Chill music for a gloomy season

I would like to begin this column by making a simple, unequivocal declaration: I despise winter. I use that word, “despise,” purposefully, since it indicates an emotion stronger than mere hate. No, what I feel for the frozen months of the year goes far beyond simple dislike or even repugnance; I would qualify it instead as a form of bone deep, bordering-on-spiritual, dread.
My objections to the season are numerous, beginning with the sickly quality of the winter light that infects both body and soul, and continuing on to the vast stretches of desolate earth stripped bare of every speck of green, gold or any other life affirming color. And then, of course, there’s the most horrible aspect of all: the cruel and painful chill of a January toilet seat on one’s nether regions.
My disdain for winter has even infected my feelings for other seasons of the year. I find I can no longer enjoy fall, that most pleasant and tranquil of junctures, because I’m all too aware of the chill devastation waiting just around the corner. For me, autumn has turned into an entire season of Sundays, that bleakest of weekdays, when every attempt at mirth and leisure is soured by the knowledge of one’s imminent return to the numbing routine of workaday life.
In full disclosure, I too was once young and frolicked in the snow with childish glee. In my fourth decade, however, I find the dirty white deluge to be simply an annoyance, the harbinger of muddy yards and melting slush that will be tracked through the house and car for days to come. Give me a tranquil, or even violent, late summer afternoon rain shower over winter’s deceitful downpours, thank you.
Though my disdain for the season has increased with age, I have managed to find a few ways to steel myself against winter’s worst effects, most recently by listening to music that manages to match the season in all its mean and depressing attitudes. Simply put, I’ve found the only way to endure the time of ice and death is to embrace it with music that resonates at the same gray frequency.
Here, in no particular order, are four albums that bite back against the sickly season by matching it gloom for gloom:
“Third”– Big Star: An album that was never officially finished, that was only released some five years after it was abandoned by both the record company and the musicians involved, “Third” (also known as Sister Lovers) is nevertheless a doom-pop masterwork.
Sprung from the mind of Memphis musician Alex Chilton, a former teen idol with the band The Box Tops, the album is the final installment in the increasingly strange trilogy that Chilton’s following band, Big Star, recorded in the early ’70s. Though the album contains truly frightening portraits of clinical depression and ennui, the darkness cannot subsume Chilton’s melodic gifts, which turn even his most obsidian ruminations into strangely beautiful, hook-filled hymns.

“Flowers of Romance” – Public Image, Ltd.: An industrial, funk-noise screed that still sounds ahead of its time 32 years after its release. Amplified wristwatches, Italian opera samples, violins and saxophones weave in and out of the clattering percussion, framing former Sex Pistols
mastermind John Lydon’s abstract tales of domestic terror. With the specter of Valentine’s Day still lingering, the title song’s lyrics prove especially morbid:
“I sent you flowers
You wanted chocolates instead,
I’ll take the furniture
start all over again.”

“Our Mother the Mountain” – Townes Van Zandt: The loneliest, most frightening album from one of the 20th century’s finest songwriters, “Our Mother the Mountain” marks the high point of Van Zandt’s studio recording career. With themes ranging from suicide and lost love to black-hearted gamblers who lead young women to their deaths, the album’s highlight is the title song, an ambiguous tale concerning a mountain demon who appears to men in beguiling blue satin, only to have her “hair turn to splinters and her flesh turn to brine.”

“Gentlemen” – Afghan Whigs: One of the most singularly bleak and unforgiving evocations of a doomed relationship ever committee to tape, “Gentlemen” is a neglected classic that somehow fell between the cracks during the heyday of grunge. Lead singer Greg Dulli presents himself as a wasted romantic with a mean streak, which he turns on himself more often than not. Documenting a love affair in which both participants feed off the negative energy of their partner, the album’s music manages to be both sharp and sickly, deftly rhythmic and sprawling. With undercurrents of soul music and the band’s growing fascination with ’70s funk, it’s a sound that perfectly realizes every dark intention hinted at in Dulli’s lyrics.

Though these albums are certainly not for the faint of heart, I find they work in much the same way as yearly flu vaccinations: By subjecting the body to the very thing its attempting to fight off, they provide a measure of protection against winter’s worst symptoms.
Happy listening!


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