Portraits of Winter: Bombay Bicycle Club's "Flaws"
Portraits of Winter: Bombay Bicycle Club's "Flaws"
by Frank EnYart
I want you to take a second and think of your favorite album. If that’s too hard, which I would assume it is for so many of us, I want you to think of one that has impacted you incredibly in some way. It could’ve been the soundtrack for an awful or overwhelmingly happy time, or the album that changed the way you felt about someone or something. It could be the album that made you love music, or that made you fall back in love with music. If this task is anywhere near as difficult for you as it is for me, I would presume for each prompt, dozens of albums came into your head, a sort of shuffled playlist of all songs that sent some sort of chill through you, or forced a smile upon your face accidentally, because you forgot how much a song meant to you.
Now, I want you to focus on the album that slipped into your mind unexpectedly. It could’ve been one so long forgotten that you’re struggling to even think of the name, but you remember the songs and their order perfectly. Presumably, this album sticks with you because it had some sort of profound, perhaps unnameable, perhaps unexpected impact. For example, when I think of NEEDTOBREATHE’s album The Heat, specifically the song “We Could Run Away,” I remember the time my dad and I took a short road trip to Louisville, Kentucky, from Ohio to look at a car my dad had found online. Granted, I don’t remember a ton about the trip, but I do remember that we played that album on repeat the entire way down, and whether or not we realized it at the time, it made us feel like renegades in the way only certain Southern Rock music can make you feel.
I ask all of this because writing about music can be difficult, specifically writing about music so that your thesis is not, “this album is good/bad.” Of course there are albums that are qualitatively good in my opinion, but that is far less interesting to talk about than talking at length about what makes an album good. And I wanted to set the stage to talk about an album that seems to slip in and out of my head so often, conjuring all frequencies of bittersweet that I needed to talk about it. What makes it so difficult, though, is in addition to being the “soundtrack” to a time of my life, it painted my world in all sorts of colors, and in order to share it in all its vividness, the whole story has to be there.
That album is Bombay Bicycle Club’s Flaws. The anomaly in the band’s catalog, BBC ditched their electronic indie rock for acoustic guitars and mandolins. Everything about the album was a departure from their norm, and somehow it worked. I could get into the ins-and-outs, but I think it’s best told this way:
Chicago, as far as I’m concerned, has two vastly different seasons: there’s the vibrant, lively and humid summers, and the too-long, drab winters. Anyone living in the city knows that there is hardly an inbetween—take for instance that the Cubs home opener this year was snowed out instead of rained out. I was lucky though, because my first Chicago winter wasn’t a bad one. There was hardly any subzero temperatures, the perfect amount of snow, and really great company. I made it through my first blazing summer, sitting lakeside with my then girlfriend on most days, and coming home to a smoldering hot apartment in the evenings, our bodies exhausted just from living, the heat taking every bit of life from our bodies. It wasn’t ideal, but I was 20 years old, and I counted myself lucky to have any place to lay my head in the city.
The thing about living in Chicago is you have no excuses to not be what you want to be. For most of my late teens, as unhappy as they were, I insulated my self-esteem with the notion that because I was in the middle of nowhere Ohio, the chances of me being a successful writer or musician were pretty much impossible, so I couldn’t be blamed for those dreams not coming to fruition. The moment I left that place, I knew I had no more viable excuses. So that fall, I decided to take my first real attempt at writing, as a reporter for the school newspaper. Because the majority of my classes were writing-heavy, and it was a job for me now as well, I also decided to take some electives that exercised other areas of my brain—specifically, computer programming and an introduction ceramics class. I promise this detail is relevant.
In the fall, winter creeps up unsuspected and all at once, like the missed moment when the sun finally settles for the night. The whole city is cast in grayscale, the last bit of color and vibrancy leaving in the packed bags of those who flock from the lakeshore to hole up in their apartments for a few months. And it’s in that moment, as weird and counterproductive as it is, that I, and as far as I can tell so many others, retreat into songs that use the same muted tones that we see around us. It’s some sort of instinct, I guess, to assume that because the sidewalks are empty from November to March, or because we all just happen to keep our heads down and shielded from the wind, that community can be found in our joined hope for the spring to come back; a joint effort to will into existence some sort of light.
