Matthew Fiander’s novel Ringing in Your Ears is an arresting debut, a novel where music is as informative as the dialogue.
Music is all over Ringing in Your Ears. Blue Cleary, the narrator, is always buried in her headphones or sifting through the tapes Christine – her sister, lost and then gone forever — left behind. Blue digs into the music to find out who Christine was and what happened to her. But, at least I hope, there’s also music in the book’s rhythms and language. It takes place in the ‘90s, Blue and Christine are steeped in the era’s alt-rock, so I thought a lot about loud-quiet-loud from scene to scene and sentence to sentence.
Some of these songs come directly from the book, some inspired its writing, and most are songs I hope an older Blue would track down.
Taillights Fade – Buffalo Tom
The novel’s title comes from this song, and yes it starts with an address to a sister. But for Blue, I imagine it’s more than that. The lyrics move from the intimacy of “sister can you hear me now?” to the isolated overreaching of “I read a thing about this girl”. The narrator laments not just the past but also some alternative future fading while they stand bathed in those dimming red lights. It’s a potent mix of guilt, regret, empathy, and atmosphere that brings you back to the place you first heard it every time it plays.
Alive – Pearl Jam
“Alive” has all the howling and riffs and solos that define Ten, but the story it tells, and Vedder’s delivery, is surprisingly fragile. It considers many things Blue can’t figure out, like how unearthed truths can change us. The chorus sounds so resilient – “I’m still alive!” – but the doubt around it lingers. “Do I deserve to be? / Is that the question?” Blue clings to a Pearl Jam tape for much of the book, and she often tells herself why, but I think it’s these questions that simmer under so many decisions she makes.
One More Hour – Sleater-Kinney
This is the last song here mentioned directly in the book. There’s not much to say about this song that Rob Sheffield didn’t already cover in Love is a Mix Tape. But for me the guitar interplay between Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker is what makes this song so affecting. The overcast cascade of one, the tense puncturing notes of the other. And then Tucker’s voice blows through it all in that chorus – “Oh you’ve got the darkest eyes.” Floors me every time.
Jazz Hands – Aesop Rock & Blockhead
I was wrapping up revision and shopping this book in early 2020, which was a tough time to sell a book because it was a tough time to do a lot of things. To me, this song best captures the solitude and frustration of that time. The voice here lashes out but mourns isolation. It confronts injustice but longs for escape. Its anger is razor sharp, but there’s soft-focus melancholy behind it. It’s like the twin engines of grief and anger can’t always decide if they’re going in the same direction.
Young Liars – TV on the Radio
When TV on the Radio came out, no band had a more distinct, skittering energy than they did. “Young Liars” is the best example of it. It’s got their grand sense of space, but the lines within it are pulled taut. There’s a searching and yearning here that I think Blue would connect with. I imagine her tracking this record down — hearing “lonely is all we are / lovely so far”, knowing exactly how “cobblestone cold” feels — and being flung back into her youth, into loss, into memories that surround her like an empty room. This song plays like a signal to claw at the walls of that room until she finds the door.
Louis Collins – Mississippi John Hurt
Maybe the best murder ballad ever written. A grand statement, I know, but the way it starts in deep, deep grief, its obscured sense of action corroded by memory, how those angels seem ever more distant from us, the women dressed in red. And all this delivered in Mississippi John Hurt’s sweet, creaking, mournful voice. Blue might find comfort in this one: its poetic delivery, its gauzy images, the fading grace of it all.
Everywhere West/Take it to the Limit – Sarah Dougher
I’m cheating here listing two together, but this is mostly a PSA to say we should all be listening to more Sarah Dougher. These two songs, from her 1999 album Day One, tell you why. “Take it to the Limit” is, yes, an Eagles cover. And look, with apologies to The Dude, I don’t hate the Eagles. I think they’re pretty good songwriters whose playing often got in the way. Dougher strips back the original’s easy glide to reveal the tense, broken-down feeling underneath. Meanwhile, “Everywhere West” shows Dougher’s skill as a songwriter, mixing straightforward lines into a gauzy, poetic whole that taps into grief, time passing, and some distorted freedom all at once. Like Blue, this voice seems to vacillate between getting lost and finding itself. In Dougher’s voice, the confusion is beautiful.
Against Pollution – The Mountain Goats
This song, where a moment of violence transforms a life, hung with me when I worked on this novel. Beyond the chugging rhythm and haunted delivery, there’s also the perfectly chosen imagery. “Decorative grating on my window,” Darnielle sings, “gets a little rustier every year / I don’t how the metal gets rusty when it never rains here.” There’s something about that image I couldn’t shake, some question in it about what it means to move forward, about the small ways the world will still break down and change around us. That may seem dark, but maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s something else.
Matthew Fiander was born and raised in Weymouth, Massachusetts. His fiction has appeared in Story Magazine, Zone 3, Willow Springs, The Massachusetts Review, South Carolina Review, South Dakota Review, Reckon Review, and elsewhere. He has also published articles in The New York Times and Our State Magazine, and was a long-time music writer and editor for the online magazine, PopMatters. He currently lives and works in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Ringing in Your Ears is his first novel.