“The most impassionate song to a lonely soul”: Music, Cities & Twenty Something Isolation

Wine and Dine is a recurring column about the books we love and the music that goes with them. In this column, writers pick a favorite book or essay that has significant personal relevance, and then craft a playlist to “pair” with it. Like wine pairings, but with fanmixes. You get it. 🍷


But don’t forget the songs that made you cry, and the songs that saved your life.” Regardless of Morrissey’s fears, it is pretty difficult to forget the songs that have been monumental in your life. It’s the reason that wedding songs are so important and why those pop punk tracks you loved aged thirteen are still waiting, word-perfect, in your brain for the next throwback playlist. And when those songs are the ones that kept you putting one foot in front of the other, forced you out of bed and stumbling down the road towards public transport, they become particularly significant.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t listening to music. I grew up with parents who love music, I fell into teenage music obsession readily by loving both punk and Pink Floyd, and I regard playlist-making as a major art form. When I moved to London after my undergraduate degree, I didn’t leave music behind. For two years of delayed transport, pushing past tourists to get between my part-time master’s degree and my job, and wondering why I was paying so much rent for a kitchen it was difficult to turn around in, I listened to a lot of music. In particular, I listened on the go, whether walking, on the bus, train, or tube (or jumping between them like I was trying to complete a transport bingo card). Leaving the house without earphones felt like I was betraying myself.

siobhan piece
London, 2015

But this was not only because I tap my foot when sitting on transport (though that is true). I was lonely. I had moved alone to a big city and started immediately on a busy schedule of working in the evenings and spending days doing academic work or going to the library. My friends were not close by. As with most people in their twenties, we were all scattered around doing different things at different times, a far cry from living with or down the road from friends at undergrad.

 

I’ve been thinking about loneliness ever since I read Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, which focuses on the feeling of being alone in a big city and how it connects to twentieth-century art. Her descriptions of the visceral feeling of loneliness when you are amongst other people in a city are particularly incisive. There is something about going about your daily routine surrounded by people and yet feeling a disconnect between you and everybody else that creates a sense of isolation and pointlessness. Her feelings on the art she was thinking and reading about while alone in New York were closely tied to her feelings of loneliness. Similarly, the music I had on repeat over the two years I lived in London is hard to separate from how I felt. Lonely, but supported by the music in my ear.

The first song that comes to mind when I think of that time is Pulp’s ‘The Fear’. Different Class and This Is Hardcore were on heavy repeat as I sat day after day on the bus through south London to my job in a central theatre, but this particular song hits hard. The second line, “the sound of loneliness turned up to ten”, sums it up. This is Jarvis Cocker in your ear, a niggling extra voice talking in the second person to remind you this is the song for when you feel alone and paranoid, terrified by what you’re doing and stumbling through it anyway. The whining guitars throughout are the tightening in your chest, the panic in your brain. ‘The Fear’ is me staring out of the bus window at the streets of Brixton, not sure what I was doing or why I was doing it.

If Pulp are summing up your anxieties through the medium of music, then Arctic Monkeys are some kind of longing playing out in a bassline. The whole of their album AM is an exercise in strangely detailed wistfulness. It sounds to me like the Northern Line on the Underground, helped by the fact the cover is black like the colour of the Northern Line (which is also the tube line that seems most like the bowels of Hell). The track ‘No. 1 Party Anthem’ is slower than some of the others, less bass-filled and mostly a slow drumbeat as Alex Turner sings hopefully, repeating the refrain “come on come on come on, before the moment’s gone”. It is a song that feels poised on the edge of something happening, like your twenties when you’re somewhat blindly doing things in the hope that they are The Right Things.

If the title quote and opening weren’t apparent enough, I’m a fan of the Smiths’ music so I couldn’t leave their melancholy offerings out. However, I’m not choosing any of the classic “I’m sad and alone” options like ‘How Soon Is Now’ or ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’. That would be too obvious. Instead, the song most important to me is ‘Rusholme Ruffians’ from the album Meat Is Murder. The lyrics are surprisingly hopeful—“I might walk home alone, but my faith in love is still devout”—as they conjure up a very specific image of angst and longing at a fairground. The depressing positivity of the entire aesthetic of the song is very appealing when you’re lonely, but hoping that the reason for your loneliness is worthwhile.

