Has an album-opening lyric ever projected more self-loathing than the one that opens Motion City Soundtrack’s 2005 album Commit This to Memory?
“I am wrecked. I am overblown.”
It’s not a stretch to assume this line was a manifestation of Justin Pierre’s physical state when he wrote it. The pop-punk band’s vocalist has been open about his struggles with alcoholism and anxiety, which coalesced around the time he and his bandmates wrote their breakout 2005 album. As Pierre sought treatment, he and the band (along with the help of Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus) finalized the record, which would end up peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Independent Album Charts and settling alongside other mid-aughts pop-punk records as a classic of the genre.
The feelings that line evokes—self-loathing, isolation, depression—are only emphasized by the fact that Commit This to Memory has become an unofficial New Year album, something Pierre has noted in interviews. When the days grow shorter and the calendar year comes to a close, we tend to draw inward. As Vitamin D becomes shorter in supply, so does our capacity for hope and patience with ourselves. The New Year offers a chance to refocus and reflect on all the things that went right or, in the case of this album, very wrong.
The album continues to resonate with fans and, it should be noted, with the band itself. They’ve been trying to tour on the album for three years now, just recently canceling their third go-round due to the growing surge of Omicron in the United States. The candidness Pierre brings in his then-struggle with alcoholism and the band’s penchant for bright, synth-heavy hooks give the album alternatively hopeful and defeated tones as its narrator struggles with the prospect of change and the difficult road it will require.
Wanting to change while feeling unable is a dichotomy with which Christians should be well-versed. The process of “sanctification” sometimes feels counterintuitive to verses that seem more definitive. How does a “new creation” still struggle with fighting the flesh? Even a robust understanding of the “already-but-not-yet” nature of salvation isn’t always enough to reconcile the two. We are perpetually of two minds. One wants to take up our crosses; the other wants to follow the advice of Commit This to Memory’s inebriated narrator: “Let’s get f***** up and die!”
No passage in Scripture evokes these complicated emotions better than Romans 7. In a bit of particularly twisty writing, Paul lays bare the conflicted pathos of an imago Dei people: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (NIV).
One of the main themes that both Paul and Pierre seem to agree on is how law condemns us while pointing to the need for something better. Wailing over the driving bassline and bouncing melody of the album’s lead single, “Everything Is Alright,” Pierre pleads with the listener (and possibly himself) to be convinced that…well, everything is alright. Despite being fed up with quick fixes that connect him to reality—the ocean, theme parks, airplanes, the pills that make him sit still—he wants a reason to avoid confronting the issue at hand. There is beauty in all of these things, but there is also ugliness in the fact they can’t ultimately rescue him from himself.
The easiest solution to escaping this vicious cycle is to numb the pain of self-awareness, something Pierre is keen to try, though he will ultimately agree with Paul regarding its ineffectiveness. Paul writes of “another law waging war against the law of my mind” (7:23), an offensive that seems to win out despite defenses that are bolstered time and time again. In “Resolution,” Pierre writes of this complex war of desire (“liquids, powders, and pills not quite taken against my will”) ahead of acknowledging that those who steer clear of his destructive path are right to do so. After all, his apologetic actions are “well-rehearsed,” calculated deflections designed to avoid the necessary work of further introspection.
Perhaps, then, the answer is simply to give in? Paul acknowledges this reality, albeit framing it as a sort of “captivity,” a description which Pierre might not fully adopt. Still, attempts to flood his own pleasure centers are never far removed from further self-loathing. “Make Out Kids” and “L.G. F.U.A.D” are suffocating bombardments of nostalgia, driving guitars and apathy designed to paralyze him into indecision. “I believe that I can overcome this and beat everything in the end,” he writes before directly retreating to, “But I choose to abuse for the time being. Maybe I’ll win, but for now I’ve decided to die.” Change is possible, Pierre admits, but is it worth the trouble?
The place where Romans 7 and Commit This to Memory collide most directly comes in their respective closing acts. Paul curses himself—“Wretched man that I am!”—before acknowledging that his condition cannot be solved in the interim, thanking God that a way has been made outside of a body that still serves “the law of sin.”
Pierre comes to a similar moment of admission and catharsis in “Together We’ll Ring in the New Year” and “Hangman,” a one-two punch that finds him confessing the fears behind his self-destructive behavior. “I’m trying to find out if my words have any meaning,” he bemoans, “lackluster and full of contempt, and it always ends the same.” It’s a startling moment of transparency from a songwriter who has spent the vast majority of the album candy-coating his issues in a hard crust of Moog hooks and irony.
“Hangman” doubles down, condemning his own self-hatred (in the form of the titular hangman) and forcing himself to recall everything that led him to this point. “Commit this to memory,” becomes Pierre’s mantra, a howl of desperation that may just stick beyond the haze of drunken nights and broken dreams. There’s no final resolution, but at least there’s hope.
In the end, Commit This to Memory and Romans 7 diverge at the end of their path. While the latter dives headfirst into one of Scripture’s most rapturous exhortations of God’s enduring love, the former chooses to linger in the wreckage of its own chaos. “Hold Me Down,” finds Pierre reading aloud the letter of a former lover who’s chosen to leave after recognizing that she cannot bear his burdens. In him there is beauty (“the laziness of afternoons”) and immense darkness (“the emptiness the whole world sings at night”), and she can’t help but be held down by the weight of it all.
It’s hard not to see how this closer, coming at the end of an album full of destructive cycles and patterns, could lead back to the beginning. Will the hangman come for the narrator again, convincing him that he is, after all is said and done, “wrecked and overblown”? The voice of condemnation echoes loudly in these moments, swallowing “commit this to memory” in its vacuous maw. Thankfully, there’s a reality where “there is therefore now no condemnation” (8:1). Seventeen years later, Commit This to Memory remains a visceral account of one man’s search for that reality, an empty bottle ebenezer reminding us that self-actualization is a messy, painful, and ultimately impossible process. Without help, that is.