How Strange, Hope

Finding High Fidelity

I’m a pretty cool guy. Admirers have alternatively described me as, “The reason I want to have children,” “The best and only hope America has against the terrorists,” and “He makes me hate everyone else I know for not being him.” One can see how it’s easy to forget that I wasn’t always the suave, well-adjusted ladies’ man that I am today. But it’s true; just a few years ago, I was an awkward teenager whose developing mind was losing a desperate battle against raging hormones. I was filled with all the emotions, both warranted and not, that so often accompany those years.

I’ve since shed many of the things that identified me throughout high school, like my “You wouldn’t understand, mom” haircut, but I’ve held dear to Explosions in the Sky. If you’re unfamiliar, Explosions is a post-rock group from Texas that plays purely instrumental music. When I was a freshman in high school, they were drastically removed from the rest of my favorite artists: there’s no crooning singer waxing poetic about any number of girls that he did or did not love, there’s no bass being dropped, there’s no pretense. They never hid behind the guise of irony or jadedness. They faced the unknowable abyss of human emotion with a stony resolve and a kind of sincerity that I had never yet experienced in music.

I wish there were some crystallizing moment I experienced where a particular melody perfectly struck some chord deep within me, but, to be honest, that’s not the kind of relationship I shared with Explosions in the Sky. Their music speaks to me of moods, of types of afternoons, of the countless nights I spent with nothing but my thoughts and the sparkling melodies of their album “How Strange, Innocence.” During a time when I was struggling to understand who I was and what I was becoming, I heard in that album melancholy and sadness, but also optimism and a tenacious faith in the goodness of the world.

That is what drew me so strongly to Explosions in the Sky and what still draws me so strongly to their work: the hope one can hear shining through even their darkest songs. Their work doesn’t need any words; in fact, I’ve always felt that vocals would cheapen what the instrumentals alone are able to convey. They create something raw and beautiful with each crescendo and decrescendo in “Snow and Lights.” The dissonance in the opening chords washes and breaks into swirling, carefully plucked melodies that slowly build and are drawn back out to an ocean of noise by another rolling wave of cymbals and the same opening chords.

“Snow and Lights” creates a feeling of darkness that carries through to the next few tracks, but there is some respite offered. Clear, glittering melodies peak through the grey clouds of distortion and minor chords in every song, and I hear hope in every one of those notes. As I would sit in my driveway and wonder why the nights gave rise to the next day regardless of my dissatisfaction with the day previous, I found some resolution in these songs.

The final song on the album, “Remember Me as a Time of Day,” perfectly addresses the darkness that resonates throughout the album. Listening to that particular song feels like looking at a younger self. The simple, almost fragile-sounding guitar melody slides along against a sparse backdrop of quiet percussion, never venturing beyond a safe range of pitches, almost as if it were slightly unsure of itself.  Each note is picked carefully and deliberately, as if the guitarist is trying to tell a story that is difficult to share, the other members of the band delicately nudging him forward with gentle snare drum and tender bass. For the first time on the album, the melody does not have to compete with any clashing cymbals or cascading chords. The melody alone is able to complete its story, and it is a heartening one.

Explosions in the Sky’s music is inescapably melancholy at times, but I used to be, too. The beauty of their music, what I found in it and have tried to hold on to, is the shimmering optimism that peaks out from the gloom and roar of each song and of their world. In the silvery harmonics that float above the darkness of “Glittering Blackness,” I heard an affirmation that, while maybe not everything will be okay, the important things will be. “How Strange, Innocence” plays like a heartfelt letter from an old friend, assuring me that earth is not a cold, dead place.

—Staff writer Alexander Tang can be reached at tang@college.harvard.edu.

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