I’m waiting at the bar of a pub in Peckham. It’s a little too far up the high street; gentrification is creeping in, gradually repainting the walls and nudging the homeless people further south. For an extra pound a pint, you get malt whiskey, craft beer and quirky wallpaper. More importantly, though, that bit extra gets you music, handpicked by the local hipsters – who, for all their faults, usually know a good tune.
I’ve always wondered why Wetherspoons and Sam Smiths pubs don’t bother with music. Is an extra quid the premium on a playlist? The guy who owns Wetherspoons even made a policy of it, claiming he knows what makes a good bar and it shouldn’t have music. And sure, music does add risk: you have to pick the genres carefully or you limit your clientele, and plenty of places get the volume wrong. But when your friends are in a pub without it and you fall, briefly, to awkward silence, the lifebeat of a good playlist always feels missing.
My friends and I explore the bar, looking for a place to sit where we can talk about politics without getting glared at by strangers. We find a back room, empty but for pulsating deep house music, bass so rich that it thrums through every conversation, distracting me from the laughter and jokes that brought me here. I don’t mind; it’s just the right volume. I move instinctively, noticing occasionally different parts of my body moving to the rhythm.
‘Midas’ comes on as I’m on my way to the toilets. I rush up the stairs, hoping to be back by 2:31 when Holly Walker breathes a note so pure that it would easily make my night.
I’m in the stairwell when it happens. I catch it but it’s distant – a soft climb in the dual vocals, a pensive harmony almost like birdsong, heard from another room, slightly out of reach of perfection. I can’t hear the lyrics and I have no idea what she’s saying, but I know what she’s feeling. Vulnerable, tender, hopeful, some combination of the three. I’m transported momentarily back to my last relationship, to the man who would have loved that moment with me. But then it’s the next phrase – back into the main body of the song. It’s the sigh after tension breaks; the out-breath.
Me and the songs are pensive together. I’ve always liked the part in the play/film The History Boys when Hector says:
The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.
Poetry doesn’t do that for me very often, but music does it all the time. These tracks – Maribou State and Jorja Smith, ‘Steal’, ‘Midas’, ‘Where Did I Go?’ – they don’t tell me to stop feeling, to “get over” the melancholy that has long defined me. They take my emotions for what they are – painful, naive, repetitive, all things which friends don’t want me to be – and they allow me to accept and explore them.
They’re not sad songs, as such, just… gentle. They carry you forward on sharp, tight beats, forward through introspective thoughts, doubts, questions. I’ve put them on a playlist called ‘cumulative heartbreak’; together, they explain in sound how, together, lovers past and present have shaped my world.
There was a time I would have called these “slow songs” and tried not to listen to them too much, fearing both that it would make me miserable and that it would fuck up the punk free-spirit image I was trying to cultivate. It’s only as I’ve got older that I’ve learned to accept the lowkey electrical storm permanently buzzing in my mind. I prefer sound to silence and “slow songs” are better for me than no songs, even if only to order feeling into blocks of time that make sense.