The Concept of Time in Music

By Aiden Holczer

Time is ever-moving, and music is everlasting. Because of this, the two have been joined at the hip since the conception of music. As a piece of music plays, it is going through a progression that is directly related to time. All the lyrics don’t play at once—that would be an incoherent mess. Instead they play over time, most commonly telling a story from start to finish. 

But what happens when an artist strays away from what is considered normal in regards to time and chooses not to conform to these notions? Well, you’d get Bob Dylan, Phil Elverum, and Slauson Malone.

No, not Post Malone. Slauson Malone.Originally born Jasper Marsalis, Slauson Malone is an experimental jazz and hip-hop artist and former member of the genre-bending music collective known as Standing on the Corner. In their four-year run time, they have released two studio efforts, as well as contributing to other well-known projects, such as Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs and Solange’s When I Get Home. Malone would eventually leave Standing on the Corner in order to pursue a solo career, culminating in his solo debut A Quiet Farwell, 2016-2018 (AQF)

Although 2019 has two more months remaining, it is my firm belief that AQF is the best album to be released this year. AQF contains a beautiful mix of hip-hop, jazz, sound collage, glitch, electronica and more, all while sticking to a cohesive concept: saying goodbye to the past. Perhaps the lyrics that summarize this idea the most, are the opening lyrics to Smile 2, “Smile at the past when I see it.” Even though “the world is changing” like Malone raps about on the final track of the album, he raps about the past with a sense of melancholy, all the while accepting that he and music as a whole must continue to move forward. 

Listening to this album truly feels like being wrapped in a black hole where time seems to not exist, exactly like its cover art suggests. Malone somehow manages to balance rapping about the past, while at the same time maintaining a sense of timelessness. In all my years of listening to music, I have never heard of anyone being able to take an object, no, a concept, and convey such a genuine feeling of emotion at the possibility of losing it, or, in this case, moving on. That was, until the release of this album.

The prospect of losing something, or just loss in general, is a common feature present in everyone’s “feels” playlist. And that’s for a good reason. Every single human that has walked this earth and everyone that will come, has experienced or will experience loss. It is but one part of the vast reality of our nature. Loss in and of itself isn’t what makes us as humans experience pain; it’s the grief that arises in reaction. And perhaps, in no better way, has the feeling that we know as grief been portrayed across all mediums of art than on rock band Mount Eerie’s 2017 release, A Crow Looked at Me (ACLAM).

I have been told on many occasions by my peers that I have high and often unrealistic standards when it comes to music. I rate music as objectively as possible on a scale of one to ten, with one barely even being considered music and ten being one of, if not the greatest piece of music ever created. In my sixteen years of drawing breath, I have only given four albums the rating of 10/10. Those albums are: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Joanna Newsom’s Ys, and, last but certainly not least, Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me.

While I give ACLAM a 10/10, it is without a doubt the most unenjoyable piece of music I have ever listened to. There are no happy endings, no bright spots, and no glimmers of hope, just a man, exposed and vulnerable, lamenting about the death of his wife Geneviève at the hands of cancer. Listening to this album feels as though you are intruding upon the most personal thing one can intrude upon: mourning. Phil Elverum and the rest of Mount Eerie recall, in all of its heartbreaking detail, the days and months following the death of Elverum’s wife. From the first lines of the opening track, “Death is real,” we know immediately that nothing is going to be held back. The smallest of details, such as Phil’s wife ordering a backpack for their child before she passed, hack away at the listeners heartstrings. Like I mentioned before, vulnerability is an essential part of the album, with Phil even going as far to ask himself if “people want to keep hearing about my dead wife.” Every track is equally as gut-wrenching as the last, and is sure to, at least once, reduce the listener to tears. For me, I lost it at Soria Moria.

The album revolves around the time shortly after the death of Phil’s wife. We know this because not only does Phil describe the events after her death; he gives the time of each event. For every event that occurs after Geneviève’s death, the listener is given the amount of days since her passing. When Phil recounts himself and his child spreading his wife’s ashes on Seaweed, he simply tells us that “You have been dead eleven days”. The way Elverum uses time to reaffirm the death of his wife in tracks such as Real Death, Seaweed, Ravens, Forest Fire and more, causes the listener to falsely hope on tracks such as Soria Moria, that take place before Geneviève’s passing, that there might be hope. Because after all, this track didn’t start with the reminder of his loved one’s death. In short, Phil has conditioned the listener to fear the presentation of time.

