This post was originally published on March 30, 2016.
I’m just as powerless over music as I am alcohol. Growing up, we had a pretty nice hi-fi system and my parents owned a solid collection of vinyl records and 8-tracks. I spent many hours on the floor of our living room with corded stereophones clamped to my head. Much like later being alone in bars when I turned 21, I made pretty questionable choices when it came to music purchases. My first vinyl was Boxcar Willie’s greatest hits, my first cassette tape was “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “3-D,” and my first CD was Michael Bolton’s “Time, Love & Tenderness.” (The lesson here is that you can always turn your life around.)
Mix tapes, live shows, and playlists have always been important to me but, in early sobriety, I suddenly found myself clinging to music like a life preserver. I squeezed every penny out of my Spotify subscription, listened to old CDs I’d burned and, because my sponsor said hobbies are super important, unleashed my inner hipster and bought a record player. Getting sober prior to AA meetings, I zeroed in on lyrics and desperately mined them for meaning, even when there wasn’t any meaning to find. The following songs comforted me during a disorienting time in my life—when I first admitted I was powerless and that my life had become unmanageable—and truly helped me understand that I wasn’t making this admission alone.
This track was like the friend in recovery I didn’t have yet, assuring me that “we all spend a little while going down the rabbit hole.” It caught me the first week I put down the bottle. I honestly cried hearing this. When lead singer James Mercer says, “I’ve been done the very road you’re walking now/It doesn’t have to be so dark and lonesome/It takes a while but we can figure this thing out/And turn it back around,” I believed him. The title is darkly playful, but spot-on. It’s “only life,” but it’s time to start taking seriously what I hadn’t been for 36 years before.
While it’s a touchstone for the Vietnam era, this song is also a perfect allegory for every recovering alcoholic who has just a few hours put together and wants to break the cycle. The “People tell me there ain’t no use in tryin’” lyric recalls every naysayer I encountered who said I’d never achieve real sobriety. I’ve honestly found the “better life” they were yearning for in this song.
Its first ominous moments echoed exactly how I felt in my first week of sobriety: alone with the threat of collapse at any given second. Without warning, “the sky was going to break” and all of my sobriety would vanish. I firmly believe this song is full of hidden depths, insisting that taking the First Step gives us strength to “never fall away” like everyone else.
Sharon Van Etten’s plaintive voice could very well have been mine in my first weeks of sobriety, saying precisely what I couldn’t say. Everyone was tired of my same song and dance, even though I knew, this time, things were different. All I wanted to tell everyone was that I finally didn’t want to let them down. I’d burned, misled and hurt so many people that this anthem rattled around in my head for a month.
“I know I made the same mistakes,” Mr. Little Jeans’ Monica Birkenes endearingly says at the opening of this airy, bouncing ode to the pink cloud. I like to think she’s feeling emotions for the first time in recent memory. In sobriety, she feels like she’s dreaming and she wants to sleep “for a thousand years.” I know that feeling all too well. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop in sobriety—and it hasn’t. I still feel I’m dreaming, too.
Self-pity at its finest. It even opens with a violin. This track from Travis has always been on one playlist or another of mine over the years. This time, in sobriety, it carried a different meaning. Bemoaning the blue sky, lying when he was 17 and avoiding proverbial lightning, this track makes me feel he gets the misery of having to face reality after so many years of doing the wrong thing. At the very end, he cuts himself off mid-sentence, as if he finally discovers that self-pity isn’t the way out.
While the protagonist of Ben Folds’s track climbs a tree high on acid and discovers spirituality, the same narrative arc is true of my sobriety. After my bottom and all my friends went home, I looked around, and I was not the same after that, to paraphrase Folds. I listen to this song now and get the chills, thinking of how I “took the word and made it heard,” not of Jesus, but of sobriety. I simply wasn’t the same.
This song turns a 1950s atomic bomb instruction into how to survive personal challenges. “Everybody’s been through their own hell,” Phillips contends. He’s wisest in saying “There’s nothing too special about getting hurt” but “getting over it—that takes the work.” It also has the most blunt meaning of all the songs on this list: don’t duck and cover, don’t run and hide, and everything probably won’t turn out the way you want it to. Things will turn out the way they’re supposed to.
I was terrified of not having an identity when I quit drinking and in taking the First Step, I had no goddamn idea what to expect. The lyrics are eerily close to my own inner thoughts, dizzy from my first AA meetings and going to parties where I didn’t drink: “I’m so confused. Am I a normal person?” The constant self-questioning hit close to home. I had no emotional barometer, but this song helped me feel not alone.
In my mind, this FM staple from 1983 is something darker and trickier. Replace the “you” in the song with alcohol and you have the darkest Phil Collins song ever. At least, that’s what I did in early sobriety. Collins spends the entirety of “That’s All” reconciling that everything he’s believed to be true is wrong because of alcoholism—an exhausting treadmill that can only be stopped by admitting powerlessness and getting sober.
This shambling song is the most positive one of the bunch, teeming with hope and endless possibility. It takes the terrifying first moments of giving way to something larger than yourself—your next 24 hours of sobriety, perhaps—and asks very simple questions like “Will we still be here?” To The Kinks, the very idea of sobriety becomes as fantastical as sci-fi: “Maybe we’ll be on a spaceship somewhere.”
The most heartbreaking song on this list by miles. Chanteuse Sarah McLachlan pleads with a God she’s not even quite sure is there to take care of her suffering companion. The ailment’s not clear, but that’s not the point of the track: it’s that there’s still beauty to be found in asking for help. I like to think that it’s never too late for any of us to take the First Step, no matter how far gone we are, and this song helps me see that.
13) “Hurricane,” MS MR
A song about revealing yourself and your innermost secrets to another person are a dime a dozen, but this one is equal parts haunting and broken, especially when the singer confesses, “I never saw what you saw in me.” It really crushes me. I never see what other people see in me, either. So when she says “Welcome to the inner workings of my mind/So dark and foul I can’t disguise” and how she says she’s “afraid of the darkness in my heart,” I know her feelings and fears all too well. These are the exact feelings I had when I started working the steps in the program. Worse yet, I was afraid of what sobriety would reveal about me.
Almost a lullaby but not quite, John Maus’s baritone confessional reminds me of my aimless walks around a moonlit neighborhood in my first weeks of sobriety, dodging the siren calls of the bars around me. “It’s just you and me tonight, everyone else is asleep,” is something I’m 99% sure I thought to myself as I rounded the block. It’s how I first practiced getting honest with myself: just me, with the moon bearing witness.
No one is going accuse Shearwater of being simple with their imagery. A twisty, gnarled song from their newest album, the titular “backchannels” are the little voices in your head that conspire against you. After spending so long in the grip of alcoholism, there’s still a “stubborn light [that]pools in your heart” and shows that there’s still good within the darkness.