When traveling alone, all the songs that you can fit in your pocket or in your car can become the best friend you could have. Sometimes the right songs can help block out the world and lull you to sleep on an uncomfortable bench during an airport layover. The right playlist can keep you awake and get you through the next 20 miles behind the wheel. The right melodies and lyrics can can give you something to focus on instead of the atrocious odor coming from the person next to you on the bus who clearly hasn’t showered once in his or her entire life.
I’ve lived in Spain for two years now, in both the “la españa de verdad” (the “real” small town Spain of Albacete) and in a metropolitan cultural center (Barcelona). This June, I’ll be filling a backpack with as much underwear as I can and backpacking from Budapest, Hungary to Berlin, Germany. Music has been my constant companion on my trips across Europe and I’ve had my share of trips but this will be my longest by far. For me, traveling seems to ring truest in the form of a folk song. Not a regurgitated ’60s culture anthem, but more of the idea or concept of a folk song.
There’s something to commiserating with some singer with a thumb out and a dusty guitar case or a group of people banding together in a van. It captures the excitement of the adventure, the boredom of the long journey, the anticipation of being only a few miles away when you really, really have to pee. The tempo of this playlist mimics that basic structure, with upbeat songs to get you going, which slide into slower tunes in the middle for the long ride and pick up toward the end to give you that last little boost to wherever it is you’re going.
More than just something to listen to, the songs help give wandering and discovering a sense of purpose by defining and exploring all the different symbolic connotations that travel has. Adventure, progress, discovery, change, escape, accomplishment, tourism, the concept of home, learning to say goodbyes, beginnings and endings, life and death, etc., etc., etc. With the right music, traveling alone can become a vision quest, visiting the finite world all around us to better understand the infinite world within.
Anyway, considering it could be my last European vision quest, I wanted to finally get the traveling mix right.
Bright Eyes, “Another Travelin’ Song” from I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
Travel is a heavy theme in a lot of Bright Eyes tunes, but “Another Travelin’ Song” is the most well packed of any traveling song ever written. Like the roads that rush by and all the last boarding calls that you have to rush to catch, the song moves fast and there’s even a hoot or two, which are both rare for Bright Eyes. The lyrics are evocative of a band touring the country, always on the move and not even being able to stop to appreciate the ocean or find a better place to park their car so that their gear will be safe.
The tempo is a metaphor for the journey, something to take your mind off of what you’re leaving behind and where you’re not sure you’re going. The singer, Conor Oberst, is running away from something, probably from mistakes, but he can’t ever seem to find that imaginary place that he’s always been looking for. He sings, “I guess that the best that I can do now is pretend that I’ve done nothing wrong / and dream about a train that’s going to take me back where I belong.” It comes to signify indecision and indifference and the blurry line between the two and summed up by the last few lyrics, “I will find my fears and face them or I will cower like a dog / I’ll kick and scream or kneel and plead, I’ll fight like hell to hide that I’ve given up.”
What’s brilliant about Oberst’s lyrics are the multiple layers. In the second verse he relates traveling to the creative process, as stories are a form of escapism just like getting in a car and peeling out. He sits at a typewriter imagining the perfect song or story or whatever, just like cavemen painted on walls imagining the perfect hunt. Yet, he comes up short and can’t write a word all night. Inspiration evades him just as much as the dream place where he belongs that he can never seem to get to.
Other Bright Eyes songs for your vision quest: “Driving Fast Through A Big City At Night” (A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997) “You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will“ (Lifted), “Land Locked Blues” (I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning), “If the Brakeman Turns My Way” (Cassadaga), “Stray Dog Freedom” (Four Winds), “Tourist Trap” (Four Winds), “Moab” (Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band ).
Bob Dylan, “On the Road Again” from Bringing It All Back Home
Some of the songs on Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home ramble quickly, and the lyrics are as seemingly listless as Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Beat writing is usually more about the prose, more about the language and the style, more about the adventure and the flavor, the scent in the air, the detail in the hillsides, the exhilaration of a drunken mind. They’re all things that are immediately gratifying about setting off on a journey. In the upbeat, almost Benny Hill-like rapid fire word play on this song and songs like it on the album, Dylan captures the beat spirit pretty well. Yet, unlike “On the Road,” Dylan’s writing is usually symbolic.
