Before “music discovery” meant algorithm-driven recommendation engines, we found bands and DJs and record labels through radio shows, record shops, mixtapes, and other tangible interactions with human beings. Talking to people while buying seven inches or zines at firehall punk shows, cycling through the credits on the back of a jazz LP cover—during the years that preceded data-built “taste profiles” and marketing teams’ strategies to elevate “user experience,” discovery took shape organically. I can barely remember it.
Discovery grounds the black and white debut graphic memoir from cartoonist Summer Pierre. Her All the Sad Songs has the Hudson Valley-based artist examining music’s role in pivotal life moments that unfurled during her 20s and earlier.
Pierre was “seeking out new identities” while at college in Vermont, where she carefully curated mixtapes for her friends and romantic interests (handwritten sleeves list Duran Duran, The Violent Femmes, and PJ Harvey). Only after unearthing a box of those tapes in 2017 did she realize that these plastic-encased artifacts “once had the power to narrate (her) life.” With clarity and deft illustrative skill, Pierre recounts in All the Sad Songs the start of lasting friendships and lost loves over the years that shaped the person she’s become. But while everything here is connected to the records and songs that stopped her in her tracks, Pierre’s comic is increasingly concerned with discoveries that are larger than those made through mixtapes.
Just as she does in her ongoing autobiographical comics series Paper Pencil Life, although unfortunately with less of the gorgeously rendered architecture and landscapes that punctuate those comics, Pierre tells frank graphic stories in All the Sad Songs. Her characters are spare feature-wise, but she packs a lot into these pages. Long-distance courtships yielded heartbreak at school, and travels to Boston neighborhoods found her writing songs and navigating the folk scene. She doesn’t get around to chronicling a life in cartooning (that isn’t the point), but we can deduce that there was a lot of drawing in those days, as the art here is compelling and clever.
Pierre dispenses with panels altogether throughout, or the size and shape of them fluctuate, and every inch of space is used, be it for dot-flecked backdrops or swirling, airborne music ledger lines. She shifts toward sharing rich abstract visuals at critical junctures, at one point employing a minimal system of text and cycling musical notes to punch-up an experience she had with a cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” Later, in white-copy-on-black captions, she opens up about an unfaithful boyfriend. An encounter with him launched “an onset of Post-Traumatic Syndrome Disorder” for her.
The couple’s argument over his cheating reaches fever pitch in their kitchen, which is strewn with hundreds of short dashes that darken the walls and represent the cabinets’ wood grain. Pierre communicates her physical reaction to having discovered her partner’s infidelity with a pair of silhouetted figures positioned centrally over an 18-panel, two-page spread. Her pony-tailed boyfriend, self-absorbed and reckless, watches in silence from the fore. The panel grids can’t contain the figures—she plays with layout and the cumulative effect is psychedelic. One figure is demonstrative of Pierre’s immediate feelings—devastation and the “white, pulsing anxiety” that cripples her, a sunflower-shaped burst in her stomach—while the other silhouette is mummy-like, wrapped in swirling thin lines that play the part of “sensations that were unfamiliar and alarming,” perhaps the “dark and painful things” in her childhood she’d never processed. She works through this with a therapist named Elaine, and songs remain at the core of the story. Records are “company in her grief.” Pierre cites music’s known benefits for Alzheimer’s patients in exploring the connection between songs and memory.
“Anyone who has been at a party or in a car when an unexpected, favorite song comes on knows there is a way music can awaken something in our bodies,” she writes.
For Pierre, she can smell movie-house popcorn and conjure images of the theater where she saw Pretty in Pink when she hears the soundtrack. Alternatively, she remembers a funny ’90s-era exchange with a weeping friend who thinks of an ex when a radio DJ spins Liz Phair. The All the Sad Songs artist references the power that records have to trigger memories of certain life experiences for us, but reasons that if a song brings about a grim memory today, tomorrow could be different.
“You huddle around some song or album and gather emotional light from it,” notes Pierre. “But then time goes on and the experience shifts or changes, and so do the feelings and associations with that music.”