ALBUM REVIEW: Analyzing loss and death in ‘Clear’ by Scranton alternative rock band University Drive
The record starts in static waves.
During a week in early February, in between moments of huddling under as many blankets as possible before tossing them off again (rinse and repeat), due to fluctuations of temperature and flu-induced discomfort, hoarding tissues and popping antibiotics to fight off an infection – all while trying to decipher the daily wants of a toddler – I received the digital master of the new record “Clear” by University Drive, a Scranton-based alternative rock band made up of people I won’t even pretend I can be objective about. Let it be clear – I love the people in this band.
And, while one might argue that no interpretation of art can be anything more than an attempt to make objective a subjective experience, I find it necessary to have this disclaimer: this record hits me on a personal level of which the average listener will not share – cannot share. That is to say, I cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, approach this record, its content, its themes, without some sort of “bias,” insofar as having been personally connected to the person whose loss spurred the emotional tidal wave upon which this record’s inception crashes against our shores.
But, like any good work of art, I don’t think my own personal attachments to the songs, and the people behind them, dilutes the album’s emotional efficacy. True beauty extends beyond its creator, beyond its creator’s friends and family, transcends the shackles of its own inception. That is to say, my own emotional proximity to the people in this band doesn’t negate the potential for complete strangers to be swept beneath the emotional currents this record forces us beneath. In fact, it might be impossible not to feel emotional listening to “Clear,” which is evidence of this record’s artistic success.
This record, released on March 27, drowns us all so that we can learn again how to breathe. Listen below and allow me to break it down song by song.
The record starts in static waves.
Then Ed Cuozzo’s guitar and vocals, submerged beneath a swirling lo-fi current, crashes against our speakers’ shoreline(/sky) and reemerges for a gasp of (hi-fi) air. The change in quality illustrates the image of a person drowning before popping their head up above the water to utter the rest of the record in a single breath, gasping for certainty in a world that offers little other than the promise of an ending.
(Note: The promise, or guarantee, of an ending presupposes an “after” as much as a beginning is defined by the “be” of which is yet to [be]gin, and this is not to be written off as pretentious philosophizing; it is in these murky unknowns which must “exist” for the sake of logical cohesion, that so much of this record, particularly the guest voices stitched and woven throughout the album, fight for insight, guidance, clarity.)
We are also immediately introduced to a theme that, like those waves, continues to break against the beach: absence, or “Vacancy.” This absence drives the record forward and is always in the background, informing whatever other themes twist and turn throughout the album; it is the thematic key to the album.
I find a powerful symmetry to this in Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way” (the Lydia Davis translation):
“But the absence of a thing is not merely that; it is not simply a partial lack; it is a disruption of everything else; it is a new state which one cannot foresee in the old” (emphasis mine).
To paraphrase the way that someone I respect a great deal explained hell: It’s not fire and burning and torture; it’s the absence of God. That is to say, though we might privilege “presence” to “absence,” in the ordinary, everyday sense, it is the absence of another that brings us hell (“disruption of everything else”). Ed expresses this painful realization in the track’s closing moments:
“I don’t want to feel this small / I’m not going to last too long / In a world without you here / This vacancy is like an ocean that I’ll never swim.”
“Please Release Me”
There is clear desperation in the second track’s title, “Please Release Me.” But Ed’s desperation does something wonderful, and it’s continued throughout the record. It makes room for other voices to speak their truths, their experiences, their ideas, their feelings. This is a socially-designed record. And how else to better stave off the sense of alienation often brought upon by loss? In these moments of loss and confusion, we often seek hope in another’s perspective.
When we lose ourselves through the loss of another, have we not all at one point sought the wisdom of others, even if it’s only for temperamental relief from the otherwise flood of incessant suffering? What makes this song so impactful, though, is the variety of voices, of others’ perspectives. There is no singular agenda here; no one is dismissed, all are welcome. It highlights the universal questions we all have, and, with so many different points of view, the questions only gain more traction, become more universal.
“There’s gotta be something out there; there has to be — there just has to be,” one voice says, pleading for a sign, some significant proof to defeat the unmoving ambiguity in which we are all thrust in the moment we’re born, mirroring the desperation of the song itself, before another voice enters, wisely reminding us of our own impermanence and how that forces us to decide on how best to be vessels of love. All of us have an expiration date; what can we do for humanity as a whole?
