In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re picking songs about specific states.
Downtown Struts, “Back To N.Y.” (2012)
Great songs about specific places manage to make a universal feeling out of a highly particular location. The music and lyrics combine to turn a far-off region—someplace the listener may have never been to, let alone be familiar with—into a relatable locale. Whether it’s KISS making fans feel as though their bedroom turns into “Detroit Rock City” every time the needle drops on the record, or Tupac recreating an entire version of Los Angeles in the heads of listeners, the music uses geography as another tool, a means of transporting the audience to a different place emotionally. In this way, never-seen cities and towns become iconic to those who live elsewhere, but if you’re actually familiar with the location, it becomes a totem of identification, as though you’re having a private conversation with the artist.
When I moved from the Twin Cities to New York, The Hold Steady took on a special place in my heart, as the lyrics spoke directly about an experience I shared with Craig Finn—transplanting my Midwest life to the East Coast. But when I moved back to the Midwest, returning to Chicago at the beginning of last year, it was Downtown Struts who captured my state of mind. The Chicago-based punk band excel at the kind of melodic stompers I always thought of as “Midwestern punk rock” growing up, even though noisy guitars playing sweet melodies with raspy vocals about life and love is a pretty international phenomenon. Their debut album Victoria! is an album-length paean to the touchstones of daily life as a young punk kid in the middle of the country: driving around, being broke, feeling beaten down, and being emotionally resuscitated through music. These are experiences kids just about anywhere can relate to, but the geographic connection lent a sense of immediacy and attachment to the music (and the band) that made their album important in a way most artists simply aren’t.
In particular, “Back To N.Y.” communicated a sense of wanderlust and longing that spoke to the sense of simultaneously leaving and coming home, an odd combination triggered by moving from where I had spent the past 10 years, yet returning to the part of the U.S. that always felt like home. “Take one look around the city,” goes the refrain. “Someone said that you were back today / But you’re back to New York.” It elegantly summarized my mental state: Your mind and feelings always seem to be behind the rest of your body when it comes to moving. My bodily senses were experiencing Chicago, and feeling welcomed, like a return to the familiar, even as my brain was waking up every day feeling like I was still a New Yorker, mentally. The anthemic blast of yearning conveyed by the song is that of feeling caught in between states, both literal and emotional. And each day that went by, each time I adjusted a little more to my new life, the last lingering question uttered in the track’s final seconds gained increasing urgency. “When will you be back in the Midwest?” Finally, one day I woke up, looked around, and realized I had the answer: I was back, and this soundtrack to my conversion had played a key part in the journey. Thanks, Downtown Struts.