Today I’m flying to Dar es Salaam on a business trip; we’re working on a project serving communities in East Africa, and we’re planning to meet some of our early beta testers and build relationships with local designers and developers.
I’m excited about the trip but also nervous, simply because this is the first time I’ll be away from my family for a whole week since my 2-year-old daughter was born—not to mention the first time I’ve left the country without her. It was pretty hard to drop her off at daycare this morning, knowing that I won’t see her again until next week. And I’m headed to a place with which I’m really unfamiliar, where any number of things could go wrong.
As I started the car and pulled out of the daycare parking lot, I turned on the stereo for distraction. It happened to be cued up at the beginning of one of my all-time favorite albums: Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism.
As the first few tracks rose and fell1, I found that, once more, Ben Gibbard and friends were saying something I really needed to hear. The songs knew exactly how I felt and told me all about it. That mixture of awe and regret, of being called by the ocean but longing for home at the same time. Of missing someone even before you’ve parted from them.
This got me thinking about how we—the listeners—can not only complete a piece of music but can grow it into something far more than it was at birth. I’m willing to argue enthusiastically that Transatlanticism is a classic album. I think it’s a masterpiece of early-oughts alternative, and I’d like to think I’m in good company with that opinion.
But: that’s not why I love this album, or why it means so much to me. I love it because my grandmother gave me a copy for Christmas one year, shortly after it came out, and as I listened to it on the long drive home it felt like she’d given me her blessing to live in a different place and try different things—a blessing I didn’t realize I needed so badly.
After a few hours of driving, the songs became an uncannily perfect soundtrack for the landscape passing my window: mountains in dark silhouette giving way to the lights of Baltimore. It became my standard road trip soundtrack over the years. I loved playing it loud with the windows down on summer nights, the music blending with the crickets and cicadas and wind.
For a year or so, I listened to it almost daily with a close friend. We were both going through some difficult times in our personal lives, and there was something in the songs that helped us cope. Something we needed to hear, again and again.
You can build up a relationship with an album over the years until you find it’s become so much a part of your life that it feels like listening to your own memories. It’s not just music, of course; I feel much the same way about the book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay and Rogier Van der Weydon’s painting, Portrait of a Lady.
It occurs to me what little control we have over our work, and how wonderful that actually is. If people feel a connection to something you've made, they’ll keep it and take it with them as they live their lives, putting their own memories and stories into it, until to them it has a depth and meaning that you—the presumed creator—couldn’t possibly understand. Even though it has your name on it, it has become theirs, and in the process it’s become far richer.
Now I have to go listen to Passenger Seat again.
The whole album is designed to evoke the ocean. Songs build and fall off like tides, and the guitars mimick the way waves crash against a shore. ↩