That Listening Thing

I’ve been thinking lately about close listening, and the way it tends to be categorized as an “audiophile thing.” It conjures up images of someone in a darkened room, sitting alone in a special chair, eyes closed, listening in some kind of state of rapture or in an analytical fugue state. The concept of just sitting and listening to music is possibly one of the most alien to folks who don’t consider themselves audiophiles, right alongside paying astronomical sums for cables. It tends to be met with something almost like fear: “I just can’t DO that, just sit and listen and not do anything else!”

We’re not much good at doing one thing at a time. There’s a reason “mindfulness” sells a lot of self-help books; we’re used to doing eighteen things at once, and then feeling vaguely guilty about how we can’t seem to concentrate on just one or two, while simultaneously feeling guilty that we’re only doing one or two of the many things that keep us busy. We crave that feeling of “flow,” where we’re fully absorbed in a task and all the stuff clamoring for our attention shuts up. It’s one reason I like driving, particularly driving stick shift: it demands enough physical and mental connection for me to feel busy, but leaves enough of my brain free to wander. It’s the only thing I know better for thinking than the shower.

Driving and listening to music are almost inextricable for me, as they are for many people. I’m a little oldschool when it comes to music in the car. I like trying to pick up local radio stations while I’m on the road. Radio isn’t what it used to be, but you can still find small joys, like a station that’s playing nothing but mariachi, or lucking into an oral history of the Count Basie Big Band. And of course, if I can’t pull in a good radio station or handle listening to Katy Perry’s latest one more time, there’s always the CD player.

I have lazy habits when it comes to CDs in the car: inevitably I’ll go around a mountain bend, lose my radio station, and switch to the CD, only to realize with faint exasperation that I’ve had the same CD in the car for over a month now. And switchbacks at 65 MPH are not the time to go fumbling in the glove box for a replacement.

So, Josh Ritter‘s Beast in its Tracks for the umpteenth time it is. Funny thing is, it’s during these repeated listening sessions that I often really fall in love with an album. It starts to weave itself into my days. I start to become intimate with it in a way that I don’t when I’m listening at home, where I can skip around or wander out of the room, distracted by a task that just can’t wait, tempted out of the flow by responsibility. A friend of mine recently made a similar observation, mentioning that she’d left her copy of Beck’s Morning Phase in her car for weeks and subsequently realized that it was the first time she’d listened to an album all the way through in years. Since college, maybe. And by the time she finally remembered to take the CD out her car, she discovered that she had grown emotionally attached to an album for the first time in a very, very long time. “I’m going to have to try this listening thing more often,” she said.

That listening thing. You mean, that thing you used to do when you were a teenager, wearing your earbuds and looking out the bus window pretending like you were in the music video? That’s close listening. That thing where you love a song so much that you keep hitting “repeat”? Close listening. And that thing where you leave the CD in the car until you have the order of songs memorized and you all of a sudden find yourself thinking about how really great the background vocals are on the third track after hearing it fifteen times? That’s close listening, too.

I think sometimes as audiophiles we spend too much time describing our hobby as though it was mystical and rarified and so very different from the way other people experience music, when it might be easier to explain if we started from the places that aren’t so different after all. The way a song gets under your skin and will always remind you of a specific rainy day driving down the coast. The way you just need to hear that drum kick in, one more time. The way you can close your eyes for a minute and follow the throughline of a harmony while the bus grinds its way through a traffic jam. The kinds of things that get a busy surgeon to say, “I need to do this listening thing more often.”