Spring Forward: Songs for a New Season

Hear a playlist tuned to rebirth, as well as the risk to bloom. Plus: a selection of tracks that explain our readers.

The cover of Waxahatchee’s “Saint Cloud.”Merge Records

A few days ago, I was buried up to my neck in volcanic sand.

Literally, and by choice! My sister and I spent a very restorative weekend at a spa, to celebrate her upcoming wedding and to shake off a winter that had been a challenge for each of us. This particular spa has imported natural volcanic sand from Ibusuki, a city in southwest Japan, and for a cool $30 they will have someone rake a hot, heaping quantity of it atop your body until you cannot move. Then you lay there for 15 minutes, letting the mineral-rich sand work its supposedly detoxifying magic and, if you are like me, expelling such an ungodly amount of perspiration from your face that an attendant who sees maybe a hundred people through this process each day remarks with slightly concerned awe, “Wow, you’re really sweating.”

For the first few minutes, I felt like a corpse. By the end, though, as I wriggled out of the earth and once again stood upright, I have never felt more like a freshly sprouting flower in springtime. (Albeit an exceptionally sweaty one who had to sit on the bench for five extra minutes of observation because she’d been deemed a fainting risk.)

The earliest weeks of springtime have such a distinct feeling that I decided to make a playlist to soundtrack them. Late March/early April is a time of rebirth but also of the friction and occasional struggle of transition — the lime-green shoot emerging from the dirt; the chrysalis stage before the butterfly. It’s the April-is-the-cruelest-month part of “The Wasteland.” It’s the “little darling, it’s been a long, cold lonely winter” part of “Here Comes the Sun.” It’s this perfect little 24-word poem by Anaïs Nin that I always find myself thinking of this time of year:

And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
it took
to Blossom.

Flowers are a recurring motif on this playlist: Waxahatchee’s blooming and then withering lilacs “marking the slow, slow, slow passing of time”; Hurray for the Riff Raff’s bemused cataloging of poetic plant names (“Rhododendron, night blooming jasmine, deadly nightshade…”). So, too, is rebirth and that worthwhile risk to bloom. Perhaps selfishly, I sneaked in one song in about “smoke floating over the volcano,” but that’s from an album I find speaks to a lot of these themes anyway, Caroline Polachek’s excellent, recently released “Desire, I Want to Turn Into You.” My perennial favorites Nina Simone and the Mountain Goats make appearances, but don’t say I didn’t warn you in my introductory “11 Songs That Explain Me.”

Speaking of which! Thank you so much for all your wonderful submissions when I asked last week for a song that describes you. I wish I could have included every one of them, but I wanted to share a few of my favorites below. So many of your responses were such vivid reminders of the humanizing power of music and the bone-deep connection we all have to certain songs. It was great to get to know more about who’s out there reading, too. I feel like we’re building something special together.

Listen along here on Spotify as you read.

“And the lilacs drink the water/And the lilacs die,” Katie Crutchfield sings on this bittersweet, gently twangy tune from her most recent album, “Saint Cloud”; that succinct image and the song’s stark arrangement lay bare her increasing confidence as a songwriter. (Listen on YouTube)

Alynda Segarra has a knack for writing songs that both celebrate the natural world and articulate the dangers of ignoring its glory. “Don’t turn your back on the mainland,” Segarra sings here, on a tuneful but defiantly prickly chorus. (Listen on YouTube)

Here’s an underrated gem from a few years back: smeary, romantic, ’80s-inspired pop as vibrant as a bouquet of roses in every color. (Listen on YouTube)

And from an album called “Bloom,” this is an atmospheric reverie from the indie-pop duo Beach House, a band that — despite the summertime humidity its name conjures — always sounds to me like the arrival of spring. (Listen on YouTube)

Inspired by Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel “Sula,” the ever-inquisitive Chicago R&B singer and poet Jamila Woods crafts an ode to self-discovery and personal growth with a refrain that stretches upward like a verdant stalk: “I’m better, I’m better, I’m better …” (Listen on YouTube)

I love the way this simple, guitar-driven meditation on early spring entwines the personal with the more cosmic cycling of the seasons: “Springtime’s coming, that means you’ll be coming back around/New onions growing underground.” (Listen on YouTube)

“It’s just smoke floating over the volcano,” the avant-garde pop star Polachek sings, providing a potent reminder that all difficult periods — like, say, being buried up to your neck in a steaming pile of volcanic sand — do pass in time. (Listen on YouTube)

This is such a deeply felt reading of a song so many of us know by rote: Simone’s particular phrasing cracks it open and makes you feel like you’re hearing George Harrison’s words anew. (Listen on YouTube)

Dolly Parton is, eternally, a human ray of sunshine, though perhaps never more explicitly than she is here, on this inspirational, soul-rattling classic from her first self-produced album from 1977, “New Harvest … First Gathering.” (Listen on YouTube)

I feel that ice is slowly melting,


Listen on Spotify. We update this playlist with each new newsletter.

