I listen to a lot of music. I listen to jazz, rap, rock and roll, big band, reggae, 80s hair metal, 70s funk, 50s pop, etc. Over the past few months I’ve listened to albums from a country-tinged folk singer name Todd Snider, as well as to Jay Z’s newest album, 4:44, as well as to some of this year’s Phish tour, to a Grateful Dead concert from May, 1977, and to a Dead & Company concert from June, 2017. I eagerly pressed play on a pre-released single from Iron & Wine’s next album and tried to revisit my somewhat-meh opinion of Tupac Shakur’s rhythm and flow.
But the only real piece of music I’ve been excited by in the past six months is the latest album from the Canadian band, Do Make Say Think.
I shouldn’t say I’m excited by the actual music yet. I’ve had the album for maybe five days, and I’ve only listened to it maybe twice (maybe three times) all the way through, so I’m not quite capable of rendering a true song by song evaluation.
What excites me is that there’s any music from Do Make Say Think at all. They haven’t made an album in eight years, and they are, without a doubt, my favorite band.
Here’s how I listen to music (when I’m alone enough to really listen to it anyway).
First, music is almost always on when I’m driving. Sometimes I listen to Vermont Public Radio, but less and less so now that Donald Trump is President. Once in a great-great while, I’ll listen to a podcast. But for the most part, if I’m in the car, I have music playing.
Unfortunately, now that I’m the father of a very chatty four-year-old, the car is no longer the best place to listen to music.
I listen to music if I have to walk to work. I live about a half mile from the school where I teach. Depending on the transportation needs of the day, sometimes I have to walk to work and sometimes I have to drive. If I walk, I’ll often put on my headphones and try to zero in on two or three songs from a single album by whatever artist. The walk gives me about eight to ten minutes of solid listening time. I can focus on the music, listen to the lyrics (if there are any), all while subconsciously hoping that, at some point, the songs will make me move to the beat.
I also listen to music when I’m mowing the lawn. I do this (if I’m being good) about once every five or six days. With the size and shape of my lawn, the amount of lawn furniture I have to remove, and the number of toys I have to throw back onto my neighbor’s lawn, this activity, without fail, takes me roughly 45 minutes to accomplish. That is the length of most studio albums, and one half of a live set, so I can lock in, fade my mind into the music, and mow on.
Lastly, I listen to music when I’m writing.
Here’s the thing though. When I’m doing any of those other things — driving, walking, mowing — I can listen to virtually anything: rap, rock, jazz, jam, whatever. But when I’m writing, I can only listen to one thing. And that’s Do Make Say Think.
I don’t write to Do Make Say Think exclusively. But the music I write to exclusively came to me by way of Do Make Say Think.
(That’s not exactly true; I sometimes listen to music by Frank Zappa, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Jerry Garcia, Blind Faith, Charles Mingus, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Fela Kuti, Herbie Hancock, The Jazz Mandolin Project, Jimmy McGriff, Trey Anastasio, and others; but it also is true in that Do Make Say Think [and its ilk] is the only music who ever makes it exclusively into a writing session — if Jimmy McGriff is there, Miles Davis is too, but if Do Make Say Think is there, everyone else often is not; regardless…)
I don’t know how to describe the music of Do Make Say Think, but the first thing I’ll say is that it is music without lyrics. When I am writing, the last thing I want is someone else’s words in my head, and so all of my writing is done to music without lyrics.
But “music without lyrics” is a broad description. It contains most of the movements to most of the symphonies, almost all of jazz, a good percentage of funk, a large portion of Jerry Garcia’s ouvre, and whatever kind of high-quality 70s porn music that Jimmy McGriff plays.
So the second thing I would say about Do Make Say Think’s music is that, despite the lack of lyrics, the music fits perfectly with the song titles. For example, the song I’m listening to right now is “Her Eyes on the Horizon,” and it contains a soft yet hopeful melody that later dissolves into the sad, tender combination of keyboards and horns. It then fades back, through a beautiful sunrise of a bass tone, into an energetic and yet still early daylight seeming kind of rock melody, supported by a fast-paced set of jazz influenced double drums, dual guitars, and a beautiful, absolutely beautiful sounding electric bass. The melody rises into a set of exclamatory punction marks that repeat over and over before descending into a fading acoustic guitar and bass. The whole movement takes eight minutes and 20 seconds.
The music provides a narrative arc that fits nicely with the thematic possiblities of its title (“Her Eyes on the Horizon”). As you listen to it, you can imagine a sad and forlorn woman in a coastal seatown standing atop a widow’s walk, watching the watery horizon for her son to come home. You can imagine her standing high in the night, leaning over, her arms resting on the metal railing jutting over her bedroom window. Clouds block the starlight above her, casting the night in somber dark.
In time with the music, with her eyes on the horizon, the woman thinks about the way she raised her son, about the love she has for him. Then, with the shift in the music, the sadness of his absence overcomes her, and she can no longer look for him. She turns, wraps her long warm nightgown tighter, and begins her long cold walk back to the attic door, but then something in the music causes her to turn around, to look one more time, and there it is, coming over the horizon like a sunbeam, a sail! a sail!.
She races to the railing to see it better, to prove to herself that she’s not mistaken, and as she runs, she sees herself running to him on the dock, sweeping him into her arms, collapsing them both to their knees, hugging him so tight that all of his hard-nosed sailor friends search the docks for the all-encompassing love of their own mothers.
The boat comes closer, comes closer, and with a break in the clouds, the starlight confirms it: he’s home!
She leaps down the stairs, each bouncing step like an exclamatory punctuation mark on the sentence repeating in her head, “He’s home! He’s home! He’s home!”
But then…she reaches the downstairs floor. The door is just a few feet in front of her. She stops herself, the sentence slowly changing from “He’s home! He’s home!” to “He’s home? He’s home.”
She remembers how difficult he can be when he first comes off the sea, how inside of himself he seems, detached from the love they once shared, happy to be home but still distant. It won’t be like she imagined it. It never is. She takes a breath, opens the door, and steps out.
The next song on the album is called “As Far As The Eye Can See.” It starts with nature sounds, a heat bug drone, crickets and birds, an electric guitar, a light metallic rattle like the links on a dog leash, a dominant bass line, and now drums, steady and light, a second guitar, a second set of drums, all of it adding to itself, no instrument repeating another yet all of them meeting at exactly the right points, a quiet dialogue consisting of many minds moving in the same direction and coming at it from different angles, covering all the possibilities in a sweeping democratic crowd as far as the eye can see before collapsing into a single point out of which all of them explode and from which we are introduced almost one by one back to all of the interested parties.
It’s amazing music. When I put it on for my brother, he called it “movie music.” I think he meant it in a derogatory way, but I also think he’s right: like a well-made movie, every song by Do Make Say Think is capable of taking its listener on a journey.
But what I love about it is that, when it comes to writing, when it comes to focusing on how to manipulate the words on the screen rather than the words in my head, it maintains — across every song and within every moment — the sense of a connected narrative, keeping the sensations I depend on for writing moving in the same direction and in the same way: forward, with meaning. You don’t have to be listening to it for this to happen. It just needs to be there, playing, moving you ever on, like the verb you always am.
Do Make Say Think is the only band I’ve listened to that is capable of making me feel this way each and every time I listen to it. It may not be for everyone, but I truly do feel that it is for me.
So to them, I just want to say: thank you. Thank you for helping me do, make, say, and think better than I could on my own.