Cigarettes After Sex: An Ode to a Playlist

Music paired well with a state of mind can be a powerful thing — it can both enhance and manipulate the way you feel. Why else would people obsess over the music for their weddings, or for the funerals of their loved ones?

I wasn’t looking for a soundtrack to my winter when I found Cigarettes After Sex. But, in a perfect storm, the playlist seemed to match perfectly with the way I felt at the time, and has since become synonymous with that time in my life.

Cigarettes After Sex is a Spotify playlist that was conceived in 2013 by a man named James Armstrong. Opening with ‘Warm Water’ by Banks, it follows a similarly sexy-sad vibe throughout. Upon a quick stalk, James Armstrong appears to be a pretty regular guy apart from his uncanny ability to create heartbreaking playlists. The greatest number of follows he has on any of his other playlists is 77, which is dwarfed by the impressive 9,147 followers he has on CAS. Is this playlist a fluke, or is this guy a genius? It must be the latter, because most of these songs were added before Spotify even had the advanced algorithm feature it has today, which can basically read your mind IMO. And at 12 hours and 15 minutes, there’s a lot of room for error, but the vibe never strays far from the broodiness that the title promises.

I discovered this playlist around the same time I discovered ketamine and one-night stands. The friend who introduced it to me can’t listen to it anymore because of the strong feelings it evokes, and I’ve only recently been able to revisit it for the same reason. She was going through a breakup, and I was going through being 19. It taps into that specific empty feeling you can only get after a one-night stand with someone whose last name you’ll never know and who most likely choked you during sex. It is emptiness, hope and yearning all at once, all whilst retaining a certain lustiness, accented by falsetto vocals and soaring synths.

I wonder whether this playlist would have evoked such strong feelings if I’d discovered it at a different time, or whether I just listened to it so many times after seeing the sun rise post-night out that it turned into this personal zeitgeist.

I don’t really listen to this kind of music in my general life and can’t even put my finger on the predominant genre. Trip hop? Electro pop? Used condom-core? Who knows. But one thing I do know is that this playlist and this playlist only can tap into its certain type of melancholy.

Living in a sharehouse in North Melbourne without a job means you get bored pretty quickly, and going out becomes the centre of your universe. You start measuring time in relation to your nights out – pre-club this, post-club that, and you can’t just have a “coffee” anymore; it has to be “recovery coffee”.

I remember being at a friend’s party one night and the guy I liked was looking through my phone for a playlist to remedy the dire music situation when I saw his eyes flicker over CAS in my library. I remember at the time thinking something along the lines of, He must think I’m so cool and deep, listening to a playlist like that. We hooked up that night, but then didn’t talk again for months. Back to the playlist, but this time with added meaning.

An artist friend of mine once told me she wanted people to get the feeling she gets from watching Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation when they experience her art. Listening to this playlist for me is like watching Lost in Translation to her. It’s a specific feeling that you wish you could somehow transmit to people so they knew what it was like, so they could feel what you’re feeling. But it’s hard because of the whole, our-cumulative-individual-experiences-create-a-different-reality-to-others-experiencing-the-same-thing, thing. Where CAS to me might be lust and yearning, to someone else it might be a compilation of boring, bedroom-produced, white person music. You might be listening to it right now, skipping through every song and waiting to discover what the hell I’m talking about.

Admittedly, I’ve never actually listened to this playlist smoking a cigarette, post-copulation. But if you’re reading this, James Armstrong, please forgive me for my assumption that that’s not the point. Sometimes I used to listen to it when I was alone and think about what it would be like to be laying with my back against a guy, his arms around me, as we smoke in bed after comedown sex. It’s music for wallowing in. And CAS fuelled my self-indulgent wallowing, but it also validated my emptiness. It was like that friend who would hold your hand through a difficult time, meaning well, but never provide any sound advice. “It’s okay to feel like this,” they would say, stroking your back. “I know what it’s like.”

Looking at the pattern of when songs were added to this playlist, James started strong, adding songs consistently from 2013 to 2016. But in 2017, he added just two new songs. I wonder what went on in his life last year. Maybe he moved over to Tidal. Maybe he quit smoking. Maybe, like my friend, constantly revisiting the playlist got too emotionally taxing and he had to throw in the towel. But regardless of what the future holds for Cigarettes After Sex, I can’t thank James Armstrong enough for so beautifully encapsulating a confusing, messy, necessary time in my life.

Cigarettes After Sex: 8/8/2013 – 12/10/2017(?)

Cover by Jordan Bauer