“Spring Forward” track list
Track 1: Waxahatchee, “Lilacs” (2020)
Track 2: Hurray for the Riff Raff, “Rhododendron” (2022)
Track 3: Troye Sivan, “Bloom” (2018)
Track 4: Beach House, “Lazuli” (2012)
Track 5: Jamila Woods, “Sula (Paperback)” (2020)
Track 6: The Mountain Goats, “Onions” (2000)
Track 7: Caroline Polachek, “Smoke” (2023)
Track 8: Nina Simone, “Here Comes the Sun” (1971)
Track 9: Dolly Parton, “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” (1977)

Last week, we asked readers about the songs that explain them. More than 500 of you wrote in. Thanks to everyone who shared their stories.

I’ve always thought of it as my personal theme song in a way … it’s a tribute to a woman committed to being her unique self in the world. When I think about the things I am most proud of in my life, it’s the fact that somehow I did not let the world, society, Groupthink or even my culture of origin diminish my quiet determination to live my truth as best as my circumstances would allow. — Idara E. Bassey, Atlanta (Listen on YouTube)

Or perhaps the whole album of “Puberty 2.” I’m 18 years old so I feel as though I am experiencing my own second puberty, not one of first periods and training bras but one of questioning my place in the world, having new experiences, first relationships etc. For me, Dan the Dancer encapsulates my fear and questioning of the future and my life through this metaphor of hanging onto a cliff, while connecting to this experience of new relationships and letting yourself be vulnerable with those around you. — Natalie, Singapore (Listen on YouTube)

In high school, I boarded the bus every morning in my rural Louisiana hometown wearing thick black eyeliner and a scowl, always with some flavor of abrasive alternative music blasting in my cheap earbuds. This song carried me through many of those bus rides, away from my mostly conservative, evangelical Christian peers who I couldn’t identify less with to a place where my frustrations could be heard and understood. I’m now a student at a law school where I feel immense pressure to pursue a corporate career and give up the idealism that has served as my enduring motivation. This song inspires me to look to the teenage riot that still persists within me, and remember what’s really worth fighting for. — Amanda Watson, Durham, N.C. (Listen on YouTube)

It encapsulates the world I want to see, coupled with the wistfulness that we’re not there yet. I love the way the song starts with barely any instrumental accompaniment, just Simone’s piano and a gentle drumbeat (or maybe finger snaps?) and then builds and builds until it’s speaking to the whole world. I’ve been some kind of activist most of my life (I’m now 55), and it’s easy to be deeply discouraged by the political and ecological present we’re in and lose hope for what the future might be. This song (re-)energizes me: Nina was singing at a moment when civil rights were a legal reality but mostly a aspiration for those living with the daily indignities and violence of racism, so if she can imagine a better world, so can I. — Sarah Chinn, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Listen on YouTube)

I discovered this in the mid-80s at a time when I was a closeted gay teenager, longing for some sort of freedom. This ethereal piece of almost-ambience defies easy categorization. It simply builds, like a cloudy nebula descending from space, more and more sounds playing off one another until it envelopes you and reascends, taking you with it. If felt like an escape into another reality — like a peaceful transition to an open world. I’d play it on repeat with headphones to keep spiraling darkness at bay. It worked. It helped me survive. — George B. Singer, Long Beach, Calif. (Listen on YouTube)

I wrote this 40 years ago, and it’s probably my best-known song. It’s partially about me and my own life, but it has spoken to other desperate, depressed people, helping defuse some of their emotional distress with a little misplaced humor. Sometimes. People still react to it — this past summer, at the request of the hostess, I played the song with my dB’s rhythm section bandmates at a soundcheck for a book release party in Chapel Hill. An early attendee had a visceral meltdown over the words to the song, begging us not to play it again. So we didn’t. — Peter Holsapple, Durham, N.C. (Listen on YouTube)

Source: Music -


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