The Black Arts: 2001

For some songs and albums, it’s almost impossible for me to not connect them to a specific time and place.

Even now, when I hear the Stereolab album Sound-Dust, it reminds me of the fall of 2001.

My friend Joey had introduced me to Stereolab a few years earlier, and I loved the mixture of pop sounds, space age lounge, and lyrics that were unlike any other band — some political, some satirical, some completely absurdist.

Fluorescences (released a few years ago on a compilation album) is one great example of the Stereolab vibe.

I bought Sound-Dust on the day it was released. I loved all of their work but especially Sound-Dust, which had a bit more of a traditional sound than earlier Stereolab albums.

There was also a sense of ennui and melancholy through all of the album’s songs, especially my favorite, “The Black Arts.”

There’s both a personal and a universal link connecting this song to a time and place for me.

The lyrics are very clear and obvious — a rarity for Stereolab — and tell a lot of the story on their own.

I need somebody, I feel so lonely,
Somebody to share my scarcity.
All cut from the world, unrelated

I’d just turned thirty, and while I’d successfully shaken my Jay habit, my life hadn’t changed in all the ways I’d longed for. I had a life, but it didn’t look like the one I’d designed for myself.

Surrounded, the world on top,
Disconnected, digging my soul,
Holding my breath to repossess.

I was still on the periphery of things, occasionally spending a night here or a weekend there in an encounter with the latest romantic contender.

And at some point, it hits you.

It became clear, when none of those men were permanent, when none of them seem to stick around, that you are trying to take the warmth and love and affection from each experience.

That maybe, somehow, the collection of hours and weekends and early mornings and late night booty calls can somehow be woven together like a crazy quilt, fashioned into a sparkly blanket to keep you warm at that 3 a.m. moment.

At that 3 a.m. moment when you are awake and alive and so aware of your aloneness in the room that it feels like a presence in itself. At the moment where you desperately need to trick yourself into believing that you chose this, that you wanted this feeling.

My heart (my brain), my heat, my sweat, my feet.
I need my bones and my blood too,
Need somebody in my body.

That was one connection to this haunting, gorgeous song.

The second was the event that happened just a few weeks after this album was released.

I was living in Pittsburgh then, and learned about the attacks on the World Trade Center when I arrived at work.

We sat, horrified, listening to the news on the radio, barely able to process any work among us.

9/11 happened far from us, but there was reason for us to be alarmed. The plane that crashed east of Pittsburgh probably flew over the house in which I grew up — as well as a few hundred of my relatives — before it crashed.

When I left work that evening, the roads were deserted; no buses were running, and NOBODY was on the streets.

For all I knew, there was a curfew.

I put in my earphones and walked home. As Sound-Dust played, I kept turning around, waiting to see someone, anyone, on the streets, someone with me, near me, to restore normalcy.

At one point, I left the sidewalk and started to walk down the middle of Liberty Avenue – a road that would have been filled with cars moving at the speed of light on any other day.

The sound of I need somebody rang in my ears repeatedly over those next days and weeks, and I saw people actually reaching out, temporarily letting down their brick walls, their icy masks to admit to friends, family and strangers that they were scared, that they needed someone to share their fears, share their scarcity.

It’s a gorgeous song, but not a profoundly sad one; it’s got an unusual framework, with parts of the song very dreamlike and soft, and other sections with a march-like beat, a movement of people rising up to prevail.

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