There’s too much pressure on New Year’s Eve. As a holiday, it’s in a league with Valentine’s Day and Mother’s/Father’s Day, those weighty times when you never feel quite like you’re living up to expectations—as if there’s some better man, somewhere down the street or in a movie, who isn’t so selfish and knows how to handle himself. At this point in my life, though, my mom gets a card and my dad gets a phone call (I’m not even sure he’s aware of most holidays). I’m also lucky enough to have a fiancée who doesn’t treat Valentine’s Day like an annual relationship barometer. But New Year’s Eve? The problem there is me. I’m the one with expectations, because it’s a new damn year and things are supposed to change. Or at least feel different.
The truth is, the only thing I feel when December ends is a little bit down. It doesn’t help that my birthday happens to fall pretty close to the changing of the calendar. I know both days are arbitrary and have no real meaning beyond the significance we lend them, but that’s cold comfort. Rationalize all you want, but the passage of time still feels more acute. I still remember a close family member, someone of otherwise sound mind who is a functioning member of society, weeping on her 33rd birthday. The reason? She had now lived as long as Jesus Christ. This person wasn’t even very religious. I don’t think any of us, including her, knew exactly what it meant. Even so, I empathized.
I don’t believe that people can’t change, because I’ve seen it happen. But I do believe that we can’t choose to change on a significant day like January 1, as if we’re simply hitting a light switch. Change is gradual, and, I think, may come only after a more subtle change in the brain. It’s like how the water in the ocean stays cold long after the onset of spring. The sun needs to shine for a few months before it can warm those depths.
So the farewell-to-bad-times gaiety of the 31st and the resolutions of the morning after look and sound like bromides. And while I understand and appreciate the metaphorical need for a new year, it still has a way of bringing me down. Starting the day after Christmas, it’s one long denouement until life resumes sometime in mid-January.
And why is it that when we’re sad, we like to listen to sad music? Isn’t that strange? We choose songs that reflect our mood rather than ones that might change it. Wouldn’t it make more sense to put on upbeat, jangly music to cure our melancholy? The answer is yes, it would, except that it doesn’t work. Or, if it does work, it works about as often as someone saying, ‘Hey, cheer up!’ It would be impossible for me to say why this is true, but if I had to form a broad guess, I’d hazard that we’re not simple creatures, and in reality it makes more sense for most of us to deepen our moods, do some spiritual wallowing, and then emerge on the other end. It’s paradoxical, but sometimes a paradox contains a hidden logic.
At this time of year, I find myself returning to the same handful of songs that have accompanied me in winters past. Call them ‘Fleeting Season’ songs. If I had to pinpoint a common thread among them, it’s that they contain an elusive quality that washes through your stomach and leaves you sad without quite knowing why. These are not ‘heartbreaking’ songs. Heartbreaking songs can be wonderful, but they’re usually overt. You know what you’re hearing, and they’re designed to move you. These are not epic songs, with concrete stories and a narrative arc. These songs are about love, but they’re not love songs. These songs are not tornadoes or hurricanes, but fleeting gusts of wind that evoke some memory you can’t quite place. And you feel that if you could just find that wind again, that same rush of air, you’d know for sure.
Why am I drawn to them? Maybe because they reflect my mood. But also because in a backward way, they offer solace. It’s easy for me to feel insecure when things change; let me be the eight millionth genius to say that nothing is so frightening as the unknown. But these songs remind me that there’s an elemental consistency to life, even if it’s tinged with sadness, and that we can count on certain themes to return to us no matter where we go. Truth is tenuous, and so are these songs. In that way, they reflect truth and serve as a faint guide.
I’ve left you hanging long enough—here’s the tracklist, which I’ve forced myself to winnow down to 15. As usual with these efforts, there are surely some heinous omissions. Sorry about that. Anyway, here are my ephemeral mainstays—episodic songs for a transitory time. It’s Fleeting Season.
1. “Summer Song” – Chad & Jeremy
I feel the need to start in the ’60s. In fact, I could probably make an entire list from that decade if I let myself. This is one of two songs on the list that I first discovered in a Wes Anderson movie (Rushmore), and it personifies the feeling I’m going for here. Melodic, low-key, sad. In describing an idyllic summer, the singers make us feel, more than anything, the season’s end.
