Category Archives: Features

“We Could Stay In This Moment” – What Anberlin Has Meant To Me

friendship-snowflakeI’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.

cities-deluxeThe 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-2Lowborn 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.

anberlin-columbus

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.

My Favorite Thanksgiving Album: Left and Leaving, by The Weakerthans

Among the biggest complaints I hear about the early November onset of the Christmas season (the music, the decorations, the commercials, the candy, the seasonal aisle in every drug store) is that it causes people to forget about Thanksgiving.

I don’t think I totally buy that complaint, though. Sure, there are certainly bad things about the early rollout of Christmas, but few of them actually, truly encroach on the celebration of Thanksgiving. One of the exceptions to that rule, of course, is the extension of the Black Friday craze into Thanksgiving night. I think there’s a discussion to be had about this craze in particular that hasn’t quite been addressed: many people recommend protesting the early sales on Thanksgiving night, but that seems to me to be ever so slightly classist in its assumptions.

Sure, nobody needs to buy those sale items, but what about those individuals or families who are barely scraping by, and who might participate in Black Friday in order to buy certain near-necessities without obliterating their checking accounts, like microwaves, or coffeemakers, or printers, or GPS devices? What about those parents who want to buy a few nice Christmas gifts for their kids but need to save all the money that they can in order to put food on the table on Christmas day? Can these people really afford to just roll their eyes and scoff at the 8 pm (or even at Walmart, 6 pm) Black Friday deals on Thanksgiving night?

Sure, some people might stand up and leave their family gatherings tonight just because they enjoy shopping in the Black Friday rush, but others might face a truly difficult decision about whether or not to stay with their families, who they might not see very often throughout the year – and if they make the decision to stay and to pass up on these sales, they might have to do so knowing that such a choice may, in an indirect way, impact their bank accounts. So are the ideological protests of these sales inherently classist? I’m not sure. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about. I’m not trying to say that protesting these sales is a worthless act, or anything like that. I just think there might be another angle to this conversation that most people are overlooking.

But forgive my tangent – that debate is not what I sat down to write about this morning. Is Thanksgiving overshadowed by Christmas simply because Christmas has more accoutrement than Thanksgiving? It’s difficult to decorate the outside of your house or your yard for Thanksgiving; there aren’t very many limited edition foods or kinds of candy for Thanksgiving, or specialty aisles in drug stores; and as for music, does Thanksgiving music even exist? Most people probably say no. But I disagree.

This year, my favorite Thanksgiving album is Left and Leaving by The Weakerthans.

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No – there aren’t any songs on this album about turkeys or pilgrims or football. But it struck me recently when I listened to this album that many of its lyrical themes and subjects are absolutely relevant to Thanksgiving. Let me explain.

The first song on Left and Leaving (the second album by The Weakerthans, released in 2000) is “Everything Must Go.” John K. Samson sings about a garage sale; “I need to pay my heart’s outstanding bills,” he says. Among the items listed for sale is “a wage-slave forty-hour work week (weighs a thousand kilograms, so bend your knees) — comes with a free fake smile for all your dumb demands.” Throughout the album, the struggles of the working class are laid bare. In “Aside,” the narrator remarks that you can see his ribs through his t-shirts, and that the shoes that he’s wearing were given to him for free. The subject of “Exiles Among You” is “barely coasting into a paycheck, stuck on empty, her blue eyes frozen green in the low-lit ATM.” Later in the song, “she shoplifts some Christmas gifts, and a bracelet for herself, and considers phoning home.” The people Samson sings about are tired, and beaten down – and in “My Favorite Chords,” the protagonists have to deal with the fact that “the mayor’s out killing kids to keep taxes down” – but they’re portrayed as everyday warriors, holding out for better days. All of the items listed for sale in “Everything Must Go” can be obtained for merely “a sign that recovery comes to the broken ones.” And in “Aside,” even though the narrator is rail thin, wearing free shoes, and “unconsoled and lonely,” he nevertheless proclaims, “I’m so much better than I used to be.”

Another relevant theme that bubbles up repeatedly in these songs is that of returning home, apparently only for a short time (aka, nearly every college student in the country, and even a large number of post-grads and adults who return to their hometown for the holidays). “I’m leaning on this broken fence between past and present tense,” Samson sings in “Aside,” also mentioning a fear of telephones (calls from relatives!), shopping malls (Black Friday!), and a tendency to “rely a bit too heavily on alcohol and irony” (family gatherings!). The narrator of these songs describes his hometown as “still breathing (but barely)… buildings gone missing like teeth” (“Left and Leaving”) and notes that “they’re tearing up streets again, they’re building a new hotel” (“My Favorite Chords”). In what has always been my favorite track from the album, “This Is A Fire Door Never Leave Open,” a cathartic five-minute reflection on “forty years of failing to describe a feeling” winds to an end as Samson pleads: “And I love this place; the enormous sky, and the faces, hands that I’m haunted by, so why can’t I forgive these buildings, these frameworks labeled home?” For myself and for a lot of my friends, returning to our hometowns for Thanksgiving and for winter break is a strange and unsettling experience, for reasons not entirely evident; this album captures every bit of that odd discomfort.

