Andy Warhol used to change his perfume every quarter. "If I’ve been wearing one perfume for three months," he wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again. "I force myself to give it up, even if I still feel like wearing it, so whenever I smell it again it will always remind me of those three months. I never go back to wearing it again; it becomes part of my permanent smell collection." It's a form of time-travel. You brush past a person on the subway who uses the same shampoo as your ex; you walk into a freshly painted room and remember the week a couple of decades ago when the renovators came to your apartment; you walk past a restaurant that's cooking bread and lamb in the same combination of spices your grandmother used to use. Warhol was just trying to control what happens naturally, to segment and then organize the electric currents that shoot through our brains every time we sniff the familiar.
A friend of mine used to do this with music. He'd start a new playlist every month, adding in whatever he'd fallen in love with over that four-week span, then seal it up on iTunes like a digital time capsule. It was borne out of the same instinct. One night, home alone, he might want to visit the past. In that case, he can open up "August 2014," and, for a few minutes, see the same snapshots flashing up in his head like rapid-fire projector slides. He might remember where exactly on the street he was that one day when he walked to work and the rain started hammering down; he might briefly access the same sense of wonder or dejection or impending doom that he felt at a show, years back.
I've always been interested in the idea, though I've never been organized or disciplined enough to pull it off, and writing about music for a living means I can't be that precious about what I listen to. But, above all, I worry about the diminishing returns. Surely every time my friend pulls a song out of the capsule and exposes it to light, a little bit of its lustre fades. Surely every time Warhol smelled Goya Aqua Manda, the memory of those three months in 1964 started to corrode. You're stealing something from the past and exposing it to a new and unfriendly atmosphere. Everything rusts.
I've listened to Kacey Musgraves's Golden Hour every week this year. I've written about it a lot, and I've tried to avoid making it personal because criticism is a strange job. Using the first person can be a crutch sometimes. Why would a reader from, say, Atlanta care about the fact that I can't hear "Rainbow" without thinking about where I was the exact moment I first heard it? That I was walking through Downtown Manhattan, staring up at the World Trade Center? That I was wondering what I was doing with my life, thousands of miles away from one home and a few hundred feet from another? That the early-spring sun was bouncing off the glass and all but blinding me? If I met that hypothetical Atlantan at a bar and launched into some rhapsodic praise for Kacey Musgraves (it's a habit) would I lead with that moment? Would I mention it at all? Would I even tell my own mother?
I doubt it. But it's difficult to escape what we might broadly call "nostalgia." Kacey herself obsesses over time on Golden Hour, its speed and direction, maybe even the ability to stop it. "At this age, you increasingly notice how things once were a certain way, and now they are not that way, and there was nothing in particular that made everything different, just a subtle progression from one phase to the next," Kyle Kramer wrote three weeks ago in a brilliant essay about Musgraves, Willie Nelson, and the cosmos. "You realize that you have maybe experienced enough time to see a little better how time works. It's phases and stages. It's a slow burn."
I turned 28 at midnight, and I re-read that essay first thing this morning on my way back to London. I think Kyle's right—time and memory move in those "phases and stages"—but I'm not there yet. I can only think of one way to confront the passage of time: just stumble. Remember and forget. Travel through time in spirals of different sizes, occasionally jutting out at odd angles. You hear "When Doves Cry" and remember the time it came on the radio, seven years ago, with you sat in the passenger seat of a Prius, half-laughing while consoling your best friend's girlfriend because he'd just flown to Cuba and the song was too perfect. Or you end up on YouTube watching Fela Kuti's "Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am," and you're thrown back to another car, this one outside a dive bar, telling the person you loved that you wouldn't leave and get a drink until all eight minutes of the thing were through, and they smiled.
After that, maybe you spend a week in bed watching The Good Place or whatever, unable to pry yourself away from the sheets for anything other than the delivery guy. Or maybe you go to work. I mean, Jesus, some people get really into jogging. Things just keep happening, all the time, everywhere, and, no matter what you do, sooner or later you're part of it in one way or another. Someone dies or the weather changes or you move apartments. Or nothing seemingly consequential happens at all. And then you hear a song or brush past someone on the subway and you're thrown back into what was, you figured, still the present—except it's past now. And then you circle back round again.
There must be tens of millions of people in the world who will one day re-hear "Slow Burn" or "Golden Hour" or "Rainbow" and be thrown back into this year—or a tough-to-place segment of this year. In the meantime, this is a Christmas blog, and Kacey's A Very Kacey Christmas is one of the greatest Christmas albums of the past half-century. It ends with "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" a lilting song written by Frank Loesser in 1947 and reworked throughout the 20th Century. Kacey's version, with its crystalline yearning, is my favorite. As always, it's a shot in the dark:
Oh, but in case I stand one little chance
Here comes the jackpot question in advance
What are you doing New Year's
New Year's Eve?
Twelve days from now, we'll all go to New Year's Eve parties, hoping to turn those nights into memories and markers, cheap new beginnings. It won't work—at least not for most people. That's not how time works.
Alex Robert Ross is old on Twitter.