Vital by Anberlin (Or, When Anberlin Decides to be Awesome Again)

I bought my first Anberlin album back as a sophomore in high school. Blueprints for the Blackmarket was revolutionary stuff for the Christian music scene, which is what I was primarily limited to at the time,  and I’ve been a fan ever since. Now, I’ll admit, I wasn’t the biggest fan of their last couple albums New Surrender or Dark is the Way, Light is a Place.  There were some stand-out tracks (“Miserabile Visu”, “Closer”, “To the Wolves”), but on the whole, I’d been worrying whether they lost the magic–or their coffee machine. With the release of their latest album, Vital, my fears were taken to the back shed and beat down to the sound of Stephen Christian’s lovely, raging falsetto, aggressive guitar riffs, and catchy drums. Anberlin delivered this time.

I don’t know if it’s the return of Aaron Sprinkle producing, or just a need to turn a corner, but Anberlin has recovered and produced an album that tops their magnum opus, “Cities.” In many ways this album flows naturally out of moves they made in Dark is the Way–an appreciation for and tasteful use of electronics and synth, but without the falsified feel of so much vocoder-pop playing on the radio. They’ve crafted a new sound while simultaneously returning to the angsty, guitar-driven alt-rock of “Paper-Thin Hymn” and “Feel-Good Drag.”

I’ll name stand-out tracks but honestly, this is one of those don’t-skip-a-song albums where each listen through gives you a new appreciation for a song previously ignored. The opener “Self-Starter” is a typically strong lead-in to the rest of the album. The nice thing is that it’s sustained through-out, even on the ballads. I consistently come back to “Desires” and “Other Side.” “Desires”, featured above, sounds almost like a throw-back to “Feel-Good Drag” both musically and thematically. “Other Side”, with its use of synth notes dripping with longing and low-end, bass and guitar work, reminds me of Tron for some reason, only with some emotional depth. “God, Drugs, and Sex” is a slow, but rich closer that won’t beat out “Miserabile Visu (ex malo bonum)” or “Fin”, but still carries on in the same tradition.

Lyrically, the song I’ve been thinking about most is “Modern Age.”

It reads like a commentary on some of the incoherencies and angst of contemporary, postmoderns. There is a deep desire to be known, to be loved, yet most will “Fall asleep alone. Safer then the off-chance, Of getting your heart attacked, one more time.” The vulnerability that love requires is painful, and postmoderns are reluctant to get hurt, to get burned. A generation born with that misleading but looming 50% divorce rate statistic hanging over their heads, or even more, the painful reality of growing up in one of the those homes, grows up a bit skeptical of attaining the love it deeply desires. Indeed, this skepticism about love bleeds into our other relationships–Christian sings, “Have we all hid ourselves from friends?” We’re a generation that is constantly communicating, surrounding ourselves with friends, and acquaintances, while simultaneously hiding from them. Afraid of true honesty and relational risk we camouflage ourselves, create false identities, and hide in plain sight.

The chorus though, is really what got me thinking:

Don’t we all, want to be loved?
Don’t we all, write our own tune?
Let our silence break tonight
Don’t we all, learn right from wrong?
And don’t we all, want to be loved?
Let our silence break tonight

I was immediately struck by the incoherence between the desire to be loved,  learning right from wrong, and “writing our own tune.” Writing our own tune is a typically modern/postmodern way of thinking about freedom and purpose.  For our life to be truly ours, for the song we sing to be our own, we must have written it ourselves, without any help, so to speak. To be liberated on the modern view is to live unconstrained by expectations, commitments, destiny, fate, social conventions; there can be no moral grammar to which the lyrics of our vitality must conform–anything other than a wholly self-determined song is inauthentic.

The problem is that this is exactly what love and “right and wrong” are; morality is a grammar that provides patterns of existence within which love can flourish and grow. Love by its very nature requires restraints, fidelity, honesty, vulnerability, exclusivity, that impose a limit to the kind of tune we can write. The contradiction appears when we realize that if our lives are going to be anything more than lonely little melodies, if there are going to be deep and beautiful harmonies, we have to allow ourselves to be captured by a different kind of freedom–one that finds itself most deeply in a passionate commitment to something beyond ourselves. It’s the freedom of goodness, of truth, of living in line with the deep rhythm of reality and finding our place in the divine harmony God is writing. See, only then, only when we’ve surrendered ourselves to the truth, submitted to honesty, embraced a song greater than our own can we begin to give ourselves to each other without fear, to risk commitment, to dare to be truly known, to take off the mask–to love.

I’d like to say that Christian gets this, with his anthem-style call to “Let our silence break tonight.”  While there is no explicit deconstruction of this generation’s discordant values, the call itself begins to draw us out. Truly communicating is the first step towards emerging from the self-induced isolation; breaking the silence with honesty is a movement toward true freedom and love.

This is all deeper than I intended to go in an album review. Still, identifying and giving voice to the tensions of a generation is one of Anberlin’s greatest talents. Their ability to do it on a rockin’ good album is why I keep them on repeat. If you haven’t already, go check Vital out–it’s worth your time.

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