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A playlist for these uncertain times

In times like this, music is a resort we all reach for. This eclectic set of songs and albums, from folk legends to relative newbies, could be a soundtrack of our current lives

Singer-songwriter John Prine died on 7 April of complications arising out of covid-19.
Singer-songwriter John Prine died on 7 April of complications arising out of covid-19. (Photo: Getty Images)

No matter where you are in the world, these have been trying times. Quarantine, self-isolation, lockdowns, and, more than anything else, the always looming, always palpable uncertainty about what is going to happen or when this will all blow over have all changed our lives and minds like never before. When normal life is disrupted and anxiety and fear about the future weighs heavily on our minds, music is a resort many of us have been reaching for, daily, hourly, and, often, all the time. Here is a list of songs or albums, some new, some not so new, and in no particular order, that have been making their way into my playlists.

When I first read that John Prine had been diagnosed with covid-19, I thought the worst would happen. And it did. Prine, songwriter, singer, musician extraordinaire, died on 7 April of complications arising out of the pernicious viral infection that has held the world hostage for months now and could continue to do so till no one knows when. For the five decades that Prine’s career spanned, he had been a musician’s musician, an inspiration to everyone, starting with Bob Dylan, who considered him one of his favourite songwriters. Prine’s repertoire of folk songs (and discography) is long and there are too many songs to pick from. But my favourite is a duet he recorded with Iris DeMent, In Spite Of Ourselves. It’s a funny, cheeky and sexy little love song that is bound to bring a smile to your lips no matter where you are or what has been troubling you.

Producer, songwriter and musician Trent Reznor is best known as the founder and frontman of the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails (NIN). But he has also made music for video games (Quake and Doom 3, for instance) and films (Natural Born Killers, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). A couple of weeks ago, NIN released two new albums, Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts.

Released at the end of March as free downloads for fans during the pandemic, Ghosts V is an instrumental, ambient music gem. The eight songs on the album are long and touch us at many levels. They are sometimes eerily calm and at other times frenetic and anxious but the delicate arrangements of pianos and strings transport our minds to distant places, away from the nagging fears of not knowing what the future is going to be.

In late March, Bob Dylan released his first song in eight years, Murder Most Foul. A massive, nearly 17-minute track, the song describes the assassination of US president John F. Kennedy in 1963 but goes beyond that to become a comment on the societal and political changes in modern-day America. There are references to so many of Dylan’s own (and others’) songs hidden in Murder Most Foul that it is not a song that can be heard casually or only once. Hearing it multiple times brings out the song’s true meanings—which, of course, will vary depending on who is listening to it and what the listener makes of it. It’s another masterpiece from one of contemporary music’s greatest talents.

Call it serendipity or coincidence, or whatever, but when The Strokes released their new album on 10 April, it was titled The New Abnormal. The New York-based band was an icon of the city’s early aughts (they were formed at the end of the 1990s) and brimmed with a don’t-care attitude that endeared them to fans. This album comes seven years after their last studio album (Comedown Machine), which, if not entirely unmemorable, left fans a tad disappointed.

The New Abnormal will not. Stylish, laden with hooks and harking back to the band’s heyday, it is also a coming-of-age album for The Strokes. After all, frontman Julian Casablancas and his bandmates are either in their 40s or getting there soon. My track pick from it is Why Are Sundays So Depressing, which (be warned) is, despite its title, pretty uplifting!

Seattle heavyweights Pearl Jam, as someone said, are not a band; they are almost an industry. The 30-year-old pioneers of grunge and alternative rock, led by frontman Eddie Vedder, are so big that every time they release an album it is subject to minute scrutiny. Most fans lament that they have not been as stellar as they were during what they consider Pearl Jam’s golden years, the early to mid-1990s—when they released albums such as Ten, Vs., Vitalogy and No Code. So in March, when Pearl Jam released their 11th studio album, Gigaton, many were quick to dismiss it as yet another tired effort at replicating their earlier sound. But Gigaton is an album that grows on you, regardless of whether you are a Pearl Jam fan or not. Songs like Superblood Wolfmoon, Retrograde and Quick Escape are polished grunge-comes-of-age tunes that have all the attributes of becoming earworms, especially during these difficult times.

A relatively new band has found a place on my playlist in the past couple of weeks. Porridge Radio are a Brighton band whose genre is sometimes called DIY (do it yourself) because of the intentionally imperfect recording quality of their albums. Easy-going, laid-back, with literate lyrics, Porridge Radio’s new album, Every Bad, is perfect for those days when you want to laze on the sofa, a coffee cup going cold at your side, and procrastinate about all the projects you have on your ever-growing pandemic-fuelled to-do list. There is angst, despair, love and hope in Every Bad’s songs. On Long, frontwoman Dana Margolin sings: You’re wasting my time/ Nobody’s telling me anything/ Nobody’s telling me anything/ Nobody’s telling me anything/ And you’re wasting my time/ You’re wasting my time.

Porridge Radio are a good way to waste your time. It’s slacker indie-rock at its best.

The Lounge List

Six tracks to bookend your week

1. ‘In Spite Of Ourselves’ by John Prine (featuring Iris DeMent) from ‘In Spite Of Ourselves’

2. ‘With Faith’ by Nine Inch Nails from ‘Ghosts V: Together’

3. ‘Why Are Sundays So Depressing’ by The Strokes from ‘The New Abnormal’

4. ‘Murder Most Foul’ by Bob Dylan

5. ‘Superblood Wolfmoon’ by Pearl Jam from ‘Gigaton’

6. ‘Long’ by Porridge Radio from ‘Every Bad’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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