently placed bars:
“I’m learning to grow now
I’m starting to know
All the things I didn’t know
Man I know now
Crazy thing about knowing
That you never ever knew too much
And never ever knew enough”
The relationship represents the starting of growth and with it comes the shedding of naivety (The idea of life being one particular way). This maturation process is always painful as it means confrontation with the limitation of a solitary existence, ultimately, an unsustainable path for humans.
“Depending if your cup
Is half full
Well mine is
It was to the brim
But I had a week
took some minuses
And then I almost
lost my life
While I was driving
On the flip side
My listeners is multiplying
I said: “balance is crazy”
And it damn sure is tearing”
Here, Femdot breaks down that, at times, we can find ourselves in a place of being with a full cup (wealth) and yet that it still won’t be enough. Life ultimately will balance things out, and it isn’t up to us to determine how the equation works itself out
“Emotional care about timing
And everybody got some problems
And everybody not gonna solve them
See one of my homies
he still got thoughts of dying
I’m trying to just help him
You thought I was helping you,
Helping you get through,
That’s the same thing that just helps me too”
Once again, Femdot implores us to examine whatever conditions it takes to enliven our sense of empathy, ultimately relating that only by being there for other people and assisting them through their pain does he even have a chance of working through his own. This flips the script a bit from the idea that a person must be there for themselves first before assisting others. Perhaps being there for others in a genuine way, is part of being there for ourselves but requires us to examine whether the relationship is providing a path to growth.\
Femdot ends the song with:
“Told your momma she’s got a seed
that’s gonna sprout soon
Because seeing you bloom
Reminds that I can too.
And sometimes I forget
Backflippin’ on the concrete
Forgot roses can break through
Sure even get thorns too
To protect you.”
Here he relates that despite rough conditions and external factors, something beautiful can grow. In some way, this sense empathy and how it teaches us through pain is contained in the song “Love More”. Sharon Van Etten’s sole voice appears through the blinding light of what appears to be a sense of entrapment within a potentially abusive relationship. The way her voice seems to form itself into a chant or in the words of Crisitian Wiman “not like a wound but a will against a wound.” It appears that she attempts to dictate that she will reach into the delicate pain of loss and like a sort of magic trick, will pull out even more ropes of love.
At last, the playlist concludes with
“I Wanna Be Your Lover”
Because Prince is love.