To be carried slowly by a current of air or water.
A continuous slow movement from one place to another.
These are dictionary definitions of the word-a couple, at least. Though if I were to define what it means to “drift” I might say to float, to dangle…to exist in the great in between. To be forever en route.
So much of contemporary music is labeled, stuffed into Sharpied Rubbermaid containers: the “love” song, the “break up” song, the “political” song, etc. And yet over the years I have noticed that some of my favorite cuts have a bizarre, genre-less similarity between them: they seem to be about being neither here nor there. These songs seem to recognize the swirling unknown surrounding them, and accept it as such, neither good nor bad. This lack of specificity has strangely anchored me at some of my most specifically difficult times. They have been the land I spot when out to sea, so to speak.
One of the first songs that made me realize I was headed for a hard drive full of existential playlists was Pavement’s “Range Life” from their 1994 masterpiece Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Stephen Malkmus has always been the king of nonchalance and blasé, putting boredom on a stick and somehow making it seem appetizing. “Range Life” is nowhere short of delicious in its absolute lack of zeal. You can almost picture Malkmus coasting through a blurred-out suburb on his skateboard, never losing or gaining acceleration.
“After the glow, the scene, the stage/The sad talk becomes slow but there’s one thing I’ll never forget/Hey, you gotta pay your dues before you pay the rent/Over the turnstiles and out in the traffic/There’s ways of living, it’s the way I’m living, right or wrong/It’s all that I can do and I wouldn’t want to let you be”
“I want a range life if I could settle down/If I could settle down then I would settle down”
“Out on my skateboard the night is just humming/And the gum smacks are the pulse I’ll follow if my walkman fades/Well, I got absolutely no one, no one but myself to blame”
Perhaps it is merely my interpretation of these tracks that garners such a feeling of warm nowhere-ness. Maybe if Steve Malkmus read this he might say: “Actually, that song was about being on tour.” To which I would say, “being on tour is an in between place.” But Steve Malkmus probably isn’t going to read this, so I am free to project all the existential dilemmas on his music that I can muster.
A true anthem for the unmoored, Bill Callahan’s room temperature “Riding For The Feeling” from 2011’s Apocalypse is a favorite for listless days. It is, one of the most solitary songs I have ever heard, yet somehow manages to evoke both heartbreak and liberation. Again, it is neither here nor there, and reminds me of the pointless joy that can be found in driving for no particular reason or destination:
“It’s never easy to say goodbye/To the faces/So rarely do we see another one/So close and so long”
“All this leaving is never ending”
“In conclusion leaving is easy/When you’ve got some place you need to be”
When Callahan sings, “all this leaving is never ending” I can’t help but picture a ceaseless swinging door, one that no longer knows the difference between coming and going. One that opens to concrete people and places, but exists in that in between space: in between jobs, and relationships, and albums. To ride “for the feeling” is to drift, to coast for the sake of it, to float on the unknown. I’m not sure what it says about me that is my favorite part of the entire song, and if I somehow miss it I must rewind to carefully consider those six words:
“All this leaving is never ending”
The music video for this track could be considered a meditation on that one line. It is Zen with its unrelenting sameness: six minutes and fourteen seconds of a continuous ski jump over paper mountains. “Riding” is one of the few videos I have seen that deals strictly with the in between. No beginning. No end. Just the little skier coasting infinitely.
“Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” by Spiritualized is a far more literal hymn for feeling un-tethered. Most will know it from the 2004 dystopian-romance film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which alone could cradle the song in a whole different context. But for me, “Ladies and Gentlemen” is a song for the sensory deprivation tank. It is so buoyant, so expansive in its ambience that it creates the exact feeling its title suggests-floating in space. Lyrically the track is no more exacting:
“I will love you ’til I die/And I will love you all the time/So please put your sweet hand in mine/And float in space and drift in time/All the time until I die/We’ll float in space, just you and I”
“Baby I love you today/I guess that’s what you want/And I don’t know where we are all going/Life don’t get stranger than this/It is what it is/And I don’t know where we are all going”
This is the kind of song that was made for feeling small and powerless in the best way possible. I know that sounds depressing, but if you really think about it, its kind of nice…like staring at the ocean and forgetting about your overdue electric bill.
If there was one bard of the great abyss, I can’t imagine anyone could handle the job better than Bob Dylan, whose catalogue is almost as overwhelming as existential dread itself. “Going, Going, Gone” from 1974’s Planet Waves is a true ballad for not knowing where the fuck life is going to take you. Though the original cut featuring The Band is a prime piece of audio, I have to be honest and reveal that my introduction to it was via the 1982 Richard Hell and the Voidoids cover. It is in a way a perfect marriage. Hell sprung from the nihilist punk scene that didn’t consider its own past or future, that only existed in the moment, much like the voice in Dylan’s song:
“I’ve just reached a place /Where the willow don’t bend/ There’s not much more to be said/ It’s the top of the end /I am going /I am going /I am gone”
“I am closing the book/ On the pages and the text /And I don’t really care /Of what happens next /I am just going /I am going/ I am gone”
“I been hanging on threads /I been playing it straight /Now I’ve just got to cut loose/ Before it gets late /So I am going /I am going/ I am gone”
“I been walking the road/ I been living on the edge /Now I’ve just got to go /Before I get to the ledge/ So I am going/ I am just going /I am gone”
It is the ultimate track for drifting, for nuzzling into the unknown. Because sometimes all you can do is just be.