Mixtape Mondays: Remembering First Love
[Editor's note: Cover images of albums previously reviewed on the DV have been linked to the review.]
First love: it’s one of those things, like death and taxes, that none of us are immune to. It’s messy and fleeting, but it’s enduring, too, carving out a slice of your heart in such a way that you can never be made whole again, not quite. Or, as author Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her 2002 novel I’ll Take You There, “Your first love you’ll never outlive. After that first love you will never love another in that way.”
It’s more bittersweet than anything, though. There’s the pure-eyed innocence of twining fingers together for the first time and the weighted-down, not-quite sadness of passing through old pictures, forgotten letters. There’s the simple, incredible feeling of waking up wrapped in someone’s arms, and the sense that they – and only they – can make the most mundane gestures incandescent and unparalleled. You are alive for the first time in that love. It almost always ends, but it’s never really forgotten. Not quite. From longing ballads to guitars churning in a way that seems to mimic bodies colliding for the first time, these songs are meant to capture it all: the complicated, the lovely, the universal.
“Thirteen" – Elliott Smith Elliott Smith turns the Big Star tune into a breathy, gently plucked love song, infusing his version with a sense of lamentation that the breezier original bypassed. With just his imperfect, subdued vocals and an acoustic guitar fuzzily underpinning, Smith sings of school dances long gone, of adoring “Paint It Black,” and longing to be “an outlaw for your love,” capturing all those precious moments of discovery and solidarity like butterfly wings, preserved and faded but lastingly beautiful.
"Maps" – Yeah Yeah Yeahs Simple and soaring, “Maps” strips away the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s proclivity for glitter and throbbing dance beats to become one of their most resonant hits. Built around layers of swirling guitars, rising synths, and Karen O.’s seductive delivery of the spare, evocative line “Wait –they don’t love you like I love you,” this track is shimmering and painfully lovely, one of those moments where what is left unsaid is just as rich as the words in between.
"Don’t Take My Sunshine Away" – Sparklehorse Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse does bittersweet wonderfully, pairing rich, sunny harmonies and hazed-over instrumentation that unfolds languorously. His imagery – “Your face is like watching flowers growing in fast motion” – is as surreal as it is naturalistic, and there’s a desperation underlying the sheer gorgeousness of this cut in Linkous’s descriptions of dying stars and coldest winters, not to mention the repeated pleading of the song’s title.
"For Emma" – Bon Iver The eponymous track of Bon Iver’s revelatory, transcendent debut album, “For Emma” is brimming with horns, harmonies, and a buoyancy that makes it a fitting closer. Justin Vernon masterfully blends lush instrumentation and exposed, bare-bone vocals and lyrics. When he sings, “I toured the light / So many foreign roads, for Emma, forever ago,” Vernon finishes off the album with a sense of clear-eyed resolve beyond the chilly haze of heartbreak, letting the bitterness melt away to hope and memories.
"As Long As It Matters" – Gin Blossoms Delightfully pop-rocky in a way that epitomizes the late ‘90s, “As Long As It Matters” is nevertheless as affecting as it is palatable. With rich swirls of guitars and sparkling harmonies, the song is a lovely blend of mournful and hopeful (“I’ll be alright / As long as it matters / As long as you’re here with me now”), capturing perfectly the longing to seek refuge in a relationship as the world crashes down around you, even as that relationship is crumbling, too.
"Young Adult Friction" – The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart The best kind of pop combines style and substance, and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart shows that talent in spades on their self-titled debut. “Young Adult Friction” pulses along in a jittery flurry, the shimmering groove of the instrumentation belying the alternately tender and defiant lyrics that tell the tale of a musty library, a strained parting, and feelings not out of mind just yet.
"King Of Carrot Flowers Part 1" – Neutral Milk Hotel Neutral Milk Hotel (helmed by the incredible Jeff Mangum) is one of those truly indescribable, wonderful bands that have the ability to capture the most complicated of moods in the stroke of a single lyric. “King Of Carrot Flowers Part 1,” which launches out their groundbreaking In The Aeroplane Over The Sea in a strangely catchy rush of up-tempo guitars and Mangum’s distinctive, breezy vocals, describes in silky, surreal lyrics precisely how it feels to disappear into someone else’s body, escaping the peril of real life “into that secret place where no one dares to go.”
"Transatlanticism" – Death Cab For Cutie Perhaps Death Cab For Cutie’s most epic track, “Transatlanticism” (culled from the 2003 album of the same name) is nearly eight minutes of soul-tugging bliss, building from its bare, introductory piano chords to a crescendoing tide of sheer, gorgeous emotion as Ben Gibbard repeats over and over, “I need you so much closer.” Gibbard’s proclamation becomes all the more urgent as it’s nearly engulfed by the swelling instrumentation, exposing the ever-widening gulfs between lovers of both literal and figurative distance.
"Landslide" – Smashing Pumpkins Taking Fleetwood Mac’s lovely original, Smashing Pumpkins spins their own emotive version of “Landslide.” With just acoustic guitar to subtly support Billy Corgan’s gentle vocals, the lyrics become even more stirring: “I’ve been afraid of changing / ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you,” Corgan sings, high and tender, and it’s immediately wrenching, for who hasn’t lost themselves in love or hungered for a way out – but not enough to leave?
"Let Me Kiss You Now (And I’ll Fade Away)" – Plushgun For a dose of lightheartedness among all the ache and longing, look no further than Plushgun, who pile on ukuleles, joyous handclaps, and synths to create the jauntiest of kiss-offs. Moving stylishly through multiple tempo changes, Plushgun makes moving on seem stunningly carefree, letting the sentimental lyrics dissolve into a burst of synths and ba ba-da das.
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