“Elegy for Elsabet” paints the picture of a girl who has fallen deaf for reasons unknown to us, and who has grown tired of reading her father’s lips, and can no longer hear the sounds of horses braying, crickets ringing, the swishing of grass, or the creaking of doors. When Samson played “History to the Defeated” at a 2009 solo show in Germany, he gave the following explanation to the audience: “I was in a border town in Texas. I was walking around and I saw a man weeping in a phone booth and I thought that was strange. And then I noticed almost everywhere all the storefronts around the center of this town were Bail Bonds. And you don’t have those here, and we don’t have them in Canada. But it’s where people go when their loved ones are in prison and they give over anything they own in collateral to get their loved one out of jail. This song is about that man who was weeping the phone booth.”

We hear these songs, we meet these characters, and we simultaneously feel pain and sorrow for them while also recognizing that we are very fortunate to live the lives that we do – even if we think we have very little, we are able to recognize that our own “very little” may be desperately lacked and desired by others. We might be temped to wish these faceless people well, or to pray for them and their lives, as does the narrator in “Exiles Among You.” However, immediately after he prays that his old friend remains “proud and strange and so hopelessly hopeful,” a set of background vocals kick in, as if to provide an aside to the listener: “Wishes and prayers are the way that we leave the lonely alone and push the wounded away.” Wishes and prayers don’t suffice. Wishes and prayers come from the privileged or the more fortunate, and they do absolutely nothing for anybody else. In order to truly communicate your thankfulness, you need to spread it to others in real, tangible, personal ways.

Even inside the bleakness, there is recognition of privilege, optimism, and hope. Even in “Watermark,” a song that appears to be about a couple experiencing a miscarriage or an abortion, the narrator finds a feeling worth keeping: “Hold on to the corners of today, and we’ll fold it up to save until it’s needed.” The characters in “My Favorite Chords” create their own kind of Thanksgiving: “When you get off work tonight, meet me at the construction site, and we’ll write some notes to tape to the heavy machines, like, ‘We hope they treat you well. Hope you don’t work too hard. We hope you get to be happy sometimes.’ Bring your swiss-army knife, and a bottle of something, and I’ll bring some spray paint and a new deck of cards. Hey, I found the safest place to keep all our tenderness, keep all our bad ideas, keep all our hope. It’s here in the smallest bones, the feet and the inner ear. It’s such an enormous thing to walk and to listen.”

Left and Leaving by The Weakerthans might not have been written with Thanksgiving in mind, but it’s the best Thanksgiving album that I’ve managed to find so far. Do yourself a favor: stop complaining about the early onset of the Christmas season, give this album a listen, and then go out and do something good for somebody else, and be thankful that you’re capable of doing so.

-Matt Metzler

A Tour Guide to Anberlin’s “Cities”

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Foreword

I completed this project in early 2010, while I was a senior at Kettering Fairmont High School. It was published on March 30, 2010. Before long, the blog post had upwards of 40 comments, thanking me for sharing what I’d found, complimenting both the way that I presented Stephen Christian’s words and the way that I supplemented his interviews with my own insight, telling me that my work had helped them gain a new and deeper appreciation for Cities as an album, Christian as a songwriter, and Anberlin as a band. In April 2010, my blog averaged 204 views per day. On one day in particular that month – what WordPress labels as my blog’s “best day” – 2,158 people viewed the blog, thanks to promotion by Christian himself on Twitter as well as music news communities such as AbsolutePunk.net.

Basically, as the title says, what follows is a tour guide to Anberlin’s third album, Cities. I’ve scoured all corners of the internet for interviews with Anberlin’s singer and lyricist, Stephen Christian, and in the end, I emerged with his explanations and insights into every single song on Cities, as well as some general insight into the album as a whole. I’ve added in some thoughts of my own as well, because Cities is one of my favorite albums of all time, and all of these songs hold great meaning for me. The finished product is pretty lengthy, as you can see, but I believe that it’s all worth reading for fans of the band and the album, and if your experience reading it is anything like my experience writing it, the meaning these songs hold with you will double after discovering what inspired them. Each quote or important piece of information has been assigned a footnote number, and the links to the sources I used are at the end of the post. I’ve split this up into multiple pages, so don’t forget to keep reading once you reach the end of a page.

I hope the tour proves enjoyable for you!

