We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid enough Verizon Fios solicitations to sink a barge is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, tips for rediscovering the music we once loved.
Sam Williams writes: "There's no chance that an album you've heard a thousand times will ever sound the way it did when you first heard it — especially if you first heard it during your teen years. But do you have tips for making an old favorite come alive again?"
Our relationships with music sometimes resemble our relationships with people: Familiarity can breed contempt, we can grow apart and our connections can be rooted in specific circumstances that couldn't (or shouldn't) be repeated. Music has a way of tethering our memories in place — of making them vivid and specific — but a side effect of that is that our favorite songs and albums often get reduced to little more than fodder for nostalgia.
Most of us have learned the hard way that it's possible to burn out on even the albums we've identified as unimpeachable master classics. I've often said, "I could listen to this 10,000 times and never get sick of it!" — and almost invariably turned out to be wrong. I've heard Jeff Buckley's 1994 album Grace only slightly fewer times than I've said my own name, and it's still a massively important record for me, but I haven't listened to it in its entirety in years; I had to take what's turned out to be a very long break. But that's a solution in and of itself: Take a long break.
When the time feels right to rediscover Grace, I'll break it out in what is, for me, the perfect setting for reconnecting with old favorites: in my car, alone, during a long road trip. Road trips are perfect opportunities to bond with music, past and present, because you're a captive audience; you can listen without distraction or let yourself get lost in memories. I recently revisited one of my favorite albums of the last decade, Adem's Homesongs, while driving cross-country. It's another record that had suffered from personal overexposure, and — though we can't help but have grown apart, given that I've changed and it hasn't — I was delighted to fall in love with it all over again. It's still absolutely wonderful, and it most likely always will be.
Of course, not every album ages so well: Just as it's natural to revisit a former love, only to learn that the well has been poisoned, you're also going to put on old records and wonder how you ever connected to them in the first place. And that's fine, really. Just as our favorite music can't actually love us back, it also doesn't suffer from hurt feelings when we decide to let it go. The loss is ours and ours alone.
Besides, we weren't meant to stay in one place; to be the same people with the same tastes; to live a constant and change-free existence from cradle to grave. When I was 14, I thought Chicago 18 was a masterpiece, and I wouldn't be terribly well-served if that opinion hadn't evolved. Winnowing out past favorites has its place — and shouldn't be seen as a personal tragedy, provided we're always leaving ourselves open to new favorites. There'll be time to abandon those later.