The Graduate released one of the best, and most overlooked, albums of 2007. It surely would have ended up on scads of end-of-year lists, if anyone had actually heard it.
2008 is passing, and just like they do every winter, music magazines the world over are busy furrowing through their piles of recent releases in order to compile the year’s best-of lists. Inevitably, they will miss a few things. History abounds with examples of albums which were initially issued to little fanfare but later saw critical acclaim. Few, if any, best-of lists from 2007 included the Graduate’s Anhedonia, which means that readers of last year’s summaries missed out on a top release.
Anhedonia is the Graduate’s debut full-length release, coming only eighteen months after their formation and a year after their self-released debut EP. It’s normal to expect inconsistency from a debut effort, but this album truly feels like an album: it has an ebb and flow, and the songs interlock gracefully, even though (for the most part) they eschew literal segues. Above all, it is an album of phenomenal intensity. Lead singer Corey Warning's voice is high and clear with little low-end weight, and he's able to belt out lyrics with surprising force -- but he has the judgment to know when to hold back, so it really stands out when he does. The musical accompaniment is always hard-hitting but never frenzied, passionate without ever sounding parodic, disingenuous, or hokey.
Anhedonia is filled with tiny musical gems -- almost every track has some moment where, suddenly and unexpectedly, the sky breaks wide open and the song transforms into something completely different and impossibly better than what it was before. "Sit & Sink", a song filled with glittering guitar work, kicks off its second verse with a series of bangs as Warning shouts out the first lyric and the band stop-times full-throttle on the opening chord. Just after singing a lyric filled with despair ("I've seen the bright lights shine on / Less deserving men before"), the bass and drums drop out and only a cavernously reverberating guitar is left to fill the entire sonic background as Warning sings, with a plaintive ascending melodic line, "Let's just drink / sit and sink / You've got so much to lose, but I don't". Such simple words would perhaps sound trite without such a richly textured musical setting; with it, they are utterly moving.
The consistently high level of songcraft throughout the whole of Anhedonia is thoroughly impressive. The ecstatic "Justified" is a barreling plea to a former love for a final night in bed that, in spite of the somewhat insipid subject matter, turns out to be explosively propulsive. "I Survived" reflects a crystalline sheen from the high-pitched melodies floating through the verse, but once the verse runs its course, the full weight of the song collapses into a drum fill, preceding a harrowing chorus which begins with the line "I don't want to die today!" The song is about getting the fuck out of Dodge, and it captures the feeling of wishing for the big city with fantastic acuity. "The City That Reads" begins with a wistful intro and then spreads out into a thick, echoing guitar fog, effortlessly painting lyrics about the Baltimore harbor. The song's chorus -- "So here's to being alone / To anyone on their own, if anyone's listening" -- is textbook emo. Throughout Anhedonia, the band sings constantly of loss and regret, of looking back with tears and looking forward with dread and terror. It should be depressing music, but it's not at all. The sparkling guitars and comforting background ambience suffuse the music with an unexpected bounty: hope.
In this, the Graduate channel U2, who, because they are a clear musical influence, also serve as a clear philosophical influence. The marriage of Bono's unrestrained yelp with the Edge's jangly, tintinnabulating guitar work yielded more than just a series of international hits; they spoke to ideas, and not merely to political ideologies, such as a peaceful Ireland. As U2 grew from post-punk firebrands to world-traveling anthem rockers, their music became identified with values which we take as common to the human spirit -- honesty, passion, monumentality, and, especially, hope. And it does not matter if you like U2 or not, any more than it matters whether or not you like the English language. This is not simply the critical message of U2’s musical syntax. It has become part of the grammar of modern popular song. The musical cues that course through albums like The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree are now, in the 2000s, staples of the musical vocabulary. They are indispensable to the evocation of certain emotional ideas. They mean concrete things, these high harmonics, rocketing pedal-assisted arpeggiations, warm washes of background synthesizer, simple ascending and descending chord progressions. U2’s direct heirs, Coldplay, couldn't exist without them, of course, but neither could bands in a host of other genres, from noise punk (Parts & Labor) to sad-eyed indie (Death Cab for Cutie) to Christian rock (Delirious?). As much as one might wish to disregard Bono as irrelevant, or maudlin, or arrogant, or simply foolish, what he does best is attempt to offer the world this hope, to translate it into a recognizable musical form.
The sound of the Graduate, too, is the sound of hope, but not of Bono's hopes; they're not nearly so preachy (neither the earthly nor the spiritual kind, and Bono is both). They don’t speak of grand worldwide dreams, or universal love, or war and peace, or the workings of nations and massive impersonal forces. Their hope is hope personalized, localized, in small towns and large cities, in individual people who love, lose, fail, crash, burn, and somehow get up the next day to live, if not to live well. It’s the hope of the downtrodden, the fallen, the wretched, and the bored. It’s the hope of people who have no reason to hope. They hope for something better; sometimes, they don't even know what kind of better. But though they may look forward with dread and terror, they still hope. Without it, how could they live?