I don’t listen to albums anymore.
It’s one of the truths of my adulthood that I am most personally ashamed about; it feels like such an utter betrayal of my younger self. And not even my teenage self, but my twenties self, too! Falling in love with an album is very akin to falling in love with a book, to me: it requires a significant amount of time spent between just you and the art, without other distractions; it is personal, a journey, a moment of your life captured through someone else’s heartfelt work. So much of what I am, at my most personal and essential levels, is captured, at least in my head, through the albums and the books I have loved.
Except then you reach thirty, and you inch ever closer toward forty, and suddenly your back hurts more than it doesn’t, and sometimes you stand up and say “fuck, my knee,” and you lose the focus to listen to an entire album all the way through. At least, this is what adulthood has meant for me; I understand other people my age are still able to absorb full albums of actual newly produced music and I am both happy for and jealous of them.
I still listen to music, of course, almost a voracious amount; I have long commutes, and my focus for podcasts went out the window years ago (same for audiobooks), so I spend hours every week listening to music in the car, contributing to global warming and thinking very meandering thoughts. Except the music I listen to these days is almost exclusively from playlists I’ve made for books I’m writing, which, if I’m in the thick of writing, will be all I really listen to, or if I’m allowing my brain a break from made up characters and situations, I’ll listen to my “Faves [The Current Year]” playlists that I curate annually, composed of random single tracks that have caught my ear from the radio, or from a coffee shop, or popular culture, or someone else’s writing playlist. I’ve been in Book 3 Playlist land a lot these days, so I haven’t been listening to many new things, but one track I heard on the radio recently landed in the “yeah, this deserves to go on the faves playlist” side of my heart, and I was altogether startled when I went to do so and realized I needed to start a “Faves 2023” playlist for it. Where currently, it’s still the only track, but by August or so things should really be pumping.
Or sometimes, I get depressed and make a playlist of all of the happiest, most sentimental songs I can think of from my youth, and title it “trying,” and it helps a little bit, for a while.
The point is, I either listen exclusively to nostalgia, or a very random assortment of singles, and it will never earn me any kind of street cred but it’s how my brain works now.
Until! Stick Season by Noah Kahan.
God, it’s felt important, falling in love with a whole ass album again. Like a little return to my old self, waving and saying, “hey, you! remember how we used to feel things so deeply, all the fucking time?”
It is not at all surprising, of course, that I fell in love with this album; “sad white man with long hair + folksy guitar” is pretty much the blueprint to Anita. I am not reinventing the wheel here. Still, falling in love with this album feels almost as important to me, creatively, as the 100k+ words of Book 3 I wrote over the same past few months.
Stick Season is essentially my kryptonite: it tells a story, centered around a place. I live for storytelling via songs, and when it’s centered around geography? Even better. My assessment of the story of Stick Season—and this is just my interpretation; if Noah Kahan shows up here he has every right to be like, “fuck you, you don’t know me, that wasn’t what I was singing about at all,” but just for the context of this post—something painful has inspired Kahan to return to his small hometown in Vermont, that he has a lot of conflicted emotions about, in a “I love this place deeply but also it depresses the fuck out of me” kind of way. There’s also a bunch of stuff about addiction in here; it’s very possible the addiction is the something painful that’s all wrapped up in Vermont, or simply a response to whatever else has happened. It is an overall angry and often terribly sad album, with these little pops of brightness and optimism here and there to even it out: quintessentially bittersweet.
After falling in love with Stick Season I went back and listened to Kahan’s previous albums, because it’s that kind of obsession, and I was struck at how much Stick Season stands apart. I didn’t dislike the other albums, and completely admit that I haven’t given them enough time to truly sink in, since I just keep wanting to go back to Stick Season. There was one track from an earlier album, “False Confidence,” that had been one of the singletons that made it onto my “Faves 2019” playlist (a particularly bangin’ faves playlist, and “False Confidence” was one of my favorites on it), a connection I hadn’t made previously, and that was a fun little “oh shit, I’ve liked this guy for years!” moment. But overall, his earlier work lacks both the cohesiveness and the bitter melancholy of Stick Season.