You can click on each bolded song title to read the song’s lyrics. They’re not official lyrics from the band, but they’re the best I could find online.

Cities

Cities was recorded in July and August 2006 in Seattle, WA. Most of the recording was done at Compound Recordings, except for the drums, which were recorded at London Bridge Studio. Anberlin returned to producer Aaron Sprinkle for the third consecutive time – but not before some serious deliberation. In the end, the band and Sprinkle say they took care to change things up whenever possible (including turning to a different engineer and mixer), to make this album sound different than Blueprints for the Black Market and Never Take Friendship Personal, which were also produced by Sprinkle[1]. At the time of recording, Anberlin consisted of Stephen Christian (vocals, lyrics), Joey Milligan (guitar), Nate Young (drums), Deon Rexroat (bass), and Nathan Strayer (guitar). The album’s title was initially rumored to be Reclusion.[2]

On December 26, 2006, the band released the Godspeed EP via iTunes, giving fans their first taste of the recording sessions  It featured the album’s lead single “Godspeed” and “The Haunting,” a b-side which Stephen had originally intended for his solo project Anchor & Braille until the rest of the band convinced him to record it as an Anberlin song[3]. “The Haunting” would later appear on the band’s b-sides compilation, Lost Songs.

Tooth & Nail Records, the band’s home since their debut, released Cities on February 20, 2007. The album was considered by the band to be the third and final installment in a trilogy, with Blueprints tackling the theme of man versus nature, Friendship taking on man versus man, and Cities representing the struggle of man versus self.[4]

STEPHEN SAYS: “I once heard someone say you can either get inspiration from influential bands, or you can become the influential band. I think by now we had to do what was natural for us and not listen to the musical climate around us. Anberlin is now completely Anberlin. I am not going to say that we were not influenced, because I think musicians are a byproduct of everything that we have heard, read, studied, encountered, and written, but I feel like we drew from ourselves on this record. I know, for myself, three months before we recorded, I stopped listening to anything I felt could influence me. I picked up a lot of blues and jazz, from Simone to Stitt, but my favorite during the “cleansing phase” was Serge Gainsbourg, a French jazz artist.” [5]

“I think the original title was Songs for Darker Places, and then it was Songs for Darker Cities, and then Darker Cities, and then Dark Cities, and that sounded too much like Batman, so we were just like, okay, Cities it is.” [6]

“The third record takes on the ominous and daunting task of introspection. The city represents individuality and the pursuit of life, and this is the most autobiographical album of my career. The city represents one’s own self; to the fearless, it looks conquerable, but to the timid and fearful, it looks unobtainable.” [7]

“I think Cities was more of a guinea pig experiment to see how invested the fans were into Anberlin. It just seemed like before people were just waiting for the hook. That’s why, in “A Whisper & A Clamor,” there’s a line about being so tired of writing songs that people hear but no one listens to, no one hears what’s really being said. I felt like this was the time to go inside myself and find out what’s really going on behind the scenes. I felt that whoever you are, no matter what race or age or sex, I think that we all go through the very basic same things in life, whether that’s love, hate, family, beliefs or whatever it might be. I just wanted to dive into those topics – what could we all relate to? Whether it’s depression in “Hello Alone,” or drug use in “Godspeed,” or battling it out with God in “(*Fin),” I feel that they are topics that everyone can relate to and really feel a part of. It was an experiment because I honestly did not know if the fans were going to like it. This was my heart-on-sleeve, devil-and-demons-in-my-head kind of record. I’m just glad that I lived to not regret that.” [8]

“An analogy I can make is with Weezer: here is Rivers Cuomo coming out with their second record, Pinkerton, that was all very heart on sleeve-ish as well, and the critics just ate him up – ‘this sucks, this is the worst thing, no one wants to hear this crap.’ And he vowed that he would never write a record like that again. Now people say that it’s the best record that Weezer ever did, but he lived to regret the record and hated it ever since because he felt that people didn’t understand it. That was a little scary for me, reading those things, I went back and tried to read all the interviews he did after the album came out and people just tore him up. I’m glad that people not only accepted Cities but appreciated it. The whole goal of it was to delve into the psyche and feed the shadows and at the end of the day, find out that there is hope out there. There is a better life out there for you, if you pick yourself up you can make it in this world, I don’t care who you are. That’s the underlying theme of the album.” [8]

“Every city has a different culture, a different feel, whether it’s Seattle or Tokyo, every city is going to feel different at some point, and of course there are lessons you can learn from the city, or something that someone can teach you, and I guess that’s what I wanted with each and every song. Each and every song I wanted to be different in some way, whether it’s a different story or different musically, and then at the end of the day I wanted it to teach a lesson, whether about failure and success, about not giving up, or about depression – no matter what the subject was, I wanted people to walk away feeling like this was a little bit more than just music.” [6]