There is a moment—a threshold that can’t be neatly mapped—when an interest becomes an attachment. Here’s how it goes. At first you appreciate an object, you enjoy it and you can say why: a sensation, a colour, a texture, a run of words, some combination of these. Then, suddenly, you’re in its thrall. It’s as if someone had rotated the object slightly, allowing you to approach it from a new angle. The assemblage of pieces that once seemed notable but ordinary now rings at a frequency that resonates with your soul. You can’t quite account for what caused the difference, you can’t exactly piece out what constitutes the transformation from like to love, but the love is unambiguous. I imagine it resembles a religious conversion in that before things were one way, now they are another, and you hold a new conviction of which you can’t be disabused.
My most recent experience with this phenomenon, which, as of writing, is ongoing, has been a belated and odd one. About two weeks ago, for reasons I don’t recall, I returned to Tame Impala’s Currents, a 2015 album that I quite liked on release, but that didn’t stay with me in any meaningful sense. However, on hearing it again I found it mesmeric, increasingly so with each listen. In 2019, Currents is an unremarkable work to be enthralled by. The Perth band is enormously popular (they’re headlining Coachella this year) and the album is critically acclaimed. I’m not unique in my attachment, nor does this music need advocacy. If anything, what’s notable about this kind of attachment is that it is routine. So what I want to think about here is not the nature of the object but the nature of the attachment.
There’s a line on Currents that I take to be the album’s emotional core: On ‘Yes I’m Changing,’ a song poetic in its unsubtlety, Kevin Parker gently sings, alongside a confident, languid bass line, ‘They say people never change but that’s bullshit. They do,’ the Australian accent recognisable in its assured pragmatism. A friend of mine, a philosopher, has told me that T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets says more about the nature of time than any philosophy on the subject ever could. I feel similarly about this moment on Currents. If I merely liked the song, the line might be persuasive or memorable, but because I’m overwhelmed by the song, I believe it. I know that Parker’s claim is true in the way I know the sun is hot. No argument could dissuade me.
I’ll not spend too much time on the songs themselves. I don’t have the vocabulary to do them justice, to think through them in terms of composition or recording, but I will say that there are numerous points on numerous songs that, in my current phase of listening, bring the world to a halt. The one described above, for example, or the moment on ‘Eventually’ when Parker admits that ‘I know I always said that I could never hurt you/Well this is the very, very last time I’m ever going to,’ punctuated by a majestically straightforward six note riff, or the sweetly Australian: ‘She was holding hands with Trevor/Not the greatest feeling ever’ on ‘The Less I Know The Better,’ sung as if Parker is falling away from you, the vowels stretched longingly, the guitar line bouncing ironically. But, as I say, these fragments do not satisfactorily explain the force of my attachment. No evidence could. Cataloguing these qualities and presenting them to my 2015 self would not have been enough to transform my listening experience. However, once the threshold is crossed, I notice my process of reasoning inverting. Where I first looked to the object, I now look to the feeling. The fervour of belief becomes self-fulfilling: the thing must be beautiful because I feel it to be so.
It’s not hyperbole to say that this precise feeling, which emerges only in response to art, makes it self-evident that life is worth living. It’s comparable to the touch of a loved one or the hard-earned view of spectacular, unspoilt landscape or a friendly interaction with a wild animal. I cannot describe it fully (its indescribability being one of its defining features), but I can say that it’s characterised by a seamless transition from an observable mental process to an ecstatic physical sensation that bleeds into everything in my sensory field. It is a drug. (Several stories by Donald Barthelme and Lydia Davis also produce this experience in me, as do the poems ‘Preparation’ by Czesław Miłosz and ‘This Living Hand’ by Keats, but it is rarer with the written word, which I find harder than music to sink into.) I concede that I might sound unhinged here, but that is surely an inevitable product of an emotional experience which overthrows rationality.
Whenever I achieve this degree of fixation I’m driven to fill in the background: how was this made? What have others written about it? Do they share my view, would they dismiss it? When the fixation is music, this means seeking out live performances on YouTube, interviews with the artist/s, and reading all the reviews and analyses available. Art and artist are not and have never been separable (part of art’s appeal, inescapably, is that someone made it, and that the art shapes a fantasy of who this maker might be), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the audience is required to narrow the conceptual gap between their fantasy of its creator and the actual person by fleshing out the details of their life and motivations (as if such an achievement would allow us to better appreciate the art rather than simply allowing us to appreciate it differently). Yet I frequently feel that I must. And it seems, in following this urge, that I’m daring myself to be disappointed. Sometimes new discoveries can mean returning to the loved object sensitive to fresh kinds of beauty, but it can also mean having it irretrievably damaged.
My desire to learn more about Currents led me to a number of interviews with Parker in which he, thank God, seemed charming and kind, and also a Pitchfork profile that described the front man as, astonishingly, having written, recorded, produced, and mixed the album solo in his home studio, a beachside shack in Perth. But here, standing back from my desires, I can see the risks, the point at which this unmoored passion begins to provide the gratification of dogma. I am drawn to a particular myth of genius: the lone artist, withdrawing from society, and channelling some ineffable inspiration which they forge into an expression of their pure vision. What I’m pursuing is the satisfaction of being commended by my own deep appreciation. (Part of the reason authors become canonised is that such deification, in turn, elevates the imagined genius of the audience by allowing their pleasure to signal sophistication.) This requires maintaining the cognitive dissonance of wishing to loudly evangelise for an artwork, while harbouring the certainty that I am its only authentic audience, the only one who really gets it, the only one who, in fact, shares in its radiance. I wonder whether remaining in this heightened relation for too long means that the infatuation with the art inexorably becomes an infatuation with the self.
I’ve been listening to Currents as I write this essay and can feel its brightness fading. I continue to love it and consider it a masterpiece (if that word remains useful) but aspects of the album fail to trigger the physical responses that they did just a few days ago. I’ve reached the peak and I’m descending. I’ve been through this comedown before. Following the period of captivation, the songs will be consigned to my mental archive. Returning to them will summon memories of the intense attachment, though the intensity itself will not be recreated. But there will, of course, be new objects and new attachments.
It’s impossible to think about the unassailable convictions that these artistic attachments temporarily produce without wondering about my other beliefs and their foundations. Can they really be accounted for, or do I just invent explanations to chase down my feelings, to prop them up? (By pursuing a career in academia, it could be said that I’m professionalising these explanations.) Wittgenstein wrote that ‘If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: “This is simply what I do.”’ This seems, eventually, to be true of all our convictions. When we’ve exhausted the articulable we’re left with the strength of our love, virtuous or otherwise.
Dan Dixon is a writer and academic living in Sydney. His work has been published in Overland, The Guardian, and Australian Book Review.