Thursday, October 11, 2012

Every lonely heart could use an honest song...

A discussion of the summer of 2011, musical connection, entertainment criticism, 
and The Dangerous Summer's War Paint

One year, three months, five days, and twelve hours ago (give or take a couple minutes), I sat down for my first listen to The Dangerous Summer's War Paint. It was one of my most anticipated records of the year, and right from the first instant that the title track's thick wall of guitars burst out of my headphones, I knew it was something special. It was the album that would go on to claim my album of the year title, the album that would dominate my summer playlist and define almost every vestige of my life. Today, I put that album on for the first time in a month or so, and everything still felt the same: just like I thought it would, it took me back to that summer season. It transported me back to countless reflective night drives, moments with friends or with the girl I love, to performances and beach days and times spent with family. In short, it encapsulated what my life was in 2011, and that's something I will always cherish. I always make myself wait at least a year before I "officially" place an album on my all time favorites list, but doing that for War Paint has almost felt like a chore. Every time I've listened to it in the past year and a quarter, since that first night that it found its way to me, its resonated more than any other album in recent memory. But now that the requisite year has passed, I feel completely confident in what I'm about to say: that the perfect score I gave this album was more than deserved and that it has at last found its way into the very top tier of my music listening experience...all the way into my top five.

But the elevation of War Paint to a place alongside the four albums that I have called favorites since 2009 or so (Springsteen's Born to Run, Butch Walker's Letters, Jimmy Eat World's Futures, and Jack's Mannequin's Everything in Transit, in that order) is only the tip of the iceberg for how fondly I remember last summer, and most of that is due to how impossibly splendid the soundtrack was. Of the albums I placed in my top ten last December, eight of them had found me in the heat of the summer, somewhere between the time I drove triumphantly away from my sophomore year of college and the day I embarked towards my penultimate one. Those albums managed to supply soundtrack to every kind of emotion and situation, from sunsoaked pop splendor (Matt Nathanson's Modern Love) to the bittersweet feeling of summer's dwindling (Charlie Simpson's Young Pilgrim), from the massive excitement I felt as I drove to pick my girlfriend up at the airport after some time away (Mat Kearney's Young Love) all the way to the loud and brash but surprisingly tender rock 'n' roll record that played as I drove away from it all (Butch Walker's The Spade). It was albums like those (not to mention late-night slowburns from Bon Iver, The Damnwells, or Mansions) that made last year my favorite music year in recent memory: a flawless summer soundtrack, with one of my all-time favorite albums leading the charge.

This past summer brought me a lot of great and meaningful music too. The Gaslight Anthem's Handwritten striking through the hottest days of the year to become an anthemic badge of honor; Japandroids' Celebration Rock blaring from my car speakers at full volume, whether on carefree summer afternoons or late nights near the end of the season; John Mayer's Born and Raised kicking things off in splendor, or Yellowcard's Southern Air serenading the poetic finale to what was probably my last summer in my hometown. But for as many unforgettable moments as there were, nothing ever became a War Paint-like soundtrack. Maybe that's because the season was so entirely different than the last one: my girlfriend was gone for over a month, away in Colorado at a Graduate program, and when she finished, it was off to start a job, a life, a new world. That meant that I was spending less time in the car, with fewer late night drives or sunset cruises to let these albums really sink in the same way that War Paint once had. I was also working my own jobs, spending six days a week putting in hours for a marketing company, writing for a magazine, or performing shows at my local dinner theater. I would turn to the music at the end of long days or late nights, but for the most part, I was spending less time with it.

I've often thought that how an album hits you--how much you love it, how long it stays with you--depends entirely on when it comes into your life. Perhaps that's an exaggeration, since a lot of it also has to do with the music at hand, but I actually think the "objective" elements are a lot less important in the long run. That's why I try to inject a little bit of my personal story into my music criticism, at least when it comes to the artists and albums that are really important to me. Part of the reason Roger Ebert is such a renowned film critic is that he spends a lot of time in his reviews not just talking about the film, but also about his personal reaction to it. I think the first time I ever realized that was during my junior year of high school, when Ebert's review of Martin Scorsese's film Goodfellas appeared in the textbook for my A.P. Language & Composition class. Why was it that, in a book of literary essays and poetry, this one piece of entertainment criticism found is place? That became quickly evident as I read, because Ebert doesn't kick off his review by talking about a filmmaker or a rating or even about the gangster film genre. No, he begins it by talking about himself:

"For two days after I saw Martin Scorsese's new film, "GoodFellas," the mood of the characters lingered within me, refusing to leave. It was a mood of guilt and regret, of quick stupid decisions leading to wasted lifetimes, of loyalty turned into betrayal. Yet at the same time there was an element of furtive nostalgia, for bad times that shouldn't be missed, but were."

That opening paragraph took my breath away. The idea of relating the emotions of a work of art to one's self, to personal moods and experiences and memories, resonated with me on a purely primal level, and I have, largely, been writing in a similar manner ever since. That's why, when I reviewed War Paint towards the end of last summer, I focused on the personal context rather than the musical nuances of what is, on the surface, a fairly straightforward emotional pop-punk record. That's why, when I compiled my end-of-the-year list for 2011, most of the entries blended notes about the songs with explanations of how those songs impacted me. For me, music has always been, first and foremost, about the visceral connections I form with it, and there are few albums more visceral than War Paint. So yes, it might only be a year and three months after the fact (already?!), and many may deride this band and write them off for all of the dramatic shenanigans its members have be involved with in the past year, but there's no other way I can describe this album other than to call it one of my favorite albums of all time. I do believe it's earned that classification.

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