“Love is God; God is love,” another voice says. And this should not be dismissed as tautological; to love is to know “God,” and to know God is to love and, as hinted at previously, the loss of love is the loss of God, and the loss of God, the loss of love. The pain expressed in these tracks is the feeling of losing God through the loss of someone we love. This is the abandonment Christ felt on the cross: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In terms of musicality, the structure of this song is one of the best on the album. The call and response guitar lines, the timing of the voices, how and when they’re introduced and interwoven, and the placement of a female vocal counterpoint all work to this song’s advantage.
Gentle keys crest the return of the record’s waves as they wash away the trails of “Please Release Me.” For a moment, the noise, the static, the voices disappear; a moment of clarity emerges as Ed presents a clear image of his wants as the song proceeds: to keep some things private, to improve his health, to see others other than himself, to remind himself of the promises he’s made, to remind himself of what he hoped he would become.
Quite often, these hopes are mirrored in the faces of the others in our lives, of those whom we hold dear. Who are we in the eyes of another? Moreover, what happens when we lose one of the most important people in our lives – who are we then? Imagine a reflection of yourself in a mirror, and then the mirror disappears; we have lost the reflection, staring instead at a flat surface trying to remember who we were only moments ago.
The riff-heavy ending collapses into a transition in which an unknown voice asks the question haunting mankind since our ability to self-reflect: “What do you think happens when we die?” Then…
…Ed’s distorted voice shreds the quiet resolve of “Clear.”
“Give Up” perfectly encapsulates the frustrating ambiguity of life in its ontological uncertainty. One voice posits that, when we’re done, that’s it.
Whether or not someone finds hopelessness in this claim does not mean that possibility should be thrown aside; rather, this possibility, all possibilities, all potentiality, must be explored in order to find truth in universality, as the universal must contain all of these oppositions and contingencies, and without furnishing any preferential treatment.
But uncertainty always emerges when we are dealing with belief. A clash of mentalities about life, or approaches to living, is expressed in two contrasting statements made by two different voices but might as well be Ed’s internal conflict, a dialogue within himself that’s become externalized. One speaks of the indifference of a creator:
“We think we have a plan, but God laughs.”
And the other expresses the necessity of positivity:
“You have to find the positive, because if you can’t find that, you’ll be lost forever.”
The latter is challenged, presumably, by the vacancy that inspired the record. Beliefs require rumination, for death always forces introspection.
“The ideal afterlife is…”
There is an internal movement throughout this record that is carefully placed in the subtlest places. Look at the chorus lyrics:
“This damage that we cage / I need a cage / It’s gotten out again”
The damage becomes personified and sneaks out of the cage; what was once on the inside of our inside has now moved. Not only does the damage we suffer affect us internally, but it simultaneously leaves us and has a direct impact on the world. It, the damage, almost has a mind of its own; it erupts and disrupts. It is active, not merely the passive, static wreckage of, say, a bulldozed building – though, even then, the ghost of what was can haunt the no longer, and therefore is. It persists.
This rage turns (“moves”) dramatically into one of the strongest melodies on the record, the notes behind: “Safe and quiet / You’re preaching to a choir / God bless desire / If you’re breathing, you’re a liar.”
The rest of the song explodes and is then swallowed by its own feedback, like a dying star collapsing in on itself.
Truthfully, I can barely listen to this song because of its emotional impact on me.
Not only does the song open and close with some of the more poignant “voices” throughout the record, but the song hits me with two specific groups of lyrics:
“Last call and dreaming of the days we spent, laughing at the TV set
No time had me wasting all of the time we had.
Now I’m begging God to take me back.
This old luck has got me looking for a piece of mind.
The stolen art of sweet decline.
We’re new once, then we’re breaking on the car ride home”
“You wanted to teach me right
I wanted to see your light
I’m sorry I stayed inside my house
And wasted time”
The desperate plea for forgiveness from someone who isn’t here with us to hear the apology or accept it, the regret of not spending more time with that lost one when we could have, absolutely destroys me.
Moreover, when Ed drives home the climax of the song with the lyrics, “I’m almost gone,” its significance, to me, is due to an important observation: all of us, every single one of us, are, if living, by definition, “almost gone.” We are born dying the moment we take our first breath of life and, in this, we are always – to borrow somewhat recklessly from the philosopher Hegel’s notion of “Becoming”- simultaneously “ceasing to be” and “coming to be.”
Our purgatory is in the “almost gone” while “not yet gone,” and the death of another always peels back our eyelids, forcing us to recognize ourselves in the in-between of this in-between.
“Heads or Tails”
Next, the record asks us to consider if life is but a collection of daily moment-to-moment coin flips. Every breath is colored by the possibility of it being the last. And, as this record deals with death, at least tangentially, this perspective, which can be so easily ignored, won’t allow itself to be forgotten. Take for example the way this song is introduced:
“Once when I was 18, one of my good friends passed away. And I remember waking up and getting the phone call…”
One moment, all is well. Then the coin flips and our world is turned upside down, inside out.
Ed’s emotional vocals in this track absolutely roar with the frustration of this possibility – at any moment, our whole life can change, and aren’t we all emotional reactionaries to some degree? How else can we agree on what nostalgia is? We seem inclined to romanticize the “before.” And why wouldn’t we if that “before” was a comfortable structure upon which we learned how to live?
The cynic will find this as nothing more than a truism. Let the cynic lose someone, then, and let them face this absence; their callousness will collapse, reminding them that being human means dealing with banal realities such as this. As Albert Camus might have put it, not only us, but everyone we have ever loved will die, and that’s absurd. That in itself is a truism, but one which we must deal with, and its truth is not hindered by its supposed obviousness.
There’s something interesting happening here philosophically with “Heads or Tails” and “Shoreline/Sky,” insofar as the song titles both contain oppositions within themselves that give rise to their distinction; these opposing sides, in being so close to one another that, with a blink of an eye, like staring at a three-dimensional cube on a flat surface, or the image of the duck/rabbit illusion, where – snap! – just like that, the distinctions collapse, the image of the cube changes, the duck is rabbit and then back again – they vanish and then are reborn in the movement of the whole. Their “truth” is neither one or the other, but both.
What I mean is the difference between heads or tails on a coin, and the differences, the dividing line between the edge of a shoreline and the edge of the sky, are so close to one another that the concepts themselves are nearly the same. What divides the two holds the two together. Arguably, what divides the two is the essence of the two. These oppositions need one another to be distinct at all.
What divides life and death? Living.
This plays into the record’s theme of death in that the only way we can know death is by knowing life; on a rudimentary, but fundamental level, the only reason death means anything to us is because of life and, conversely, life is only meaningful because of death. To further illustrate the point, as discussed previously, the moment we are born, we are also dying. We are forced into a life of simultaneous contradictions and then must find our way.
The chorus hook will remain in your head long after the song ends, but one of the best parts of the track is the bridge. The collapse into the bridge works so well before rising once more into the final chorus that we see how consistent this record is with its ebb and flow, its movements of waves, both sonically and metaphorically.
“Some Kind of Energy”
The track that follows is made up of layers of perspectives piling on top of one another; the mass of confusion grows. Clearly, there is not yet any obtainable unified answer to the great “why” that often leaves our lips, the one that positions itself in the center of our mind whenever we are brought to our knees in search for an answer that continues to elude the question, like a car chase through the labyrinth of an enclosed city in which the pursued always escapes, and perhaps because the pursued has been in the passenger seat of the pursuant all along.
This frustration and confusion often make us throw up our hands up and say, “There has to be some kind of energy.” Replace “energy” here with “answer.” One has to wonder if every question contains within itself the answer it wants to know but can’t be known because we’re asking the question.
One wise voice suggests that we need to turn the object of our perception around and see it from all sides. This suggestion appears simple, yet the simple in life is often that which is most frequently overlooked; the simple appears complicated because of its very nature, of being concealed by a veil of simplicity.
If “Neverland” (or “Never-never-land”) is the place we go so we don’t have to grow up, Summerland seems like it’s the place for Ed that reconnects the dissembled. He wants the truth of the whole brought back together in this land where summer reignites and reestablishes the happiness and security of days gone by. The desperation of earlier tracks is brought back and emphasized by Ed straining his voice to scream that “love (itself) is strained.”
“I Am Awake”
“I find the bond becomes stronger once someone passes. I know they are free. Some anxiety comes to the surface thinking exactly where do they go? Will I meet them there someday? Is this the last time I will spend with them?”
This is it. This is what makes this record so powerful. This quiet wonder introduces one of the most beautiful and introspective tracks of the record. In the background, we hear nature, maybe even some children’s laughter – or is it birds? And, there! I think the waves are back. I’m not sure. Before we have time to figure it out, Ed’s vocals begin over the thoughtful plucking of acoustic guitar strings.
“I don’t do anything without a leash,” Ed sings.
And he’s saying something profoundly universal here; we are all tethered to an other. We are all tied to our culture, society, history and, most importantly, those we love. Even those we hate.
