I post a lot on here about culture, and games, and writing that makes me think—in essence, about all the things that make me love studying what it is I study. But every once in a while I turn off that part of myself, like I did a few posts back with Where Do Birds Go and my tribute to Gravity Falls, so I can share something a little different, something that’s impacted me in a more personal way than most of the things I write about on here. Today, that’s to share with you one of my favorite albums from the past few years—probably one of my favorite pop albums of all-time—and the experiences that have defined my relationship with it.
(And just in case you’d like to know what you’re getting into, I am going to talk a bit about death and a bit more about depression. So proceed with whatever caution you believe necessary.)
Strange Desire is from 2014, though I didn’t hear any of its music until a friend sent me “I Wanna Get Better” the following spring. And if you’ve heard any songs from this album, that’s probably the one—a piano-driven anthem that has since become one of the most therapeutic songs I’ve ever listened to. But more of that in a bit; here’s a little background to get you started.
Strange Desire is the debut album by the band Bleachers, formed by former guitarist of fun. (of “We Are Young” and “Some Nights” fame), Jack Antonoff. At first listen, it sounds like a pretty normal pop album—guitar hooks, catchy piano riffs, soaring vocals, songs about various forms of love. And that was what I thought it was, for a while. But lyrically and as a full album, beyond the pop stylings and refrains, Strange Desire is a record about grief, loss, and the process of recovery; behind those eminently hummable melodies is a slow-burning story about a person—or maybe more than one, I’ve never been sure—finding their way back from the brink. That story peeks its head out in several songs: “Wild Heart,” “Like a River Runs,” “You’re Still a Mystery,” “Ready to Move On/Wild Heart Reprise,” and “Who I Want You to Love” among others, but Antonoff catalogs the whole arc on “I Wanna Get Better”—a song that he’s describe as his mission statement as an artist, and that for me has come to be a bit of a personal fight song.
How? Well, that’s a story in and of itself.
At the beginning of each of the past two summers, I’ve lost a grandparent. And neither… what do I even call the time around a loss like that… has been what I could describe as, well, painless. Everyone in my life (including me) had been stressed out of their minds in the months before, and with loss like that things tend to spill over. So both the end of my freshman year and the end of my sophomore year went from a brief, exhausted, “finals-are-over” collapse to “oh wait I have to dry-clean this suit for a funeral” to, this year, “well, nine days until I’m going to go study in another country for a month—let’s see if we can make it,” to, usually, me sitting in a prone position on my bed with a million voices telling me what I should have been doing with my fleeting time and no actual motion coming from any part of my body.
It’s often cited that college—that unevenly stressful period of late adolescence between the ages of 18 and 22—is where the majority of people, well, people like me, develop their mental illnesses. And while I can trace my depression—in my case the lovely seasonal variant—back to my junior year of high school, it had never been nearly as bad as it has been these past two springs. Now, I’m not going to go into details, or tell you what goes on in my mind around March and April of every year—I write fiction about it, and that’s about as far as I can comfortably go —but I can tell you what it leaves behind. For the first few weeks of May and June, as the summer heats up and the sun makes its record-long days, I feel like a house after an all-consuming fire. Burnt out, like a shell, waiting for some semblance of emotional normalcy to return. My depression leaves a lot of things alone—somehow, I still can function, still think, still write as it’s going on—but what it does take away is a part of my personality that, sometimes, takes a while to come back.
Why does all this matter? Because when I first heard, “I Wanna Get Better,” after the first of these two springs, I felt like I’d fallen apart. And that song became my first step in putting myself back together. I could have listened to it for hours—I probably did—because that longing for recovery that reaches through its every moment was exactly what I needed at that point in my life. Even its starting piano riff feels like a wake-up-call, at once both soothing and energizing. And for me, perhaps the most powerful part of the whole thing is that its protagonist, its character, its singer—whatever you want to call him—is still trying to figure everything out. He goes from longing for a more innocent, less painful past to screaming, quite literally, at himself and into the night that he just wants to get better.
Which, at those points in my life, I identified with. I still do. Because this kind of thing never really leaves—there’s always some record of it, a feeling or a memory that reminds me what I came through. As I said before, Antonoff talks about the song as his mission statement—the result of a series of terrible events in his own past, and the strange way that they propel his art. For me, that’s the same. More than anything else in my life, my depression drives my writing. In fact, it gives me something to write about that feels raw, and unfiltered, and real.
Which I guess aren’t things you would say about most pop music, but which are exactly the words I’d use to describe these songs.
So if you have a minute, or four, or more, take a listen to one of my favorite albums—a thirty-eight minute story of grief, loss, and recovery wrapped up inside some indie-rock wrapping paper and gifted to the world. Here’s a link:
You won’t be disappointed.
And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming. Hope you enjoyed our detour.