by Brian

There’s a passage in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a book I can’t recommend highly enough) that describes something similar to the feeling I had for Deafheaven’s Sunbather upon first hearing it. One of the narrator’s riding companions explained how her daughter had visited the Great Plains at some point previously, had been overwhelmed by the magnitude of it, and had tried to capture that with her camera. To her disappointment, the pictures turned out bland and ineffectual, a sordid simulacrum of the feeling the actual place gave her. The frame of the camera was not able to hold the experience of what it felt like to be there, to see nothing but grasses, yes, but stretching for miles and miles in every direction, seemingly endlessly.

Sunbather was the picture of the Great Plains to me at first. I’d “heard good things”, as is usually the case when trying out something new, and gave it a once-over, skipping around between tracks to see what it was about. Initial reactions were negative; I’d heard a lot of loud guitars and a guy screaming, not something I’m usually about. I wouldn’t say I’m not a fan of metal (because, frankly, the concept seems a bit silly to me), but my knowledge of it was shallow and my tastes tended towards a lighter brand of music. This seemed like something I’d never get.

I deleted it from my computer and moved on, but for whatever reason I got the inkling to give it another try a few weeks later. I don’t exactly remember what prompted it–maybe I’d heard something that stuck with me, maybe I was just bored with whatever I was listening to at the time, maybe (and most likely) the sheer volume of positive press for it made me feel obligated to give it another go–but I re-downloaded it and tried it again. This time, it floored me. The loudness that was obnoxious on the first pass gained depth, an endless abyss of pain and longing that shone through. Despite the incomprehensible lyrics the singer’s agony was undeniable, a desperation magnified by the rolling waves of guitars and drums, unrelenting with each pass. The Great Plains metaphor works perfect here: it’s difficult to capture just how it feels to be sitting inside the storm as it passes around you, while your audience is at peace. The signified does not have a just signifier when it comes to things like this.

It makes me think about what else I might have let pass without a second thought. I got lucky with this, as I recovered one of my new favorite albums because A) the internet is a bottomless pit of illegal behavior, and B) time was not a factor in my ability to give this a second chance (as in, I could have waited another week and this album would be completely unchanged). But I think on what else I might have seen as the daughter’s photos of the Great Plains, of wonder reduced to boredom. What things I may have been too tired, too lazy, too self-absorbed to give a proper chance to? What experiences, what relationships, what joy and pain, what love and loss might I have just let pass right in front of me, within reach but completely ignored, for comfortable but dull embrace of the familiar?

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