Thursday, March 31, 2016

How Music Mended Broken Hearts: A Farewell to AbsolutePunk

Eight years ago this past February, I stumbled upon while scouring the internet for Butch Walker b-sides. By this point, I'd probably visited the website a few times for various pieces of news—my favorite artists list did include Jimmy Eat World and Jack's Mannequin, after all—but on that day in February 2008, I finally took the plunge and set up an account. Excuse the cliché, but little did I know that I'd just made a decision that would change my life in countless incredible ways. (or, as we call it around the forums) has meant different things to me at different times over the course of the last eight years. At first, it was little more than a source for b-sides and rare bonus tracks. The b-sides thread in the General forum was my main haunt—if not my only one. Then, it was my place to ruffle feathers and blow off steam online. I can't much fault the many trolls I have argued with and banned from the site over the years, because I used to be one of them.

But then, slowly, AbsolutePunk started to become my "home" online. It became the first site I hit every day when I came home from school, and the site I hung around in the evenings. Whether I was looking for new music, trying to find out about leaks, or chatting about longtime favorite bands and albums, became the ultimate outlet for my music obsession. I'd been a ravenous music fan since 2004, but most of my friends in real life didn't share the passion. That's not to say my best buds listened to bad music, but it was rare for me to have long, in-depth conversations about records or artists with friends, or to trade mixtapes or recommendations with people at school. Aside from my brother, there weren't many people in my life who followed music with the furor I did. That situation meant it was incredibly fulfilling and personal when I'd discover a new album that blew my mind, but it was also a solitary place to be.

AbsolutePunk gave me a way to talk to a whole slew of people who adored music as much as I did. These people were passionate about the same artists I was; they connected to music in the same visceral way that I did; and perhaps most importantly, they knew about artists and bands that I'd never even heard of. To say that hanging out on the forums at introduced me to a lot of new music would be an understatement. To give just a few examples, people on this site turned me on to (in rough chronological order) The Gaslight Anthem, Valencia, Copeland, Bon Iver, The New Frontiers, Lydia, The Damnwells, The Dangerous Summer, Cary Brothers, Chad Perrone, Charlie Simpson, Jason Isbell, The 1975, Kacey Musgraves, The Hotelier, Noah Gundersen, and Chris Stapleton. For anyone who knows me, has heard one of my playlists, or has read any of my writing over the past several years, just seeing the artists on that list should be enough to convey what this site meant to me. Perhaps more impressively, that list barely scratches the surface of the music I discovered on AbsolutePunk.

Eventually, AbsolutePunk evolved into something else for me. I posted on this site every day throughout college (even the day after I bombed out of my college major), always reading the reviews or chatting about Springsteen or JEW with other users. It was my place to write about music before I was really a writer at all. And then once I did start blogging, the forums were always one of the first places I would go to share my work. I did that for a year, from the summer of 2011 to the summer of 2012, slowly becoming more confident in myself and the words I wrote. It was always a treat to be bolstered along by compliments and thoughtful conversation from the people on this site.

Then, one day in July 2012, I posted a review of The Gaslight Anthem's Handwritten on my blog. As was customary by then, I quickly went over to the forums and dropped a link to the review in the official album thread. I didn't expect anything to come of it: the site already had a Handwritten review by then (shout out to Thomas Nassiff's 10.0 endorsement) and I was mostly aiming to continue the emphatic discussion about the record that I'd already been having with other users on the site.

But when I logged on to later that afternoon—at work, no less; always the slacker—I had a private message in my inbox titled with three simple words: "Contributing to AP." The message, sent by one-time staff member Matthew Tsai, was short and sweet: "Hey! I passed on your Gaslight review to some of the staff and a lot of us really dig how you write. Jason was wondering if you'd be interested in coming on staff and writing for us. Let me know!" I didn't need to think for more than a split second before typing out that, yes, I would be interested.

I could say "and then the rest was history" at this point, but I don't think that line would do justice to what writing for did for me, both personally and professionally. As fate would have it, I'd just switched my college major to professional writing (from classical voice) and reviewing records on AbsolutePunk was the perfect complement to that academic pursuit. Working for the site gave me an edge over my fellow students—not just in terms of resume, but also in that I had a chance to take all of the writing habits I was learning in the classroom and employ them in a practical environment. I progressed so quickly as a writer during my two semesters of senior year, and while a part of that has to be owed to my great professors, perhaps a bigger part was owed to this website.

Indeed, AbsolutePunk was the perfect place to develop my voice as a writer. Instead of being pinned down by assignments, I had the freedom to decide what I wanted to write about. Instead of dealing with deadlines, I could work projects on my own time and hone my reviews until they were precisely where I wanted them to be. Instead of being held to some bullshit standard of objectivity, I could be as blatantly personal and subjective as I wanted in my writing. Other publications around the internet might have had "better" writing or more "prestige" than we did at AbsolutePunk, but I fully believe that our staff consisted of the most honest and passionate music writers on the internet. And artists noticed.

