Issue #85: Cities by Anberlin
October 2, 2017
Released On February 20, 2007
Released By Tooth & Nail Records
Where to start with Anberlin? The funny irony in the band being from a town in Florida called Winter Haven? The fact that despite making clearly religious and spiritual references in its music, the band never lost footing or appeal with rock and angst loving teenagers worldwide? How about beginning with a simple declaration: Anberlin is a lovely success story of rare proportions.
Seven albums, 16 years, and more genre labels than band members, this group was able to come and go from the world with the kind of full, peaceful, and appreciative closure often hoped for but not always granted in the entertainment sector. Choosing to discuss a slice of Anberlin for Off Your Radar is so difficult because although the discography of every long running band is like the chapters in the story of that particular group, isolating talk to just the Cities era and not opening up to the rest of Anberlin’s very vibrant and complex story feels like making someone start Game Of Thrones four seasons in, without any context of what came before or what would come after. Alas, this isn’t for a band “Who Are They?” piece so a snapshot will have to do, with some contextual footnotes scribbled in the margins for good measure; starting with Anberlin’s easy to bend musical identity.
Wikipedia snapshots Anberlin as an alternative rock band. Parts of its discography provide definite emo mentalities. Stephen Christian’s openness about his faith and willingness to include such in his lyrics made the group a welcomely “cool” feather in Christian music news circles everywhere. (Jesusfreakhideout.com was one site that displayed unusually high on searches for Anberlin reviews or information on Stephen Christian.) Later releases of the band heard the music through an inarguably pop-rock oriented monitor. So, what’s one to make of such a group? A description like this one makes Anberlin sound scattered — like a group that never found and honed an identity. However nothing could be farther from the truth; especially now that the whole body of work can be heard in succession and particularly where Cities falls in the band’s overall timeline. In regards to the album post-release, Christian contextualizes the record’s thematic structure is as as follows:
“[T]he themes of their first two albums, Blueprints For The Black Market and Never Take Friendship Personal, [have] Man vs. World and Man vs. Man mindsets respectively. Cities ties all three together with a Man vs. Self theme.”
Musically, Cities‘ instrumental and ambient sound opener, “(Début),” is intriguing to start and then, like the roaringly energetic tracks of its LP predecessors, is easy to fall into, via the uptempo, tightly interwoven and frenetically toned guitar hooks that fit in with any loud rock fest of the last 10 years. If one listens to the album for no reason other than its diverse (yet sonically relatable) body of distorted-but-harmonizing guitar melodies, and Stephen Christian’s unifying signature voice, there is no shame in that. The music’s surface value alone is entertaining and riveting. Take the record for a few repeat spins however, and there is so much replay value to be felt.
The injection of acoustic restraint on tracks like “The Unwinding Cable Car” and “Inevitable” offer pause and respite from the densely packed tracks inhabiting much of the rest of Cities. Like a fader adding and taking away something in a mix, the sway toward and away from amplified excitement moves the record from one side to the other but stops in between at different levels as well (“There Is No Mathematics To Love And Loss,” “Dismantle. Repair.“). Here, Anberlin demonstrates a talent for carefully thought out track placement. Begin again on a third go round just for the lyrics and Christian’s gift for building radio ready verses with uncommon (read: sophisticated) vocabulary, poetic homage, and religious reference, is worth a read all by itself. Prior to even peeking into the frontman’s thoughts on every Anberlin song ever, it is crystal clear that Christian wants to breach topics far beyond A to B connection and heartbreak. Artistic uncertainty, vices that only bandage personal voids, splintered childhoods, and probably most un-mainstream of all: Christian’s divulging the experiences that shaped where faith and Jesus Christ fit into his life — on the record’s closing “(*Fin)” no less. Lines from some songs really stick out and stay around — like echoes that refuse to settle within the walls of a long and winding cave (“Hands like secrets are the hardest thing to keep from you / Lines and phrases, like knives, your words can cut me through… This is the correlation of salvation and love / Don’t drop your arms, I’ll guard your heart”).
If, after all this, a fourth dissection beckons, hearing the songs in their totality while processing the context of where Anberlin was as a band at the time the songs were made, leads to curiosity about the rest of their tale for many of the same reasons anyone would expand their discovery when trying to get acquainted with a band beyond what’s on the disc. In the scheme of Anberlin’s whole catalog, Cities was like a chapter of refinement and striking equilibrium between the sound that made them appealing, the sensitivity that made them about more than shouting to be heard, and the human courage that allowed narrative vulnerability and solidified Anberlin’s commitment to not avoiding risk – even in the face of increasing opportunity to ride safely on growing fame.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
Ruminative alt-rock that constantly pushes on its own growing boundaries, until it yields something truly special.
