Annie – “Out of Reach”

Before there was Carly Rae Jepsen and Kristin Kontrol, there was Annie. The Norwegian singer gained some amount of fame over a decade ago with her 2004 album, Anniemal, which was a hit on music blogs back when music blogs were semi-relevant and people read them. I heard the album a few years later, when I was a stereotypical indie snob who looked down on any kind of pop music, and it helped convert me into someone who saw the craft and emotion that good pop can have.

Annie has fallen out of the limelight since, in part due to not being a very prolific artist (she’s released just one full length since Anniemal, 2009’s underrated Don’t Stop) and in part due to music websites turning into PR factories for established pop stars. Once Pitchfork and the others started celebrating celebrity-driven pop made by Beyonce, Drake and Rihanna and covering their every move, there wasn’t room for artists like Annie, who had found her niche as a pop artist for the people who enjoyed a good song but didn’t particularly care about the public lives of famous people.

That’s why I missed Annie’s Endless Vacation EP in 2015; it got some token reviews from websites, but virtually no discussion that could be heard over everyone clamoring for Taylor Swift and others. It turned out to be one of the releases in I listened to the most in 2016, and has a couple perfect Annie songs on it: the opening track, “Kiara Mia,” and “Out of Reach,” which I think is the best song she’s ever recorded.

At its best, Annie’s music combines the blissful feeling of pop with melancholic, wistful lyrics, like on “Heartbeat,” which was the song she was most known for back in 2004. “Out of Reach” is like the platonic ideal of this type of pop song, with a tropical sound, Annie’s light, dreamy vocals and lyrics that I find deeply relatable and poignant. On the surface, it tells the story of a potential lover that got away, but for me it taps into deeper feelings of how I live my life and parts of me I want to change.

I’m a very introverted, passive person, and it leads to me always feeling like I’m missing out on something in the moment because I’m too scared to go out of my comfort zone. Then, like Annie on this song, I spend time in the present dwelling on those mistakes in the past; the possible friends I could have made, the dumb things I said, the various forks in the road where I went down a path I wish I hadn’t. I assume this is a somewhat universal thing, but I am egregiously bad about it, and instead of confronting the issue head-on, I tend to stay to myself and listen to songs like “Out of Reach” while avoiding human contact.

I am not typically a New Year’s resolution type of person (I’m more one of those obnoxious “YEARS ARE JUST CONSTRUCTS THAT MEAN NOTHING” people), but in 2017 one of my hopes is I can be less of a recluse and take some of those chances that I’ve avoided in the past. And I don’t know if I would have been fully motivated to do that if not for “Out of Reach” and how perfectly it articulates that human experience.

“I Want to Grow Up” Track-By-Track

I’ve already written a couple of posts about Colleen Green’s I Want to Grow Up, while also consistently championing it on social media for the last few months. By now, I imagine people are kind of sick of me talking about it. But everything I’ve said about it doesn’t do justice to how much I’ve thought about this album over the course of the year and how it has become the soundtrack to my 2015 life.

“Soundtrack of my life” is a phrase I find really corny. I tend to be more detached about music, analyzing it as an art form and looking at the artist’s intent rather than trying to insert myself in the proceedings. This is partially because I enjoy critically examining things in this way, but also because my experiences (or lack thereof) never were really the subject of songs.

Songs are often about extreme moments in life: the highest highs and the lowest lows. Great art is often associated with dramatic feelings like ecstasy or heartbreak. If my life were a graph, it would just be a straight line down the middle. Nothing that great has ever happened to me, but nothing that bad has either. I’ve kind of floated along, feeling mostly invisible and inconsequential, waiting for something to happen. Needless to say, that floating, invisible feeling isn’t usually the subject of music, because it’s perceived as not being interesting.

I Want to Grow Up really resonated with me because it’s the first album that attacks that invisible feeling with pinpoint accuracy. After years of listening to music in a detached, analytical way, this album stepped up, confronted me, and basically punched me in the face. I almost had to stop listening the first time I played it because the lyrics were too real and I was getting paranoid that Green had gained direct access to my thoughts.