Which makes me feel like…fuck, I’m sorry for whatever happened to Noah Kahan that inspired him to make this angry and sad masterpiece, but also, I’m grateful? Which is how I feel about all my favorite art, really. Sorry about the pain; thanks for all the solace your pain gave me! For real, though, you made something really beautiful; hope you have better days soon.
Which brings me to a list of my favorite tracks that I’d love to highlight here, because…just because I’ve been thinking about them all a lot and need to say it all somewhere.
Northern Attitude: A really strong first track that sets the mood of the whole album. Which I love. We love a good thesis statement!
If I get too close
And I’m not how you hoped
Forgive my northern attitude
I was raised out in the cold
If the sun don’t rise ’til the summertime
Forgive my northern attitude
I was raised on little light
I should also say that I’m extremely susceptible, as someone raised in a small town in the Northeast, to feel a particular parasocial kind of closeness to this album. But really, I think anyone who was raised in a place where it gets fucking cold and dark in the winter can relate to a lot of the feels here. (Or even if you weren’t! Blaming your sadness on your environment is a forever vibe.)
Stick Season: I actually don’t have a ton to say about the titular track, which remains as jangly and weirdly infectious the five hundredth time you’ve heard it, except to say that I feel it only gives a hint to the feeling of the whole album, and also that I remain strangely grateful for the moment, in the rambly honesty of the lyrics-packed song, when he mentions COVID-19. I know a lot of artists have this kind of code of like, let’s just pretend in our art right now that this weird world-altering thing hasn’t happened/is happening because it’s still too hard and strange to even process, which I get, but hearing “Doc told me to travel, but there’s COVID on the planes” months ago when I first heard this song gave me this like, stomach-swooping sense of relief that remains every time I hear it. Because like, fuck. There is COVID on the planes! Thank you for saying it, Noah!
All My Love: This is one of those moments of bright optimism I mentioned earlier, the brightest of them all, really, even with the hints of melancholy still present. I mean, the chorus literally mentions antidepressants, so. (Which was confirmed in a delightful Twitter thread I was part of months ago where a bunch of queer writers were like “is he saying pills or pails” and then Noah himself jumped in and was like “pills, I was talking about antidepressants” and we were like oh! thanks Noah! and it was this moment of Twitter pureness I still think about sometimes.) The lyrics suggest it’s simply a song about a one-night stand, but either way, when he sings: It’s all okay; there ain’t a drop of bad blood; you’ve got all my love—it like, soothes every single bad thing that has ever happened to me or anyone in the history of the world.
New Perspective: This has turned out to probably be my most-listened to track on the whole album, which tickles me because like…I don’t know why. There are objectively better bangers, more evocative tracks; but this one has just wormed its way into my head and I want to listen to it all the fucking time. It tells the story of returning to a place that has changed, and to the people who have perhaps changed with it (the title comes from a lyric about wishing he could take someone’s new perspective and shut it in a closet and “drag you back down”). But singing ooh, this town’s for the record now; the intersection’s got a Target, and they’re calling it downtown brings me more satisfaction and joy than I can truly explain. I dunno! I just fucking love it!
I put this one on my Book 3 playlist (along with “All My Love,” because like, I write romance; including “All My Love” is a requirement at this moment) even though it really has nothing to do with Book 3 at all, but I’ve listened to it so much this winter it just had to go there.
Everywhere, Everything: Another moment of lightness and optimism here—perhaps the most romantic song on the album?—while also having perhaps the most dramatic chorus of any of them. Just one of those great walls of sound kind of choruses that make me want to throw my hands in the air and film a sepia-toned montage of the world.
I wanna love you ’til we’re food for the worms to eat
‘Til our fingers decompose
Keep my hand in yours
Which makes me laugh because like, talking about decomposing fingers is so! very! not my vibe! lolol AND YET. Singing this chorus is so damn satisfying! The first verse of this one is also so relatable (and gentle): Would we survive in a horror movie? I doubt it, we’re too slow-moving; we trust everyone we meet.
