I’m not exactly sure when I discovered Anberlin, specifically. I know that I was in middle school, and I know that it was very cold outside; I know that Never Take Friendship Personal was their latest album at that time. I have a memory of sitting in my mom’s car outside of a library near the building where I would soon go to high school, bundled up in my winter coat and probably two pairs of socks, listening to “Stationary Stationery” on my iPod through a pair of earbuds. Let’s say it was the winter of 2005-2006. I would’ve been in 8th grade, and the things that went through my mind when I was in 8th grade, to the best of my ability to recall that time, probably didn’t stray much from the girl I’d met in fourth grade and “dated” until seventh grade, and who I’d been trying to win back for a year or so without much luck (in a note that she gave me at the beginning of seventh grade, she’d told me to “cry my eyes out”; I still have the note, and now, more than anything, it makes me smile).
Many of the songs on Never Take Friendship Personal simultaneously hurt and healed my fourteen-year-old heart – “The Runaways” and “The Feel Good Drag” produced cathartic listening experiences, but also reminded me that I was alone, and very much dreading the thought of staying that way. Whenever I listen to the title track, to this day, I absolutely need to turn the volume up to an almost damaging level; then, and now, the heavy songs on Never Take Friendship Personal give me a strange sense of warmth when they’re turned up loud, as if the music has the capability to wrap itself around my body and to overwhelm anything outside of me. It allows me to feel, and to do so without being disturbed or interrupted. It allows me to take a cold, hard look inside my thoughts and to process what I find; I guess it gives me the strength to confront myself, no holds barred.
I associate similar memories with Cities, but this time, the setting is my solitary walk to the bus stop at the end of my street on winter mornings, and the cold and dark bus rides to high school where I would shrink away from whoever ended up sitting next to me for the fifteen or so minutes to school. By now, I had some heavier things on my mind. My granddad had passed away only two months into my time in high school, and Cities came out several months later, when I was still trying to figure out how to process his death. I wasn’t thinking about that girl anymore – instead, I was wrestling with the terrifying idea that I had begun to feel attracted to guys instead. I couldn’t even fully admit this to myself, in my own head. It was something that I fought against, something that I tried to diagnose as a kind of illness; those feelings caused me to burrow even deeper into myself, and my insecurities increased almost daily.
The songs on Cities – especially “Hello, Alone,” “Reclusion,” and “Dismantle.Repair.,” – mirrored my internal struggle and helped me work through it. Around this time, my dad bought me my first guitar. I never really stuck with the instrument, but “The Unwinding Cable Car” was one of the first songs that I taught myself how to play; with a four-track cassette recorder, I layered the parts on top of one another, spending hours rewinding and re-recording (each time creating little artifacts and defects on the tape itself) until I was proud of what I heard playing back to me. I think, on some subconscious level, I gravitated toward that song because I wanted to learn how to internalize and recreate its message of self-love, of forgiveness and grace.
I could go on for quite a while about the circumstances that I found myself in during the release of every new Anberlin album, but from here on out, I’ll try to keep it short and sweet. New Surrender came to me around the time that I had finally begun to accept my sexuality and to stop tormenting myself about my attractions, and songs like “Breathe” and “Burn Out Brighter” helped me find hope of a better future, and helped me find meaning in all the time that I’d spent wallowing in my depression. Dark is the Way, Light is a Place accompanied me during my first few months of college, where I once again found myself alone and tasked with the challenge of finding enough strength and courage to come out to a whole new group of people, only this time, they were friends that I’d just made, so the bonds between us were even more tentative and, I feared, liable to collapse once they learned the truth about my sexuality.
Whenever I had doubts about possessing the courage to be myself, “We Owe This to Ourselves” and “Pray Tell” would remind me that putting things off and hiding in the dark could never bring personal fulfillment or meaningful relationships. On the occasion that I did lose a friend upon coming out to them, “To The Wolves” helped me process my anger and my confusion. Two years later, I found myself at the end of a string of shallow and unhealthy relationships, and Vital helped me take control of my actions and see my behavior for what it really was; “Type Three” and “Modern Age” almost immediately became two of my favorite Anberlin songs ever as they taught me the importance of knowing myself, and recognizing my needs and desires without losing sight of my morals and goals.
