I was never one to consider meditation. Not only can I not get my legs into the requisite pretzel, but the process always seemed rarefied to the point of comedic exaggeration. People finding transcendence in ohms and ahs and incense sticks. There seemed to me a very drink-the-kool-aid aspect to the whole business.
And that’s how I probably would have kept on if not for Sleep Cycle, the first and only solo album from Animal Collective guitarist Deakin.
It would be hugely presumptuous of me to say that Sleep Cycle is an album about meditation. I don’t believe that to be true, necessarily. Or, at least, it is not about what I had originally believed to be meditation. Instead, this is an album that embodies the elements of meditation that I want to take with me. It is an album that describes a meditative process (call it what you will) in extremely human terms. It describes a painful, occasionally frightening process. This is not an album about turning off your mind, it is an album about amplifying your thoughts until you can see their every aspect so that you can better understand what they mean and where they come from. And then, when you have come to some sort of understanding, when you can fully realize the beginning, middle, and end of these thoughts, that’s when you can let them go. And that’s exactly what one of the lessons is here: growth through the letting go of the old self.
This is all illustrated by my favorite song on the album, “Just Am”. This song exemplifies what I so love about Sleep Cycle; it expresses ideas about self-improvement, self-examination, and thoughtfulness in terms that feel brotherly. They come across not as the words in a self-help book but as the advice of a true friend who wants to share things that have actually helped them in life. These words come from a troubled mind, or one that has been troubled. They are not pristine or condescending or scholarly. They ring absolutely true, and they trigger that scintillating sensation of having a private thought expressed fully and intimately by someone you’ve never met. A few examples:
“But I recall I called you hate,
Repeated words get locked and phased,
And these words attach,
Some words like stone,
You find with time you build more than sow,
You build a house,
You build what you know
I wonder if that’s home”
It’s that last line, the repeated “I wonder if that’s home,” that I usually fixate on. It’s a very personal, complex thought delivered perfectly. I’m someone who tends to over-analyze things, where every positive and negative decision becomes a road map of imagined travels and where every indecision becomes a source of stress and feelings of powerlessness. I feel trapped in my own mind sometimes, trapped in cyclical thought processes. The little seed of doubt in the last line resonates incredibly deeply with me.
But this album is not a textbook. It is an album about living and figuring things out. That’s where “Footy” comes in. This song is the epiphany at the core of an album made of epiphanies.
“All my life I have traveled in needs,
Now I’ve found what I crave,
You’ve got to be brave,
I know it’s hard when you feel I’m sleeping,
Friend in the rain I’m awake,
And then the album shakes.
“No run for cover,
He’s shaking it”
The percussion thrashes and the album’s barometric pressure drops precipitously. And that’s part of the lesson of this album, that meditation can look like tearing things apart. It can look like fireworks or shovels on concrete or power chords. Meditation is an intense, disruptive process, it isn’t an empty state. It is growth, and growth can be a violent and unpredictable thing, and I love that. I love “Footy”. I love this album.
These threads all weave together on the final song, “Good House”. You know the worry, about building a house for yourself that you don’t like and becoming stuck there? How the house could be anything, your body, your state of mind, your situation? This song is the point where those worries have been worked through and accepted. This is a song about answers, advice, reason. True growth, not “failed ageing” (what a fantastic term).
“Spent my time fearing age
And retreating from answers to questions I’d asked”
“Hold on, keep up,
I’ll show you inside.
In this good house for its light,
I spend all my time”
“When you feel tired,
There’s more left inside.
If you cry in mourning, revive”
I did cry, Deakin, you bastard. These are words everyone needs to hear from time to time. I didn’t really realize I needed to until I heard them.
“Breathe in without,
Breathe out, you’re alright”
It’s a song about finding a center, and about making that center somewhere you want to be. Of all the things meditation could be, that’s the one I would want. I would want to take all these thoughts and turn them into something I can stand on. Something to live in.
And I think in a way, I did. I listened to this album almost every night last spring, taking my parents’ dog Nina for a walk around the neighborhood. I took the same route every night. The album soundtracked my meditation. The soft strum of “Golden Chords” whisked me out the door. The naturalistic “Seed Song” blended into the hum of 3rd shift forklifts that rattled through the factory I passed during that exact moment every night. Nina probably peed on stuff during “Shadow Mine” on the regular.
The album became a door to meditation but also a constant tool to aid me in the actual process of breaking down my thoughts. Dog walking is something that lends itself well to meditation. You form a pace, a breathing cycle. Your mind is free to wander and focus. A line in one of these songs might suddenly take on new meaning or trigger a new perspective as it synced with my thoughts on any given night. I can definitively say that the whole experience of that spring, those walks, changed me for the better as a person and as a thinker, and that’s something I can say about very very few albums. When I return to this album, it still elicits those same ideas, those same emotions. It recreates that process in 40 minutes time. That’s an incredibly valuable thing to have at the ready.