So indelibly tied to music are my relationship failures that each time I’ve lost a beloved, a dear song or record has been sacrificed too. It hit me as I crawled into bed late one night with The National, expecting Matt Berninger’s melancholic baritone to lull me quickly off to sleep. Six hours later as dawn broke I was more awake than ever, each loop of the album plunging me deeper into regret about a relationship I’d ended – and thought I’d dealt with – almost two years earlier.
Here was a band that had book-ended our short but intensely tender relationship. We’d done that thing soon-to-be couples sometimes do, one declaring their hand and the other running headlong in the opposite direction before slamming into some metaphorical wall and coming sharply to their senses, realising the feelings were mutual. He later told me it was The National he’d turned to that night I had bolted, our friendship in tatters. He’d wallowed in their song ‘Sorrow’ the night he thought he lost me, in Beringer’s despondent crooning and the hushed mental anguish of his lyrics, layered poetry dancing with emotional rawness that gently built to that too-close-to-home line: ‘I don’t wanna get over you.’
He didn’t have to, at least not yet. The following year The National toured and there we were in the crowd, gripping hands and pretending to be giddy with love. We broke up a month later. Then it was me, self-destructively spinning ‘Sorrow’ deep into summer’s darkness as I tortured myself remembering only and all his best qualities, agonising over whether I’d made the right choice.
And somehow now to hear those songs – so many months on – is to find myself clad in nostalgia-tinted glasses, like the breakup is fresh again and all I can remember is the good times, embellished with a sharp pang of melancholy. It’s like some part of him has been forever scorched into something that was once all my own.
When I look back over the assortment of relationships and flings that have marked my life thus far, I realise each and every man has claimed from me a single, an EP, sometimes even a full-length album that I once loved and now cannot bear to listen to. Time barely seems to diminish the agitation that a certain charged collection of notes can provoke, as if these soundtracks to my relationship train wrecks somehow have the power to rewind time. What is it about music that can place us so fully in a moment years past; that can so immediately send us retracing old steps?
Academic Jonathan Powles in his powerful dissertation ‘Music and Physics – the Connections Aren’t Trivial’, ponders the almost mathematical nature of music, particularly classical arrangements that engage the common ‘question and answer’ phrase structure. Like two sides of an equation, he suggests, the music forms shapes that are an image of one another, their gentle energies complementary; the ultimate, finely balanced twosome. Is it this perfection of sound – and the very fact that such a thing is musically achievable but borderline impossible between sweethearts – that draws me to lament lost love time and time again?
Powles asserts that music is a powerful stimulus of memory because it is ‘a tool for grasping the order and sense of what has happened in the past, what is happening now, and what will happen in the future’. Is it designed, then, to stop us from making the same mistakes, over and over? A reminder of what went wrong to ensure a different path now and in the future?
My very first boyfriend stole Powderfinger’s song ‘Pick You Up’, though I’m almost certain he remains ignorant of this reality; a hip-hop head, he likely views the band’s alt-rock style with disdain. But for me, to hear those first distinctively simple, rhythmic guitar chords strummed is to reverse back into my heartbroken teenaged self, careening down a highway as fast as my scrappy old Ford Laser could take me, the song jammed on repeat and the sound cranked so high the cruddy speakers grunted out distortion in protest. He was a sweet-hearted boy with baggy, low-slung jeans and quick-witted one-liners; together we walked into the crushing depths of heartbreak for the first time. For a few short days only Bernard Fanning’s grainy voice could console me, help me make sense of what had happened.
My next inamorato was different, both in disposition and musical taste. With the benefit of hindsight I can see that we were horribly mismatched; arrogant and cocksure, he railroaded me toward a certain way of being before I even had the chance to work out who I was for myself. He loved drum and bass and, because I was an awkwardly tall teen busily trying to be exactly like everyone else, I decided I did too, for a time. The music and I were as mismatched as the relationship itself. It’s a period in my life that I’d mostly rather forget and yet there’s a certain Shy FX & T Power track, riddled with raps so rapid they’re basically incomprehensible, that takes me back to the drug-addled clubs we hung in, my boyfriend scoffing ecstasy, the crazy–stupid scenarios we all accepted as commonplace. Hearing that track still sets off a spiral of thought that ultimately ends in self-flagellation for ever having been so foolish as to allow such a miscreant near my heart. And I haven’t since. Perhaps then, each spin of this wretched song does, as Jonathan Powles suggests, help me make sense of that section of my past, propel me toward a different, better future.