Similar to “Another Travelin’ Song,” Dylan is escaping something. The refrain is Dylan being mystified by the fact that whoever he’s talking to can’t imagine him settling down. He tries to “pet” a woman’s “monkey,” but gets rejected by a face full of claws. So, he asks who’s in the “chimney” and she brushes it off by saying it’s Santa Claus. Then the milkman walks in wearing a derby hat, or a “riding” hat if you will, and it’s punctuated with the harmonica for a good reason. Yet, the woman still wants him to stay. The tone of the song says it all, staying with an unfaithful lover is ridiculous. Especially when in-laws are involved. You’ve got to just keep moving on.
I only wanted to have one song per artist on the mix and it was a hard decision between this song and “Boots of Spanish Leather” (The Times They Are A Changin’). Especially considering the song is about a ocean voyage to Spain. It’s beautiful and I might like it even more than “On the Road Again,” but it’s about someone else who’s traveling and the Kerouac reference is important. You can also add “Like a Rolling Stone” (Highway 61 Revisited), if you have to.
Beirut, “Scenic World” from Gulag Orkestar
Beirut has an amazing talent for capturing old world European scenes. Everything seems to be burned onto an over-exposed and grainy film strip that captured beaches with striped tents or a hot air balloon festival or the catacombs beneath a behemoth cathedral. “Scenic World” is simply about going out to see the beauty in the world. To have your breath stolen. And the digital melody and drum machine are wonderfully reminiscent of European discotheques. If they have to be present on a Eurotrip, better it be in a setting like this. There’s also a cool acoustic, accordion version of “Scenic World” on the band’s Lon Gisland EP.
Another Beirut song for your vision quest: “Vagabond” (The Rip Tide).
Christians & Lions, “Bones” from More Songs for the Dreamsleepers & The Very Awake
Christians & Lions comes from Jamaica Plain (Boston), Massachusetts and was active in the mid ‘00s. The band was a great modern folk group with deep and sometimes political lyrics–the main members were even brothers.
Most journeys start out with big ideas and plans. One of the reasons for going to see the world is to better understand foreign cultures and governments in hopes that you might change the world or help stop suffering. The last lines are, “Wisdom it comes, but age don’t unlock it / You’ve got to spend all the passion you’ve found / With more change in their heads than in all of their pockets / Some can show you the way to slow down.”
The song also has a bit of the “anywhere I lay my head is home” mentality, with, “If home’s where the heart is, beating like a bird’s wing / Then I’ve many homes and I should.” The idea takes on a new dimension when the travelers encounter a vagrant, “said a man who wasn’t homeless, ‘I’m always just traveling / Taking walks around my neighborhood.'”
Vashti Bunyan, “Train Song” from Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind
Vashti Bunyan is a woman with a sweet heart who wrote beautiful music in the ’70s and then stopped releasing albums until Animal Collective did an EP with her in 2007 called Prospect Hummer. “Train Song” is a tune that knows exactly where it’s going; Bunyan is chasing after a lost lover. For so many songs about being lost that are on this mix, it’s nice to have one that affirms, “Suddenly now, I know where I belong.” Even though “it’s many hundred miles” she still sings, “it won’t be long.”
Another Vashti song for your vision quest: “Wayward” (Lookaftering).
Bill Callahan, “Riding for the Feeling” from Apocalypse
You get onto the highway and see this long stretch of road in front of you and you can speed all you want…and “Riding for the Feeling” comes on and it’s perfect timing. Most of the song is a lament about goodbyes. He relates it to being on stage, “I asked the crowd if I’d said enough / No one really answered / They just said, “Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go, don’t go, don’t go.’ / All of this leaving is never ending.”
“Riding for the Feeling” is great to listen to for the title that becomes the refrain and mantra. To ride just for the feeling of the road rumbling below you or through a field of clouds on a plane at hundreds of miles per hour. Or that warped yet magic feeling of riding a train backwards so that when you stop you experience the optical illusion of the world you just left behind slowly oozing after you.
Other Callahan songs for your vision quest: Smog’s “The Hard Road” (Dongs of Sevotion), “Rococo Zephyr” (Sometime I Wish We Were A Bird), “America!” (Apocalypse), “One Fine Morning” (Apocalypse).
Elliott Smith, “Let’s Get Lost” from From a Basement on the Hill
There always comes a time when you get lost. Yet, some of the best things can be found in a hidden corner of the city that you weren’t looking for. From Smith’s lyrics, one can only imagine how much of a private and closed off person he must’ve been. It seems like he had a lot of problems with letting people be close to him. The chorus goes, “Burning every bridge that I cross / To find some beautiful place to get lost.” Every time you make a choice, every fork you come across in the road, you have to sacrifice one of your options. Insert obligatory reference to Robert Frost and the road less traveled here, and yadda yadda yadda. It may seem sad to burn bridges, but the tune and guitar are pretty and almost happy. Once you’ve severed every contact with the familiar, all you can find are new and hopefully beautiful things. That’s one of the main goals of traveling, to set off into the unknown and discover something new.
Other Elliott Smith songs for your vision quest: “Baby Britain” (XO), “Coast to Coast” (From a Basement on the Hill).
Simon Joyner, “Burn Rubber” from Why You All So Thief?
This is an old, poorly recorded song on a split EP with The Mountain Goats. I found it through the Bright Eyes cover of the song and really wanted to put that on the mix instead, because the clattering rhythm and long slides of the lap steel are perfect for driving. But, Joyner’s original fits with the folk vision. The lyrics in the whole song are surreal and interesting, but it all comes back to the repeated, “Get behind the wheel / Stay in front of the storm.”
The Tallest Man on Earth, “Into The Stream” from Shallow Grave
The title for this song comes from the last few lines about tossing a limousine into a river. It’s mostly about destruction as a form of creation. The lone guitars-man for the band is the Swiss Kristian Matsson and it’s funny to imagine him as he lies, steals, wrecks things, and flips around speed limit signs with his the only reason being, “Just to see / If there’s something we believe.” It’s about taking risks and doing reckless things to “Redirect / This old boring road / Into the depths / Of a lion’s mouth.” Taking every chance and opportunity, even if it might put you in danger, is a good mentality to have on a journey. Although, it’s better to try not to take advantage of anyone, but rely on people you meet and offer them the same courtesy in the future. If couch karma isn’t a thing yet, it should be. Letting someone stay on your sofa is a simple thing, but it can really help a person out and lead to some cool experiences.
Another Tallest Man song for your vision quest: “Over the Hills” (The Tallest Man on Earth).
Death Cab for Cutie, “Different Names for the Same Things” from Plans
This song perfectly captures something that I notice more and more the longer I stay in Europe. A place is just a place; it’s the people who make your experiences there. Obviously, cultures and people can have extremely different values, but deep down human beings have the same desires and fears. It’s just different how it looks on the outside, with the clothes they choose to wear and the way they design their buildings and the rituals that they have. Every city is going to have some kind of church to go see, every city is going to have people that want to party, every city has some kind of government and people annoyed with it. Absorbing the details and specifics of how it appears and how they do it is the fun part. Especially when you’re learning foreign languages, you realize that all these words are expressing the same thing, just with different names. And it’s sad that there’s so much conflict between cultures when we all have the same word for spoon, but we just disagree on how we want to say it. Ben Gibbard sings, “The boundaries of language I quietly cursed.”
Other Death Cab songs for your vision quest: “405” (We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes), “Little Fury Bugs” (We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes), “Blacking Out the Friction” (The Photo Album).
