We’re Half Awake

Let’s talk about being romantic. I don’t necessarily mean romance as in love and sex songs, like “Seas Too Far to Reach” or “Sweet Thing”. Rather, I am talking about a certain way of experiencing the world. There’s a way of processing things and a style of artistic expression that swoons and expands – it’s evocative and transformative, it’s the grand gesture, it feels so much. In my mind, there’s a difference between “romantic” and “romance.” Though, let’s be honest, it was frequently about romance too. My fiancée has lovingly teased what she calls my “sentimental heart” and defines my single years by the quote from Teen Girl Squad: “I have a crush on every boy!” So, let’s just say that romance is not the only thing I mean here, or the most important one.

The other day I decided to listen to the latest album by the Arcade Fire (Reflektor, which has really grown on me since it came out). While listening, I was struck by a desire to listen to Funeral, their first album and always my favorite. I put it on and began to think about how much I listened to this record, how it (along with many many other albums) came to be the soundtrack for so many aspects of my young life. The imagery they used is the perfect encapsulation of making the simple epic, the mundane grand. “If my parents are crying, then I’ll dig a tunnel from my window to yours.” The first song, “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”, takes something as simple as visiting a friend or lover while growing up in a suburban town and injects it with all the magic and intensity that that simple act seems to hold at a young age. The desire and need is so strong for the narrator that they envision themselves doing something completely ludicrous and impossible in order to fulfill it. Nothing, not even a blizzard, will stop this fulfillment; to the contrary, it will actually add to the beauty and emotion of the situation. The album is full of lines like that, giving things like bedrooms, street lamps, snow, letters, the backseat and the moon the mystical importance they deserve.

That album came to embody almost any emotion I was going through: unrequited love, the start of a new relationship, depression, anxiety, happiness with my friends and, most importantly for this essay, that feeling of everything being too much. The problem with being a romantic is that wearing your heart on your sleeve gives it no protection, as I learned again and again. What I mean is that getting so much emotion and meaning out of everything goes hand in hand with being someone for whom emotions become overwhelming or painful. They make you feel like you’re going to explode. Add to that an anxiety disorder and a propensity for depression, and you’ve got quite the powder keg. But music was there to help me with that, as well. These singers felt the same way as me, or at least helped me put words and catharsis to the crashing waves of feeling. From “No Cars Go” and its longing for a quiet place of peace to Joanna Newsom’s cry of “I slept all day; I woke with distaste” or “all that I’ve got is scattered like seed and all that I know is moving away from me.” There was David Fridlund solo (and with his band The Citizens), and the way he would take the feelings of breaking down, of suicidal thoughts, of cracking up and depression and fear and would cathartically express them with a reckless and oddly joyous abandon. There was Ben Gibbard softly singing about how “I live like a hermit in my own head.” I saw myself there. Those lyrics and moments became my lyrics and moments: they were someone else’s art but used to express Me. “This is not my tune, but it’s mine to use.”

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Looking back on all this it’s no real surprise that this kind of music is one I hooked into so intensely. The first albums I ever really loved were by Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen. For Bruce that album was “The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” which, of all his albums, is arguably the most filled with that kind of poetry-just listen to “New York City Serenade” or “Sandy”. And, for all of Waits’ growling and obsession with odd rhythms and atonality he is a maudlin romantic at heart. He never quite lost that image of the guy drunk in a bar, sadly crooning into his shot glass, no matter how strange and unique his music became.

This connection is not just to music. I can see it in the way Chungking Express felt like an atom bomb going off in my discovery of film and what I wanted out of it. Or the way I watched Before Sunrise 6 times in 2 days. Or the way I’ve always gravitated to Alice McDermott’s rapturous prose and incantatory passages about family, suburbia and the everyday occurrences of life. But movies and books are a topic for a different essay.

Music was always more important, anyway. The amount of times that it has been there for me is astronomical. I remember feeling lonely in a new city and for some reason being unable to stop listening to The Replacements: “Bastards of the Young”, “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Left of the Dial.” They became my soundtrack for those first few months in Philadelphia. As I met and started to get to know the girl who is now my fiancée I would listen to “Kiss me on the Bus” with giddy anticipation. Even now, I still put on “Unsatisfied” almost daily. I think about how Sufjan Stevens and Wolf Parade came to define my Sophomore year of college, where I finally felt like I was making a second home for myself and getting out of my shell, and how I used to belt “THIS HEARTS ON FIRE THIS HEARTS ON FIRE” at the top of my lungs as I drove home from school. I look at the way Brand New and Death Cab for Cutie will always bring me back to a certain teenage feeling, even if I didn’t actually listen to them until I was in my early 20s. I don’t think I’ve listened to a Death Cab album seriously since Plans, but nevertheless if I put it or Transatlanticism on…well, just watch out because you are going to hear some off-key warbling, that’s for sure. The Promise Ring, Sunny Day Real Estate, Built to Spill, Hüsker Dü, Modest Mouse…these skinny, punky, snotty kids who wear their hearts on their sleeves became my heroes. And the romantic doesn’t have to simply be lyrics – sound can go a long way too. Just look at My Bloody Valentine’s woozy swoonscapes, or the stately sounds of The National’s Boxer. I used to listen to “Fake Empire” as I took a cab from my girlfriend’s dorm in New York back to the train station that’d take me back to Jersey. As those horns kicked in and I looked up at the city lights at night, I felt like my whole future was opening up to me.

