This week’s question comes from reader Rob Curtin:
What song always gives you goosebumps, no matter how many times you’ve heard it? For me, it’s “When The Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin. Something grabbed me when I first heard it. The drums, the wailing harmonica, the guitar riff… It sounds like the song is lumbering toward you screaming, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Every time those first few drumbeats hit, but especially when the harmonica starts, the hair on the back of my neck stands on end.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost lost it in a bar or club when Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” comes on. I’m an occasional fan of the band as a whole, with the group’s musical output being hit or miss for me, historically… but this song just kills me, every time. Part of it probably has to do with the time in my life when I first heard it: As a much younger, definitely dumber, angst-filled college kid, the spare arrangement and minimalist vocal delivery wormed its way into my soul, touching something profoundly sad in a wholly original way. Karen O’s lyrics are just broad enough to be almost universally applicable, with that “They don’t love you like I love you” kicker of a refrain selling the emotion as both heartbroken and connected. I don’t care what it’s really about—for me, it will always be four minutes of longing and grandeur, both ethereal and grounded, as only the best pop songs can provide. Damn, I just listened to it again while writing this, and had to go into the bathroom for a moment so no one in the office would see me get choked up. God, what a song.
I’ll admit I get goosebumps from music fairly easily, but I’ll go with “Last Kind Words” by Geeshie Wiley. I definitely first heard this in Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary Crumb, and it’s partly what inspired me to purchase that film’s soundtrack. In the liner notes, Zwigoff says this was the first 78 that stopped him dead in his tracks. What an eerie, foreboding, and weirdly beautiful record this is. It’s about a father giving his daughter instructions on what to do with his body when he dies: “Let the buzzards eat me whole.” This is an extremely low-fi recording from about 1930, and not everything Wiley sings is audible over the static. That somehow adds to the ghostly atmosphere. It’s like listening in to a barely perceptible radio transmission from another time and place entirely.
I was at the height of my Radiohead obsession in the run-up to In Rainbows, watching all the crappy YouTube bootlegs of their 2006 tour and devouring every possible hint of what was to come. The one thing I most remember was a post on the band’s official blog that teased several new songs in studio-recorded form, more than a year before their final release. I couldn’t tell you everything that appeared in the video, but I’ll never forget the sound that closed it out: an army of angelic violins lifting a wailing Thom Yorke and his grieving piano to the heavens. I sat at my computer playing the clip over and over again, awestruck at first but soon losing myself and finding peace in this harmonic tidal wave. It turns out, this was the climax of a song called “All I Need,” and even after listening to the finished product hundreds of times, the cathartic eruption of its final 50 seconds never fails to spark that same transcendence.
I could rattle off a half-dozen songs by The Cure that still fill me with familiar emotions every time I hear them, but instead I’ll mention the one that’s been doing it the longest. “Plainsong” continues to freeze time and completely overwhelm any given surrounding, causing me to gaze, dewy-eyed into the distance like Elaine’s “Desperado”-loving boyfriend on Seinfeld. I first heard it as a tender, bitter, 13-year-old outcast—The Cure’s prime audience—through Walkman headphones cranked all the way up, as per the instructions in the Disintegration liner notes. “Plainsong” kicks off that album with a distant tinkle of wind chimes that, to me, has always evoked a frigid winter’s night. Then those staggering, unfathomable layers of synthesizer surge forth, and Robert Smith’s voice begins echoing endlessly upward from the howling deep to sing about feeling like he’s “living at the edge of the world.” No matter where I happen to hear it, it always sparks those same old feelings of lost and lonely teetering on my own precipice—simultaneously filled with sadness and awe, longing for love and death—even if it’s on a banal, sunny day in the car with the wife and kids.
I switched my answer for this approximately five times (even writing up a few words about Sean’s pick) before coming clean to myself. The song I’ve listened to the most for the very reason that it never fails to give me goosebumps is The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight.” I come back to it continually for the same reason—its ethereal angst—that Alex is still swooning over Karen O and co. What can I say, I’m a sucker for the swell: Each time I hear the orchestral opening, I’m immediately enveloped by memories of the fond experiences “Tonight, Tonight” has soundtracked for me. I find it especially fitting that a song about change has been able to evolve with me over time. From my younger years—when lyrics like, “We’ll crucify the insincere tonight,” seemed much more poignant than they are—to today, when I’m content to take in a crisp Chicago evening while hearing, “And the embers never fade in your city by the lake,” as Chicago will always hold a special spot in my heart.
I love just about every single goddamn line in “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” by The Hold Steady, but there’s a little moment in the song’s quiet breakdown that always gives me a visceral reaction. Singer-lyricist Craig Finn is recounting some dialogue, as he is wont to do: “She said: City Center used to be the center of our scene, now City Center’s over / No one really goes there / Then we used to drink beneath this railroad bridge / Some nights the bus wouldn’t even stop, there were just too many kids.” The return of the guitars after that last line does it for me. Some of this is live-show muscle memory; in concert, the breakdown is usually longer and quieter, building the tension before Finn switches back to a holler for “THERE WERE JUST TOO MANY KIDS!” (I literally just gave myself goosebumps typing that out), at which point the other guitars kick back in and, usually, pandemonium ensues in the pit. I love the way it turns a bunch of semi-old rock ’n’ roll fans into just too many kids.