Through ACLAM, we have learned to fear the presentation of time, but what about the presentation of a story? The most common form of storytelling is the linear format: from the start, all the way to the finish. While filmmakers such as Quinten Tarentino, Christopher Nolan, and Fernando Meirelles have strayed away from this notion in their films, music is a much harder medium to tell non-linear stories through, because you are only stimulating one of the five senses.

The only musician I have heard that has been able to effectively tell non-linear stories on multiple occasions, just so happens to be, in my opinion, the greatest artist of all time. Im talking about Bob Dylan. Dylan is undoubtedly the greatest songwriter of all time, and can lay claim to, quite possibly, the best discography across all of music. Yes, his distinctive nasally singing voice is nothing to write home about, but is the voice of a generation. I don’t usually like using the topic of influence to judge someone’s greatness. I believe skill and discography are the two most important criteria, and I believe it is cruel to discredit someone’s greatness simply because the larger audience may not know of their name. But for an artist as talented as Dylan, his influence is simply the icing on top of the musical cake.

 Dylan was outspoken activist for civil rights, is the only musician to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and even went on to perform at Martin Luther King Jr’s famous march on Washington. His influence even extended to my small family in New Jersey, where my dad, a diehard Dylan fan, argued with my mother over the prospect of naming me after the legend (he would eventually lose).

Over the course of his long and storied career, Dylan has recorded linear epics such as Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts and The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, yet his two best songs, Tangled Up In Blue and All Along the Watchtower, are non-linear stories.

At its most basic, Tangled Up In Blue is a love song, specifically one about lost love, and Dylan’s journey to get back to his lover. He tells this story through the use of beautifully complex vignettes. When asked about choosing to go in this nonlinear direction, Dylan said “I was just trying to make it like a painting where you can see the different parts, but then you also the whole of it”. Unlike a painting, Dylan had to craft his magnum opus without the use of our most used sense, sight. The songs structure more closely resembles a winding road as opposed to a straight line, with multiple tense and perspective changes throughout the vignettes. 

While Tangled Up In Blue is the longer and more complex of the two, All Along the Watchtower is infinitely more famous. Though originally written by Bob Dylan, the most famous version is the late Jimi Hendrix cover of the song. A cover that Dylan himself has said is better than the original. Dylan fills this masterpiece with biblical allusions and a non linear format that does something never done before, and most likely will never be replicated.

 The song begins with Dylan recalling a conversation between a “joker” and a “thief.” The joker laments to the thief that people mistreat him and his worldly  possessions. They “drink [his] wine”, the “plowmen dig [his] earth” all the while “none of them along the line know what any of it is worth”. The thief responds to the joker by telling him that he understands his gripe with these people, and agrees that “there are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke”. Even after the thief explains that he understands the jokers frustrations, because “you and I, we’ve been through that”, he then reprimands the joker, saying that “let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

 “The hour is getting late”. What could that mean? I have always interpreted it as death getting closer, while our more religious friends cite the “hour” as the rapture. What our religious friends and I do have in common however, is the belief that the joker and the thief are allusions to the two thieves that the Bible says were crucified next to Jesus. According to the Bible, one of the thieves named Gestas reviles Jesus, saying “are You not the Messiah? Save Yourself and us.” While the other thief named Dismas, rebukes Gestas’s claim and does not ask to be taken down off the cross, instead saying “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” to which Jesus responded with “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”  With this in mind, the joker would obviously be Gestas due to his criticism of the people around him, while the thief would be Dismas, who had faith in humanity, and is known as “the thief that stole his way into heaven.”

Now that Dylan has gotten all of the dialogue out of the way, he then goes on to set the scene, describing the “watchtower” of the song title, finally ending the song with this: “two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.” 99% of the time, when someone writes a story or a song, they either include a description of the setting at the beginning or as the piece progresses. Dylan, however, does something completely different. The final four lines of All Along the Watchtower, are actually the opening lines, and the “two riders” are Gestas and Dismas riding towards their executions. Dylan has flipped the notion of time on its head once again. By putting the final four lines at the front of the song, not only does the song become more cohesive, but Dylan has effectively created a loop. The song can now be played in this loop for all of eternity.

Saying goodbye to the past, creating an atmosphere where time ceases to exist, causing the audience to fear time, masterfully using nonlinear storytelling, and creating the closest thing to an endless lyrical cycle ever conceived in music, these are all ways that some of the most talented artists alive, have taken a notion so set in stone as time, and flipped it on its head. Music has become the most accessible and understandable form of art in the world, but when you peer a little below the surface, you will discover a treasure trove of concepts and ideas such as these.

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