I have three distinct memories from this time, all accompanied by BBC’s most muted effort; even the album art from Flaws is remarkably gray compared to their other covers. All of these memories revolve around my own sort of retreats—mostly from myself, but also from a future I couldn’t get a grasp on.
Remember those classes I talked about earlier? I decided to take them because I wanted a break from the monotony and isolation of writing, sure, but I also wanted to see if some undiscovered passion lie dormant in me for those things I had never tried before.
There wasn’t, unsurprisingly, and the concerted effort it took to drag myself to those classes, only to become increasingly frustrated with how bad I was at coding, how totally inept I was at making anything out of clay took a lot out of me—so much, in fact, that most days I found myself not even going to class, opting instead to waste my time wondering the streets of the South Loop of Chicago, earbuds in, head down. Specifically, I would show up to my coding class for the first hour and a half, be marked present by the professor, then slip out and walk two blocks to a coffee shop and look out the window at light snowfall. I would do this same thing during ceramics, which was remarkably easier since the professor of this class was no younger than 70, and spent our entire class period working on his own projects.
Ultimately, I fled these classes and their assignments because I was afraid of being a failure. I was afraid of finding out that sometimes hard work and perseverance don’t lead to success as much as they lead to a pang of frustration at outcomes not matching input, and I couldn’t take that. I was running away from my worst instinct, the instinct to run away.
The sting of this realization might’ve been remedied by some sort of success in my work, but unfortunately, I stumbled through that, too. The writing part was easy if not sort of of formulaic, but the emails to strangers and phone calls to interview subjects were not something I was well-equipped for, and even worse, I was horrible at finding interesting story ideas.
Once again, I had a strategy to avoid all of this as well. I would avoid staff meetings, saying I had class during that time, and would put off reaching out to potential interviews until right before deadlines, then tell my editors that no one got back to me in time for a story to be able to run that week. It sounds like typical procrastination, but it was more thought out than that. It was again intentional avoidance. Journalism is hard, college journalism even harder at times, and I didn’t have the wherewithal to power through the struggles the job presented. I wanted to be a reporter, I really did, and perhaps the feeling of that path slipping out of focus compounded with how difficult the job was made it unbearable. Maybe now I could handle the stress and come through on the other side stronger, but at the time there was no hope of that.
There’s a special kind of hopelessness that exists at the intersection of your own inability to persevere through hardship, and the inability to recognize that the reason things aren’t going according to plan is entirely you. I’m sure in some ways it made me sort of insufferable at the time, because I was so down on myself, and totally oblivious to the fact that I had the solutions to the problem at my own fingertips. It created this cycle of loneliness, caused by my decision to flee from any situation where I would have to explain myself, or anyone who would ask why I couldn’t just face the music in the areas where I was failing. I say that to get to the true point of this, that in those moments where I was quite literally walking away from great opportunities, I found in Flaws the sort of hopelessness I was craving. That sounds really dreary, but I think subconsciously I knew that these songs were not written about current happenings—they were written about a time of hopelessness from a teller who made it out. I imagined myself a few years from then, which I guess would be now, thinking about myself walking down snow-kissed sidewalks, and how I came out on the other side somehow a smarter and somehow better person because of all of it.
I wish I could say that it’s all the way true. In some ways, thinking about that time reminds me of the myriad opportunities given to me, and optimism that more often than not, people assume the best of you and want you to succeed, despite yourself. And listening back to Flaws, I have not only a soundtrack, but a companion, a tone poem, a piece of art that feels so my own even though it has nothing to do with me to remind me of that period.
Unfortunately, I still have the tendency to avoid hardship. There are times when I know hard things have to happen, or there’s an obstacle in front of me and I opt to take a path that just circumvents the whole thing. not in the intriguing, cunning way, but in a way that throws me off the path altogether. The title track of the album states “out of all the flaws I’ve stumbled on, it’s the hardest one to focus on,” and even though I know it’s there, and no matter how often I name it, I can’t shake the tendency to want to run from things. It’s my hardest flaw to focus on.