Jesse’s response reminds me of how I spent weeks after the release of Boys And Girls In America chasing the chills I got the first time I heard the “We drink and we dry up and now we crumble into dust” bridge from “Stuck Between Stations.” It’s an experience I had with a lot of indie-rock anthems from the last decade (two others off the top of my head: The New Pornographers’ “Bleeding Heart Show” and Islands’ “Rough Gem”), but the song from that period that ripples my flesh to this day is “Sentimental X’s” by Broken Social Scene. The Canadian collective got its start in instrumental post-rock, roots that show in the emotional crescendos of songs like “Sentimental X’s,” the third in a trio of Broken Social Scene tearjerkers featuring Emily Haines on lead vocals, following “Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl” and “Swimmers.” Those tracks (and their spiritual sister from the Metric catalog, “Calculation Theme”) still trigger the occasional tingle, but the cathartic, horn-embellished coda of “Sentimental X’s” never fails. Broken Social Scene makes music that’s seemingly designed to inspire spontaneous bursts of feeling. With “Sentimental X’s,” they put that right in the song title.
A lot of the power of Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me In Your Heart” comes from knowing the context in which it was recorded. Zevon knew that he was dying, so he kicked many years of sobriety to the curb and recorded a star-studded album he knew would be his last and, perhaps not coincidentally, one of his best and most loved and certainly more intimate. “Keep Me In Your Heart” is the work of someone who knows that he will be gone soon. It’s a song about saying goodbye, about letting go of the past and life itself, but it’s also about wanting to be alchemized as a precious memory. As he was prone to do, Zevon mixes the profane and mundane, imagining himself dead, gone, a memory that lingers on in the hearts and minds of the people who loved him. It’s a song of hushed intimacy and tear-jerking intensity, and I cannot listen to it without weeping.
Big Star is one of those rare legendary cult bands that deserves every last bit of its status. As a die-hard ’Mats fan, when Paul Westerberg started chucking out references to Alex Chilton, I felt obligated to check the band out, and my eternal dorm-room soundtrack evolved from Let It Be to Sister Lovers. In Big Star’s short, sweet lifetime, the band managed to churn out no shortage of pop masterpieces that sounded like nothing and no one else, but the one I turn to most often still manages to thrill me every time: “The Ballad Of El Goodo” off of #1 Record. It’s a personal, desperate-yet-hopeful rallying plea (“Ain’t no one goin’ to turn me ’round”), delivered via Chilton’s thin but affecting vocals, saturated with lacy guitars. If you can just hold on, “They’ll get theirs and we’ll get ours,” and the odds against you just may drop from “unbelievable” to “strong.” Chilton’s “hold on” chorus is a mantra I’ve turned to countless times, and it never fails to transform me.
Touché Amoré has a strange way of releasing albums right when I need them, and Stage Four is no exception. The record focuses on the death of vocalist Jeremy Bolm’s mother and the complicated grieving process that followed. The closing track, “Skyscraper,” is the most delicate in the band’s catalog, as Bolm recounts a trip to New York City with his ailing mom. On a good day, this song would be enough to crush me. But the first time I heard it was in New York City with my own mother, a cancer survivor who, just like Bolm’s mom, had always wanted to go sightseeing there. It hit me in a profound way when I heard it, but this says nothing of the song’s video, which sees him walking an empty wheelchair through the city streets, past many of the places I visited with my mom. Eventually, this song will be unlistenable for me, too tied to memories to revisit. But, for now, I’m lucky to experience the shivers it brings every time I listen to it.
Alex Hirsch’s late, lamented Gravity Falls captured the glorious mystery of being a kid better than any show since The Adventures Of Pete & Pete went off the air. And, like the citizens of Wellsville, the people of Gravity Falls had a theme song that perfectly evoked that scary, exciting feeling of infinite possibility. Written by Brad Breeck (and similar to his own longer “Made Me Realize”), the Gravity Falls theme opens on a mystical note, underpinned with sharp, percussive claps. Then it explodes into a driving, whistling melody that captures the breakneck pace of a whirlwind summer vacation, building to a frenetic pitch that emulates Mabel and Dipper Pines’ attempts to suss out the secrets of their temporary home. Finally, just as the music reaches a climax, everything else falls away, leaving just a few last sinister, discordant whistles to remind viewers that every hidden secret isn’t as fun as living video games or weird, sister-snatching gnomes.
