10 Year Recall: Anberlin’s Cities

2007 was a pretty outstanding year for music. It was a year where I was starting to launch out on my own musically, having received my own form of musical education throughout college (informal, via a friend who knew more about these things than I did), and also launched (maybe that’s too strong a word) my writing career via a website called Silent Uproar. The site was pretty legitimate, and the guy who ran it had enough connections to get me advanced copies of albums for review, onto guest lists for shows and even an interview with Nick Thomas, lead singer of The Spill Canvas.

It’s 2017 now, and I’ve decided that 2007 was important enough in a musical sense to start a year-long series of posts that I’m affectionately entitling “10 Year Recall.” It also happens that 2007 was the year I packed my bags and headed south, with July marking my 10th year as a resident of the Carolinas, so all in all, it’s safe to say that ten years ago was a turning point in my life.

The goal is to revisit albums that meant something to me back then and review them from my current mindset ten years later. I’ll try, too, to tap into some of what made the album important for me in 2007, bringing the entire exercise as full circle as possible.

One of the cool things about having written for an online publication ten years ago is that it’s easy to find my original thoughts on a lot of these records. So when available, I’ll post my original review, which should give us a good starting point. We’ll begin this series with one of the most important records of 2007 (and one I need a copy of on vinyl, and not just as part of an anthology box set, Tooth & Nail): Anberlin’s Cities.

Anberlin’s third record was released on February 20, 2007 via Tooth & Nail Records, and it was a pretty important release for me. I was still relatively new to the indie music community, and I certainly hadn’t been intrenched in the scene long enough to really anticipate an album release, so Cities was one of the first times I remember knowing an album was coming out and waiting on it to do so with eagerness (save, maybe, for Mae’s The Everglow, which came out in the Spring of 2005, during my final semester of college). I had discovered Anberlin during my initial foray into indie music, back when I was still buying CD’s in stores, a time that was also interesting for me in that I was seeking ways to connect the CCM I’d grown up listening to and my newfound chosen genres. Fortunately for me, anything on labels like Tooth & Nail was still unquestionably stocked at local Christian bookstores, leading me to bands like Anberlin, Emery and The Classic Crime early in my searching.

By the time I discovered them in earnest, Anberlin, a quartet or quintet depending on the year, from Florida, had already released two albums–2003’s Blueprints for the Blackmarket and 2005’s Never Take Friendship Personal–both of which I gobbled up because of their edgier sound and knack for melodic intricacy. Stephen Christian, the band’s lead singer, had a voice unlike any I’d heard before, and the band’s sound, while engaging, stuck to various pop music tropes that didn’t challenge my norm too much.

Then came Cities, an album that I clearly had no issues with lauding from the beginning. This is my Silent Uproar review that was published the week after the album was released:

Anberlin — Cities

They say the third album of a band’s career is often a defining moment. In the case of Tooth & Nail vets Anberlin, this is more than the case. With Cities, the band has released their best and most satisfying work to date. Amazingly, and most impressively, the album manages to be so many things at once. It contains some of the darkest songs the band has ever produced (“Dismantle.Repair.” and lead single “Godspeed”), but at the same time, churns out some of the most beautiful as well (“The Unwinding Cable Car,” “Inevitable,” and awe-inspiring closer “(*Fin)”). That the band has somehow found the line between unrelenting rock and haunting, yet often gorgeous melodies is a true testament to how far they’ve come. They excel at dynamics, too, which gives the record an almost epic feel, most evident in the spectacular “(*Fin).” To put it bluntly, this is a fantastic record, that should find its way to the top of many year’s end lists when the time comes. It is truly the first important album of its kind to come out in 2007. (Feb 26 2007)

The album did end up finding its way onto my end of year list for 2007, although I don’t remember how high (my guess is it was at least #2, but maybe as high as #1), and often enters into the conversation for the top one or two Anberlin records in the band’s discography (for the record, my list would look something like this: Vital, Cities, Dark is the Way, Light Is a Place, Never Take Friendship Personal, Lowborn, Blueprints for the Blackmarket and New Surrender). That list should be pretty telling as to how connected to this album I still am.

The album still holds up rather well, with its dark, haunting sonic choices and lo-fi production, all qualities which would allow the record to still be made today and not sound out-of-place. The record also sets up the band’s propensity for experimentation with song structure and, to a point, genre, moving away slightly from the more pop feel of most of its songs on previous records, although ironically, Cities proved to be their first record to debut in the Billboard top 20, and the catalyst for the band’s signing with a major label for the follow-up, 2008’s largely lackluster New Surrender.

For me, the success of the album is predicated on two things. First is the haunting quality to the songs, built heavily on the sonic space the album lives in, but also on the semi-cryptic nature of Christian’s lyrics throughout the record. The album’s title and some of the lyrics suggest thematic ideas like losing control of one’s situation and the constant movement of life in your late 20’s/early 30’s (Christian had just turned 30 during the time the album was likely recorded). There is an unsettling feeling throughout, and yet the maturity of the songwriting allows for the band to create songs that feel necessary and urgent for those moments.

The second success is how well-connected this is as an album. 2007 was a few years into the age of digital music, and more and more artists were choosing to release singles they could sell for $0.99 rather than focus on albums as pieces of art. The album wasn’t dead, but it was certainly dying, and so it was, and remains, refreshing to find bands or artists who still pay attention to the molding of a record as a whole. Cities does that unassailably well, as the flow from song to song, as well as the intentional connection between the album’s opening instrumental track “(Début)” and the terrifyingly good closer “(*Fin),” are all top-notch efforts from the band.

Overall, this is an album that has stood the test of time. It was excellent upon its release and continues to hold up after ten years. Now all we need is that 10-year vinyl release and I’ll be a happy man.

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