"In the City," LOCKS
“I think you’ll like this.” As someone for whom music sharing is a central driving love language, this is my mantra, a phrase that launched a thousand mixtapes. I’m only now coming to the awareness that I have no clue what it means.
A memory: the suburbs of Chicago, 1983, late summer, probably mid-afternoon no matter how badly the mental image wants to be in early evening. I’m hanging out on the porch with my neighbor Roy, listening to a radio aimed out of someone’s bedroom window, nothing much going on. A song comes on, new to me, with a chilled out, waist-high quasi-Jamaican synth groove that feels meant for a porch more interesting than mine. Roy immediately perks up. “You know this one?” he asks. “If I know you, I think you’ll like it.” This was my introduction to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long (All Night),” and as it happened, he was right—not a ride-or-die favorite or anything, but it felt right in that moment, with a flow that felt the way the unspooling summer felt. But I remember that moment today not because of Roy or summer or Lionel Richie, but because of that statement: someone knew my tastes well enough to make that call, at a time when I’m not sure I knew what my tastes were. I was deeply into the Beatles and ‘60s folk of my parents at the time, and Top 40 aware if not Top 40 inclined. What in that portfolio suggests a scrubbed-down Club Med version of an Afro-Caribbean party jam? It might have been a projection of his own feelings, an “I love this song so you probably will too” situation, but that’s not how he chose to present it. He aimed that shared moment directly at me, did it with confidence, pulled the trigger, and connected.
Music is a delicate machine designed to plug into the delicate machine that is our emotions. Whether or not it plugs in successfully hangs on so many factors, from history to context to the dreaded je ne sais quoi, that it almost edges into chaos theory. Think of the artist whose work you love across the board except for that one album, or the genre that you can’t stand until that one song slips past your defenses. By all reason it shouldn’t happen like that, but it does, and making that prediction for someone whose head you’re not privileged to live in is presumptuous folly, but we do anyway. A song pops up that reminds us of an ex, even though it didn’t exist back in the days we knew them. A friend asks for a recommendation, and we flip through the musical Rolodex in our brains until we find a card that looks like them, or at least like our image of them. It’s throwing spaghetti to see what sticks, which makes it remarkable that it sticks as often as it does. But then again, if music is an art that anchors the spiritual in our physical world, a tool for grappling with time and the things in life too big to see at once, then if we get close enough to someone to see their proverbial soul, then maybe we’re close enough to hear the rhythm and melody at the heart of it. It’s chaotic, yes, but maybe not so random.
A few years ago, I was IM-chatting with someone I hadn’t talked to in a while, and the inevitable “What have you been listening to?” inquiry came up. That’s usually an essay question on the midterm rather than a short-answer, so I reached for something easy: Spotify had just issued my personal “Top Songs of 2018” playlist, and “In the City” by the London urban folk collective LOCKS was firmly in the #1 slot. As it happens, it would later turn up in my top 30 for 2019, and then in my top 10 for 2020, the only song to hang around in heavy rotation for that long. I sent her a link, and she replied, “Yeah, if I’d heard this, I’d have thought of you.” Again, it was rather on the nose: this thing is so firmly planted in my wheelhouse it might as well be wearing a captain’s hat. But why, exactly? Why this song and not that one? The genre and the surface specs match other songs I adore—minor key, ramshackle rhythm line, graveyard-stomp groove with traditional folk on its sleeve but a whisper of punk in its boots—but why is this the one to make my top 30 three years in a row and not, say, something by the Builders and the Butchers that fits the same bill? And why do those particulars find their way under my skin in the first place?
There’s a meme out there that goes something like “[name of hot celebrity doing appealing thing] is my sexual orientation,” and there’s a moment during “In the City” that I’m pretty sure is mine. It comes in the chorus, when LOCKS stacks two musical hooks end to end, either of which could convince me to dance while the combination of the two makes it impossible to stop. First the band drops out entirely except for the vocals and the oak barrel thunder of the percussion, shaking the floor with a shuffle that you never hear in dance music because dance bands can’t afford it. Then after a deep breath and a pause for dramatic effect, they punch you with a fiddle drop like a night on the town; if anyone wanted to seduce me, they’d just need to distill that fiddle part into perfume and daub it behind their ears. The chorus is why this song never left my heavy rotation. I cannot count the number of delays at red lights I’ve spent with the windows down, the volume up, and me car-moshing behind the wheel like I’d forgotten mortality altogether.
But that’s the What, not the Why. Picking apart music is squinty but doable; doing the same to your own brain is uncomfortable under the best of circumstances. But this, it turns out, is why the sentiment of “I think you’ll like this” exists, because the people who love us might not be able to see every inch of our musical tastes, but they know what we need and want out of this breathing world. This is why, when I played “In the City” for my wife Andrea as I prepared to write about it and mentioned the central “why this?” question, she didn’t hesitate.
“I know the reason,” she said. “It gives you permission.”
I want to share a secret: my love for music is public, but the place where music overlaps my space in the Venn diagram isn’t. The way I consume and process and respond to music when I’m by myself isn’t the same as when I’m with others. If there are eyes on me, my appreciation is measured, rationalized, reduced to “Hey, this is great!” and not much more. It’s not until I’m alone that body and voice get involved, when I can give myself over to joy and serenity and inspiration and catharsis and rapture and communion as they come. This means I’m holding back so much of the time, and while I love the music regardless it feels like I’m loving it with only half my body, if only for the sake of decorum. That’s the permission she was talking about—it’s not just that I don’t have to hold back when “In the City” is playing, it’s that I can’t. That beat, that dragonfly of a melody, that disconnect between the foreboding of the lyrics and the bacchanalia of the music, all light up synapses of my brain that don’t often get to talk to each other, and that’s when the red light dancing begins, the folks in neighboring cars be damned. That release is as close to a meeting with God as I’ll find on a Wednesday afternoon commute, and my ability to grasp it in defiance of whatever keeps me tamped down is a gift. And when I’m presented such gifts, the best I can do, now and always, is to share them.
So hi. Let me introduce you to a song. It’s by LOCKS, and it’s called “In the City”. I might not know you, but I think you’ll like it all the same.
Title: In the City
Album: Skeletal Blues