Orange Juice: Okay. It is possible I’ve written this entire thing just so I can talk about “Orange Juice.” If I was a smart enough person to be an academic, I would want to write a dissertation on this song. This track, to me at least, digs into addiction & sobriety more clearly than any other track on the album, even though drinking and getting high are mentioning explicitly in many others. The title comes from (again, my interpretation) a loved one offering up a sober person, or someone trying to get sober, orange juice instead of alcohol at a party. A gesture that could be seen as sweet, perhaps, at least on the surface, and the song starts that way: sweet, gentle, kind. Except then the vibe changes, and dramatically, to pure anger.
And I honestly have no idea what’s happening in this angry part; there’s mentions of car crashes and bones in the ground and passing out from drinking in someone’s yard. It’s dark shit. We’re not supposed to know; it’s Noah’s song. But the chorus that’s repeated is someone telling someone else that they’ve changed, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s the teller or the recipient who’s angrier about it, but it’s sung with such deep heartache: And you said my heart has changed and my soul has changed, and my heart, and my heart…
The transition to this darker portion of the song (which is the majority of the song) is told through this vulnerable verse that works so well:
Feels like I’ve been ready for you to come home for so long
That I didn’t think to ask you where you’d gone
So why’d you go?
And even though, again, I have no idea what this song’s really about, that verse always makes me feel guilty about not visiting my hometown enough, for moving so far away in the first place. Phew! A real stab in the heart. I truly am sorry, Mom and Dad.
But then the angry part transitions back, at the very end, to a repetition of the first gentle verse; a tried and true trick. And the transition this time is not as (purposefully) carefully done as the initial transition. Kahan finishes the final line of that angry portion—You didn’t put those bones in the ground—on an almost heavy sigh. Like he’s just fucking exhausted. He doesn’t want to have this fight anymore.
And then there’s only the barest pause before the soft, pretty guitar comes back in with the same verse that started it, but it just feels so much fucking sadder now, even if you don’t know why, and I don’t know how Kahan’s able to fit so many different emotions in this song but I am just. Really deeply impressed with it, and feel like it encapsulates the various emotions that come with loving someone who’s struggling so well that I can’t listen to the end of it without crying.
Honey, come over
The party’s gone slower
And no one will tempt you
We know you got sober
There’s orange juice in the kitchen
Bought it for the children
It’s yours if you want it
We’re just glad you could visit
Growing Sideways: (tw: suicidal ideation) Phew, okay, well, now that we’ve got “Orange Juice” out of the way, let’s jump right into this happy tune, which is one of my favoritest, most bleakest songs about depression I’ve ever fucking heard. It starts with a fun little story about a horrible therapy experience, and then goes into this line, which is my favorite on the album:
And I divvied up my anger into thirty separate parts
Keep the bad shit in my liver
And the rest around my heart
I mean. Fuck. FUCK. That is so fucking good. It bowls me over every single time.
The whole song seems to teeter back and forth between actual suicidal thoughts and the detached kind of numbness that sometimes comes with antidepressants (and/or substance abuse). I am absolutely in love with the chorus, which just summarizes depression so horribly well:
But I ignore things, and I move sideways
Until I forget what I felt in the first place
But then there are lines like and if all my life was wasted, I don’t mind; I’ll watch it go; it’s better to die numb than to feel it all. And I’m just like Noah. NOAH. PLEASE I DON’T KNOW YOU BUT PLEASE TAKE YOUR MEDICATION AND HUG YOUR DOGS. Because fuck. Fuck.
And in the end, that is the side the song ends up leaving on—the “might as well take my medication and keep on waking up I guess” side, in the most poignant but noncommittal way of the depressed:
Oh, if my engine works perfect on empty
I guess I’ll drive
I guess I’ll drive.