At this point, I could spend this entire essay quoting lyrics or discussing sounds at you, and the music nerd in me most definitely wants to (let’s all make mixtapes for each other and stay up until 3 AM discussing the guitar sound of Joey Santiago), but that’s not why I started this. No, I want to talk about how things are today.

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Lately there’s been something going on with me. I find it much more difficult to emotionally connect with the art I surround myself with. It seems to have happened gradually, and I didn’t notice it at first. It lurked under the cover of just “being tired” or trying to watch too many things at once, or not paying close enough attention. It’s more than that, though.

All my life I’ve struggled with this certain sensation. My good friend playfully labeled it “Novocaine for the soul.” She was referencing the Eels (and calling me out for thinking too much) but I thought it fit pretty damn well. It’s this…disconnect from everything; a certain numbness or emptiness that hangs over it all. The emotions are there, but there is a removed quality. I look at the people I love around me and feel like I am looking at strangers. Even though I feel so much for them, miss them when they are gone, and remember, happily, all of the things we’ve done together, something about it feels derealized for me – like it had happened to someone else, in a dream, another life. This makes me feel constantly…broken. I always had trouble explaining it to people; even as I write this I know I am not fully accurately describing it. Most of the time the reaction was to laugh it off or tell me I was overthinking things (which, I’ll admit, is also true). It is a separate and distinct feeling from the suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression I’ve also struggled with. And no, unfortunately, this detachment did not make any of those things easier to compartmentalize, instead often feeding into them. Over the years, though, I have learned to live with this feeling, as I’ve learned to live with everything else. There are good days and bad, but I’m able to accept it as a part of me. Just another thing that makes me Brian.

Overall, though, I’m happy. I’m engaged to someone who understands me in a way I never thought I’d ever find in my life, I have good friends, I laugh, and I am dealing with my anxiety and other issues better than I ever have before. I want to make that clear before moving on.

But, here’s the thing. I have been feeling, lately, like music is being conquered by the “disconnect” too. Music, the thing that helped me forge so much of my identity, that helped me process being overwhelmed by big emotions or feeling numb to things that should have been more, that was there for me through every god damn emotion or event in my life is now something I have such trouble connecting to in an emotional way. The one thing that I thought this would never touch, that could always speak to me beyond even books and movies. I find myself listening to all those old records I talked about, obsessively, trying to tap into the nostalgia, to feel in that moment again for a little while. I, who once discussed “feeling too much” would now give almost anything to feel that much again, sometimes, so I could tap into it and not feel so fucking broken.

Anytime I find something in the last year that I connect with in that way, such as the last A Sunny Day in Glasgow album or the Little Big League album from last year, I clutch it to myself like some sort of precious stone, playing it over and over again. There are often albums that I even “like” more. They might seem more important somehow, or “better”. They might go higher on my top 10 list, be talked of more among the critics and my friends. But they don’t cut through it all the way. Whenever I am watching a movie and it actually makes me cry, I replay it in my mind, making myself feel it as much as possible, milking every bit of catharsis from it.

I have heard about the way our brains change physically and chemically. When we are younger, we process things differently than we do as adults due to this change. So, maybe all of this is just the natural process of growing older. My friend has also talked about how people like us NEED to have that connection to art to get through the turmoil of our younger years. Now, we don’t need it anymore. It has served its purpose, yet we don’t want to accept that because it was so important to us for so long. Or maybe it is the day-in-day-out work schedule, the way my energy is sapped at days end, my brain too numb to do anything but look at things objectively, like “Oh this is a pretty song…” or “That’s a beautiful shot…” without actually feeling it. It makes experiencing art feel more like homework. It becomes this thing I do because I have to, not because it’s an important part of my life. In fact, this is probably a huge portion of it…I can trace the gradual change in how I connect to art back to around when I started this 9-5 job. And, I know I am also definitely having the turning 30 crisis.

So, what am I doing? I’m doing what I always do. I’m figuring ways to cope. I try to be more mindful of my time with art. I try to make it special or share it with others. I pay attention to it and I try to only sit down for it when I really want to, and not just as another thing to do that day. I try to be present and enjoy every moment with the people I love, connect with, and share a feeling with, and not take them for granted. And, I try to put on some music once in a while and scream my head off while I drive somewhere.

And so, put on “Wake Up” with me right now, and let’s sing… “Now that, I’m older, my heart’s colder…our bodies get bigger, but our hearts get torn up…I GUESS WE’LL JUST HAVE TO ADJUST