Soundtracking Life, a new monthly feature created by Lior Phillips and co-developed with Matt Melis, aims to pair everyday life with the music that underscores, speaks to, and enhances our experiences. This month, the CoS Staff soundtracks 10 of our favorite books.
There is a long-held belief about books: they’re silent by design and singular in experience. Unleashed by the authors’ words, you are able to run with their voice and expose yourself completely—as if dragged into a state of emotive groupthink you can’t possibly kick out of. Every so often, a book can get right under your skin, just like music, and you’re left feeling auxiliary yet completely submerged.
To put a human myth mildly, Blaise Pascal shook his fist reminding us that “the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” Unfortunately, reality is slightly grayer than that. It’s become near impossible to wade through the aural sludge: this Internet, that public transport, those paper-thin apartment walls! It’s 2014 and they still haven’t managed to invent a “life-remote,” and while some books seduce us in silence, others, if paired with the correct music, can make words promenade around the page like a choreographed waltz.
“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” ― Aldous Huxley, Music at Night and Other Essays
A soundtrack can punctuate reading, shut out that incessant gurgle in the world, and provide a way for us to take a page out of an author’s book and live in it for a little while. At some point in our lives, we all have a stack of books organically bound to the music we listened to when reading them because sounds can bring haunted figures into being, romantic characters into fruition, and amplify moods or heighten intensity. Miles Davis soundtracking William S. Burroughs, Patti Smith dancing around Sylvia Plath, Four Tet buried in Chuck Palahniuk, Iggy spiraling over Irvine Welsh, and Morrissey squalling with Oscar Wilde… Poetic isn’t it? Plug into your Life Soundtrack.
–Lior Phillips Staff Writer
Just Kids by Patti Smith
To Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends
“Old friends, old friends/ Sat on their park bench like bookends.” ~ Simon & Garfunkel (“Old Friends”)
For a few uncertain, formative years of their lives as young artists, punk rock poetess Patti Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, you could say, were bookends: paired, pushed together and pulled apart, but always dependent on the other’s presence to help shoulder life’s load. While reading Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids, and listening to Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends, I found myself snipping songs from the record and reattaching them to moments in Smith and Mapplethorpe’s story: “Save the Life of My Child” to the bewildering Chelsea Hotel years; “Hazy Shade of Winter” to the couple’s ambitious dreams but bleak prospects as artists; “Fakin’ It” to Mapplethorpe’s initial struggles with accepting his homosexuality; and “Overs” to the ex-lovers’ inevitable parting.
Simon & Garfunkel’s music and lyrics, though ostensibly having little, if anything, to do with a situation like the one portrayed in Just Kids, are a lovely, complementary companion to Smith’s delicate, honest, and poetic prose about artistic awakening and irreplaceable friendship.
Mood: Grateful. Perfect for times when you’re on poor terms with your soul mate, be they your muse, lover, or dear friend. Smith reminds us of how truly valuable and inextricable these people are to our lives.
Excerpt: “Wordlessly we absorbed the thoughts of one another and just as dawn broke fell asleep in each other’s arms. When we awoke he greeted me with his crooked smile, and I knew he was my knight.” When reading these sentences, I can’t help but think of that opening line to “America”: “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together.” For the two lovers of Just Kids, that fortune was a lifetime of artistic expression and fulfillment. —Matt Melis
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
To Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city
It’s hard out here for an African-American, especially when you start the novel getting electrocuted after a battle royale for a college scholarship. It’s still not crazier than writing a 1,000-word essay, but it’s still a harsh sight. While Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city focuses on a very traumatic type of urban strife rather than Invisible Man‘s exaggerated focus on systematic racism, a good portion of both of their tragedies come from the main character simply trying to be a decent member of society. That task is much harder than it’s supposed to be. Society can’t see invisible men, you see.
Mood: Cynical. It sort of reminds me of when a college buddy of mine said he’d thought about dropping out, finding a 9 to 5, and just getting a kid. It’s like: Why bother, right?
Excerpt: “I looked at Ras on his horse and at their handful of guns and recognized the absurdity of the whole night and of the simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate, that had brought me here still running, and knowing now who I was and where I was and knowing too that I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine.”
The narrator has spent the entirety of the novel getting screwed over despite his attempts to follow the guidelines laid out for him. He gets kicked out of school for doing his job, loses his job at a paint manufacturing plant strictly because of his co-worker’s paranoia, and becomes an impassioned speaker for a social activist organization — which turns out to be a racist cult. So, of course, the narrator comes to the above realization when that false sense of structure turns into bedlam. Ras the Destroyer functions as the novel’s anti-hero, but imagine how pants-shittingly insane it is to see a man on a black horse with a spear just raising hell in the neighborhood. In the middle of it all, Pharrell’s voice trails along — “Mass hallucination baby” — half dreaming, half nihilistic. –Brian Josephs
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
To Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock
House of Leaves is a long, winding labyrinth of a book that manages to be a piece of cerebral metafiction as well as an unsettling thriller about a “possessed” house. Talk Talk’s groundbreaking final album, 1991’s Laughing Stock, is similarly knotty and maze-like, but also very appealing and approachable from an emotional, visceral standpoint a la the plot at the center of Danielewski’s novel.