It’s been a while, and as much as I would have liked to make my great return with an album entitled We Fucked A Flame Into Being, I feel like it’s far more appropriate for me to return to OYR the week we do an Anberlin album. Back in the mid-2000s, I was heavily into the whole metalcore-emo axis of Hot Topic bands I’m sure all my age-appropriate friends laughed at my 30 year old ass behind my back for liking. So I certainly knew the name Anberlin, but for whatever reason, they weren’t a band I ever got around to checking out, at least until OYR brought them back in my life. Now I regret having slept on them for so long, because good grief, Cities is one hell of an album. I wasn’t too sure about the long intro, but once it kicked into “Godspeed” I knew this was an album tailor-made for my sensibilities. Then “Adelaide” combined catchy emo choruses and some excellent vocal harmonies with an irresistible hook, plus some crunchy guitars and choppy drumming to keep one foot still rooted in punk rock, and I was totally sold. “Adelaide” turns out to be the apex of the record for me — and my god, what a highlight; I wish I had been able to put this song on the mix CDs I used to burn for myself to listen to while working at the series of bookstores where I worked back in those days. That was a pretty lonely life, and lovelorn post-hardcore hooks were sometimes the only things that got me through a day. I could have used this song back then. The song that stands out to me now, though, is the album’s second-half ballad, “Inevitable,” which makes a heart-on-sleeve declaration of wanting to be someone’s “last first kiss.” I heard this song, and this whole album, while driving home from a daytrip to the mountains with my wife, who I married during that long break I took from OYR (just so you know I was doing important things while I was gone). I’m so glad that today, the songs on emo albums that mean the most to me are the ones about happy relationships, not the ones about heartbreak. Cities has quite a few other highlights that jumped out at me — “Dismantle. Repair.” and “A Whisper & A Clamor” have a heavy yet emotional and melodic sound that reminds me of Thursday and Funeral For A Friend at their respective best, while the heightening of the keyboard/electronic textures that usually stay farther in the background on “There Is No Mathematics To Love And Loss” do a great job of adding new layers to an already-killer pop song. But the most important summation of this album’s impact on me is to say that this will certainly get added to my regular listening rotation for the next little while — a level many other OYR albums have not attained. For real this time — this rules.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
I really dig the emotional threads that run through Cities. In particular there’s a three song run at the end of the album that plays so perfectly together that I almost think of it as one long epic record, featuring three distinct movements. It starts with “Inevitable,” which tells a story of childhood memories and innocent first-love that pulls on everyone’s heart strings immediately. I can see this record easily being the number one choice of wedding video editors everywhere, after the massive exposure provided by OYR, of course. Sealing the deal here are the lush strings (a far underutilized element in rock music, I feel) that build into the chorus. Round of applause for the production here. Santa’s sleigh bells then lead us into “Dismantle. Repair.,” which feels very much like a man trying to fight off a seven year itch. In fact, the lyrics even allude to the strings in the previous record (“I tried to escape you, but the orchestra plays on”). Yes, I realize that I could be reaching here, but I always try to swing for the fences in whatever I do. And then we reach the emotional climax of the album on the aptly titled “(*Fin).” This eight-minute epic is nothing short of intense, featuring some stunning, Bono-level vocal runs and a children’s chorus, another far underutilized, but always effective device from the rock toolbox. Now that’s how you finish an album!
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
When Cities was released, I was fourteen and so full of anger, angst, and Monster energy drink regrettably. Now, I’m 24 and even though I ditched Monster for coffee, I still love this album. For long drives, nights in, or any party with an early 2000s theme, Cities is a great choice. This album is a high energy trip that features a diverse range of instruments and timeless themes. Anberlin holds a very special place in my heart. Cities was there when I was at my edgiest and I’ll always think fondly of this album. I know I’m not the only one either — Cities was a huge hit at my high school with many of the tracks successfully voted in and played with our morning announcements. I remember times when I felt undervalued like when my best friend was being a jerk, my parents wouldn’t let me stay out late, or something equally trivial got to me… I would listen to “Godspeed” and walk with my head held high. I would imagine myself looking cool and unapproachable to every passer-by, but in reality, I was 5’2 with half my face constantly covered in jet black locks of oily pubescent hair. But Anberlin helped me feel better, cooler, and more put together when I felt I was at my most fragile. So, I find myself enjoying this album on another level to other listeners. Now you may not be as willing to don all your long forgotten Hot Topic apparel and reminisce over high school memories as I am, so if this is your first time making memories with Anberlin you can look forward to an evening of charged guitars, epic larger than life drum work, and excellently executed vocals. For those of you returning after ten long years, welcome back, nice eyeliner.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
A perfect 2000s video to match the song’s pensive outlook on hope.
