Technology keeps moving forward, bringing us huge televisions, tiny phones, and devices that put hundreds of CDs in a single pocket. But technology has a habit of burying the past, and with it, some outmoded pleasures. Music fans of a certain age and temperament know that mix-tapes, though now lost in the digital-music age, can be time capsules; the assortments of songs become a portal into how we felt when we gathered them. A veteran maker of mix-tapes, Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield is very much of that age and disposition, but his relationship with cassettes of old songs goes beyond uncomplicated nostalgia. Mix-tapes played a central role in Sheffield's courtship of his wife Reneé (a fellow music writer), and a continued role in their marriage up to her unexpected death in 1997. A memoir structured around track listings of those tapes, Love Is A Mix Tape anchors in song Sheffield's story of an introverted pop fan from Boston who fell for a bohemian Southern girl.
Early on, Sheffield-the-memoirist occasionally does battle with Sheffield-the-clever-commentator, but he soon finds an assured balance, commenting on the way music weaves its way into our lives, but not losing the story's focus. It would be a story worth telling even without music. Sheffield paints his late wife with great affection but without a halo, recounting good times and spats alike while recalling an uncompromising, outgoing woman whose love of life underscored the shock of her death.
But it would also be impossible to tell the story of two people so tangled up in pop culture without talking about music. (Pavement, for instance, seems to have been a virtual third partner in their marriage.) The era that helped shape his wife's character never drifts far into the background, either, and in the final chapters, Sheffield takes stock of how the times and songs have changed, lamenting that the spirit of Exile In Guyville has given way to the more widely acceptable submissive fantasies of "Sk8er Boi." The way Sheffield writes about the '90s sometimes sounds like the way hippies talk about the '60s, but it's hard to miss his point. Pop songs fade in and out in four-minute intervals, but they leave their mark on lives and times alike.