Writing for AbsolutePunk taught me how to stay motivated and govern the quality, approach, and scope of my writing on my own terms—skills that have served me well in my current role as work-from-home freelance writer. More than that, though, writing for taught me to love music more deeply and not to be afraid of sharing those emotional connections with other people. Over the course of three and a half years as a staff member, I wrote 200 reviews (on the dot) and contributed dozens of other articles and features. The best of those—and the ones that tended to get the biggest response from readers—were the ones where I took the site's mantra of "Music Mends Broken Hearts" to…well, to heart. I spilled my exhilaration and fear about graduating college in pieces about Jimmy Eat World's Damage and Bruce Springsteen's The Wild, The Innocent, The E Street Shuffle; I reflected on past heartache every time I wrote about City and Colour; I went full fanboy and reviewed every single Butch Walker album in the span of a week; I talked about the life-changing power of music and mourned the loss of my grandfather in a retrospective piece about Jimmy Eat World's Futures; I talked about falling in love with my wife in my 10-year retrospective for Jack's Mannequin's Everything in Transit; I wrote myself to tears talking about how Born to Run had acted like a "hidden map of life" during my coming-of-age years; and I waxed poetic about learning life's big lessons not in the classroom, but at Bruce Springsteen's live shows. These pieces were incredibly special to me, and it was nothing short of life affirming to see that they were special to other people as well.

Reviews weren't the only thing that made being an AbsolutePunk staff member amazing, either. Everything from getting albums months early to shooting the shit with other staff in Slack to chatting with my favorite artists made this job a joy. How many people get to spend hours picking their heroes' brains about music? The remarkably in-depth conversations I had with Chris Carrabba, Chad Perrone, Brian Fallon, Noah Gundersen, Jason Isbell, Matt Nathanson, and Donovan Woods taught me more about songwriting and the musical art than two and a half years in music school combined. Suffice to say that those conversations played a big role in getting me to a place where I was ready to write and record my own album. More on that later.

And how poetic is it that, almost exactly seven years after I found AbsolutePunk while digging around for Butch Walker b-sides, Butch Walker himself called me up for an hour-long telephone conversation? That interview, about Butch's masterful 2015 release Afraid of Ghosts, is the kind of career highlight that I'm not sure I'll ever top. How can you beat a candid conversation with a guy you've worshipped since before puberty? How can you top an interview that comes together not because of a publicist, but because your hero reads your tweet, recognizes your name, and replies back "Dude, I'll do an interview with you!" Even getting your review retweeted by Taylor Swift can't quite rival that.
That's the thing about AbsolutePunk. We never necessarily did things by the book or the way that other publications did. In a lot of ways, we were amateurs. But when it comes to loving music, there's no such thing as being a professional. This place, from the forums to the staff all the way up to Jason Tate himself, was always a bastion of musical adoration the likes of which you couldn't find anywhere else on the internet. Now, the sun is setting on that bastion. Countless broken hearts have been mended by music and by the supportive community that AbsolutePunk offered, and now, it's time for the next adventure. Mission accomplished. Mischief managed.

As Jason said in his lengthy farewell post to AbsolutePunk, this ending is not a goodbye; rather, it's the end of one chapter and the start of another—the start of one that, hopefully, will be even better. When Jason first showed me in January and told me about his plans to "sunset" in favor of the new site, part of me was hit with the realization that something I had loved was ending. But another part—perhaps a bigger part—was excited about the future. I have never seen Jason as excited or as passionate as he has been in the run-up to Chorus. Since AbsolutePunk built its brand on passion, it's only logical that the next site would start there too.

Still, there are things I'll miss about I'll miss calling myself a Senior Editor of a major music publication. I'll miss organizing massive site features, like our staff-combined year-end lists. I'll miss going back and sorting through all of the content I wrote over there (though I've reposted almost everything here on this blog). But hey, at least I got a poetic ending. Last month, I posted my 200th and final album review on the website, of Brian Fallon's new solo album, Painkillers. Since I got hired to the site for writing about Fallon's main project, The Gaslight Anthem, closing out with another review of his work was a nice coming-full-circle moment for me. Now, I'm ready for what's next: the next review; the next interview; the next EOTY list where I write way too many words about the albums I loved; the next discovery on the forums; hopefully not the next kid telling us that it's AbsolutePUNK not AbsoluteSomeGenreOtherThankPunk.

But before we get to that, I would be remiss if I didn't cast one last look back on the entity that shaped my writing more than any other, or give one last thank you to all of the people who made it worth it. To everyone who ever read and enjoyed my reviews, challenged my way of thinking about music, recommended artists, or worked alongside me—thank you. You know who you are. Thanks especially to Jason Tate for the myriad of amazing opportunities this site has given me. You'll probably be hearing a lot of thank-you's to Jason over the next few days, and it's not hard to see why: was the place where many of us grew up and found our voices. Here's hoping there's some kid out there who will be able to let do what did for me.

Some (Almost) Final Statistics:

Why is there no "Minutes wasted arguing with fellow users" section?
I wish I had a total review word count here, because I'm sure it's just ridiculous.
My Final Post: 


  1. Great write-up. Even from this piece I can see how you progressed as a writer in the last few years; I read it all in one breath.

    I'm surprised to see go, but then again, I didn't go there very often lately, or at all for that matter. The new site looks a little confusing to me but I'm glad to see it still going strong, with the people and all, for old time's sake.

    Best wishes.

    1. Hey man, long time no talk. Thanks for reading. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      The new site took some getting used to, but it works really well I think. The only thing I'm still not used to is the content being entirely separate from the forums.