Here’s a funny story I have about Anberlin, though not quite about Cities: I thought I was familiar with Anberlin going into this album. And in a way, I did: they contributed a cover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” to the Punk Goes 90’s compilation, and a former girlfriend once put a song on a mix for me. But outside of those two songs, it turns out that for the past decade I’ve been mixing them up with an entirely different band. I always thought Anberlin was best known for writing and recording their album in a large bubble-like dome for MTV’s Band In A Bubble, but as the internet was quick to point out, that band was in fact, Cartel, and not Anberlin. Who knew? (Okay. A lot of people knew that, but I sure didn’t.) I guess that inadvertently says a bit about my initial expectations from this album. I know saying nearly all the pop punk and emo acts of the mid-2000s are interchangeable is a common criticism lobbed at the scene and I hate that I accidentally implied it. After all, I had my fair share of Equal Vision and Drive-Thru Records bands popping up in my Spotify Time Capsule playlist this past week. And thanks to my time listening to plenty of bands exactly like that, I felt like I already knew what to expect from Anberlin, despite having spent all of this time thinking that they were a different band. Much like I expected, Cities does sound a lot like stuff I listened to in high school. And I know exactly how it would have happened: I would buy the CD as a recommendation from a friend; I would listen once or twice and, decide I really only like a handful of songs (likely the single “Godspeed” and probably other upbeat songs about being like “Hello Alone” and “Dismantle. Repair.“); Not wanting to hurt my friend’s feelings, I’d tell them that I like the whole album; Since I paid money for it, I would force myself to keep the CD in my discman for awhile; After a week and a half, I would realize I actually do enjoy it, particularly the build-up and backing choir vocals in “(*Fin).” I think it says a lot about the power of music, and music association, that an album I’ve never listened to before can strike up such vivid memories. I also finally listened to a Cartel song and I’m sorry to anyone who might have scoffed at the idea that I could mix up the two bands.
Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie
When Anberlin had a song on my Alternative Songs countdown show (“Impossible” from 2010’s Dark Is The Way, Light Is A Place, two albums after this one) I talked a little about what makes a band a “Christian band” and the conclusion I personally came to was this: If the band is good enough, that kind of label is irrelevant. Anberlin seemed good enough to drop the label then and this album from three years earlier makes me feel the same way. They are bringing such talent to each song on Cities that it doesn’t matter what their religious beliefs are or aren’t. Music that might be written off initially as typical post-pop-punk (did I just create a genre?) with a lot of style but no content, on closer inspection, is incredibly infectious in the way that only truly well-written songs have. File this one in the ever-growing folder of albums that should be longtime favorites by now.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
Pop music production has had such a transformative effect of rock music in the past decade. Foo Fighters and Queens Of The Stone Age have both turned to pop producers just this year to refresh their sound, with a strong degree of success. I wasn’t sure this was happening on Anberlin’s Cities until I listened to the newest record of Cities producer Aaron Sprinkle, who worked with so many popular Tooth & Nail bands. Songs on Sprinkle’s record sound like Selena Gomez I was not expecting to hear that. (Quick note: I Selena Gomez.) Second, the influence of pop music is even more apparent when listening to the live version of Cities. The live record rocks so much harder than the studio version, which often has the vocals up front, way louder than instruments, and everything sounds compressed. I knew the songs on Cities were good, but hearing them in a live setting supercharged them, giving them more of a prog rock influence. Back to the studio version of Cities — standout tracks include rockers “Adelaide” and “Godspeed,” but I was most impressed with “Hello Alone,” which shows both the band’s pop and rock sides. There’s a fun, singalong chorus, but also chugging guitars — I honestly thought it was the “hit” on the record until I did more research. Recording rock like pop music has a high degree of difficulty, but I think Sprinkle and the band did a good job. Overall, Cities wasn’t always my jam, but know it will be the jam to some of our readers who are hearing about it for the first time. Just check the live recording first.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
Cities could be viewed as the highpoint of Anberlin, something supported by the fact that a blistering live recording of the album closes out their discography.
