I climb to the top of the hill. One foot in front of the other. Not looking back. It’s a late night/early morning ritual. I walk to the end of the street, to the point where the bitumen rises at an almost impossible angle, walk right through the shortness of breath and the tightening of the diaphragm, until eventually I turn around and the entire world lays lit up below me. I sit down on the front grass of someone’s house, careful not to trigger the sensor lights. As I get lost in the sounds that play through my headphones, no matter what the night has held, I am reminded that The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place. It is alive, it is breathing, and from that vantage point at the top of the world, right in those moments, it couldn’t be more beautiful.
There are some albums that become a ceremony in their comfort and are always there to return to when you need them. Like the calm that comes from a deep slow breath or from plunging your head beneath the water, they bring a certain kind of peace. Explosions In The Sky make that kind of music, and their third studio album, released in 2003, has been my reset button for more than a decade. It has followed me from house to house, packed my boxes after breakups, lulled me to sleep in strange new beds, accompanied me on adventures in new countries, waited with me in airports, stayed awake with me in waiting rooms and held my hand on those late night walks. If life had a soundtrack and you chose your own, this is it.
The scene is a suburban hospital and I am seventeen years old. The night before, my mother had a stroke and I am sitting in a hard plastic chair waiting for her to wake up. The machine beeps of The First Breath After a Coma are echoed in the silences by real life machine beeps and I am too tired now to really feel anything. It seems like days, that waiting, but I think it is mid afternoon when she opens her eyes. She can’t talk, and she can’t move her hands, and through the building crescendo of the guitars I can see in her eyes a relief to be alive, but also an overwhelming fear. It takes days for movement to come, and weeks for words and footsteps to be learned. Not even remembered, because they just aren’t there anymore. I buy her nighties and get someone to cut her hair and try to make everything okay. I go to school, I come back to the sterile rehab facility, I sleep and I repeat. The song finally ends and she comes home, but it’s never quite the same.
Cut to a long airport tunnel in Bangkok. Everything is white. The tiles, the walls that reach forever up, the roof. We sit there in the walkway at the only power outlet we can find, and the space between us only grows larger with the flicking of the minutes on the old split-flap display. The Only Moment We Were Alone reaches that first cymbal crash and I just know it’s time. We break up with a twelve-hour wait for the flight because that’s just what time the cheap train arrived, and a nine-hour flight home after that. There is so much silence to fill. The song weaves through those staccato guitar repetitions and there are the memories of the temples, and the mountains, and the sweaty night markets and the drinking of potent local spirits in tiny bars. It has been a lovely goodbye even if it really ended long before. We board the flight and the seat between us stays empty. The wall of sound envelops me and I look out the window at the water as it blends into the sky, and wonder about everything that comes next.
The ocean has always been a healing place for me. When I am not within ten kilometers of it, I feel like I am trapped in a bell jar. I don’t always need to be there, but I need to know it’s close by, ready to take me into its horizon if I need it to. My Six Days At The Bottom Of The Ocean went something like this: I am a little girl and I am jumping through the white wash, I feel the thrill of all that force pushing me up and over the waves. My ears are submerged so that everything takes on an echoed gurgle. I haven’t heard the song yet, but in my memory it is always playing there just below the surface. A wave crashes down on me and the water rushes into my nose and my mouth and my ears. I succumb to it, marveling at how strong nature is, and how small we all are. Time stops there and I don’t feel scared. My fathers’ hands reach down and grab me, and I come up gasping for air, spitting the salt from my lungs.
Ten years later I am on a train to a mental health facility in the outer suburbs. I think about how we approach some people in life like a DIY project. We have all the best intentions to fix them, but half way through realise we don’t have the tools required and retire them to the back of a cupboard. Except they aren’t fixed, they might even be more broken than before. His mother tells me he has to have electric shock therapy and I think that it can’t be real; I have read Sylvia Plath and surely they just don’t do that anymore. She says it’s not like that now, that the studies show it has very positive results. She doesn’t say it’s my fault, but the words are there in that pregnant pause. He threatened to throw himself off a bridge. He took a lot of pills. He destroyed his car with a tyre iron in a public railway car park and tried to set it on fire. Memorial plays as the train passes all those sad matching houses, and it’s a song for all the people we can’t fix, and for all the feelings of inadequacy of just not having the right tools at the right time, and for all the parts of ourselves we give up as we try.
Cut forward to today. It has been a very strange week. I have seen the contents of a time capsule from 1969, someone I know has died, I have sat in a sold out comedy show and chanted “ommmm” with a group of total strangers, a person I don’t really know gave me a crystal that changes colour in the light. I have felt sad, and happy, and surprised, and angry, and everything in between. I have listened to this album precisely seven times. I have taken Your Hand In Mine and I have had my hand taken when I needed it to be, I have hugged my friends, and I have realised that some things in life you just have to be grateful for. For all the moments that have passed and for all the ones yet to come, for the people that we keep and the ones we let go, and for the soundtracks that we choose for ourselves and the ones that choose us. For the songs that somehow always make everything okay. For those things, some days you just have to stop and say thank you.
So, thank you Explosions In The Sky, for always reminding me that The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place. Thank you, more than you will ever know.