Nick Drake, “Road” from Pink Moon
Nick Drake’s Pink Moon is a beautifully simple album, as most of the time it’s just him and his intricate fingerpicking and weird tunings. A lot of the album is a meditation on death. Drake died from an overdose of anti-depressant medication a couple of years after the album was released. The refrain of the song is, “You can take a road that takes you to the stars now / I can take a road that will see me through / I can take a road that will see me through.” It’s a beautifully calming acoustic meditation that’s perfect to help you through the times that you’re drenched in sweat with your head on your knees on the street or when you’re frustrated and have been driving for hours, but can’t seem to find the right highway. To help you along when you feel like giving up.
Nana Grizol, “Circles ‘Round the Moon” from Love It! Love It!
Escaping the tedium of the city comes up a lot of times in Nana Grizol’s music. Here, Theo Zumm espouses his philosophy that “It should be illegal to live where you can’t see the stars.” There’s always a pull between the culture of the city and the beauty of nature in the country and if you’re lucky, you can see both on your trip. Zumm says he likes to go to a lake down the street from him in order to “try and break down, un-complicate.” He continues explaining, “to interpret the things we said in letters and phone calls” and a “thousand post-cards later.” It’s an interesting idea that when you’re away you can only convey a certain amount of your experience to someone. Even when you get back and show pictures and tell stories, it’s nothing like actually being there. Zumm makes the observation that a postcard can’t explain the little details or intangible feelings as he sings that it’s “not enough for [me] to tell how was your day.”
Other Nana songs for your vision quest: “Stop and Smell the Roses” (Love It! Love It!), “Everything You Ever Hoped and Worked for” (Love It! Love It!), “The Idea that Everything Could Possibly Be Said (For Patrick)” (Love It! Love It!).
The Velvet Underground “Train Round the Bend” from Loaded
The Velvet Underground takes the opposite side of the debate between country and city. For singer Lou Reed, the city is the place where everything happens. It represents life and culture and rock ‘n’ roll. What’s cool about the song is that the main guitar riff chugs in and out with a delay effect and pans from left to right throughout the song, making a clever locomotive stereo effect. “Train ‘Round the Bend” is the perfect song to listen to build anticipation in those last few minutes before pulling into the station.
Pavement, “Range Life” from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
“Range Life” captures the life of a band on the road, being bachelors, running from the fuzz, and even name-dropping tours with The Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots. The main chorus is, “If I could settle down / Then I would settle down.” I suppose people can be the traveling kind or the settling down kind, but I think most people have a little of both in them. Pavement seems to feel the same way as The Velvet Underground about the country apparently, saying, “Nature kids, I–they don’t have a function / I don’t understand what they mean / And I could really give a fuck.” It’s a great song to groove into as you get into the city and need something with a little more oomph than those long highway tunes. The noises and voices and barking in the background is hilarious too.
Other Pavement songs for your vision quest: “Zurich is Stained” (Slanted and Enchanted), “Transport is Arranged” (Brighten the Corners).
The Mountain Goats, “Genesis 3:23” from The Life of the World to Come
The Mountain Goats’ The Life of the World to Come is my favorite album from the group. Every song is named after a biblical verse and the record was inspired by the death of John Darnielle’s mother who, presumably, was a very pious person. The bible verse for this song is, “Therefore the lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.”
The lyrics are about returning to a place where you used to live and seeing how it’s changed. Sometimes, when you come back from a journey it gives you a new perspective on your home. So many times, I’ve come back from a trip and realized that I’d forgotten about my routines and getting up for work and the monotony of not being on vacation. Even a weekend can make it feel like I haven’t been back in years. It’s the weirdest sensation to feel like your home isn’t your home, even if it’s just for a little while before you get back into the swing of things. It’s kind of like going back to your home town and realizing that all the places you used to love have closed down. Or like for a brief amount of time while you were away, you had a whole different life and you were a whole different person.
Neither person ever really goes away; hopefully they fuse together and help you be more adventurous in your everyday life and interactions with people. The travel bug sleeps dormant inside, like a playlist you haven’t listened to for a while, waiting for the next opportunity to take the wheel and drive.
Other Mountain Goats songs for your vision quest: The Mountain Goats are a very prolific band and Darnielle has written many, many songs called “Going to [Insert City or State or Country Here].” So, wherever you’re going, there might be a “Going to” song for your trip.