'Tis the season to listen to somewhat glum music

By Peter Valelly

My friend Dave from high school once noted that as summer turned to fall, he just couldn’t help but start listening to “darker music,” and he suspected the same was true of everyone. This sounds like a simple formula, an easy one to disprove. But there’s something to it – each fall at Mac, the carefree vibes of summer steadily fade, deserting us in the flat, increasingly frigid Midwestern environs where we all spend two-thirds of the year.

Even shimmering summer anthems seem, come fall, to take on a languid and portentous quality. Some of the records that have become my personal soundtrack this fall – Spacemen 3’s gloriously ethereal “Playing With Fire,” for instance – could just as easily suggest the sunburnt lethargy of late summer, but with the seasonal shift the music’s qualities have become totally inseparable from the steady descent into winter transpiring all around me.This affective quality in music isn’t necessarily related to anyone’s particular mood or disposition, a malaise of the listener himself or herself; it is, instead, teased out by nature’s own drowsy demeanor, by the inevitability of fall as the precursor to the long, hard winter ahead. The music responds not to our mood but to our own assimilation of nature’s changes.

So what have I been listening to lately? Well, the new Radiohead record has been a favorite since its release early in the month; the hypnotic plea “Reckoner” acquired particular resonance during this October’s rainier days. More generally, my whole summer of hip-hop jamz and pop-R&B delights, detailed in my first article of the year, has fully disintegrated, giving way to indie melancholia. A whole slew of sad songwriter types has nestled its way into my most played records of late, from autumnal stalwarts (Nick Drake) to recent rediscoveries (the Eels, John Martyn) and brand new favorites (Elvis Perkins, Jim Guthrie).

But sullen singer-songwriterly ennui isn’t the only way to soundtrack your fall. After all, it’s the season of Halloween, too, so there’s plenty of room for playfulness. A friend of mine recently made the very, very appropriate decision that it’s the time of the year to bust out your Misfits records, and to this I would add apocalyptic garage punkers the Mummies (note the appropriately spooky name).

Additionally, the whole multifaceted genre of metal seems to parallel the central idea of Halloween season. Both Halloween and heavy metal share the notion that our deepest fears and terrors are best understood through a massive performance – whether it be raw, over-the-top blood-and-guts phantasmagoria, melodramatic masquerade, or just plain goofiness (or one of the infinite combinations of these three).

So throw on some Sunn O))) or Xasthur if you’re feeling particularly sullen or severe, or if you’re on the sillier end of the spectrum you could always go with some Gwar (can’t say I’ve even once listened to them, but I still feel oddly and deeply regretful that I once passed up the chance to see them perform on Halloween).

Especially pertinent to this season’s sensibilities is the weird faux-genre “hauntology,” identified by a close-knit circle of electronic-minded British music bloggers in the last few years (see: Blissblog at http://blissout.blogspot.com). The genre’s name is a pun, cribbed from French thinker Jacques Derrida’s late-era treatise “Spectres of Marx,” on the philosophy term “ontology,” and the genre doesn’t really seem to have ever acquired a real working definition in terms of sound, style, or location.

Yet despite this frustrating circus of music-critic-ese, the artists identified as “hauntological” do possess a certain common strain of spectrality and mourning, music perpetually haunted by its past.

For an example, take British dubstep producer Burial, whose self-titled debut from last year is a somnolent stew of funereal sonics. The record is all softly shifting layers of electronic drone, throbbing bass, and occasional, half-human vocal flickers. Also check out the inimitable Ariel Pink. This L.A. native’s static-drenched eight-track tape home recordings are depressing eulogies for whole lost generations of 70s and 80s pop. On albums like “The Doldrums” and “Worn Copy,” bombastic melodies worthy of glam, arena rock, and even hair-metal squirm awkwardly beneath a shape-shifting sea of sound and Pink’s bizarro sad-sack lyrics.

These are just suggestions of where to look, of course. As I said, the records themselves change how they sound this season, so maybe you won’t have to look for your perfect fall album or song. Mine found me: Arthur Russell’s “World of Echo,” an 80s NYC by an avant-garde classical cellist who moonlighted as a disco/house producer; the record is composed entirely of voice, cello, and assorted recording effects, enveloping and seductively subdued art-rock peppered with dance beats and noise-pop flourishes. This impossibly obscure record was recommended to me by a record-nerd friend over the summer, and until I listened straight through the album on a whim one October morning, I never thought much of Russell’s weird falsetto mumblings; now I’m convinced “World of Echo” is one of the 10 best albums ever made, and I only have the autumnal equinox and the falling leaves to thank. Here’s hoping everyone can find such rewarding third-quarter soundtracks and anthems – it’s the perfect season for musical contemplation, after all.