October is my favorite month, I think. Around here, the summer lingers, sweaty and desperate and long, like winters in the upper midwest. First there are the mosquitoes which invade on the heels of the blossoms, then the days of drought roll in like relatives who visit once a year with too much stuff for too little space. Hurricane season follows fast, of course, and now and then the beach bums and rich folks scamper back mid-state, away from the oncoming rush of late summer’s humid fury, for a long weekend or two.
But then comes autumn, slowly and gracefully, with purpose. And we pull out our sweaters and put the summer clothes in a closet or box until, say, March when the cycle starts over. Winter doesn’t stick around all that long here, not compared to other places I’ve lived anyway, but it’s certainly gray and dreary, more rainy than snowy and therefore usually lacking the charm of a good old fashioned freezing winter. The fall though in North Carolina – well it’s majestic. The colors are rich and various, from early October until just after Thanksgiving, and the air is crisp and clear, often sunny and blue. There is no more beautiful place to take a drive than on I-40, through the Smoky Mountains and up over into Tennessee. The fog hangs low all day in some places, casting a bluish tint over the fantastic colors of the foliage. The orchards are in season for weeks and Smoky Mountain apples are downright heavenly.
Of course, the weather demands good art and no doubt inspires a great deal of it. Autumn drives, and apple picking, and evenings with the windows open, and long walks, all demand good music, good accompaniment. Over the last few years I’ve found that I tend to return to some of the same albums each season. These are five albums, in no particular order, I think are perfect for the autumnal season (plus one new one I’m loving this season).
1. Explosions In the Sky – The Earth Is Not a Cold Dark Place
Truly, this is an album perfect for any season, especially the delicate, icy winter days when the sun is shining brightly off the snow, and the lush, happy days of spring’s first blooming. That said, to me it most characterizes autumn, the rising and falling action of the season, the current beauties as well as the anticipated bleakness of winter. What a paradox autumn is: everything is dying, but all is beautiful and rich and inspiring. This wordless album captures that sensation in a subtle, original, meaningful way. It is a valuable objective correlative to this season’s meaning, if you will.
2. M Ward – Post-War
I hesitate to put it quite so strongly, but this album very well might be one of my favorite albums. Ever. Ward’s genius combination of early pop sounds with folk sensibilities both rollicks and coos, and is an inspiring synthesis of personal – albeit seemingly mythical – tales, with lovely, earnest arrangements. Like autumn, it is simultaneously elegiac and prophetic. Few artists reach so deeply into their bag of musical tricks, draw out so many tools, and still maintain a unity and order to their work like M Ward.
3. Bob Dylan – John Wesley Harding
Few instruments represent autumn as well as the harmonica, and John Wesley Harding uses it as well as any album ever as, in my opinion. This 1967 release is haunting (some would say dark) and ripe with imagery fitted for the season. With songs like “As I Went Out One Morning,” “Drifter’s Escape,” “I Am A Lonesome Hobo,” and “All Along the Watchtower,” it’s an album in constant motion, and about motion, just as the season is in constant change: no two days are the same, on no two days do the trees look, or smell, the same. Although not Dylan’s masterpiece, John Wesley Harding is the perfect album for a fall drive or a breezy evening with a book – windows open, of course.
4. Over the Rhine – Drunkard’s Prayer
A fairly recent release (2005) by this Ohio bred husband and wife duo, Prayer is deeply personal, gorgeous, and lush from beginning to end. “I Want You To Be My Love” reminds of a walk through woods with a beloved, stepping, hand-in-hand, over fallen leaves exhausted from the fall, dry and crunchy beneath the feet. “Born,” one of the best songs Over The Rhine has ever done, is hopeful and tired all at once, both a promise and a sigh for the future. Meanwhile, the title track sounds like the end of autumn, when Thanksgiving draws near and the wind begins to come harder from the North as the leaves fall more steadily and gather in piles, and “Little Did I Know” is a jazzy, hazy number, perfect for swaying on the porch, your arms around your beloved, a glass of wine in one hand. Fittingly, “Firefly” is a moving, hopeful track that ends with these words, words that seem to usher in the start of winter: “my memory will not fail me now//and the rest is history…”
5. Sufjan Stevens – Seven Swans
Change is sometimes good and right and necessary, a truth that Seven Swans, an album seemingly about the Holy Spirit, explores deeply. It’s not a boisterous album, but it is finely and precisely wrought. At first glance it’s softness seems delicate, but Stevens work packs a meaningful punch. The work of the Holy Spirit can be a real pain sometimes, just as the changing seasons often are. But ultimately, the result of that work is beautiful. In “In the Devil’s Territory” Stevens sings “I saw the dragons drying, I saw the witches whine, we stayed a long, long time, but I’m not afraid to die. To see you, to meet you, to see you at last.” Autumn is ironic and tragic in it’s beauty, it is the moment before death, but it also holds the promise of future transfiguration: “Lost in the cloud, a sign: Lamb of God! We Draw Near! Lost in the cloud, a sign: Son of Man! Son of God!”
New Album For the Season:
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
I’ve found this much lauded new album to be a fine compliment to the mood and tone of the season’s early days. The airy harmonies, impressionistic, orchestral arrangements, and rustic, folksy heartbeat are the perfect side dish to the visual feast that is autumn. Romantic and cryptic at once, Veckatimest makes for a lovely, creative transition between seasons, like a great mug of hot cider and rum. Or your beverage of choice.
Fall is here, drink up!