Late Night Highway Sequence

I’ve always loved these kind of quiet memories, that type that really can’t have much meaning to anyone else.

One night, must have been back during winter break at the beginning of 2012, I had left your house after dark to drive back home to Decatur. I put on a mix CD of songs from the last year, songs I had discovered through a website that compiled critical music lists into one big master list. All of these songs were familiar to me to some degree, hence their appearance on my own burned disc, and they were intended as a simple comfort for those hour-long drives home.

But music has the tendency to evolve with certain experiences. On the dark of the highway, in a car with a proper bass system, “The Wilhelm Scream” by James Blake kicked on, and it’s like I had never truly experienced music before.

It’s a song I appreciated but felt I was missing something on – it was dense, ominous, something I had never heard before. It stood out, but I never knew what it meant. But that night, it came alive. It’s a song that works best while alone in the near dark.

“The Wilhelm Scream” is a solemn song, despite its title referencing a comedic bit of film lore. In the darkness of that night, it was like being lost in a sea of despair. The cascading energy of the ever-building music, matched by Blake’s anguished and soulful voice; the lyrics offered little beyond a short phrase with slight modifications, but Blake says so much purely through the atmosphere of the piece. It suggested a man losing sense of himself, increasingly overwhelmed, the music eventually drowning him out.

It was like finding the missing piece of a puzzle. Until that point, most of my music listening occurred through shoddy laptop speakers. Music was a new hobby of mine, and one I hadn’t yet realized could require a certain element, especially for certain bass-heavy songs like this one.

Ever since that day, I’ve always questioned my initial opinions on works. I’m not flawless; I could always miss something important. Of course I already appreciated “The Wilhelm Scream” enough to put it on a mix CD – but that night, it morphed into an all-time favorite.

Despite being a critical person, I rarely see the value in writing something off, especially if others seem to like it. I’d rather seek out understanding than dismiss something due to my own tastes. I’ve had countless Wilhelm moments since that night; clicking with Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” after years of barely tolerating his voice, finally recognizing the value of Bruce Springsteen’s optimism in the face of despair, finding beauty in Joni Mitchell’s quiet works. I knew there had to be something there in all of these artists, and I was driven to understand.

In the end, I view art as a form of communication. While some can fail at getting across what they intend, there’s always the chance I’m not yet fluent in the same language – and I’ve always believed there’s something beautiful in putting in work to try and understand others.