As Becca notes, one of the interesting things about music is how its impact shifts over time, especially within your own personal context. For instance, when Death Cab For Cutie’s “What Sarah Said” was released on Plans in 2005, its deeply sad, evocative reflection on death made it an instant stop-me-in-my-tracks song. The profound loss at the song’s center (“Love is watching someone die,” Ben Gibbard sings) contrasted the banal hospital setting, with its “year-old magazines” and TV that “entertained itself.” At the time, I was only three years removed from a similar experience, so the song hit me hard. In the 11 years since, I’ve watched two more people I love die, so “What Sarah Says” has only grown more pointed. Every time I hear it, I’m sucked into a morass of memories and emotions that usually lasts far longer than the song’s six and a half minutes.
Bruce Springsteen’s post-Born In The U.S.A. solo albums are somewhat overshadowed by the rest of his catalog. Which is unfair in the case of “Tunnel Of Love,” the evocative title track of his 1987 LP. After conquering the pop charts with widescreen sentiments, Springsteen retreated into himself and crafted introspective music that (in hindsight) was him working through personal turmoil. In the case of “Tunnel Of Love,” he pairs a looming new relationship with carnival attraction imagery to illustrate that love is rough, a bumpy ride, but one worth taking anyway. The then-contemporary synth sparkles and backing vocals from Patti Scialfa (whom he would later marry) contrast with shadowy acoustic guitars to add a yearning chill. And the song’s coda, which features wordless vocal wails, summarizes the agony and ecstasy of an electric romantic connection.
Every so often I’ll find myself gravitating to a single album and listening to it multiple times a day until I get distracted by something else, or I get bored. I don’t think I’m quite bored yet with the Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree, because it’s fucking amazing, but I haven’t listened to it all the way through in a while—I have, however, played “Love Love Love” for myself pretty much daily. “This Year” is more anthemic and “Up The Wolves” more hopeful (at least tunewise, please never ask me to explain lyrics), but something about “Love Love Love” haunts me, forcing me to pause in whatever I’m doing every time it comes up on shuffle. The guitar strum at the beginning still makes me shiver, and while I realize that overplaying will probably kill this feeling eventually, I can’t really find it in me to stop. I just love how simple it is, and sad, but not just sad—like there’s a place where despair goes and if you can follow it all the way down, you eventually find yourself coming back out on the other side. Something like that, anyway. It’s lovely.
Given that it came out right around the time I was going through my own teen angst, you’d think I would’ve reached a point in my life by now where I’d no longer be able to find myself falling in love with Suzanne Vega’s “Left Of Center” a little more every time I listen to it. Some years back, though, Vega started performing a new arrangement of the song in her concerts, a stripped-down version, and it just took it to a whole other level. She’s continued to tweak this revised arrangement from show to show, and the version that I find most affecting is one where she briefly dismisses the sparseness in order to more explosively deliver the lines, “When they ask me / ‘What are you looking at?’ / I always answer / ‘Nothing much, not much.’” It’s fucking phenomenal. Ultimately, the greatest result of Vega’s decision to switch up how she does the song is that it’s made me appreciate “Left Of Center” more across the board. Somehow, I now love the studio version more than I used to. It truly is an anthem for those of us who feel like we’re in the outskirts, in the fringes, on the edge, and off the avenue, and I’m still in awe every time I hear it.
Much of Sufjan Stevens’ output seems built around chill-inducing moments, be it from a crescendo of horns or a dwindling banjo. All those chills can be draining on the listener, but there’s one that is especially mentally taxing and gives me a near-constant state of goosebumps: “Impossible Soul,” Stevens’ opus of despair, optimism, and despair again. Its 25 minutes is flush with more sound, anguish, and beauty than such a long song has any right to be; by the end, I’m a puddle of emotions. How goosebumps-inducing is this song? Somehow, even the Auto-Tune midsection is haunting.
Pretty much every track on Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball is wonderful, but “Deeper Well” is something else entirely. Haunting and forceful, Harris sings about want, addiction, spirituality, and failure in a blunt, confident voice that’s backed by a simple, persistent drum beat that mimics the thrumming of a heart, while ghostly, distorted guitars, wailing vocals, and dissonant piano fade in and out throughout the song like restless spirits. The symbolism of a well as a source of wisdom or life is upended here, turning instead into something elusive, a nourishment that can finally kill the thirst that compels the singer. It took me countless listens before I realized what’s most haunting about the song: At no point does it promise redemption. For all the self-awareness Harris brings to the story, that knowledge never indicates a way out. It’s a dirge—a eulogy disguised as a spiritual. It’s a painfully beautiful song, dramatic without being hokey, sharp and certain as a scalpel cut.
The first time I saw the musical Fun Home—adapted from Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name—I actually didn’t home in on “Maps.” When I went back recently, it captivated me, and now I can’t stop listening. In the show, Alison is played by three women of varying ages. “Maps” is performed by the eldest (Beth Malone) as she tries to unpack her understanding of her closeted father who committed suicide. The song deals in metaphor, but the literary devices don’t detract from how heartbreaking it is. Malone’s voice swells as she sings, “Dad was born on this farm—here’s our house / Here’s the spot where he died / I can draw a circle / His whole life fits in inside.” There are plenty of songs that give me goosebumps—I almost wrote about Rilo Kiley’s “A Better Son/Daughter”—but this is the one that’s currently in my rotation.