ALBUMS OF OUR LIVES: BETH ORTON’S CENTRAL RESERVATION

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A few years ago, a friend was attempting to explain why he was divorcing his wife. He said they had grown apart. That they argued all the time. That she no longer laughed at his jokes. That, since the baby had arrived, they never went out, never did anything fun, just the two of them. “And you know, we don’t even like the same music,” he said. “We never have. Like, the other day, I played her the new Arcade Fire album, and she made me turn it off right in the middle of “Intervention.” She said it gave her a headache. Arcade Fire. She really does have horrible taste in music. I mean, she still listens to the radio.”

“So what?” I asked him. “Is that a good reason to end a marriage? Because your wife doesn’t like Canadian art-rock? (I had yet to join the Church of Arcade Fire myself, though The Suburbs would make me a believer in due time.)

My friend shrugged and stared into his glass of beer. “I don’t know,” he said. “I still love her, but I just don’t think I can be married to someone who likes Justin Timberlake.”

“You have a baby together,” I said. “Listen to ‘Neon Bible’ in your car when she’s not with you, and she can listen to Y100 or whatever bubblegum shit she’s into when she’s in hers. Trust me, that stuff doesn’t matter. It’s minor. You have a kid now. Your playlist is going to consist of nothing but Dan Zanes and Barney songs soon enough, anyway.”

There are few moments in my life when I can comfortably speak with anything resembling real expertise, but this was one of them. I know what it means to base a relationship on something as insignificant as taste in music. Worse, I know what it is to ruin one because of it. Worse still, I know what it’s like to have your own musical preferences used against you when the other person can’t summon the courage to say what really needs to be said, the most-honest thing, the harshest thing, but also the kindest thing, the thing that should be said first but is often said last, if at all: “I just don’t love you anymore.”

 ***

We were driving through Fort Lauderdale when I told my then-girlfriend that I wanted her to hear this British singer I had recently discovered. It was 1999. “Her name’s Beth Orton,” I said, with more than a hint of pride, “and she’s really outstanding. Wait till you hear her voice. It’s beautiful.”

I slipped a CD into my truck’s stereo, and the cab filled with the sound of a sawing electric guitar, a mechanical drumbeat and Orton’s assertive, accented vocals. The song was “Stolen Car,” the lead track on Central Reservation, Orton’s second album. The music rose in intensity and volume, and Orton was right there with it, her voice swooping and soaring as she sang — but not oversang — about ignoring things that should not be ignored. “Why should I know better by now when I’m old enough not to?” goes one lyric, a riddle that doubles as a lie.

“Stolen Car” is about 5 1/2 minutes long. As the song came to a close, I glanced at my girlfriend, hoping to gauge her approval. For not the first time, I couldn’t read her face. The next song on the album, “Sweetest Decline,” is almost too pretty, a piano-laced ballad in which Orton drops the cool authority of “Stolen Car” and lets her voice relax into its natural, most lovely state. It’s a song about life, about letting oneself fall in love, and I’ve always imagined that Orton recorded it in a sunlit room, her tall frame swaying before a microphone stand by an open window, a breeze parting lace curtains as it made its way to settle upon her bright, freckled face.

“Sweetest Decline” is even longer than “Stolen Car” and this time, when it ended, my girlfriend finally spoke: “‘She weaves secrets in her hair’? ‘She’s deep as a well?’” she said, quoting Orton’s lyrics, but with disapproval that was impossible to miss. “God, how trite.”

“Trite? I don’t think she’s being trite,” I said, my voice betraying what I considered my own cool authority. I was, after all, a professional music critic for a regional magazine. Suddenly, hail was blowing through the window of Orton’s sunlit room.

“‘A new day is dawning’? ‘It’s like catching snow on my tongue’?” my girlfriend continued. “It’s like she wasn’t even trying to write a song. Tell me you don’t really like this.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing: “Not even trying to write a song”? “Trite”? As the seductive but defiant “Couldn’t Cause Me Harm” began to play, I defended Orton’s use of clichés in “Sweetest Decline,” arguing that what my girlfriend perceived as laziness was, in fact, deliberate. And Orton was being casual — not lazy. The lyrics are as unhurried as the music, with the songwriter opening one verse as if she were simply carrying on a conversation over warm tea: “So, anyway, there I was, just sitting on your porch … ”

Flustered, I asked my girlfriend to listen to just one more song, “Pass in Time”, the album’s emotional centerpiece. It’s a devastating but ultimately uplifting examination of mortality and grief and it’s certainly the most-personal song on Central Reservation, if not the most-personal song in Orton’s entire catalog. The second verse is a crusher:

My mother told me just before she died,
My mother told me just before she died, 
“Oh, darling, darling, don’t you be like me”
“You will fall in love with the very first man you meet.”
“But mother, mother, some will never know
“The love that you have is stored in my soul.”

My girlfriend sighed and looked out the passenger-side window. “I like you less for liking this,” she said.

