The Unfolding Line

A few of the thousands and thousands of music files on my computer have at one point or another become inexplicably corrupted. I don’t know how or why this happens. I discover it when I try to play them on my computer or my iPod and something goes horribly wrong; most often the device just stalls for a second and then proceeds to the next song, as if the one I meant to hear just never was.

Bill Callahan’s “Too Many Birds” is a song just so afflicted. For at least the past few months, every time I’ve tried to listen to it or have come to it on Callahan’s (unbelievably gorgeous, wonderful) album Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, it falters. The solution? I just find it—of course—somewhere on the internet.

Today my family left for a trip. When charging and preparing to pack my iPod, I realized that it wasn’t working. The wheel (clickwheel? trackpad? I don’t know what to call it) had frozen, and even though everything else was working, no number of reboots seemed to help. Luckily, I have a spare iPod from a few years ago—because So Much Privilege—which I dug out of my desk drawer. After a quick charge, it was ready to go, and I packed it away for the trip.

As I listened on the plane, “Too Many Birds” came up on shuffle. The version of the mp3 on this machine predated whatever disaster corrupted the newer file. The song came through without a pause, and I listened to it three times in a row.

It’s hard for me to overstate how much I love the song’s final verse:

If
If you
If you could
If you could only stop
If you could only stop your
If you could only stop your heart
If you could only stop your heartbeat
If you could only stop your heartbeat for
If you could only stop your heartbeat for one
If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heart
If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heartbeat

There’s a lot to love about this, but the most obviously striking thing, and for me the most deeply felt, is the way the line develops and unfolds. It’s a blossoming with new meaning at every stage. When the line reaches completion, it sheds light on the force of each moment that preceded it, but it doesn’t erase the potential each moment had independent of where it ended up going. And even the final line is an incomplete thought, a protasis yearning towards its apodosis. It’s this stretching, this yawning potential, that makes me listen over and over.

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