“Eidolon”: 10 songs about being haunted by addiction

I don’t believe in ghosts but I absolutely, unquestionably, 100% believe in being haunted.

Neighborhoods, vehicles, an office building, some random intersection, old emails, archived Facebook messages, scattered photographs, esoteric landmarks from my life — it doesn’t matter. I’m routinely haunted by my alcoholic past. In any given week, I’m staring at some reminder of an unkept obligation or a broken promise, thanks to my drinking. Getting sober didn’t suddenly give me a license to ignore the past or feel absolved by anything I did when I was drinking. Not at all. You see, I have these long, black stretches in my memory where there’s just nothing at all. But I know something’s hiding down there, submerged. There’s something awaiting me if I ever pick up the bottle again.

Eidolon is a playlist about the shades, shadows and secrets of addiction — from start to finish, listened straight through, it tells a story: one that’s about recognizing all the things I can’t undo or make better, and slowly coming to terms with it.

“Spectre,” Radiohead: I’m one of the biggest James Bond movie fans you’re likely to meet, not to mention loving Radiohead as much as the next Pitchfork.com visitor. When the UK group dropped this surprise single a few Christmases ago, it was also revealed that it was actually an unused title song for the Bond movie Spectre. I about lost my mind. The reason it’s the opening track of this playlist? It’s sweeping and epic with familiar strings, it sounds like it could be the beginning of something amazing…but it never quite reaches liftoff. And, to me, the track perfectly captures the feeling of missing your potential. It’s not quite a Bond theme song and it’s not quite a quintessential Radiohead track. It rests somewhere in between and, therefore, it’s the perfect start to a playlist about looking back on a misspent life. The “spectre” is my alcoholism and it haunts everything in my life, right down to my quasi-insane love for James Bond movies.

“Woke Up Haunted,” Over Sands: Little-known group Over Sands released an EP and I immediately fell in love with this track. It reminds me of the feeling that would seize me for the first few months of sobriety: waking up in the middle of the night, gripped by remorse, grief and the fear of what might happen next.

“Daydreaming,” Dark Dark Dark: I have no idea what this shuffling song is supposed to be about, but it has the black, slippery logic of a half-remembered dream. Its lyrics are kind of jumbled together, with one unrelated thought flowing over another. Its repeated refrain, however (“Oh, the unspeakable things”) jumps out at me as something my restless brain would often circle back to: all the unspeakable things I couldn’t forget — or forgive myself for. There’s a danger to daydreaming, the song warns me, and I can’t afford to be anywhere but the present.

“Hey Moon,” John Maus: Reminds me of driving through Chicago with my brother-in-law Andy months after I had first gotten sober. The song sort of comes in from a distant room at first, just like how sobriety dawned on me. This song was on repeat as we drove, no words between us. We just drove. The cityscape shimmered in the distance with a full moon hanging over it all. The track is dreamy and deliberate, and it still gives me the chills. For a song about complete loneliness, I’d never felt so connected to something in my whole life.

“Scream,” Oddnesse: It’s the soundtrack of me driving through long, empty country roads in the middle of winter, right after first getting sober. Every time this track starts, I can hear my brain tumble-drying through everything I still needed to reconcile in my life. I needed to “shake a couple old things loose” before the guilt and misery of my alcoholism completely consumed me.

“The Dark Has Fallen,” Air Formation: They’re an English shoegaze band, yes, but they’re also capable of saying a lot with very little. Their emotional range can be captured in a very narrow bandwidth in all the same ways that their lyrics are dreamlike. This track reminds me of the first time I was able to start feeling okay with the fact that I was an alcoholic and that I’d done terrible things. Instead of fearing the darkness inside, I started to understand that it informed my life, but it didn’t define it. This is the sound of me getting resolute about things.

“Burning,” The War on Drugs: Philly rock band The War on Drugs has always struck me as a grander, postmodern version of Dire Straits — and this track in particular makes that case a dozen times over. It fills me with a sense of optimism I can’t fully explain. Hearing this song reminds me of those first surreal seconds in a jet where you’re breaking through the cloudline, shuddering with excitement as much as you are the turbulence. At this point in my journey, I was seeing clear skies for the first time, knowing that I was a “burning man” with a purpose.

“The Mighty Rio Grande,” This Will Destroy You: Still the only song that can bring me to tears without one single lyric spoken. This is an 11:17-minute exercise in how to slowly gather every single emotion you’re capable of, consider them, and then release them all at once like those little Japanese lanterns that float across water for funerals. It builds from within, just like my sobriety, until I can’t ignore it or deny its power. By the end of this song and where it’s located in the playlist, I’m completely spent.

“Inside/outside,” The Free Association: This throbbing, swirling track (from a little-seen Tim Robbins movie called Code 46) is the perfect complement to The Mighty Rio Grande. If I was emotionally exhausted and forever changed by the last track, this song echoes my own changing brain chemistry and putting emotion into action.

“Water Hymn,” Painted Palms: I don’t know what it is about this song — jungle sounds imbricated with squelched frequencies — but it always feels like a homecoming of sorts. It’s me being welcomed into another world: wild and untamed, yet lush and alive. If I close my eyes, I can almost see everything blossoming around me, bouncing with color and promise.

“Color Decay,” Júníus Meyvant: I suppose any excuse to include an Icelandic singer is a good one, but more seriously, this is the sort of song that plays over a movie montage of improving one’s life: tending to obligations, paying bills, waking up on time. Ostensibly a song about the impermanence of color, I interpret that as a beautiful constant of our world: to me, the song is about seizing the now, and reminding us to appreciate everything we have in our lives while we have it, rather than willfully drowning ourselves into oblivion and missing things altogether.

“Blue Skies Again,” Jessica Lea Mayfield: A brightly optimistic yet tempered coda to the playlist, singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield reminds me that “a longer day has begun” — a day that carries with it blue skies that I never noticed before.

Author of the alcoholism memoir “Bottleneck” and many articles on addiction, as well as creator/co-host of the music & recovery podcast “Drop the Needle.”

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