I slid my dollar copy of Abbey Road out of its sleeve this morning and noticed a half-inch-thick scratch across side one and my very first thought was lined with gratitude. I’ve got Beatles fatigue, and I’m guessing you do, too. My Abbey Road works–plays fine, in fact–and I made it up to the opening ding-dongs of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” before I realized that I’m so sick of listening to The Beatles that I wouldn’t have a single charitable thing to say about one of the most beloved albums of all time. So I shelved it, and picked up one of the most beloved soundtracks of all time. Asterisk.
I’m not sure when I picked up my copies of Songs From the Original Soundtrack to The Big Chill and More Songs From the Original Soundtrack to The Big Chill, but I’m certain that they came from my parents. I’ve never seen the film, only a few scattered clips (something about Jeff Goldblum dancing in a kitchen rings a bell), and until today I’d never listened to the soundtracks. I never had to. Anyone who grew up near a radio, or who has ever sat through a movie trailer, or waited in line at a bank, has heard nearly every one of these twenty-one songs. Not only have you heard these songs, they’ve worn themselves out on you. Nearly every song here is an unimpeachable classic–try and say something negative about “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”–and nearly ever song here has been overplayed to the point of oblivion–try and say anything about “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.”
Nobody in my generation remembers hearing these songs for the first time. Which is why there’s a rather blatant asterisk up there when I call these compilations beloved. The Big Chill (both the film and the soundtracks) capitalized on our parent’s nostalgia as they aged out of youth’s progressive stream. The film came out in 1983, and spoke directly to a generation that had ridden a pinpoint into the future, but that then found itself married and pregnant, doing the same things their parents had done, and finding value in those things. It validated a very specific past that had to have felt lost after three years of Reagan, and these soundtracks (and, from what I understand, the way these songs were used in the film) allowed that generation to re-experience those hyperconscious times.
But that was thirty years ago, and the deep pockets of the people who made The Big Chill a hit have kept these songs in very public rotation ever since–if, indeed, they ever weren’t. Listening to these soundtracks now feels no different from listening to classic-hits radio, which means that reviewing these songs feels like reviewing how well the lines have been painted down the center of the highway. They are background, cultural infrastructure–important, sure, but now lacking the vitality that placed them at the center of the picture in the first place.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t ways to appreciate “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” or “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” or Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.” “Grapevine” is split between two channels, the left filled to brimming with cool organ and high string sections and the right scratched by upticked guitar and pocks of tom-tom. Marvin Gaye stands between the two, howling about his woman’s plans to let him go and his desire to stay. He’s pulled in both directions, sings from both places; his female background singers sit comfortably among the organ and strings. “Natural Woman” is defined by that giant chorus and the way that Aretha opens it up, with all of the focus on the singer and the fact that her man makes her feel. But she sets it down when she says how her man makes her feel, almost cooing the title phrase back to her beloved before settling into the verses. And while “Joy to the World”’s opening lines suggest just enough meaning to keep you from really thinking about what they could possibly mean, the gutbucket guitar insists it way across the song’s foundation, taunting that marshmallow organ.
But listening to The Big Chill soundtracks in 2013, and really hearing them, requires a level of patience that these albums certainly didn’t need upon release. We’re unable to call up memories of what our lives were like when the songs were fresh, but we’re also unable to call up the memory of what that particular instance of remembering was like–because it’s hard to believe that the people for whom these albums were released weren’t in fact forming their own new memories around these songs the second time they came around. Not for nothing are the film stills that litter the second volume’s cover framed like photographs. But it’s hard to fault The Big Chill (or, for that matter, our parents) for that. These are their memories, not ours, and if we’ve become bored by them, it’s because they weren’t meant for us in the first place. It’s pop music, after all; it’s supposed to be disposable.
But it’s hard for me to let go of the fact that More Songs’ finale is The Band’s “The Weight.” There’s something about its existence there, among the lesser members of its cohort, that bothers me. Because some pop music is timeless, after all, and while I wasn’t alive when the song came out in 1968, I know enough about pop history to know that it sounded timeless then, too. I almost finding it insulting that “The Weight” is here, as if it’s been divorced from its proper context and grafted onto some boomer slideshow. “The Weight” feels somehow bigger than those memories, and its function extends beyond their score. But then, why don’t I feel the same about Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”, itself ripped from even riper context, or The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” freed here from the burden of opening Pet Sounds? And why does Spencer Davis’ “Gimme Some Lovin’” feel somehow more vital to me, when in reality it’s separated from The Rascals’ “Good Lovin’” by nothing more than a verb and an indefinite article?
Because I have friends in bands, and one of them covered “Gimme Some Lovin’”, and I had a great time dancing to it. And because my friends and I sat on a used couch in college, drinking beers and fumbling through “The Weight”’s harmonies. And when I hear those songs, I hear those moments, and I think of the friends that I no longer live near, and of conditions that can’t be recreated, and shouldn’t. And it makes me feel good.