Five Songs for the End of Summer
Wet heat. A ceiling fan casts revolving shadows against white paint. Bare bulbs light your former home like a laboratory; there is the distant sound of breaking glass. August is a month in suspension, broken promises. You haven't done the things you'd planned; you are surrounded now by half-packed boxes, trash bags, collapsible shelves. You have excavated your drawers, your hidden places, wordlessly crumpled up little pieces of nostalgia, put those too big to crumple on the curb. You have torn yourself from sentiment, from many things. The summer is irrecoverable, already fading in memory, like aging film. It is time, you decide, for a fresh start. Everything you abandon you do from fear; you want to get rid of the smell of failure, to walk away without turning back. It is warm, and dark, there is the heavy smell of rotting flowers. You hope many things for the fall.
1. "Summertime," Porgy & Bess. Ella Fitzgerald & Luis Armstrong.
Lazy swingtime, too hot to move, and Louis playing, brassy and inimitable. Ella Fitzgerald is the sweetest thing singing. But as her voice seduces, you forget it's a lie, that while Your daddy's rich, and your momma's good-looking, it's summer that makes it so - that golden sheen. In the sunlight you can forget almost anything, you can even stop the baby fussing, but there's trouble down the road, and stormy weather still to come. In the last days of August, the strings sour melancholy, the cotton swings low, and 'Summertime,' that sweet little lullaby, suddenly sings of days past.
2. "Holland," Michigan. Sufjan Stevens.
Hushed, fractured lines sung in a whisper over a few piano notes that begin and begin again, haltingly, callused fingers rasping on the frets of the acoustic guitar. The few lines hang, widely separated, just a bare handful of images, a few surviving photographs. Lose our clothes in summertime, he sings, wistfully. Lose ourselves, to lose our minds. He trails off. In the summer heat, I might.
3. "Dinu Lipatti's Bones," The Sunset Tree. The Mountain Goats.
John Darnielle is chilly and desperate here, on the first of his dozens of LPs and compilations and scratchy cassette-only releases to turn autobiographical. The images are oblique, and guarded, and they forever slide into violence, into the suggestion of loss. We kept our friends at bay all summer long; treated the days as though they'd kill us if they could. The low piano sounds like distant thunder. It is a cold song, suspended, crystalline; the music itself pushes summer away. Wringing out the hours like blood-drenched bedsheets to keep wintertime at bay - but December showed up anyway, he sings, shattered and jittery, waiting for the new day.
4. "A Summer Wasting," The Boy With the Arab Strap. Belle & Sebastian.
Stuart Murdoch's lilting vocals bubble along without care over a bouncy piano line, little throwaway pop harmonies. Here, time's passing - summer in winter, winter in springtime - is nothing to fear, and melody bears him out. I spent the summer wasting / The time was passed so easily. But nothing's wasted, - If the summer's wasted, how could the time feel so free? - and the only melancholy lies in Murdoch's wistful vocals, which would lend anything an air of faint regret.
5. "Sleep All Summer," Dignity and Shame. Crooked Fingers.
The sad summer songs all come back to nighttime, hot air, pauses, dreams. Croaking, a man wishes over a lovely little guitar line that the setting sun would crash into the ocean and cut the line that ties the tide and the moon, and a woman coos in return that they take empty hearts and fill them with broken things. Over a classic lover's ballad, the two trade apocalyptic declarations of lost romance, trade blows too, and fatalistic lines about curtains falling, fashions fading, an endless summer over. Together, as in loves songs, for their big duet at the chorus, they sing in major key: Cold ways kill cool lovers, strange ways we use each other, and ask each other over and over, Why won't you fall back in love with me? - as if trying to reverse the tides, to sleep until the year passes - to reach backwards and recover what's been lost, or left on a curb in Boston with a thousand thousand other discards, molding, wrecked, valuable, keepsakes too large to carry along, gifts you never wanted, things you can afford to leave behind.
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