A couple months ago, I did something I never do: I went to a record store and saw Green play a concert. She played by herself with an iPad programming the drums, and performed every song on the album except for one (more on that later). Afterwards, I did something else that I really never do: I approached her and told her how much I loved her album and how it said everything I had been thinking. We exchanged some small talk about her tour before I shuffled out of the store, hoping I hadn’t embarrassed myself, but knowing that I truly needed to thank the person who made this album, which is not something I’d really felt a need to do before.

It’s all very gushy, but that’s the power of I Want to Grow Up: it’s an album about the type of people who normally don’t get immortalized in songs, the slackers and “losers” who have feelings too. And I give Green tons of credit for the execution, which is exactly what it needed to be: simple, direct, and powerful because of it. This is my attempt to write down everything this album has made me think about this year, track by track.

Track One: “I Want to Grow Up”

“I’m sick of always being bored/I think I need a schedule”

In addition to all the praise I’ve heaped on it already, I Want to Grow Up also arranges the tracks perfectly so the album feels like it’s telling a story. Here, the title track serves as the album’s thesis statement. A common creative writing lesson I learned was that your main character always needs to want something, which drives their action. In this case, Green obviously wants to grow up, and the rest of the album follows from that.

The lyric about “needing a schedule” jumped out at me on first listen because it’s such a mundane, true observation for anyone who has slacked off for extended periods of time. I’ve had long employment droughts in the last couple of years and every time I end up keeping a ridiculous schedule where I stay up all night, then have problems sleeping the next day, etc. This often meant being awake at about 12-6 a.m. when no one else is and struggling to find ways to fill the time, then sleeping too late to do anything productive during the day. It’s fun at first, but “I Want to Grow Up” articulates the desire I had to break out of that cycle, and also the difficulty doing it.

Track Two: “Wild One”

“And now I know he’ll never be my man/it breaks my heart but I understand”

I consider this the most traditional song on the album in terms of lyrical content. It’s classic pop stuff: loving the “wild one” who can’t be tamed and wishing you could change them. On a broader level, it is about one of the big themes of this album, which is really wanting something, feeling that it’s within your grasp, and not being sure how to get it. I want to grow up, but how? Is there a life manual or something that will fall from the sky? What am I supposed to do next?

Track Three: “TV”

“A big big blanket to wrap around myself/In my room/Where I don’t have to worry about a conversation/And I don’t have to worry about being fun”

“TV” is probably the most slackery song on an album full of them, a love song dedicated to the television that serves as a constant distraction from the real world. This song starts to get at one of the other big themes of the album, which is how people use technology to escape from all their real-world anxieties. In your room with the TV on, you can finally be yourself: there are no social obligations, no need to conform to what people expect of you — the TV almost becomes your truest friend because it is always seeing the real you. I often use TV and the internet as a crutch (especially during late nights), a temporary reprieve from everything life is throwing at me that I can’t handle. The problem is that these day-to-day distractions can accumulate until weeks go by and I’ve done practically nothing, which is the addictive danger of TV friendship that this song understands — the thing that in the moment seems like an escape can become another obstacle.

Track Four: “Pay Attention”

“How do some people talk so much?”

In the age where seemingly everyone has ADD, “Pay Attention” captures the inability many of us have to hold a conversation and put up with irritating small talk (“talk so small you need a microscope to discern much at all”). “How do some people talk so much?” is pretty much a verbatim thing I think all the time, especially at family gatherings where everyone has an opinion about stuff I never think about. The way other people seem to effortlessly make conversation while I never know what to say is a constant source of frustration, especially when being quiet is interpreted as being aloof or disinterested.

Track Five: “Deeper Than Love”

“Because I’m shitty and I’m lame and I’m dumb and I’m a bore/And once you get to know me you won’t love me anymore”

The phrase “centerpiece” is overused in music criticism, but it applies here: “Deeper Than Love” is in the middle of the album, is six-minutes long, and is its darkest moment, plunging head-first into all of our deepest fears. This is the song Green did not perform when I saw her play live, I suspect because she wasn’t comfortable singing it for an intimate audience.

