This week I have been doing something every night that I have not done in years. It is something I did nearly every day as a teenager, somewhat less frequently in my twenties. In my thirties I started doing it again, at least a few times each week, then somewhere in my forties it came to a grinding halt. Now here I am in my fifties and I am rediscovering just how good it is.
I am listening to records, honest to goodness old vinyl records. I had forgotten just how good they can be when played through the right gear. Back in my thirties I had invested a good sum of money in a high quality turntable, cartridge and phono preamp. In the last few years that gear was all but neglected, as was a few hundred albums wedged into two bookshelves. Odd how good analog tech can survive the test of time, whereas digital sources suffer from digital rot and are always disposable things. Digital sounds great as well and technically speaking it should be better than vinyl, but that is not what matters. It is the music that matters and how you connect with it.
Playing a record is a wonderfully tactile and engaging experience. You must make a commitment to play an album, it involves scouring your collection to find just the right music for the moment, carefully extracting a record from its sleeve, cleaning it and then actually listening to a whole side or album. You are truly involved with the music both in sound and touch. Those old album covers and lyrics printed on the inner sleeve are far more connected to the artist’s vision of their music than some insipid thumbnail image on your iPod or computer. A record means you need to SLOW DOWN, sit in a chair and really listen deeply. Vinyl compels you do this, there is no shuffle or play list, just a singular work of art in and of itself. You can also experience something similar with a digital source, but its convenience and instant access does require the same commitment to listen and stay in one place.
It seems to me that music streaming off digital sources often becomes just a form of acoustical wallpaper, nothing more than a background pleasantry to accompany some daily activity. Same goes for people listening through earbuds or headphones via mobile sources, where the music is interwoven with mundane tasks such as commuting or typing away in a cubicle. The music does not have your full attention. Somehow “music as data” fits our shortened attention spans and multitasking lifestyles where we are increasingly disconnected from each other and also real art.
I dare say I am not rediscovering vinyl as much as I am rediscovering a true love of music. Playing records anew means that I am totally engaged with music I have loved and at times forgotten over the years. As such, listening to music becomes the only activity to occupy a few hours of my free time. No movies, no Youtube, no streaming, no screens, no smartphone or other digital distractions. There is just a beautiful warm analog sound washing over me and leading to a state of bliss.