A Tour Guide to Anberlin’s “Cities”

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Dismantle.Repair.

This is, without a doubt, the essential Anberlin song (a title only truly challenged by Blueprints‘ “Readyfuels”). I remember my excitement for this song building from the moment I first heard a clip of it on the absolutely incredible teaser trailer for Cities. The morning they posted the whole song online, I got up early before school and listened to it several times in a row on Purevolume, mesmerized and totally captivated, and it instantly became my favorite Anberlin song. I love the fake-outs – the build-up at the end of the first verse that skips the chorus and barrels right into the second verse makes the chorus infinitely more powerful when it finally hits, as does the fake ending after the bridge.

The lyrics are some of the best that Stephen has ever written, and the introduction of the “patron saint of lost causes” theme brilliantly paves the way for what’s to come with “(*Fin)”. I could gush about this song all day. Its inspiration is Stephen at perhaps his most vulnerable, making this song the best proof that the heart-on-sleeve, “guinea pig experiment” of exposing his inner demons through the lyrics of Cities was one of the most successful and rewarding risks Anberlin have ever taken.

Here is a link to the blog entry that eventually inspired Stephen to write this song, after someone in the comments said it was “great song writing material.” To whoever left that comment: thank you twenty times over.

STEPHEN SAYS: “It’s a story about me and one person, but these are several actual characters combined, in real life. It’s about how absolutely crushing words can be. They have the power of life and death. They’re the small rudder of a ship, but they steer it wherever it goes.” [2]

“If you told your children, for the rest of their life, how horrible they are, they’re no good, they’ll never make it to college, they’ll never be anything, they’re worthless – you, literally, with your words, could change and devastate their lives. Or you can go home and tell them how proud you are, and how beautiful they are, and tell your wife how good she is. Do you understand how powerful that is? That’s what the song is about – words, and the words that are played into your life, and the words that you play into lives.” [2]

“I was blessed with a father who told me that he was proud of me, and that I could do whatever I wanted; that whatever I set my heart to, I needed to go do that.” [2]

(*Fin)

This is the song that inspired me to do this project in the first place. The lyrics always felt so mysterious to me, and even though I didn’t know what they were describing, they were still so overwhelmingly powerful, and it was clear that not a single word was wasted in the writing of this song, that every line was packed with meaning. When I stumbled across the Hollywood Jesus interview where Stephen puts the song in context and describes the events that inspired the lyrics, I was in awe.

It was a bit of a revelation to me – I had always just assumed that Stephen kept the inspiration to these songs to himself, but it turns out, it’s not like that at all. His explanations and insights are just scattered, hidden in various interviews and blog entries and search results. Really, it reflects one of the main themes of this album – the importance of searching, of digging deeper, of doing more than just passively hearing the words, but listening to the words, and then exploring them for yourself.

STEPHEN SAYS: “It’s my entire childhood put into one song. My battle with being raised in a church and the individuals that completely devastated my faith. It took a good set of eight years for me to come back and find God on my own.” [12] “But later in life I realized I needed to stop looking at Christians to see Christ. I wrestled with God, and he won.” [13]

“In life, we’re all going to go through similar problems, even though you absolutely feel alone. There’s the moment when you have to fight depression, there’s a moment where, if you hit some type of fame in any capacity, whether it’s student class president or president of the United States, there has to be a moment when you confront pride. And there’s also a moment, like, what does my future hold, why am I here on Earth? A huge question is, who is God? And you have to wrestle with him and find out what you believe. And I think this song is a summation of my entire existence, of my wrestling process with God, starting with the house on Ridge Road. It was a house I lived in around St. Joe, Michigan, and I remember being six years old and walking to the end of the road, and just crying, because there was so much turmoil in the world, like seeing the news and seeing someone die, but then going to your Sunday school and saying everything is wonderful, and just feeling that kind of commotion in your soul. And so I remember, at six years old, just weeping and screaming – Devil, you stay over here, and God, you stay over here, and both of you leave me alone! – and I think that’s like, almost the foundation of the rest of my life.” [14]

(*Fin) is a series of four stories, that all tie together in the line ‘patron saint of lost causes.’ The first story is a personal memoir about my life as a child and the pull on my soul even then. I deliberated even at eight years old, that it would be better that God and the devil would just both leave me alone. The second story is about a couple from my early teen years’ church who cried for a miracle. It was a promised miracle, and it never came about. That leaves an impression. The third is about a mentor that used the guise of ‘missions work’ to leave his family in shambles and eventually decay. That plays with your salvation, when one experiences it. [The fourth story is about] Billy, a traveling ‘healer’ who crippled my life and growth right in front of me.” [13]

“We just wanted to create an ethereal, kind of ambient ending to the whole CD and definitely to the end of (*Fin), and so we let Aaron Mlasko, our drum tech, come up with different instruments, whether they were wood blocks or chimes of some sort, and then Joey just kind of overlapped them with guitars. I did about eight takes of [the end of] the song, and I wrote no lyrics. I just walked into the studio, listened to the song a couple times and then sang whatever came to my head. So I have absolutely no idea what I sang. I actually listened to it a couple times trying to pick out the lyrics and trying to hear what I said, but honestly, towards the middle, I kind of lose it and I have absolutely no idea what I said. But I think that just adds to it, I think it adds to the whole ambiance of the CD and the whole ambiance of (*Fin), just kind of like relinquishing my brain and my desires, so whatever came out just came out, and I think it turned out fantastic, amazing. In the future, I would love to get my hands on the other seven tracks and hear what those sound like as well, but I have no idea what I sang. It was an amazing process, and in my opinion it just turned out incredible and an experience I’ll never forget.” [15]