For my last choice, I want to talk about the final track from David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars: ‘Rock & Roll Suicide’. If there was ever a song—to quote Morrissey again—to save your life, it is this one. It starts with slow acoustic guitar, then Bowie singing about being down and depressed, fully affirming your own current melancholy. More instruments come in and suddenly, after drawing you in, he screams “oh no love, you’re not alone” and there is the power of ‘Rock & Roll Suicide’, a track which starts out as a song about feeling terrible and turns into a track about solace and compassion. Whether you’re lying in bed not wanting to ever leave it or staring mindlessly on the tube when everything feels like too much, Bowie emphatically sings “you’re wonderful”. I always find it difficult to ignore these lyrics in a way that is perhaps not true for any other song. Yes, it says, you feel sad and alone, but you are not alone and you are so much better than you think.

These are only four songs that I listened to, but they are the four that still now can conjure up not only the bad emotions of the period, but the good ones too, the feeling that this music was supporting me and allowing me to face the world. Loneliness can be such an intense thing—especially when it feels like everybody around you is on top of things and doesn’t need you—and the intimate connection of listening to a song and feeling its sounds and lyrics resonate can be vital to not letting it become overwhelming.

The book:

The Lonely CityOlivia Laing

The playlist:

  1. “The Fear”, Pulp
  2. “No. 1 Party Anthem”, Arctic Monkeys
  3. Rusholme Ruffians”, The Smiths
  4. “Rock & Roll Suicide”, David Bowie

 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Siobhan Dunlop is a book blogger and writer from the UK. They have an English degree and an MA in Shakespeare, a love of weird rhyme schemes, and a keen interest in retelling classic literature for the modern day. Writing about books and reviews can be found at Fiendfully Reading.

 

One thought on ““The most impassionate song to a lonely soul”: Music, Cities & Twenty Something Isolation

  1. I spent five months living in Paris about two years ago now, and this article resonates so much with my own experience with my time there. I did not make many, if any real friends over in France. I spent a lot of time alone, a lot of time on public transport, and a lot of time wondering if this had been a good idea in the first place. My emotionally constipated self has always used music as a coping method against negative emotions and anxiety, and there are still albums I can’t listen to without having flashbacks to the Paris metro (Buildings by Regina Spektor, most of the movie soundtrack of The Last Five Years, Home by Gabrielle Aplin, etc.).

    I have a particularly vivid memory of stepping out in the street from the Monoprix across from the Foyer I had been staying in, while listening to Lullaby from the song cycle Fugitive Songs. It was night, and while the street was lit up, it was late and things were clearly starting to close down till morning. I was getting ready to buy dinner (I lived off of frozen pizza when I wasn’t cooking my own student budget meals), when I made the snap decision that I was not ready to spend my entire night inside with my well-meaning, but ultimately not good roommate. I had been feeling lonely and depressed and anxious for a couple of months at this point. I missed my family and my friends and my school, but I was listening to this song, and the chorus started playing as I started walking, “Everyone runs at one time or another, everyone hates their father at least once, everyone wishes they could write their past a letter saying, the weather’s here, wish you were beautiful.” I wish I could say a feeling of peace washed over me and that I didn’t feel lonely anymore, but the truth is, the song didn’t actually change any of that, but it did remind me of how fleeting and impermanent these feelings were, and to this day I cannot listen to this song without remembering that moment.

    Life in the city can offer some kind of silence, but also a very special kind of loneliness. In a few months I move to the 14th biggest city in the United States, a city where I won’t know anyone, and will be essentially starting a brand new life on my own. I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about the inevitable loneliness this will bring, but reading this was like getting the same reminder I got that night in Paris that those feelings are not permanent and that it is okay to just feel them and then move forward from there, and that music can be one of the best ways of processing these feelings. It was wonderful and interesting to see that same experience reflected back in the writing of another person. Thank you for sharing this!

    Like

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