St Andrews is busy. Most of the time, this is great. It pushes students to make the most of their time here. But, sometimes, busyness triggers overwhelming stress. When that happens, St Andrews students walk.
In my experience, the platonic form of the St Andrews walk requires a solid soundtrack. Using playlists, podcasts, or standalone songs may work for some walks on St Andrews’ famous sandy beaches–but I recommend a slightly different practice. Listen to an album in its entirety. We are in the age of Spotify and playlists for good reason: playlists are fun to make, listen to, and explore. Most people don’t have the interest, or the patience, to sit with a whole album. This inability makes sense. Often, listening to an album can prove counterproductive. It breaks up the rhythm, mood, and consistent energy we enjoy when dancing or working out.
But walking music has a different purpose: therapeutic contemplation. Albums are curated, entirely engineered pieces of art. They tell stories, and these stories provoke thought.
So the question remains: which album, and why? Jason Isbell’s 2013 Americana album ‘Southeastern’ offers emotional prompts, some dark and some light, suitable for the contemplative solitude of a long walk. From Greenhill, Alabama, Isbell is widely considered among music artists and critics as one of the best living songwriters. In an interview for The New York Times, David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, and Nash described Isbell’s writing as akin to that of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Paul Simon.
First released in 2013 and set at roughly 47 minutes (the perfect amount of time for a walk), ‘Southeastern’ has twelve tracks, starting with Isbell’s most famous solo song ‘Cover Me Up’. Famously covered by American country artist Morgan Wallen, this track starts off the album and your walk with a sentimental feel, as Isbell writes a love song to his wife, fellow musician Amanda Shires, who helped him out of alcoholism and drug addiction. One tone-setting line gets a student thinking about our temporary home: ‘Home was a dream, one I’d never seen, till you came along.’ Although carrying a slower, sad melody, ‘Cover Me Up’ stirs up nostalgia well-suited for walking down West Sands.
Walking to the next track of note on the album, ‘Traveling Alone’ makes the metaphor literal as we continue our solo walk about St Andrews. This song, however, has a warmer message to it, as the narrator no longer finds excitement in seeing the world through just his eyes and says to his love interest: ‘I’ve grown tired of traveling alone, won’t you ride with me?’ This song allows listeners to think of those people they are grateful for or consider a comforting companion.
The next track of note, ‘Elephant’, is one of my favorite Isbell songs and one of the saddest on the album. The title refers to the ‘elephant in the room,’ the illness of the narrator’s love interest. With its darker themes, the song has some hard-hitting lines and provokes reflection for a walker on the parts of our lives we try to avoid discussing. Isbell writes, from the perspective of the couple in the story: ‘We drink our drinks and laugh out loud and bitch about the weekend crowd and try to ignore the elephant somehow.’
Later on the album, Isbell gives listeners more ‘sweet’ acoustics with ‘Different Days’, a song of self-reflection as the narrator describes his distance from and shame regarding his former bad lifestyle choices. Isbell’s lyrics can resonate with listeners from all sorts of backgrounds: ‘My daddy told me, and I believe he told me true, that the right thing’s always the hardest thing to do.’ I think this song is often overlooked. When walking alone, in a deep state of thought, it allows you to follow the story of this man, while looking back on your own growth. People often shy from recognising their own personal progress. ‘Different Days’ pushes walkers to do just the opposite, placing a large premium on mental and emotional growth.
On the surface, the last track on the album ‘Relatively Easy’ offers a sentiment I consider vital to students at St Andrews. Isbell writes of other people’s serious hardships and how listeners should recognise the relative ease of our own lives. From afar, this sentiment can be condescending; we all struggle in legitimate ways. However, it can also be heard positively. Isbell writes: ‘Here with you there’s always something to look forward to, my angry / lonely heart beats relatively easy.’ The album, and your West Sands walk, ends on Isbell’s final thought: people can transform anger and loneliness into gratitude, connecting with people who might not make problems disappear, but make the swallowing of grief and sorrow just that bit easier.
I first listened to Jason Isbell when my brother took me to one of his concerts in New Haven, Connecticut, sometime in October of 2016. I’m not sure I listened to any of the lyrics or paid much attention to the instrumentals. I’m also pretty sure I fell asleep. I do remember, however, how intently people listened. Even at 15 years old, it was clear to me–Isbell has a way of making thoughts stir. I left the concert curious. So I tasked myself then with what I suggest to students here: some walking time with ‘Southeastern.’
You can find this playlist amongst others over on The Saint’s Spotify account: