Valentine’s Day is hardly a week away. Most of the ephemera associated with Valentine’s Day—confectionary chocolates, chalk-like candy hearts and pink and red décor—expire, grow stale beyond edibility or simply return to basement obscurity for the rest of the year. Some things, however, last much, much longer and, though they are well-suited for a holiday that celebrates romance, can be enjoyed anytime of the year without chipped teeth, food poisoning or speculations by friends and family over your mental and emotional health.
Few albums capture the pace and air of a waxing romance quite like Beach House do in their 2008 sophomore release Devotion. From the first track, “Wedding Bell,” to the last track “Home Again,” Beach House manages to span the spectrum of romance, from the ethereal sun-dazed heights that exist outside time to the moments of want and wait that creep slower than a minute-hand in idle revolution. Not all of the tracks are idyllic; in fact, some tracks, like “Heart of Chambers,” address romantic misunderstanding, detachment and forgiveness with an earnestness seldom seen in this century. Yet, points where the album dips in tone and subject are balanced out by the places where it ascends, even if those places have a vulnerable innocence to them. All in all, what makes Devotion succeed so perfectly as a romance album is what it communicates so thoroughly: Romance isn’t simply about the sweet, or the bittersweet; rather, it is about sweetness despite bitterness and finding a way to balance fantasy with disappointment. That’s a heavy Valentine’s message to be certain, but one that rings true like a wedding bell.
Feels offers none of the background qualities that are most closely associated with the ephemera of early romances, the jokes, the awkwardly endearing conversations, the failed homemade meals and movies and concerts largely spent judging the timing or appropriateness of holding hands. Rather, Feels articulates them; perfectly, actually. Whether it’s the giddiness and gushing positivity of early love in tracks like “Purple Bottle” and “Grass,” or the slow moments of perfect intimacy that require neither conversation nor event in “Bees” and “Flesh Canoe,” Animal Collective manage to capture and channel the energy and sentiment of these moments without abstraction and re-present them in aural technicolor.
Romances have been fodder for opera and theatre since opera and theatre began. Few artists give romance as many operatic and theatric touches outside of the confines of operahouses and theatres quite like M83 in his 2005 release Before the Dawn Heals Us. Invoking against-all-odds fatalism in tracks “Don’t Save Us from the Flames,” “Lower Your Eyelids to Die with the Sun and “In the Cold I’m Standing” (which may be a subtle nod to James Joyce’s short story “The Dead”) and hyperbolic longing and symphonic reverie in “Asterisk,” “Safe” and “Can’t Stop,” M83 crafts both a tome for and tribute to romance at its most operaticand theatrical, without resorting to opera and theatre.
Romance albums need not be heavy in tone, swooning in sound or maudlin in lyrics to be successful. In fact, curiously-named Australian band Architecture in Helsinki prove this point in Fingers Crossed, delivering quiet, contemplative lyrics with broad but modest musical arrangements that still manage to steer plenty clear of the well-trodden territory of singer/songwriters and troubadours. From musical love letters like “Where You’ve Been Hiding” and “Scissor Paper Rock” to pleas for a world to be as peaceful and quiet as a melodic young romance in “City Calm Down” and “Like a Call,” Architecture in Helsinki invokes elements of romance that largely fall by the wayside in musical interpretations and expressions: fears over a life complicated by romance, questions of interdependence and timing and, above all, a romance whose pace doesn’t fit the one-size-fits-all standards perpetuated by media. While the meekness of the album might weigh it down into gloomier territory, upbeat tracks like “The Owls Go” and “Kindling” calibrate the mood with the positive romance album standard.
Classics like Barry White’s Just another Way to Say I Love You and The Message is Love are commonplace albums (over)used for setting the mood for a romantic occasion. In the same tradition of soulful ambience, but without the played-to-the-point-of-cliched lyrics, comes Broken Social Scene’s Feel Good Lost. True to its title, the album meanders from track to track without ever becoming an open distraction with musical arrangements that achieve and maintain a thoughtful romantic presence without the use of lyrics that tend to obfuscate, as opposed to stimulate, conversation. Though it could succeed in countless settings, Feel Good Lost beckons to be placed beside candlelight and red wine.
Make no mistake, My Bloody Valentines’ masterstroke album, Loveless, is, in fact, a romance album. The title itself makes this thesis a questionable one, but, nevertheless, from start to finish, Loveless traces the many recesses of romances with oceans of guitar loops that so perfectly encapsulate the intensity and insularity of romance while the feedback captures its reciprocity. Though Loveless certainly doesn’t lend itself to diamond commercials or romantic-comedy soundtracks as easily as, say, Barry Manilow, it still fits perfectly, albeit forcedly, into the highest ranks of romance albums.
Former Spacemen 3 member Jason Pierce might have some serious baggage, but here, in Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space, his jade armor is sanded down to reveal an earnest bleeding heart, hopeless romanticism that few albums deliver. From the title track to the album’s tonal closer, “Cool Waves,” Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space captures the yearning, vulnerability, intimacy and trust that spark, fan and maintain the flames of romance. Though Spiritualized (Jason Pierce) airs some dirty laundry in places, no romance—and by extension, romance album—comes without strings attached: you have to give something up, even if it is your deepest, darkest secrets, to receive something in return.
Some albums provide an atmosphere for romance; others provide a home for it. Vashti Bunyan’s seminal Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind falls firmly into the latter category. Most of the albums listed were released in the last 2 decades, in eras where distance and intimacy were both simplified and complicated by advances in technology. Nevertheless, this album remains a testament to what a romance can and, perhaps should, and, moreover, remains a testament to a timeless ingredient to romance: intimacy free of mediation; no phones, no Facebook, no text messages or IMs, just two people together. Perhaps the most poignantly romantic moment in the album, and in romance albums in general, comes in “Coldest Night of the Year,” where Vashti shares a duet with Twice As Much and, incidentally, manages to sum up Valentine’s Day as well: a cold winter night where lovers come together and find warmth.
Few romance albums are heavy on percussion without, shudder, moving into the territory of Valentine’s Day commercials and twee romantic-comedy soundtracks. With Caribou’s Andorra, however, you get dance-ability and pop sensibility without the sacrifice of authenticity or sincerity. Tracks like “After Hours” and “Melody Day” are capable pop anchors on any romantic mixtape, while “She’s the One” and “Niobe” offer a depth rare even to songs, let alone pop songs, about ostensibly deep feelings. Few artists or albums are able to filter the slow-paced ingredients that make up most romance albums through a pop vernacular, or do it as well as perfectly as Caribou does in Andorra.
The title of this album might infuriate many who have found love to be anything but simple, yet, nevertheless, Akron/Family manages to articulate oh, so perfectly how the sentiments of a healthy romance can, and tend to be, projected onto everyone and everything as well. Romance, as typified by Valentine’s Day’s wintry date, can make everything seem colorful and beautiful despite the gray skies, blackened snow, leafless trees and browned lawns of wintertime. Love might not be easy, but it is simple.