A perennial part of the human experience is trying to figure out an answer to a superficially simple question: “Who am I?” Philosophers and theologians have long wrestled with this problem and unfortunately—spoiler alert—you’re not going to find an answer in this review. What you will find, however, is a beautiful soundtrack to your struggle created by someone also wrestling with the problem.
Our notion of who we are is partly created by the context in which we live, the people with whom we surround ourselves, the work that we do. When change to that context is forced upon us, we often struggle to cope. Which of us has not experienced that struggle in the last few years? When writing his fifth album, Beautifully Lost Mind, John Hayes found himself locked down and cast adrift from his work as the resident pianist at Minneapolis St Paul International Airport. Isolated from the context which had helped give meaning to his life, he learned to appreciate what he describes as “the strange beauty of his own mental instability”.
Instability. That’s the thing, isn’t it? The answer to the question “Who am I?” cannot be a fixed one. We might like to think that we know who we are but in reality, the self is in a state of flux. We change over time, we learn (or fail to learn) from past experiences, our mental process are far too complex for even the experts to understand. That’s one reason why the “tell me about yourself” in a job interview or first date is so daunting. Anyone who claims to know the answer to the question demonstrates that they don’t fully understand the question itself. The pandemic lockdowns made us more aware of our instability, but in reality, the only thing that is constant is that we change.
This is why Hayes’ album title is so apt. We are our best when we accept the limits of our understanding and we embrace the beauty of our limitations, our capacity for change and our ability to learn. Hayes, clearly an optimist, gives us a remarkably positive soundtrack to our existential dilemma. Right from the throbbing synths and gently muted piano of the title track that opens the album, the atmosphere is reassuring. The rest of the album is taken up with explorations of the experience of being beautifully lost. “Nowness” captures perfectly the feeling of losing track of the ego and becoming one with the present moment. The plaintive simplicity of the muted piano in “Sweet Solitude” expresses the liberating feeling of realising it is OK to be on your own. The gently evolving loops of “Intention” reminds us that we are heading in the right direction. “Curandero”, Hayes tells us, is named after the traditional healers found in the Americas “who work with people using herbal remedies like ayahuasca, Peyote, and sometimes psilocybin for spiritual healing and clarity.” In a strange way, wasn’t the forced change of perspective given to us by the lockdown something like the experience of taking a psychoactive substance? Our normal life fell away and we emerged on the other side changed. Beautifully lost, beautifully found. (Garreth Brooke)