Homesick: Probably the most quintessential song on the album for us Stick Season Folks, this is one of those absolute bangers that’s included later on in the album, a move I always respect. I feel like it’s Noah Kahan (and any other artist who arranges an album in a similar way) saying, “I know you want to get to the ‘mean in New England’ song, but listen, you have to get through all these other fucking songs first because I worked hard on that shit too.” OR, alternately, Noah Kahan saying, “Sorry, I know I just had a bunch of sad fucking shit in a row, here’s one you can shout out the car window,” which, as someone whose main edit note on my last book was “let’s try to make this a little less sad so people actually want to read it,” I totally get.
Anyway, this song is great. It’s just great! You really have to listen to it to understand WHY it’s so incredibly gratifying to shout—
I would leave if only I could find a reason
I’m mean because I grew up in New England
—but MAN, it just is! He also does this thing when singing “I’m mean” where he makes “I’m” into like five syllables which is also a move I respect. And while I’m on the themes of my writing and New England, this feels like an appropriate time to blame the fact that I have to say to my editor every single time I turn in a draft, “and I’m sorry, again, about the cursing; I promise I’ll work on it in edits,” on the five years that I lived in Boston. I was so pure and innocent before then! But it fucking changed me.
This song also REALLY gets at the heart of growing up in a small town, PARTICULARLY this line, which I feel with my entire soul:
Well, I’m tired of dirt roads named after high school friends’ grandfathers
Because like, that’s it! Everything is named after someone you or your mom or your grandfather knew! And it’s so nice and why did I always know I could never stay and also I’m homesick.
This line actually always brings me back to this time in high school when I had a psychology class with this old teacher who had taught at my high school for decades and decades, including a full decade too long, and he was probably not all right in the head and the entire experience of that class was unhinged. We took a bunch of weird field trips, including one to his family’s largely defunct farm, and I can’t remember why, likely because there wasn’t an actual reason. I remember some classmates and I standing in a derelict shed where there was a dead squirrel on a shelf and just feeling like, wow. This is dark. But everyone in the class knew this teacher was not right in the head, that nothing we did the entire semester involved any amount of educational value—it really brought us together—and on the way to his family’s largely defunct farm, he stood at the front of the bus, pointing out landmarks along the way like we hadn’t passed the same small town landmarks our entire lives, before he got into some story about wild times he’d gotten into with my grandfather back in the day at some of those landmarks, and I can’t remember what those wild times even entailed, just that I sank further and further into my plastic seat and wanted to die.
Anyhoo, back to Noah Kahan. Amazingly, I’m almost done.
The View Between Villages: Maybe tied with how badly I wanted to talk about “Orange Juice” was how badly I’ve been wanting to talk about this closing track. It’s one of those sparse, eerie closing tracks that’s solidly on the side of “we’re not resolving anything here.” I love these kinds of closing tracks, and this one’s really a master class. It starts quiet. It tells a simple story. The most essential story (I know I’ve used the word essential too much in this post; I will feel badly about it later) of returning to a small hometown:
Alone, in your car, driving down a lonely, familiar road at night.
And for a moment, the nostalgia washes over you, deep and fragile and true.
Feel the rush of my blood
I’m seventeen again
I am not scared of death
I’ve got dreams again
It’s just me and the curve of the valley
And there is meaning on earth
I am happy
And then. Then whatever has happened to Noah Kahan, whatever loss he’s experienced, whatever trauma he’s lived through that has spawned this entire album, comes back, and a bass line starts. And the almost-last verse of the album absolutely pulses through, urgent and echo-y and present and sometimes I listen to the whole album just to get to this, to the goosebumps it raises on my skin.
Passed Alger Brook Road
I’m over the bridge
A minute from home but I feel so far from it
The death of my dog, the stretch of my skin
It’s all washing over me
I’m angry again
The things that I lost here
The people I knew
They got me surrounded for a mile or two
(And half a breath as the bass and percussion and extra strings drop away and—)
The car’s in reverse
I’m gripping the wheel
I’m back between villages
And everything’s still
And then everything is still. Just a few long, quiet stretches of sound while he sits on that bridge. And the album ends.
It is haunting.
It is perfect.