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The Music That Made Us


There’s a scene in Andrew Haigh’s recent film “All of Us Strangers” where we see Adam, played by the Irish actor Andrew Scott, working on a screenplay to the strains of Fine Young Cannibals’s 1985 ska track “Johnny Come Home.” He types the scene heading: “EXT. SUBURBAN HOUSE 1987.” An establishing shot. We’re going back in time.

Adam rises from his desk and goes to the next room, where he drags a bin of memories out from under the bed. Cassette tapes, ragged toys, an album of faded photos. “Johnny Come Home” is one of those songs that evokes the ’80s so acutely for me that I was already experiencing flashbacks to my own adolescence before Adam began to excavate his. I hear it and I’m returned to my childhood bedroom: the boombox with dual tape players, pink wall-to-wall carpet, a diary with a lock.

I hadn’t listened to Fine Young Cannibals in many years, but returning to their self-titled album now, I was curious to see if it would arouse the same emotions (anticipation mixed with melancholy). It didn’t do exactly that. I still loved the album, still felt moved to bop along and croon the lyrics, but I felt distant from it, as if a pane of glass had been erected between me and my younger self.

Each of us has these signal cultural artifacts. They are Those Albums — the records and CDs and playlists we listened to so deeply and constantly that we fused with them, skin and guts and heart. What happens when we re-encounter them later, when we’ve certainly changed, and perhaps they have too?

I jumped into the deepest ocean of such a scenario recently when I went to see “Illinoise,” Justin Peck and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s stage interpretation of Sufjan Stevens’s 2005 concept album “Illinois,” at the Park Avenue Armory. (It opens on Broadway on April 24.) When “Illinois” came out, I was a ripe target for its indie-rock Americana and majestic storytelling. I played it for what felt like a year straight. Even if I couldn’t quite sing along with its elaborate orchestrations, refrains from that album lodged in me. Lyrical scraps would flash unbidden, like hallucinations, in the decades to follow. (“Are you writing from the heart?”; “I fell in love again / All things go.”)

And so, meeting “Illinois” again, all these years later, I was a little nervous. The work had been transformed, from an intimate album I’d listened to on an iPod with corded earbuds that didn’t stay put into a lavish stage production with sets, actors, choreography. The stakes felt curiously high: Would someone else’s reinterpretation of the album land for me? Would the public spectacle cheapen my private affection for it? When I mentioned to my friend Tom that I was going to see the show, he was apprehensive: “That album is of monumental importance in my life,” he said, adding, “If it’s not perfect, it would ruin me.”

My experience of the performance didn’t ruin me or the sacredness of the album, thankfully. I was delighted by the delicate interpretation, the way the show’s creators had created a coherent narrative from the collection of songs, agreeing with the Times theater critic Jesse Green that, with “the verbal dials turned way down, and the physical and musical ones way up, the calibration of information, from dreamy to piercing, is pretty much perfect.”

One risk of reacquainting ourselves with an album we’ve loved is coming face to face with who we were when we identified so closely with the work: our younger selves and their (sometimes embarrassing) tastes. I was sharply aware in the early aughts of the criticism that Sufjan Stevens’s work was too precious and twee, and when I remember how susceptible I was to its wiles, I feel bashful, like I’m seeing myself lampooned in a “Portlandia” sketch.

That mix of nostalgia and novelty in meeting our old favorites again, when they’ve changed and we’ve changed too — it’s a complicated compound! Sometimes, we’re surprised. I was transported by my reunion with “Illinois,” excited to go home and listen to the album again, to add this new encounter to my archival experiences.

I’d hoped for a similar renewal when, last fall, I went to see Liz Phair’s 30th-anniversary performance of the album “Exile in Guyville,” another of Those Albums for me. I had expected an audience as excited to dance deliriously and sing along to every lyric as I was. But instead I was met with a crowd that felt cool and quiet, and a performance that, perhaps because of my vertiginous expectations, I didn’t connect with. I left sort of bummed out, still longing for the cathartic homecoming. I got it, eventually, from the original source: at home, volume on high, singing my heart out in a long, scalding shower, that reliable theater of connection and rebirth.

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