I have a confession to make: I turned my back on an old friend, just when he needed me most. Well, that’s if you can consider an LP album to be a “he.” In some cases I suppose it might be a she. If you’re talking about, say, early ’70s David Bowie albums, who knows what the heck it is. But you get the idea.
For you youngsters out there, I should explain that an album is a collection of songs by an artist who has presumably given some thought as to what order you should listen to them in. In the old days they’d come on black vinyl, and you’d listen to all the songs in order, turning it over once in the middle. You’d do this in your house, and the music would come out of speakers so big that today, Steve Jobs could live in one.
It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when if you wanted a collection of songs by a bunch of different artists, you had to stand in front of your tape deck juggling albums or CDs. That’s why giving somebody a mix tape was such a sign of commitment; it involved a Herculean effort that invariably ended with you standing in front of your giant speakers, swearing.
So you can see why the onset of digital music has been so groundbreaking — it turned your computer into a song Cuisinart, slicing and dicing your LPs into one big album featuring every song you’ve ever owned. Finally, with almost no effort, music fans could segue directly from Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” into “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from “My Fair Lady.” (You know who you are. OK, me.)
As a result, I’ve basically spent the last five years on shuffle. I do this even when playing just one artist, which essentially amounts to listening to a single, randomly ordered 15-hour-long Bruce Springsteen album. This comes in handy, especially if you’re driving from, say, Boston to Kokomo, Ind., and everybody in the car loves Bruce Springsteen as much as you do. I’m sure that happens.
But recently, Springsteen and other artists have started playing entire classic albums in sequence during their concerts, presumably to remind people they put the songs in that order for a reason. I also happened to be reading “Runaway Dream,” a great book about the Springsteen album “Born to Run,” and both of these things inspired me to play the album all the way through for the first time in years. Well, no, not in one sitting — who has 40 minutes?
Still, it amazed me how well the songs fit together, and hearing them in context reminded me what I’d loved about them in the first place. It also made me feel guilty about abandoning what is now, thanks to me and my fellow shufflers, a dying art form. Somewhere, millions of copies of “Dark Side of the Moon” are shooting little laser beams at my head.
So what am I doing about it? First of all, I’ve set my iPod on album shuffle mode, meaning it skips around from album to album instead of song to song. I’d never used it before, but now I’m finding it a thrill when the first song of a great album I haven’t heard in years pops up on my little speakers.
Second, and probably more radically, I’ve also gone back to vinyl. Yes, most of my records didn’t survive my parents’ great garage cleanout of 1993, but that’s why God invented eBay. Just last week I got Springsteen’s “The River” and “Born in the USA” on vinyl for 99 cents each, putting me in the admittedly galling position of having bought them on vinyl, CD and then on vinyl again — it’s really going to irk me when I have to pay for the inevitable cerebral cortex implant.
I’ve been enjoying flipping over all those sides, and I’ve even managed to get my hands on the vinyl release of a brand new album: “Songs from Lonely Avenue” by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, which sounds terrific. It’s somehow soothing that new discs like this can still get a vinyl release, and the BSO album is pretty heavy duty — it feels like a manhole cover.
But even though people gush about vinyl’s fidelity, I think most people buying LPs these days are doing it so they can place that needle down and watch the disk spin gloriously on the turntable, like it has a tangible purpose in life. (I don’t know what an mp3 is doing inside my iPod, but whatever it is, I don’t trust it.)
It also forces you to sit down somewhere in your house — not your car, or your gym, or while avoiding eye contact on the subway — and really listen, which is what music is all about. Of course, the Setzer album also has the CD mounted right in the gatefold of the LP, for easy digital dicing. (Hey, we’re not cavemen.)
So do your part: Listen to an album today — I promise you won’t regret it. Well, unless it’s a Helen Reddy album released between 1973 and 1980. Then you’re on your own.
This column appeared originally in North Shore Sunday. Peter Chianca is a managing editor for GateHouse Media New England. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/pchianca. To receive At Large by e-mail, write to firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject line “SUBSCRIBE.”