“I miss you to death and then some,” he sings. And this is what love is. (“God is love, and love is God.”) Love transcends the limits of life, beyond death itself. Death cannot kill what life preserves.
“Cry Without a Reason”
When the record is not dealing directly with death as the absence or loss of a singular person, it’s lamenting the loss of earlier times, back before the world forced us to deal with death, loss, and change directly. Loss will always ignite the flames of nostalgia, as evidenced by the following chorus (and also one of the record’s best hooks):
“I miss the nights when all we used to do was run / Chasing stars around the backyard / And now we give ourselves to evil / Everyone / You make me cry without a reason.”
The song functions as the last chapter of a novel before the epilogue of…
“A Place in Time”
One of my favorite parts of the record is the melody and quiet harmony behind “Sell off your clothes / Burn up those bones / Give into self-vacation / Sail to the sun / See everyone / Leaving behind your patience / To see and be awake / You’re tired and chased home.”
Additionally, the lyric, “I lost my truth when you found some peace and quiet,” is beautiful in its simplicity, in its awareness of a “fair trade” that Ed wasn’t quite ready to make. It is perhaps the record’s most profound statements, which says a lot considering it’s an album strengthened by being unafraid of confronting death and loss head on.
And while “A Place in Time” works wonderfully as an afterthought, its melody and beautiful melancholy do more than simply serve the function of the final moments of the record. Even though it ends with the last voice drenched in ambience, “I like to think when we die, it’s not the end,” this song could have just as easily started the record, as it invites us to consider the circular nature of time, the possibility of rebirth, of being born again even within our own time, as our “selves” confront the relentless tides of an apparently indifferent universe, full of so much mystery and ambiguity, and so often devoid of satisfying answers.
But what has always made mankind beautiful, despite our penchant for terror and hatred, is the love we share; when those we love die, their love transcends their own death. Whatever God might be, insofar as a benevolent omnipresence personified in so many different ways by so many different cultures, the closest we can reach in our mortal lives to touching God’s hands is through the love we have for one another.
Some closing thoughts
It’s too boring to me to draw an analysis of the record with intermittent references to “established” bands. But, for the TLDR crowds, if the following gets you to press “play,” then fine – there are moments that remind me of Jimmy Eat World, Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters, Sunny Day Real Estate, and the ending of the track “Damage” does Brand New better than Brand New. I invite you to digest this small list of “listen if you like…” and then forget about it. The source material warrants an analysis on its own merit.
The record’s ebb and flow, between the waves of static, the various voices interwoven like grapevines through the spines of these songs, offering sometimes two or three distinctly different views, collapse back into one and, with Proustian precision and rhythm, paints a portrait so vividly of the soul of another person(s), inside their struggles, hopes, nightmares, and dreams, that to consider this record anything other than that which we call art would be a serious mistake.
The loss of my own mother persists; the damage continues. And when Ed’s mom died not long after, someone I loved and who treated me like another son for the entirety of knowing her, my “brother” and I became closer in a way that we shouldn’t have to have been. We got together for coffee and diner food, like we often did nightly, and we worked through it. We continue to work through it. And Ed’s way of muscling through this pain is now on display for everyone else on this record. I admire and look up to his bravery, his capacity for translating loss into art.
I’m doing a small disservice to the rest of this talented band – bassist John Husosky, drummer Steven Martin, and guitarist/vocalist Angelo Maruzzelli – by focusing primarily on the record’s themes, but everyone involved, including Joe Loftus and Jay Preston at JL Studios in Olyphant, have helped piece together something wonderful.
Simply put, I couldn’t be prouder of my friends for producing a record that so well encapsulates the pain, frustration, and confusion of loss. It isn’t that other records or works of art have not taken on this subject matter, but there’s something so strangely comforting about Ed’s vision of allowing other people to share their stories and perspectives, littering them throughout the record so that they function more like glue than decorative layers.
It is easy to be cynical, to forfeit to nihilism. But I am grateful for this record, in its ability to both take away my breath and give it back to me.
Maybe Kurt Vonnegut was right when he said:
“If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.”
For those who wish to experience it live, University Drive will host an album release show for “Clear” this Saturday, May 4 at 7:30 p.m. at Stage West (301 N. Main Ave., Scranton) with Rosary Guild, Black Hole Heart, and Esta Coda. The 21+ show is $10 at the door.
Guest post by Daniel Rosler of Scranton bands A Fire With Friends and Esta Coda
This is an article sent to NEPA Scene by a guest contributor and approved by the editor.