Mood: Nihilistic. Laughing Stock sounds almost post-apocalyptic, and Danielewski’s novel is all about accepting the entropy of everyday life, even if it may lack a deeper meaning.
Excerpt: “As Navidson takes his first step through that immense arch, he is suddenly a long way away from the warm light of the living room. In fact, his creep into that place resembles the eerie faith required for any deep sea exploration, the beam of his flashlight scratching at nothing but the invariant blackness.” Read that and listen to the first few minutes of “After the Flood”. –Dean Essner
Something Happened by Joseph Heller
To Caribou’s The Milk of Human Kindness
It’s striking how this book is full of exceptional jokes, but none that are funny. For ex-WW2 soldier turned American businessman Bob Slocum, the milk of human kindness spilled over and went sour. Known to shade his characters in gloom, Heller uses a few Chekhovian techniques to plunge the reader into a suffocating corner with no option but to love this spiteful character. Intoxicated by his past, Caribou sounds comparatively sober: bending baroque sounds with melodramatic buildups, shading each crescendo with lighter tones. As if adding a sitcom laugh track, this pairing suspends a fake layer of hope onto an astonishingly miserable tale; you’ll read resilience into lines meant to be supremely sardonic.
Mood: Disillusioned. You have to compare war to the sterile workplace? It feels absurd when you realize that a man crippled by his cubicle fought half his life doing everything he could, only to spend the rest of it doing nothing.
Excerpt: “Sometimes when I’m asleep, I try to wake up and can’t. Sleep has me in its grip, and that is my dream.” Press play on “Drumheller”. –Lior Phillips
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
To Mogwai’s Happy Songs for Happy People
Despite its title, Mogwai’s Happy Songs for Happy People is far from a joyous celebration. Instead, the Glasgow outfit’s fourth album is more for deep, even painful, reflection — a record laced with tamed and meandering melodies, punctuated, albeit briefly, by well-placed and gripping crescendos. Each of the LP’s movements, from its sharp peaks to its lulling valleys, make for perfect moments of introspection, especially while reading Lord of the Flies, a volatile and pensive work about our own innate savagery and the gradual decline of human morality.
Mood: Forlorn. No matter our best efforts, sometimes we are defeated by evil’s face. What’s even worse? Sometimes that ugly mug is ourselves.
Excerpt: Soundtracked by the songs “Kids Will Be Skeletons” and “Killing All the Flies”: “There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast. . . . Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! . . . You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are the way they are?” –Michelle Geslani
The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis
To New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies
The cyclical debauchery of empty sex, faceless love, and bored heartbreak that clutter the 288 pages of Bret Easton Ellis’s oft-forgotten pre-American Psycho novel, The Rules of Attraction, reads in harmony with the druggy malaise of New Order’s sophomore masterpiece, Power, Corruption & Lies. “When you want me in your heart/ I won’t be there,” Bernard Sumner sings on “5 8 6”, repeatedly asking: “Can you hear me calling you?” The disaffected dance hit echoes almost all of the novel’s cannibalistic journal entries, while the rest of the album eerily captures the thoughts of its three main characters. “The Village” could be a poem written by Lauren for her Eurotripping “boyfriend,” Victor; “We All Stand” bleeds the same fantastical blood of Paul’s; and “Age of Consent” is the delusion that Sean insists upon… otherwise he’d be a prime candidate for the primal aggression of “Your Silent Face”.
Mood: Society knows no other evil like obsession, and in the academic world of Ellis’ novel, it’s never been so perplexingly sexy and fatalistic.
Excerpt: “Vomit, beer, wine, cigarette smoke, punch, marijuana, even the smell of sex, semen, sweat, women, permeate the room, hang in the air like haze. I don’t even know what I’m doing here…” Paul observes more than midway through the book, seemingly soundtracked by “Ultraviolence”. –Michael Roffman
Animal Farm by George Orwell
To Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home
Sure, there are more overtly political albums out there that could accompany George Orwell’s allegorical rendering of the Russian Revolution, but Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, like Animal Farm, owes a great deal of its power to its unlikely presentation. Orwell’s masterstroke of setting his revolution in the familiar, unthreatening setting of a charming English farmyard with animals as the principal players makes that final image of man and swine appearing indistinguishable from each other all the more shocking and terrifying. Similarly, nobody expected Dylan, who had left the folk community, to still have something to say while fooling around with the electrified, politically and morally vacuous medium of rock and roll.