2. “When U Love Somebody” – Fruit Bats
The music is beautiful, and the lyrics, in their minimalism, are perfect. “Baby, I am the cub who was washed out in the flood. When you love somebody, bite your tongue, all you get is a mouthful of blood.”
3. “Dear Employee” – The Papercuts
Still one of my favorite album openers. This song is somehow fast and slow all at once, and it was made to score the opening montage of an indie movie.
4. “Death of a Clown” – The Kinks
In some ways, this song sounds almost nothing like the more famous Kinks songs, but the imprints are all there. The wordless ‘la la la’ preceding the verses is a perfect example of that gust-of-wind feeling that’s so hard to describe.
5. “White Winter Hymnal” – Fleet Foxes and “Faded from the Winter” – Iron & Wine
I’m cheating and sticking these two together just because they remind me so much of each other, and not just because of the word ‘winter.’ There’s something remote, soft, and intangible in both that you can’t quite grasp.
6. “Beanbag Chair” – Yo La Tengo
I have a feeling it will annoy Yo La Tengo fans when I say this is my favorite song by the band, but I can’t help it. A perfect short, airy pop song.
7. “Oh No” – Andrew Bird
I should probably try to learn the meaning of the lyrics to this song at some point, but I can’t stop singing “ooo-ooo-hooo” over and over.
8. “Is it Wicked Not to Care?” – Belle & Sebastian
This is one of the few older songs where Isobel Campbell takes lead vocals, and it’s certainly the best of that subgroup. The distanced sound of the melody and the uncertainty of the final lyrical couplet—“Would you love me ’til I’m dead? Or is there someone else instead?”—makes this an easy pick.
9. “Smith & Jones Forever” – The Silver Jews
The most masculine choice by far. “When they turn on the chair, something’s added to the air.”
10. “To Find a Friend” – Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
You didn’t think you’d see Tom Petty on this list, right? This song, at least to me, is unlike anything else in the band’s catalogue, except maybe “Yer So Bad.” It’s got that faint, life-passing-by feeling that’s not really typical of a band like the Heartbreakers.
11. “New Slang” – The Shins and “Jesus Etc.” – Wilco
Cheating again. Sorry. If this list was a boxing lineup, these would be the heavyweights.
12. “Waltz #2” – Elliott Smith
This song is almost too devastating to include, but the lyrics are just vague enough to qualify. In my mind, the depressive quality doesn’t quite overwhelm the melancholy. If you disagree, substitute “Pitseleh” here. Or “America” by Simon & Garfunkel, which just missed the list.
13. “Flapping Your Broken Wings” – The Handsome Family
Strange song from a strange band about a couple of lovers being drunk on a golf course late at night, but no less jarring for the humor. I saw the Handsome Family live after this album was released, and they didn’t play it. That was hard to take.
14. “Along Again Or” – Love
This is the other one from Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket this time). Just a great pop variation on loneliness.
15. “Kim & Jessie” – M83
To me, this is what ’80s music would have sounded like if ‘80s music weren’t quite so awful.
16. “Change of Time” – Josh Ritter and “Flume” – Bon Iver
I can’t limit myself!
17. “These Days” – Jackson Browne
The man wrote this song when he was 16 years old. If I had talent like that, I would probably own a pair of jeans that didn’t have holes in them. Or I’d be capable of owning such a pair, anyway.
18. “Killing the Blues” – Robert Plant and Allison Krauss
Call it sacrilege if you want, but I think this version does more justice to the sadness than the John Prine original.
19. “Pink Moon” – Nick Drake
You had to know this was coming.
20. “Walk Away Renee” – The Left Banke
There’s no other way to close it out. You won’t see me following you back home.
Bonus Tracks (because I really can’t limit myself:
“No One Does it Like You” – Department of Eagles
“Perfect Day” – Lou Reed
“2080” – Yeasayer
“Ballad of a Lonely Construction Worker” – Cuff the Duke
“This Year” – Mountain Goats