***

About six years earlier, the summer before my senior year of college, I returned home to work for my father’s construction company and, with any luck, save up enough money to buy a cheap car, my first since high school. I didn’t have a girlfriend back in Gainesville and no former girlfriend in Fort Lauderdale with whom I could reunite. Because the job site was more than an hour away in Homestead, my dad and I had to leave the house by 5:30 in order to begin working by 7. Even though I was the boss’s son, I didn’t receive much in the way of special treatment. As he had for the past three summers, my dad gave me the crummiest job in construction: day laborer, which is just a phony euphemism for ditch digger.

Our workday ended at 3:30, but we wouldn’t get home until after 5. And following eight hours of stabbing a shovel into the Earth’s limestone-pocked flesh while absorbing the wrath of the South Florida sun, I’d be lucky if I had enough energy to stay awake past 7:30. My social life was shit. I could only see my friends, go surfing, or risk a hangover on the weekends.

So when a friend called me early one weeknight to tell me that his new girlfriend wanted to set me up with her neighbor, and that they were all going to meet at the Edge in a couple of hours, I told him to forget about it. I was beat. I had to get to sleep. “But she’s hot. Really hot,” my friend said. “She goes to UF, too, so maybe this could turn into something for you. Besides, I lied and told her you were cool, so at the very least you could show up and disappoint the girl.”

She was a year younger than me, a nursing student, a redhead, and, yes, really hot. She also was funny and charming and didn’t seem to mind that all that ditch digging had left my hands stippled with callouses and the skin underneath my fingernails tattooed with dirt. And when the four of us went out to dinner that Saturday, I thought this thing may just last into the school year. She even suggested as much.

And then, we got into my friend’s car and “The Wind Cries Mary” came on the radio.

“Turn it up,” I said and settled into the back seat, my shoulder resting against my would-be girlfriend’s arm. I closed my eyes and nodded along to the music.

“Who’s this?” she asked.

When I smiled, she poked me in the arm and said, “No, really, who is this? I like it.”

I sat up and looked at her. “You don’t know who this is? Honestly?”

“I don’t,” she said. “Should I?”

“Of course you should. It’s Jimi Hendrix. You’ve heard of Jimi Hendrix, right? Please tell me you’ve heard of Jimi Hendrix.”

She’d never heard of Jimi Hendrix. She’d also never heard of Superchunk, Fugazi, Screaming Trees, or any of the other bands I was into at the time. “But you’re in college.” I said to her, “Don’t you know any college rock?” She told me she didn’t listen to much “rock music.” She only listened to the radio. Believing this to be an intractable human failing on par with carrying the gene for webbed feet, living in a yurt, or loving the Boston Red Sox, I decided my future-girlfriend was now my never-girlfriend. After we arrived at her house, I walked her to her door, wished her good night, and never saw her again.

Why should I have known better by then when I was old enough not to?

***

It’s July 4, 2011, and I’m returning from the Keys with my fiancée and her teenage sons, my future step kids. We’d spent the weekend snorkeling, eating, and reading in plastic chairs that we’d pulled from the beach into the water. We were sunburned, tired, and reluctant for the weekend to be over. We didn’t talk much on the drive back to Miami, and at one point, I switched on a radio station I like, one that plays a decent mix of old folksongs, contemporary acoustic music, and low-key indie rock.

The kids, who are 15 and 13 years old, often complain about the music they hear in my truck: Wilco, Springsteen, the Hold Steady. These are artists their mom likes, as well, but the kids aren’t into rock. They listen to Pitbull, Ke$ha, the Black Eyed Peas, and obscure local hip-hop acts they discover on YouTube. They used to ask me to turn on Y100, the bubblegum station. “Anything but this stuff,” they’d say. “You know the rule, guys: my truck, my radio,” I’d say. Once, I thought I’d tease them by switching over to the Korean-language station. It didn’t work. They still ask to hear that station whenever they ride in the truck. Kids have a great way of turning jokes into boomerangs.

So this night, as we entered Miami’s city limits and the late Vic Chesnutt drawled something profound and moving from deep within the radio, I expected to field a round of objections. But no one spoke. They just looked out the windows, watching fireworks shed colored teardrops all over the sky. The Vic Chesnutt song was followed by a Cowboy Junkies song, which was followed by a Red House Painters song, a Steve Earle song, and, finally, Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.” The sequencing was perfect and I was experiencing a moment of — dare I say it? — inner peace through depressing music.

“Oh, my God, this is my least favorite instrument in the whole world!” It was the 13-year-old. He was holding his forehead and groaning. “Please, Jake, turn this off. I hate the accordion!”

“Do you mean the harmonica?” I asked him.

“Yes. Whatever. Please, just turn it off. This is terrible.”

“This is Bob Dylan.”

“I don’t care. It’s awful.”

I caught his eyes in the rear-view mirror, reminded him of the rule, smiled, and let Dylan keep squawking on his harmonica. When the song was over I turned on the CD player. I’d recently started listening to Central Reservation again, and just as I reached to turn up the volume, right when Beth Orton began singing about a woman with secrets weaved in her hair, my fiancée asked, “Please, honey, can you put something else on? We’re all about to slit our wrists in here. Remember, we’re a family. We share the radio, no matter whose car we’re in.”

Without complaint, I turned on Y100. I know better by now. I can always listen to Central Reservation later.


Jake Cline is a writer and journalist based in Miami. You can follow him on Twitter at @jakeflorida. More from this author →