The line I quoted is probably the one I’ve thought most about from this album. I do a lot of communicating online and I think a lot about how we perceive ourselves and others on the internet. I’m a lot better at articulating myself in writing than in person, so the online version of me naturally will look better than the “real” me while having the same thoughts. But it’s still an inherently incomplete picture that other people fill in: they might draw conclusions or think stuff about me that isn’t there, just based on how I post.

I’ve historically been scared to try to make any online friendships into “IRL” friendships for reasons given in the lyrics of “Deeper Than Love.” I’m always afraid that people will have built an image of me in their head that the “real” me won’t be able to live up to, especially given social anxiety and nerves that don’t exist as much online. “Deeper Than Love” really nails this intimacy fear that I suspect is common, especially in the era of online dating where everyone is working with limited, self-presented information. It becomes easier to keep people at a distance than deal with the possibility of not living up to what other people want you to be.

Track Six: “Things That Are Bad For Me (pt. 1)” 

“Like a pet trained to return/But humans are supposed to learn/And change when things are going wrong/I always let it go for way too long”

The “things that are bad for me” in the title is left general in this song, so the listener can fill it in with their own bad habits. The lyric I quoted reminds me of all the holding patterns I let myself get into, especially when I’m unemployed and slacking. I feel worthless because I don’t have a job, which leads to me not applying to jobs because I’m worthless obviously, so why would anyone hire me, and it becomes this self-fulfilling cycle of low-key self-destruction that is certainly bad for me.

Like Green, I know I’m a human and I’m supposed to change when things are going wrong. But it just isn’t that easy, and this album gets that. While relatives and other people tell me “just get a job,” they don’t recognize how difficult it can be to break out of these negative cycles and routines, especially once they’ve accumulated over a period of time. I Want to Grow Up recognizes that these are real problems while also not ignoring the “first-world” aspect of them — I feel privileged that these are the only problems I need to deal with, but that only makes it more frustrating when it’s difficult to overcome them because it seems easy for everyone else.

Track Seven: “Things That Are Bad For Me (pt. 2)”

“There’s an energy inside my brain/set to self-depreciate/some kind of anxiety/makes me do things that I know are bad for me”

Part one was about recognizing her own bad habits; part two is about what causes them. As someone who often struggles with tasks that others seem to find easy, I can’t help but wonder sometimes: why am I like this? Why do I keep doing these things I know are bad? Why can’t I be normal?

“Things That Are Bad For Me (pt. 2)” is where the album starts to really gel into a cohesive story. So far, every song has been about these different anxieties and fears and ways to escape from them. This is the one that explains how these problems overlap and connect with each other, like each is a separate thread that combines with the others to make a web that is nearly impossible to escape from.

Track Eight: “Some People”

“Why is it so easy for some people?”

Something I mentioned in my first post about this album was the feeling of not being able to stack up with your peers. This issue is exacerbated now by social media which quantifies “success” in a very narrow way: with numbers of friends, likes, etc that serve as easy comparisons to others. If your numbers are lower, it’s hard not to feel “worse” and wonder how some people make life look so easy.

The big pressure that comes from this feeling is to conform, to be like everyone else that is perceived to be more successful than you. “Some People,” especially the second verse, painfully expresses this feeling, as Green lists a litany of things she could do to try to fit in: dye her hair, drink alcohol, wear more makeup. When being yourself doesn’t seem like it’s good enough, it’s hard to resist the temptation to join the herd.

Track Nine: “Grind My Teeth”

“I think about the future/about society/it’s all so overwhelming/it makes me grind my teeth and cry”

I’ve semi-jokingly called Green “the voice of our generation” based on how this album sums up so many fears and anxieties of millennials. “Grind My Teeth” is the first time she looks outward and mentions bigger fears, about the future, society, and “our generation failing.” On an album obsessed with personal anxieties and shortcomings, this song serves as a reminder that there are big things to worry about too, like how we’re all screwed and everything sucks. Just in case things were getting too easy for you.

