I had a strange conversation recently. Strange in the sense that it was a conversation about loneliness that came up amongst a group of friends. Of course we were all pretty arbitrarily connected, but connected nonetheless.
After a few Bedlams, my friend asked the group what was the loneliest record they’d ever listened to. I blurted out Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago without too much thought. It was made by a guy alone in the woods, how much more lonely can you get? Everyone laughed at me, and for good reason. Sure, For Emma is lonely, sometimes heart-wrenchingly lonely, but it’s certainly not without hope and certainly a stock response for people who haven’t really thought too much about the different kinds of loneliness.
For Emma, Forever Ago is a fantastic record, pure Wisconsin wilderness pushing up against the 21st century. But as far as loneliness, it covers only the portion that we know all too well from growing up with pop records. So you’ve lost someone? well I’ve lost someone too. In fact, a lot of growing up has to do with losing people, however they may exit our lives.
So yes, For Emma, Forever Ago is solemn and profoundly lonely, but it doesn’t describe absolute loneliness quite like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars or Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Absolute loneliness, for me at least, can be thought of a lot like thinking of temperature in terms of degrees Kelvin. Living in the Midwest, especially Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota, we all know what subzero temperatures feel like, but in terms of degrees Kelvin, winters in the Midwest are balmy (for reference, absolute zero relates to -273 degrees Celsius, based on the theory that molecules will retain zero inertia at that temperature).
Bowie and Eno strip down human relations to their bare elements. Ziggy Stardust deals with spacepeople, asexual beings who travel the galaxy at speeds incongruent with Einstein’s theory of relativity. Loneliness exists as a normal state of being in this society. In Music for Airports, we have a similar feeling, but the loneliness is much more visceral.
I would say based on my definition of absolute loneliness (-273 degrees Lonely), Music for Airports is the loneliest record I’ve ever heard. It’s kept me warm through Wisconsin’s dreary winters, helped me find space during times of stress and has never made its way onto a mix-tape for someone (though other Eno selections are a staple for me, especially “Here Come the Warm Jets”).
Eno wrote Music for Airports after realizing an airport acts as an intermediary state between where you were and where you are going. It’s a transition point, meant for high-speed travel around the world. More importantly, we are all totally alone in an airport. I once ran into a friend at O’Hare International, his flight to Baltimore was delayed and my flight to Quebec City was just daunting (Quebec City is beautiful, besides the God-forsaken cold). We talked briefly, but I felt like I was conversing with a total stranger.
We went our separate ways after exchanging itineraries and planning to meet up sometime when we’re both back in Wisconsin, but he just sort of faded away. More esoterically, airport interactions can come to resemble the Interzone interactions in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. People sort of lunge out in a direction looking for something, and retreat when they find out everyone is just as clueless as they are. Nobody looks comfortable in an airport and everyone looks impatient (oddly enough, I always feel pretty comfortable, I like flying).
This is the feeling I get from Eno’s Music from Airports. I feel completely enveloped by a world inside of a world. Airport politics alter basic human rights, and while there are plenty of friendly people to be found working and traveling, I still feel unavoidably alone in airports. Music for Airports mimics this feeling masterfully, which is why I nominate it for loneliest record I’ve ever heard.
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