This horrid Bermuda triangle of me, men and music extends to some of my most cherished 90s rock bands – Soundgarden, Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, even Pearl Jam – because guy #3 introduced my then musically naive self to almost all of them, and in doing so claimed them all for himself. Years after our ill-fated coupledom crashed, I sat entranced at an Eddie Vedder solo acoustic gig, lost in his musical mastery and powerful, penetrating vocals…almost. All the while a parade of images played distractingly through my mind, a strange self-made video clip of a relationship, razed years back and barely thought of since. As Vedder’s voice soared through the lyrical peaks of ‘Black’, a soliloquy by a broken-hearted man remembering his absent lover, my mind flew back to the way my lost man had begged me to stay with him on the day I decided to leave. How I hadn’t stayed because, this time, I’d recognised the mismatch and known it was time to go. For Vedder, love gone bad had ‘tattooed all I see’. For me, it had tattooed all I heard.
As I grew older I came to understand just how salient music – and, by default, a man’s taste in music – was to me. I gravitated towards men who impressed me with their musical prowess and cruelly spurned those I judged to have appalling taste. But such selection served only to further compound the problem and rob me of ever more bands. Time spent with a beau played little role in the subsequent musical attachment. The Temper Trap was lost to an exotic Eastern European man I knew just a few weeks, who played a terrible techno remix of the 2009 anthem ‘Sweet Disposition’ as he shunned me in that detached way that cuts particularly deep. Both Laura Marling and The Middle East were lost to another fling, a broad-shouldered Australian who drank too much and shared my infatuation with indie-anything.
It’s not as if there aren’t innumerable joyful musical memories locked inside the Vimeo of my mind, but somehow they don’t seem to have that same all-consuming quality. It’s the difference between absentmindedly taking delight in the sun peeping out from behind a cloud versus a hell-for-leather sprint to avoid a sudden summer storm that leaves you breathless and wondering how you didn’t see it coming.
In 2011, researchers from McGill University in Montreal proved that listening to music stimulates the production of dopamine, the same substance that puts the joy in sex. (Our little brains must be close to spontaneous combustion when we dare to combine the two.) Is it any wonder, then, that they remain so connected in our minds long after the fact? Neurologist Oliver Sacks, who, in his 2007 book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, argued music is almost omnipotent to the human mind, occupying an area of our brain far greater than language in a way that actually defines us as a musical species. Is it possible that love flows through these very same channels, connecting us on some deeper level that afterwards leaves a residue that is almost impossible to expel?
There is one anomaly in my personal history, a blip on my agony-music radar. Because, oddly, the most momentous relationship of my life thus far failed to hook its tentacles into anything defined. We were together for almost three years, best friends turned lovers, and musical ones at that. We saw countless bands together, almost always had something playing in the little flat we shared with my sister.
Yet it’s a moment well after our soul-shattering breakup that is tied to him, and it’s a happy one. We met again at a music festival as uneasy friends, still too aware of all that turbulent water rushing beneath the bridge. The Foals were playing and no one else wanted to see them, so we went, together. There had been a short but intense downpour, the ground was sticky with mud and I suffered the classic thong blowout so unwelcome at festivals. I stood with one foot glued to the spot, an attempt to stay atop a now immoveable slice of rubber, as the momentum of The Foals’ particular brand of British indie-rock surrounded us. I felt somehow grounded. We barely spoke but occasionally exchanged wide, appreciative grins. It’s entirely possible that I’m remembering it wrong, adding the warm tint of rose-coloured glasses to a situation years past, but I do believe our friendship began to slowly rekindle from that day,
It gives me hope. Hope that a happier relationship memory can be tied to song with just as much vehemence as a wretched one, possibly with the positives cancelling out the negatives. Hope that these soundtracks to my failed relationships could one day cease their broken-record spin and be silenced, that I could finally have learned the lessons I needed to from having them jammed on repeat, and subsequently, file away forever the album compiled in my mind for each man lost, like an outdated cassette, replaced by something far superior. Hope that there will be a time when I can once again fall asleep to The National.