Track Ten: “Whatever I Want”

“Don’t want to be scared/I’ve got to see what’s out there/Lately I’ve become aware/That I can do whatever I want”

I finally got my driver’s license in January this year at age 25. Driving is still scary, but one thing I instantly gravitated towards was getting to listen to music in the car, which lived up to all the hype I had heard about it. I Want to Grow Up was released a month or two later and quickly became my go-to car album, soundtracking many of my commutes to my job I didn’t really like with its simple guitar-driven rock sounding pretty good with the windows rolled down (my car’s AC doesn’t work).

The weirdest adjustment to finally driving has been realizing that I can just… do things. For a long time, while everyone else was able to get around and live their lives easily, I was still always dependent on others to drive me or get me things. I got used to not doing much socially because I would need to get a ride and it was a whole hassle not worth dealing with. The feeling that I can now do “whatever I want” is hard to grasp, and I still haven’t fully capitalized on it because it’s kind of scary to have so many options suddenly at your fingertips that weren’t there before.

I suspect “Whatever Your Want” is not about Green getting her driver’s license, but it has that same feeling of beginning to gain independence and realizing that you don’t need to hold yourself back anymore. It’s an optimistic note for the album to end on, but it doesn’t feel cheap or like it supersedes what the rest of the album is about. Instead, the most powerful part is it’s about Green reaffirming her individuality despite all the pressure to conform (as heard in “Some People”), and recognizing that you can only be yourself, even if it sometimes feels like “yourself” isn’t good enough for the rest of the world. And that’s okay. Because eventually, with enough little baby steps, you can create a world of your own that is just as good as everyone else’s.

Beach House – “Thank Your Lucky Stars”

Once a band has released enough material, it’s easy to fall into taking a definitive unchanging stance on them. After four albums, this was my take on Beach House: they’re like a statue in a museum. Their music is beautiful and I appreciated the craft, but I couldn’t form a connection with it. After enough looking, I’d eventually get bored and walk away to the next piece.

When their fifth album, Depression Cherry, came out earlier this year, it only strengthened my stance. It was Beach House doing their Beach House thing with the slow jams that sparkle and sound lovely but are samey and not that memorable. I listened a couple times, filed my obligatory take on the band on social media, then mentally wrote the band off, figuring there wouldn’t be new material for another three or four years and that the material would be the same old stuff anyways.

To everyone’s surprise, the band came back less than two months later and released Thank Your Lucky Stars, another full length album. I met this with an eye-roll: this band already makes too much similar material and now they’re putting out two albums in one year? We get it, Beach House: you can make slow-paced dream pop songs. What are you trying to prove?

I gave Thank Your Lucky Stars what I figured would be a token listen to further solidify my ironclad Beach House opinion. Instead, the album totally won me over in a way I didn’t expect. It’s not like the band dramatically changed up their formula or anything, but something about Thank Your Lucky Stars felt totally different. While their previous albums seemed like they were behind glass, this time I could reach out and touch it.

I’m having a hard time figuring out why this is the case beyond “I like the songs more.” One reason is that the tone of Thank Your Lucky Stars is a slight departure from their other recent albums — while their previous music felt too passive to me, this album has a darker edge that becomes confrontational and forces the listener to look inside themselves. A bizarre, nonsensical feeling I had listening to the album was that it almost felt like doom metal instead of dream pop. It sounds more foreboding, the music is heavier and more immersive, and the lyrics confront doomy topics — there’s literally a song called “Elegy to the Void,” which has a mesmerizing heavy guitar section that reminds me of Deerhunter’s “Desire Lines.” It’s easily my favorite song the band has recorded.

Given my previous complaints that Beach House sounded pretty to the point of being bland, I really love the slight roughness of Thank Your Lucky Stars and think it brings out a more personal and intimate side of the band. And by making this gloomier album, a band I previously thought was one-note proved they can subtly reinvent themselves without getting away from what they’re good at. I don’t know if this will be the most popular Beach House album among their longtime fans, but it is the one most likely to turn skeptics into believers.