Lowborn arrived at perhaps the most transitional and uncertain period of my life so far. I’d just graduated from college, and I’d spent four years earning a degree that I wasn’t sure I even wanted to use anymore. I had no jobs lined up, many of my closest friends had moved away, and I remained in my college town waiting for nothing and everything at the same time. “Losing It All” reminded me to be grateful for the companionship of my partner; we’d just moved into our first apartment together, and even though the process of learning how to live with the person I love was a bit intimidating and not always stress-free, it became one of the only certainties in my life, and I made sure not to take that for granted. As I transitioned from my time as a student to my post-grad life, “Atonement” helped me make peace with everything that I had and hadn’t accomplished during my four years in college.
By the time that Anberlin’s final tour swept through Columbus, Ohio a few months after the release of Lowborn, I’d gone through a whirlwind of unexpected changes in my life, most of which centered around finding a job at a Montessori school. I’d gotten a degree in education at the high school level, and I’d been almost certain when I graduated that I did not want to pursue a career in teaching. Ironically, not only had I begun working at a school and enjoying it more than I’d ever imagined I could, but I had begun working at a school that served kids from preschool though middle school – in other words, every single grade except high school. I’d found a sense of peace and calm in my daily life, both internally and externally, that I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to achieve. I’d fallen in love with life.
My partner and I drove to Columbus together to see Anberlin one last time; it was our third time seeing them together, the first being their acoustic tour in 2013, and then again on Warped Tour around the time that Lowborn came out. During the drive to Columbus and back, spanning four hours in total, we belted out Christmas carols along with the radio; my throat had been ravaged by a sinus infection, making it all but certain that not a single note I sang would be in tune. We got to the venue a while after doors had opened, and immediately took a spot in the line for the merch table, which wrapped around the entire front room of the Newport Music Hall – up the stairs to the balcony, then down the stairs once again. By the time I finally reached the table, Anberlin had just started playing the opening notes to “Never Take Friendship Personal,” the first song in their set. I hurriedly bought a couple t-shirts, and then we took the stairs back up to the balcony and found a spot near the back.
The past few times I’d seen Anberlin live, I’d been in the thick of the chaos, in the first or second row of the crowd. Being up front is always an exhilarating experience at a show, but as soon as we settled in to our spot toward the back of the balcony, I realized that I’d never seen Anberlin from this view before. We could see all five members of the band, directly beneath the big block letters that spelled out the name they’d been playing under for twelve years. I felt mesmerized, watching them from so far away. When you see a band perform up close, you can’t generally see every member at the same time; you usually end up looking back and forth, taking turns watching guitarists, focusing on the drums for a while and then looking away. This time, for the entire 90-minute set, I marveled at the well-oiled machine that the band had become – not five musicians who happen to be sharing the stage, but one unit, one entity: Anberlin.
When they played “Inevitable” about halfway through the set, a certain line struck me in a new context. “We could stay in this moment for the rest of our lives.” Even though most of the song is about finding your true love, I couldn’t help but feel that some of those lyrics must have begun to take on a new meaning for the members of the band. Playing on a stage together has been their career for over a decade; indeed, parts of them will probably stay in those moments forever, even after they’ve played their last show. “Is it over now – hey? Hey, is it over now?” By the end of the song, the last part of that refrain has changed: “Hey, it’s not over now.” Anberlin will play their last show, and then they will move on, and it will, in a certain way, be over. But Anberlin will also live forever: in every CD, in every photo or video, in every autographed setlist, in every t-shirt or poster, and in every memory that their fans have attached to their music, and to seeing them play live, and meeting them after a show or during a signing. It won’t truly be over – and I think we are all grateful for that.
As for what that line meant for me at that moment – “We could stay in this moment for the rest of our lives” – it hit me immediately that, if given the choice, I think I would’ve been more than happy to spend the rest of my life living in that precise moment of seeing my favorite band perform in the Newport Music Hall in Columbus, Ohio, as I sang along to every word despite a sinus infection and a raw throat, with my best friend and true love by my side. And I think part of me will stay in that moment forever, too.
Thank you, Anberlin.
Next year, I’ll be launching a full website dedicated to the band, their music, and their career: an in-depth, interactive biography of Anberlin. Over the past year, I’ve pored over hundreds of interviews – text, audio, and video – featuring every member of the band, and I also had the privilege of speaking to Stephen Christian and Joey Milligan about the early days of the band and their process of deciding to put the band to rest.