Listening to music in a pandemic year
A year spent indoors, in the company of Fiona Apple and Phoebe Bridgers, Taylor Swift and Adrianne Lenker. How the pandemic shaped the music we heard and how we heard it
In 2020 we listened to music because what else was there to do? We listened to escape. We listened because we were bored, or to switch off the world. We listened in desperation and in hope, with great concentration and with half a mind on the work we were ignoring.
This experience of listening was inevitably linked to the circumstances everyone found themselves in. Music was chosen to fit surroundings as people quarantined in small or big houses, with people who shared their tastes or didn’t. So much of the music this year would have been heard on headphones. Some of the best albums were recorded during lockdown; even the ones created earlier seemed to resonate with the times. And every so often something would break through the pandemic haze and serve as a reminder of the wide world out there on pause.
While most of us spent the first months of lockdown glaring at articles about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a pandemic, there were some who got down to work. On 24 July, Taylor Swift surprised everyone by announcing she’d not only recorded her eighth studio album but it would drop that same day. folklore was produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, who co-wrote 11 of the 16 tracks, and Swift’s longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff. The partnership between the three, and guests like Bon Iver, was achieved remotely, in a somewhat exalted facsimile of our own Zoom-mandated lives.
Despite being assembled at a remove, folklore was immediate and cohesive. I’d never paid much attention to Swift’s music before, but one evening, walking by the sea past what seemed like the entire young population of Mahim, I heard the album through. It was a richer sound than I expected, Swift singing over hushed guitars, piano, strings, eschewing pop hooks in favour of something more hypnotic. I liked it fine off the bat, but I certainly didn’t count on returning to it week after week. Did this mean I was now a Swiftie? Was I obliged to watch folklore: the long pond studio sessions? (I did)
Unlike folklore, which is spare but polished, Adrianne Lenker’s album really did sound like it was recorded during a pandemic. In March, the lead singer and guitarist of Big Thief repaired to a one-room pine cabin in Massachusetts. The room, she wrote, was “like the inside of an acoustic guitar” and she felt the urge to capture its sound. She asked producer Philip Weinrobe to come up and join her. They recorded for a month and a day, 12 tracks making the cut for an album released in October, simply titled songs.
Lenker was dealing with a painful breakup at the time of recording, and there’s a deep sadness that belies the pretty guitar figures the songs around built around. I cover you with questions/ Cover you with explanations/ Cover you with music, she sings on zombie girl, a confession familiar to anyone who’s tried to paper over a fraying relationship. Heartbreak crystalizes Lenker’s already intimate songwriting into diamond-hard fragments of grief—on forwards beckon rebound, she sings in her strained high voice: Mystery of lack/ Stabbing stars through my back. The isolation and resultant creative burst might have helped Lenker purge herself of some of her sadness. “These songs have helped me heal,” she wrote in a note. “I hope that at least in some small way this music can be a friend to you.”
The artist who fully embraced all the possibilities of a lockdown album was English pop star Charli XCX. On 6 April, she announced on Zoom that she was starting work on a new album. “I’m only really going to be using the tools that I have at my fingertips—the people I can reach online, the tools I have in my house—to create my music, my artwork, my videos,” she said. From the start, it was intended as a truly collaborative record, with Charli not only documenting the making but inviting fans to participate. She posted vlogs tracking her progress, asked for suggestions on song titles and artwork and musical direction. The first video, Forever, released on 17 April, was a masterful four-minute edit of clips sent in by fans going about their lives in lockdown. The album, How I’m Feeling Now, released on 15 May, less than a month and a half after work began. And although its hard electronic dancefloor sound didn’t scream ‘lockdown album’, the lyrics were perfect pandemic ennui: I'm so bored/ Wake up late, eat some cereal/ Try my best to be physical/ Lose myself in a TV show/ Staring out to oblivion/ All my friends are invisible.
In a year where our rooms became the world, music allowed us to imagine other people in other rooms. Lenker’s instrumentals, a companion record to songs, consists of two extended guitar pieces, in which you can hear the squeak of every chord change, the sounds of scraping and shuffling, bird calls, the wind, the crackle of a fire. The exquisite mostly chimes has Lenker picking softly over mandala-like wind chimes. The last minute is just a delicate crackling, like someone walking over pine needles. music for indigo is a spare acoustic collage, 18 minutes into which Lenker sighs and says “I’m starting over”.