This week was my first time listening to Anberlin, a band I’ve heard of over the years but was never drawn — or pushed — toward. While I don’t think they will find a permanent place in my listening life, I am seriously impressed by the way they combine polish and passion in their upbeat music, with soaring walls of electric guitars seamlessly transitioning to glassy piano and pretty acoustic fingerpicking. The rhythms section is supercharged and tightly focused on propelling the songs without drawing undue attention to themselves. The vocals reach for the sky in every tune — and why not? Life is short! But as beautifully produced as everything is, I actually find the live version, released after the band split, more compelling. Hearing people sing along, and that slight touch of grit in the sonics, seems to let some air Anberlin’s music, which may be what I’m missing on the album. The blast of guitars on the live take of “There Is No Mathematics To Love And Loss” is truly incendiary. Amazingly enough, it was the first time they had played it live, and since it was a farewell show, they never played it again. That makes me a little sad but there is something to be said for going out on top.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
Anything’s a Rorschach test if you look hard enough. (See what I did there?) In all seriousness, I see an ink-blottish opportunity hidden in Anberlin choruses. The band demonstrates complete mastery of the quiet-loud formula on Cities, and when the choruses hit, they can feel like a fire hose blasting precise harmonies and unyielding overdrive — to the point where you can imagine the peaks and valleys of your typical SoundCloud-style waveform as a solid rectangle of volume. Given all that sound, it’s interesting to see what stands out, especially when you’re listening and letting your mind wander. For example, one line in the chorus of “Alexithymia” really grabbed me: “There’s more to living than being alive.” I couldn’t get those words out of my mind, even as the album moved on to other strong choruses and quotable lines. What does that say about me? What is it about the way I’m spending my time on Earth that’s unsettling to the point where those words are extra meaningful? This kind of introspection fits perfectly with something frontman Stephen Christian said about the album’s overarching focus: “Cities is more adult in the manner that it’s Man vs. Self.” I have to admit that I didn’t foresee psychoanalysis being a central aspect of my inaugural Anberlin experience. Guess it’s all in how you look at it.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Mention the band Anberlin and I instantly think of “Feel Good Drag,” a song I practically had memorized when it first came out. Not because I was obsessed with the band or the song. Not at all. See, I worked in fast food at the time and the radio station in the kitchen was almost exclusively turned to XL102, a local alt-rock station that pretty much ruined radio for me. From the fall of ’08 to the fall of ’09, I heard “Feel Good Drag” anywhere from two to four times a day when I was working, often followed or preceded by Flyleaf’s “Fully Alive” which I only remember because for the longest time, I couldn’t tell which band was which thanks to the station’s lazy programming sequence. What’s interesting is that at the same time this was happening, I was also starting to soften to the idea of “Christian music,” even though I had no idea Anberlin was often classified (or misclassified depending on who you ask) as a Christian band. Like most music fans, I had a, let’s say, tenuous relationship with the phrase “Christian music.” Just that phrase alone still makes me think of Scott Stapp and Faith +1 so you get the idea. Anyway, it was a co-worker at the time who opened my eyes to what “Christian music” could be. After bonding over our love of Jimmy Eat World, he suggested a ton of artists — some out-right Christian (Derek Webb), some questionably classified like Anberlin (Between The Trees) — and slowly but surely, my perception of the genre changed. I thought a lot about this time while listening to the record and reading up about the band. Specifically the fact that while I clearly softened on the style back then, I never completely flipped like I have at times on other genres. Gun to my head, I think it’s because I never got that one special record that made me think “there’s something here, and I need to listen to it.” The Anberlin record with “Feel Good Drag” on it… well, that wouldn’t have been that record thanks to my brain being done with that one song. Cities though… Cities would have been that record. The intriguing sounds, the song structures, the choruses; it all seemed like a step-up from the typical alt-rock sound of the time which would have piqued my interest. After that, it would have only been a matter of time before the ingenious sequencing and songs like “Inevitable” made me hit repeat on my iPod Touch. On that sequencing, it reminded me a bit of Bleed American by Jimmy Eat World (all connected in this story it seems) with its ebb and flow, though Cities took better advantage of the space in between the songs and styles. 2008 me would have zoomed in a bit more after thinking that and I would have landed on a number of strong songs to love like “There Is No Mathematics To Love And Loss” with that techno guitar tone and “(*Fin)” with its deeply rewarding nine minute journey. And then there’s “Adelaide,” a great, classic R&B song masquerading as emo that’s enjoyable for me now, but would have been perfect for 2008 me who had just finished collecting every Arlene Smith and Frankie Lymon song. That opening verse alone seems like it was in the first draft of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On:” “You’re repeating me lines / That you think I want to hear / But I don’t want to hear anymore / As if sorry is any consolation / For what it’s worth, you’re stringing me alone.” Listen back to it, close your eyes, and replace the guitars as “ooh-ahhs” in the background. Totally a doo-wop song, with a chorus that would have won over any crowd in the late ’50s. That song alone a decade ago would have made me want to listen to everything from Anberlin I could just to see what else there was. Just not “Feel Good Drag.” Enough is still enough, XL102.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
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Chosen By Melissa Koch