And yet, rollicking, harp-blowing romps like “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “Outlaw Blues”, and “On the Road Again” (complete with that line about a Napoleon Bonaparte mask) tumble like the rustic and dusty farmyard skirmishes fought over Jones’s property. You can imagine Boxer tirelessly hauling stones or the ducks gathering straw to the defiant roll call of “Maggie’s Farm”, all while Napoleon, Squealer, and the other pigs quietly consolidate power in the background. Somehow, “Gates of Eden” fits as a bleak, deteriorated remix to the animal’s “Beasts of England” anthem, and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” strums off as an elegy to the failed noble experiment of Animal Farm.
Mood: Both the novel and record begin with the fresh breath of possibility and end on a sad note of despair. Do we heed Orwell’s cautionary tale and take up Dylan’s advice to “strike another match, go start anew,” or do we resign ourselves to our world as it exists?
Excerpt: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” rings like a death knell to the original hopes for Animal Farm at the revolution’s outset. I’ve always thought of Orwell’s famous commandment as the approximate antithesis of Dylan’s infamous “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” line “But even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.” Unfortunately, Orwell’s line rings truer to life. –Matt Melis
A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin
To Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s F♯ A♯ ∞
The Red Wedding is a paradigm-shifting sequence that forces readers and Starks alike to appreciate that anyone can be killed. Walder Frey and Tywin Lannister forgo the longstanding safe harbor of guest right and do their damndest to rain suffering upon the noble House Stark, leaving none to hear the wails or gnashing of teeth. Similarly, Godspeed’s foray into the end of times is a journey beyond hope and redemption. The mood is dreary, and the wallets are full of blood. Cacophonous bursts and bleak asides also make it a grim companion piece to the darkest volume in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.
Mood: Betrayed! Falling in love with these characters only to have them ripped apart is becoming too painful. G.R.R.M. you! black-hearted author.
Excerpt: A Storm of Swords: “Catelyn Stark raised her hands and watched the blood run down her long fingers, over her wrists, beneath the sleeves of her gown. Slow red worms crawled along her arms and under her clothes. It tickles. That made her laugh until she screamed. “Mad,” someone said, “she’s lost her wits,” and someone else said, “Make an end,” and a hand grabbed her scalp … she thought, No, don’t, don’t cut my hair, Ned loves my hair. Then the steel was at her throat, and its bite was red and cold.”
“The Dead Flag Blues”: “The buildings tumbled in on themselves/ Mothers clutching babies/ Picked through the rubble/ And pulled out their hair/ The skyline was beautiful on fire.” –Dan Pfleegor
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
To Nicolas Jaar’s Space Is Only Noise
Space Is Only Noise with The Old Man and the Sea is a tranquilizing combo because both reward close attention, even though there’s not much to keep track of. It also helps that Nicolas Jaar’s album, his ice-capped debut from 2011, opens with the sound of swirling water, like you’re already in Santiago’s skiff as he fights to end his three-month fishing drought in the forbidding Gulf Stream. It makes it easier to get to know the geezer, although it’s still weird that he’s so into Joe DiMaggio.
Mood: Overwhelmed. Ideal for an afternoon of decompression, most copies of The Old Man and the Sea run under 130 pages. There’s time to chomp into the story as you would with one of Hemingway’s lengthier novels and still finish in two listens to the record, which, for all its imposing drums and otherworldly vocals, functions just fine as background music.
Excerpt: Sync this passage up with foggy piano droner “Almost Fell”: “He did not dream of the lions but instead of a vast school of porpoises that stretched for eight or ten miles and it was in the time of their mating and they would leap high into the air and return into the same hole they had made in the water when they leaped. “Then he dreamed that he was in the village on his bed and there was a norther and he was very cold and his right arm was asleep because his head had rested on it instead of a pillow. “After that he began to dream of the long yellow beach and he saw the first of the lions come down onto it in the early dark and then the other lions came and he rested his chin on the wood of the bows where the ship lay anchored with the evening off-shore breeze and he waited to see if there would be more lions and he was happy.” –Michael Madden
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
To Broken Social Scene’s Feel Good Lost
If swallowed whole, Arthur C. Clarke could scatter you around space like pollen in the springtime. With writing that travels further than fiction, Rendezvous with Rama navigates the sci-fi strata, so when it’s syncopated with Broken Social Scene, it becomes an oeuvre of wonder and curiosity. While the chopped-up drum loops entangle themselves in pulsating guitar sonatas, we can orbit freely into flights of fantasy and reflect on the human condition: To explore change. BSS manages to snatch us away to an entirely secondary realm and summon ideals of feeling good, whilst lost in our own imagination. It speaks to the people who have felt alienation in their lives, captures the mind-blowing expanse of possibilities, and balances it all on a trajectory of intimate listening and bittersweet awe.
Mood: Wonderment that propels us into a space where we can feel comfortable enough to replace the fears we have of the unknown, the extraterrestrial, and the alien star fleet with curiosity.
Excerpt: “When in doubt, say nothing and move on.” Paired with “Cranley’s Gonna Make It”, “Guilty Cubicles” and “Passport Radio” –Lior Phillips