I found myself looking out for similar cracks in the surface, even in the albums recorded pre-pandemic. You can hear Fiona Apple’s dogs on the title track of Fetch The Bolt Cutters (they’re credited with ‘backing barks’). “Sounds pretty sick”, someone remarks at the end of Dandelions, from Kurt Vile’s Speed, Sound, Lonely KV EP. The beautiful bass-drum intro to Young Man’s Game on Fleet Foxes’ Shore—another album recorded mostly during lockdown—earns a “perfect”, possibly from creator Robin Pecknold. In another year, I might not have paid attention to these wrinkles, but in 2020 they were a comfort: signs of life, even as our lives stood suspended.
It was a great year for music that asked you to lean in and listen. A move from laptop speakers to headphones, and from Mumbai to a freezing Delhi, allowed Lenker’s albums to grab hold of me. Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher also took a couple of listens before I could appreciate the elegant string arrangements and wistful double-tracked vocals. The last track is a slowly mutating number that closes with a chorus triumphantly repeating ‘the end is here’. This song, and the album, were recorded before the pandemic, but two lines from it describe perfectly the anxious lazy surrender of lockdown: When I get back I'll lay around/ And I'll get up and lay back down.
I spent most of the year indoors in a one-and-a-half-room Mumbai apartment. Instinctually, I found myself playing a lot of music that reverberated nicely in that limited space without straining my ears or my neighbours’. Women in Music Pt. III, by the Los Angeles sibling trio Haim, arrived at just the right time: sunny, earworm-y pop-rock with shades of Fleetwood Mac but also Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Walk On the Wild Side Lou Reed. On Alfredo, The Alchemist served up cloudy R&B and jazz and psychedelic guitars for Freddie Gibbs to rap over. These albums—and Soccer Mommy’s Color Theory, and the ones by Fleet Foxes and Bridgers—were the third bowl of porridge: not too loud, not too soft, just right. But there was only one artist whose sound seemed to fill the room and then stretch into infinity: Julianna Barwick, who builds multilayered vocal overdubs into ecstatic loops of sound on Healing is a Miracle.
Not everything brilliant was easy listening. Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters was probably the best album of the year, acidly funny writing married to a roiling, pulsing, organic sound. Yet each hearing demanded something, which meant it wasn’t the easiest record to play on repeat. The same was true for Mama, You Can Bet! by singer-songwriter Jyoti, a thick mixture of jazz, spacey funk and eclectic vocal stylings. It was stunning, but the sort of stunning that takes time to recover from. Then there was the music too wild and specific to retrofit into the pandemic experience, in particular Run the Jewels’ RTJ4 and Riz Ahmed’s The Long Goodbye, searing hip-hop from Trump’s America and Brexit Britain (the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests were still on when the latter released, so Riz saying 'Now everybody everywhere wantin' their country back' hit especially hard).
When music couldn’t speak to the pandemic experience, the visuals did. Videos started to resemble National Geographic. Fleet Foxes debuted Shore on YouTube along with an hour-long film with tasteful shots of streams, fields, animals, birds, mountains. Lenker filmed the woods around her cabin for a series of scratchy videos. The album cover of folklore has Swift in a forest, dwarfed by tall trees. For the video for In Light, Julianna Barwick assembled a “small quarantine crew” —a director, a DP, and a ballet dancer—“who set out to the dunes, the forest, the ocean, and the hazy universe that is the salton sea.”
Two videos I saw within weeks of each other struck me as a perfect double bill on the sudden outlawing of touch. Perfume Genius’ Describe has a group of scraggly men and women living on some sort of post-apocalypse farm. The weird antagonistic dancing and saturated, sensual look seemed to echo a world driven half-crazy by restrictions on physical contact. Repression was replaced by orgiastic excess in Harry Styles’ Watermelon Sugar, which begins with the warning “This video is dedicated to touching. May 18, 2020”, and then makes good on it. (Styles made his video as a comment on the lockdown; Mike Hadreas, whose performs as Perfume Genius, shot his before.) There was also the cheerful sight of the Haim sisters—patron saints of brisk walking—striding across the screen in Don’t Wanna. Touch was still limited, but movement was back.
The music keeps coming. Right now, I’m listening to Fuubutsushi (風物詩), a pristine amalgam of classical and jazz by four musicians collaborating at a distance; We Will Always Love You, the third album by shimmery electronica patchwork geniuses The Avalanches, and Swift’s second surprise album of 2020, evermore, another hushed set of folk and country tunes. The year’s almost over. We’re still in our rooms. The beat goes on.