Signals Midwest Contemplates Their Place “At This Age”
I’ve listened to a lot of really good coming-of-age albums in the last few years. Modern Baseball’s Holy Ghost is a favorite of 2016, while Sorority Noise’s Joy, Departed and Runaway Brother’s Mother consumed my 2015 music rotation. I love a good coming-of-age story, because there’s growth and discovery there. Hearing lead singer Brendan Lukens openly wrestle with his own demons on Holy Ghost is remarkable. You can practically hear him discover new things about himself and grow through his personal turmoil. But what happens to a coming-of-age story after the “coming” is done? Signals Midwest’s At This Age happens.
Clevelanders Signals Midwest treat At This Age less like a coming-of-age and more like a came-of-age. At some point you make it past the turbulence of the transition from adolescence to adulthood, and then what?
Growing up, it seems easier to ignore the future and life in the “real world” because it exists in a far off time and place. “When I grow up, things will be a certain way, but for now I don’t have to worry about that.” Then one day you wake up and you’re living “real life” and you wonder how it was able to sneak up on you. Suddenly you trip and fall into the place you’ve spent years clawing to reach and you discover it’s somewhere between a disappointing letdown and an absolute nightmare. On 2015’s “Bored In The U.S.A.”, Father John Misty felt disenfranchised by society: “Is this the part where I get all I ever wanted? Who said that? Can I get my money back?” On At This Age, Signals Midwest seems to mostly feel disenfranchised by themselves. “Always thought at this age I would be settling in to a major city,” sings Max Stern on the album’s title track. “Always thought at this age I would be further than I am now.”
I can relate.
“Maybe I should’ve been doing something totally different the last six years,” I sometimes think. The idea gets explored on “Should Have Been A Painter,” as Stern demands the answer to the obvious question in all of this: “Tell me why we don’t end up where we expect to.”
Despite this new perspective on life, a lot of things remain constant for the band. One thing they’ve always focused on are the concepts of time and space. The group’s second album is called Latitudes & Longitudes, and songs like “Monarchs” wrestle with the struggles of a long-distance relationship and the havoc that days and miles of separation can wreak. “I was counting the miles, you were counting the days,” Stern sings. “Ain’t it strange that the numbers we wanted were moving in opposite ways?” On 2013’s Light On The Lake, “Desert To Denver” explores the concept of reincarnation. “Hope that I come back as a timepiece tucked into the pocket of your lover’s jacket, counting the seconds till you return.” The title track on At This Age makes the fascination abundantly clear with a wailing chorus: “Comparing notes on time and space, and where we should be at this age.” (In a fitting twist, the album was recorded in Chicago in a studio called Atlas.)
On the closer, “Song For Ana,” Stern seems acutely aware of his fixation:
“I think you said, ‘I’m terrified cause time is finite.’ You drilled an hourglass into your arm to try to make it stay. As for me? I think I’m pretty much the same these days. I get obsessed with distance, stuck on space. Maybe no one gets lost anymore, just comfortably displaced.
This internal wrestling match occurs throughout the album, which is set in a few different places, including Nebraska and “out west.” Most importantly, it’s set in Cleveland. As a Clevelander through and through, I love the nods. “I set a spark to my suffering city,” sings Stern on the opener. “And fell irresponsibly in love.” I don’t know if he’s in love with Cleveland or Ana (a recurring character on the album), but I know which one I choose to believe. “West Side Summer” feels like an ode to Lakewood, Ohio City, or Tremont. There are mentions of the Cuyahoga River, rusted RTA stations, and wet blankets of January snow. “The city’s bent out of shape, still treading water in the greatest lakes.” Lyrical references, like the city itself, fly under the radar for outsiders. However, like the city itself, I love it.
As with all Signals Midwest albums, it knows exactly where to holler and exactly where to whisper. It builds and releases energy at all the right points and reels things in for pensive moments whenever necessary. That said, there is a noticeably different feel this time, which is probably thanks to producer Evan Weiss. The band has never been particularly maximalist, but At This Age feels just a bit more stripped back and raw. Even the project’s most soaring moments never feel like a tidal wave of instrumentation. It’s efficient in that way. There’s nothing frivolous.
My favorite thing about Signals Midwest is their live shows. I was fortunate enough to catch them three times last year, and I have a 2016 show on my calendar (October 1st in Columbus!). I can’t wait to hear this batch of music in a live setting.
It’s rare that an album captures my own period in life without feeling heavy-handed. Stern & Co. humbly present their perspective with honesty and without any overwrought life lessons, essentially saying, “Here’s where we’re at, nothing more, nothing less.” That said, for all of the shrugging towards the issue at hand, At This Age does offer some advice: “So when you’ve got a million ways to go, you get going.”