This article is part of the In Defense of the Genre series. Previously, why Adam’s Song is an all-time great.
Motion City Soundtrack’s Commit This To Memory is one of my favourite albums: bright, hooky pop-rock with a heavy dose of synth, it’s got some of the most fun songs about anxiety, depression and substance abuse in my collection, and I’m not short of fun songs about anxiety, depression and substance abuse to choose from. Its upbeat melodies, I suppose, contrast the lyrical content, but what’s more impressive is how the sound manages to evoke high anxiety while still being a total blast. Commit This To Memory does occasionally take the time to get dark in its musical tone, not just its lyrical one: after three fantastic pop songs, only one of which is longer than three minutes, we get ‘Resolution’, a noble contribution to the melancholy canon of New Year’s songs, which is slower, longer and much less danceable. The opening three songs on Commit This To Memory are a bundle of nerves, but ‘Resolution’ is lyrically both more removed and more desperately sad: She would tend to my wounds and fill me with food when I’d stumble in drunk for breakfast. She was right to take off before she was consumed.
Commit This To Memory is a winter album – it’s got lots of references to winter, including two separate songs about New Year’s – but I always find myself listening to it in the spring. I guess if you listen to something at a certain time of year enough, it starts to “sound” like that time of year, like how ‘Little Saint Nick’ by the Beach Boys feels at least kinda like a Christmas song even though it’s literally just ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ with the words changed. And so Commit This To Memory sounds like spring to me: like it’s cold outside but small green things insist on growing.
I’m not good at describing what music sounds like. I can talk about the lyrics, and I can do my best to talk about how it makes me feel, but you listen to music because of how it sounds. I could let myself off by saying that I don’t know enough about music to talk about it in any kind of technical way, and besides, music is one of the most subjective art forms, with the least objective rights and wrongs. But I know more about films, have a better grasp of what makes a film well-made, and I still almost always talk about the words part, the dialogue and the story. It rarely occurs to me to talk about what a film looks like, and when it does, I’m not very good at it. I read obsessively as a kid, and that’s just how my brain works now: like I need to put words on things to make them real, like everything that I encounter must be filtered into words as I explain the world to myself. I cling to other people’s words like they’re a life preserver, borrowing them to express what I can’t articulate myself.
Commit This To Memory is about the insufficiency of words. It’s about the gap between what is said and what is meant, about the gap between what is sayable and what is meant, about how sometimes metaphors are needed to describe what can’t be said literally and sometimes metaphors are an excuse to avoid the vulnerability that literality necessitates. “But I just hate to say goodbye / to all the metaphors and lies / that have taken me years to come up with,” lead singer Justin Pierre sings on ‘Attractive Today,’ the album’s opening song.
‘Everything Is Alright’, the album’s lead single, is emphatically not about everything being alright. It covers obsessive-compulsive behaviour, going off your meds and attempting to self-medicate with alcohol. The verses are teetering on the edge, and the chorus is a back-and-forth that’s part attempt to reassure a worried friend and part a desperate attempt at self-reassurance: “Tell me that you’re alright / Everything is alright / Oh, please tell me that you’re alright / Everything is alright.” The “everything is alright” is in this weird space, because it isn’t just a lie, necessarily, although it is that. It’s a lie and a wish and a deflection and the only sayable thing, both because saying it enough might make it true and because it’s the only available answer.
When I say Commit This To Memory is about the insufficiency of words, you would think – considering it’s a music album – that it would be about how words are subservient to music as a form of expression or something. There might be an element of that, because there’s a reason it’s a music album and not just an essay, but it’s very much about words, and about finding them insufficient when they’re really all you have. “It’s the only way I have learned to express myself,” goes the surprising cheery ‘Let’s Get Fucked Up and Die’, “through other people’s descriptions of life.” The irony isn’t lost on me, how every time that line makes me think yes, same, that’s me exactly. The album is about not just finding words insufficient, but finding them insufficient when you’ve built so much of yourself through words, many of them not your own. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your identity being informed in part by the art and culture you consume, but I probably shouldn’t have spent my teens being so personally hurt by people not loving The Catcher in the Rye with all their hearts. People aren’t just the words they collect, and neither am I.
“If memory serves / I’m addicted to words / and they’re useless,” is the chorus of ‘Let’s Get Fucked Up and Die’. Then, in the background, a small concession: “In this department.”
There’s always a gap between language and what language describes, because words are essentially arbitrary signifiers. Even as we develop and mould language to our needs, it’s always imperfect, always full of gaps in meaning and nuance. The word “orange” used to not exist in English, and so there was no way to describe that colour properly. You’d just have to call it red. You need metaphors to describe pain or religion or the shades of our emotions, and as much as metaphors can illuminate, they can cloud things, creating more distance instead of less. You say the robin’s breast is red, because that’s the closest you have a name for.
Sometimes Commit This To Memory desperately wants words to be enough, even if that means flattening out a world a bit. “I like the universe / But she messes with my words,” Justin Pierre sings on ‘Resolution’, and it’s not a wink or a joke, it’s earnest and melancholy. “I’m trying to find out / if my words have any meaning,” he sings on ‘Together We’ll Ring In The New Year’, and you can tell there’s only one good answer to that question. ‘Feel Like Rain’ already told us what the world is like when words are meaningless: “words all sound the same / In the lifeless corners of this empty frame.”
But even as there’s a desire for words to be enough, there’s an underlying, even more desperate want to escape the need for words. When Pierre sings “I’m trying to find out / if my words have any meaning,” he’s just trying to explain his feelings to his girlfriend: “Why won’t she listen to me?” This desire to escape from words – to be understood without the imperfection of words – comes up in ‘Time Turned Fragile’, written from the perspective of Justin Pierre’s dad. “I know you say that you’re just fine / But I still wonder from time to time,” is a direct reply to ‘Everything Is Alright’. There’s a fond memory of childhood that’s centrally non-verbal:
How it got so cold that words just froze
We had to wait ’til summer to find out what was said
One of the best times that we had
But summer always comes and the words thaw out. In the end, Commit This To Memory is about accepting the fallibility of words and still making the best use of them you can. You can’t retreat into a cold childhood winter in Minnesota, and you can’t expect people to understand your feelings if you keep telling them you’re fine. We all want for other people to understand us, for somebody to somehow know what it is to be me, preferably with as little hard work on my part as possible. That can’t happen – not fully – and part of growing up is learning to find a medium place, where you can be seen and understood enough. Words, for me, feel like the safest bet, even if they’re sometimes borrowed. Commit This To Memory is about the insufficiency of words, but not about their futility. Justin Pierre never declares that words are useless without the caveat “in this department.” Words aren’t enough, but they’re something, and the album ends trying to capture some fraction of what is meant with them, and it’s clumsy and strange and it makes my heart burst, every damn time:
You’re the echoes of my everything
You’re the emptiness the whole world sings at night
You’re the laziness of afternoon
You’re the reason why I burst and why I bloom
You’re the leaky sink of sentiment
You’re the failed attempts I never could forget
You’re the metaphors I can’t create to comprehend this curse that I call love.
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