Saturday, March 26, 2016

City and Colour - Sometimes (10-Year Retrospective)

"God, I still remember the first time I heard it."

Every time I press play on a new album, somewhere in the back of my mind, I'm hoping that I'll be saying those words 10 years down the line. Some people want their sports teams to win the league title. Some people want their favorite movies to break box office records. I want to have the albums I listen to become more than albums. I want them to become catalogs of life moments.

For years, I've been told that, as you get older, you have fewer of those moments as a music fan, and that it's important to cherish them when they happen, because eventually they'll stop happening. I haven't reached that point in my music listening journey yet, thankfully. But I also know that I'll probably never connect with another album in quite the same visceral fashion that I did with City and Colour's Sometimes in the summer of 2008. And frankly, I hope I don't have occasion to.

It's a bizarre thing about nostalgia, particularly when it's linked to records about heartbreak and loneliness. In theory, falling in love with your best friend, having it go nowhere, and then losing her in the fallout should be a time you'd rather forget. It's certainly not something I want to relive: not the feeling of rejection, or that aching pain in a heart that wants something so badly, but knows it can never have it. I don't want to relive the night she told me why she was dodging my calls, why she had to dodge my calls so that we wouldn't break each other's hearts any more than we already had. I don't really want to think about how I went into that summer assuming she'd be a lifelong friend and exiting it wondering if we were even still friends at all. And yet, I still love Sometimes, the album that brings it all flooding back like no time has passed at all, the album that puts that aching pain back in my heart and forces me to relive everything one more time.

Because God, I can still remember the first time I heart it. I remember the first time I heard Dallas Green yelping "Can I have you?" at the end of "Like Knives" and getting chills down my spine because I felt like the song had been written for me in that specific moment. I remember driving home from work at midnight one night in July, listening to him take that "Hello, I'm in Delaware" refrain into chest voice on the final chorus, and hearing my own voice crack as I got choked up trying to sing along. I remember hearing that line in "Off By Heart," that cautionary line that goes "The stars are aligned, but they don't align for us," and thinking that it had to be wrong, that it couldn't apply to me and her. And I remember wading through the despairing hopelessness of "Day Old Hate" and knowing it was finally time to face reality.

My story isn't unique. I fell for a friend, a girl who wasn't available, but who may or may not have had feelings for me as well. We started the summer incredibly close and only got closer as the nights got longer and more unpredictable. Eventually, she distanced herself from me to save her relationship and I receded into music for comfort. By the time she left for college at the end of the summer, everything had changed between us. It was something that needed to happen: heartbreaks change us, show us who we are, help us grow up. Even if I had gotten what I wanted, we probably would have imploded under the strain of long distance, or worse, the strain of being at two very different places in life. She was starting college and dealing with all of the excitement and change that comes with that. I still had one more year left of high school. We were damned if we did and damned if we didn't.

A part of me knew all of this the day she left. That's why I look back on the summer of 2008 as when I finally stopped being a kid and learned how to deal with loss and failure and rejection. I would need those skills in the years to come, as I tried to pursue a college major that I wasn't cut out for. Even though I'd never really had a serious relationship before, that summer would also give me the maturity that I would need to make a different long-distance relationship work two years later. After you get your heart broken the first time, I think it gives you clarity, a sense of knowing what you want in your personal life. Gaining that knowledge at 17 was a very good thing. Two years later, when the right girl came along, I was ready for her, and smart enough to recognize a chance that I didn't want to let slip away.

Another part of me needed help and support for the sadness that comes with saying goodbye for good, though. Music provided that. There were a lot of records and songs that seemed to come into my life that summer to prop me up and keep me going. Safetysuit's Life Left to Go, a sorely underrated record from a great pop-rock band, was a major one. Third Eye Blind's "Motorcycle Drive-By" and Iron & Wine's "Fever Dream" played very important roles at very important moments in my not-quite love story. Jack's Mannequin's The Glass Passenger leaked the day she left, a coincidence that still elevates how I feel about that record to this day. But the biggest one was undoubtedly Sometimes, an album whose sad, spartan acoustic breakup songs sounded larger than life on late-night, muggy August drives through the back roads of my hometown.

As with Everything in Transit, I was late to the party with Sometimes. As with Everything in Transit, my tardiness was a serendipitous turn of fate. This record released on November 1st, 2005, when I was a freshman in high school. I think I always would have enjoyed it, but had I discovered it at release, I never would have quite gotten what Dallas Green was going through. There were albums that made sense for me to be listening to when I was adjusting to a new school and to the angsty awkwardness of my early high school years, and Sometimes wasn't one of them.

I was and am convinced that some higher power was holding off on delivering Sometimes to my ears until I really needed it. The record was almost three years old when I found it languishing in the dark corners of a friend's iPod and pushed play. When I did, I knew instantly that it was going to play an important role for me. I just didn't know how important.

Sometimes isn't a perfect record. The lesser songs, particularly "In the Water I Am Beautiful," sound amateurish and immature, like a kid playing songs in his bedroom on his first guitar. And "Comin' Home," though solid enough as a song about touring life, gets a bit too much mileage out of just listing geographic locations, a la Red Hot Chili Peppers. But the moments that lock in on this record aren't just among my favorite songs Dallas Green has ever written, or that this "scene" has ever produced; they're among my favorite songs ever.

"Hello, I'm in Delaware" is Green's finest work. Despite the song having a title that doubles as a Wayne's World reference, one of my college friends and I would always talk about how "Delaware" was just about the saddest song ever written. If "Comin' Home" is a solid song about touring life, "Delaware" might be the best song about touring life, give or take a "Faithfully." It's a song about being on the road, miles away from the person you love, and wondering if your relationship can survive until you get a chance to see one another again. When Dallas sings "My body aches, and it hurts to sing, and no one is moving/And I wish that I weren't here tonight, but this is my life" on the bridge, it captures the weariness and resignation that inevitably comes, at some point, in every doomed relationship. Sure, "Delaware" is a song specifically written about the downside of being a touring musician, but the emotions it describes are universal.

There's a tendency among some listeners to avoid the songs or albums they associate with hard times or painful memories. A great website called Ruined Music was built around this concept toward the tail end of the last decade. (If you haven't read it, you should.) But I've rarely felt the need to turn my back on songs that soundtracked the rougher parts of my life. Sure, I can't listen to Sometimes without my chest contracting and my heart twisting in the most bittersweet way imaginable. And yeah, I can't listen to the pop-heartbreak cocktail of "Save Your Scissors" or the desolate acoustic guitar work of "Day Old Hate" without being transported back to those northern Michigan summer nights. The songs on this record still convey to me both the hopeful naivety of young love and the crushing depression of a broken heart, and I assume they always will.

But listening to this record today doesn't hurt me or make me wish things had gone differently. I have the life I have today because of what I learned that summer. Instead, Sometimes is a reminder to me of how music can save your life when you are at your most vulnerable. It's also a reminder of how much a songwriter can accomplish just by telling the truth. Dallas Green is a great vocalist, a talented melodist, and a skilled orchestrator of full-band textures, as evidenced by his last few albums. But he's never quire been able to recapture the heights of the raw and bare-bones Sometimes, simply because he's never again dared to be quite so honest.

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