I’m still looking for the quiet life
But in those shadows it’s trouble I find
I’ve been waiting for all my life
For a drug called peace of mind —“Find Me,” Anchor & Braille
After twelve years, seven albums, and what he estimates is “a ton of concerts,” Anberlin’s Stephen Christian looks equal parts tired and happy to be sitting down. We’re sitting in a coffee shop in Norfolk, Virginia, a few hours before the band plays The Norva, and he’s wearing a smile despite nearing the end of a six-month intercontinental and cross-country itinerary. Even in the past week, the band’s played five shows despite Christian driving to Florida to be with his family on a rare off-day. There are only a few weeks until the band’s final show in Orlando’s House of Blues on November 26, so it seems appropriate to ask Christian what makes this moment, right after the release of the album Lowborn, the time for the band to walk away.
We had to ask ourselves: if our favorite band were to break up, how would we want them to go out?”“When we decided in October (2013) to breakup and I sat everyone down and told them I was leaving, there was a moment there when we were pretty sure we were never going to record another record. We were all very excited about Vital; [it was] one of our favorites to record and to write, and we were worried about hurting that one’s legacy and that one’s ability to stand out from the pack. But then we had to take it from a fan approach and ask ourselves: if our favorite band were to break up, how would we want them to go out?”
My history with Anberlin began rather uneventfully. A friend’s car, a listen to a band he had discovered from another friend, and a quick declaration that the band was pretty good was all the introduction I needed since, well, those moments seemed unimportant. After all, finding new music is a daily occupation for most college students. But a chance encounter on a local station known for playing the “best mix of all things rock” led me to give Anberlin a closer listen. Coming from a Pentecostal background where Christianity was often skewed into an objective checklist, this was the station that good people ignored. My minor act of rebellion was to crank the station as loud as I could. Crammed between Breaking Benjamin and the one Linkin Park song everyone loved (you know which one I mean), the station played Anberlin’s “Feel-Good Drag.” This time I paid attention.
Everyone in this town
Is seeing somebody else
Everybody’s tired of someone
Our eyes wander for help
Prayers that need no answer now
‘Cause I’m tired of who I am
It was a revelation. Those lyrics captured the angst of my life, a tension I would later come to understand and identify as a uniquely Millennial purposelessness. The band’s open acknowledgement of our shared malaise spoke to me in a way no one else had quite managed.
Yet what mattered most was Anberlin’s sound, a blend of piercing, soaring guitars and ambitious choruses complemented Christian’s vocals to create songs more memorable than other rock or punk-rock outfits of the time. Though perhaps drawn for different reasons, my friends and I quickly embraced the band as our own, making their songs a large part of the soundtrack of our lives. The band’s Christian background was a windfall, but seemingly inconsequential; we loved them because they created excellent music, and the band somehow managed to meet the diverse requirements of what an eclectic group of musicians and beach bums considered good. I quickly purchased the albums Never Take Friendship Personal and Blueprints for the Black Market, enthused to find songs like “Autobahn” that captured the feelings of our lives:
And we’re driving just as fast as we can
and we’re racing to outrun the wind
It’s just me and you and you and me
so wild eyed, so young, bright eyed and free
Over time, these odes to summer living turned into a relationship, coercing me to seek an understanding of modern identity and what it meant to be good. The idea of “goodness” would become the driving force of my college and post-college years. What I initially missed in Christian’s lyrics became apparent: These songs were more than rock tributes to fast times and friendships. There was an intensely modern awareness in Christian’s lyrics, reflections of a man whose life experiences and questioning of self seemingly mirrored mine.
Cities, released in 2007, revolved around this searching, opening with “Godspeed” and a booming declaration that the good life required far more than simple awareness of morality:
Fall asleep, don’t fall asleep
Don’t fall asleep
(They lied when they said that the good die young)
THEY LIED WHEN THEY SAID THE GOOD DIE YOUNG!
Stay with me, stay with me tonight
Cities exchanged the fleeting relationships and moments of the first two albums for songs that dealt with intimacy and loss, with belonging and community. Instead of the whimsy of “Autobahn,” the lyrics shifted toward the search for identity and, like in “A Whisper and a Clamor,” a direct addressing of culture’s existential crisis:
For most who live and breathe
Hell is never knowing who they are now
Tell me who you are now
Finally safe from the outside trapped in what you know
Are you safe from yourself? Can you escape all by yourself?
“Alexithymia” and “Reclusion” carried this theme even further, making accusations “with downcast eyes / there’s more to living than being alive” and “[t]here’s an art in seclusion / you’re sick, sick as all the secrets you deny.”
Those lyrics captured the angst of my life, a tension I would later come to understand and identify as a uniquely Millennial purposelessness.Yet as soon as the questions were asked, Christian’s words “[t]his is the correlation of salvation and love / Don’t drop your arms, I’ll guard your heart / With quiet words I’ll lead you in” in “The Unwinding Cable Car” reminded me of the power of grace, and “Hello, Alone” explained “depression is an unholy ghost / In the coastal towns of ahead” and “from a lesser known I’m here / and there’s hope, there’s hope” conveyed truth despite my own doubts.
As our conversation continues, I ask Stephen what made Cities a turning point in the band’s approach to relationships and existential angst. He pauses for a moment and then answers with an honesty that typified our conversation.
“I think for the first time, after writing the first two albums, I was ready to divulge. I had touched on my own personal life in the first two records, but I just touched on it and let it go quickly. Cities was the first time when I asked myself what was wrong with laying it out, with putting myself on the line. I realized this album was my outlet, my chance to open up my chest. . . . I knew there would be whiplash, but from there on I was liberated to do what I wanted, to write about a good friend, to write about my life or last night. I found the freedom to write as a paradox on every record from there out.”
When I bring up an old interview where Christian mentioned, “I’m not a preacher. . . I’m an entertainer,” Stephen smiles and quickly adds, “I want to amend that—I see myself as a missionary. I’ve given songs to these fans—148 chapters—of my life, and nothing has been held back. I’ve laid out every sin, every failure, every hurt, relationships with my parents, with my wife, my faith, all of it’s right there—I’ve just handed it to you. Who I am is in these songs.”
That paradox—between clarity and ambiguity—marked a shift in Christian’s lyrical focus, and the subsequent struggle to master it would anchor the remaining albums in the band’s catalog. New Surrender from 2008 is perhaps only notable for its attempt to blend the old and new; songs like “Haight Street” and “Blame Me! Blame Me!” sound like efforts from a much younger and inexperienced band, but “Retrace” reveals a man who has permanently moved beyond the carefree moments of “Autobahn.” Even listening to it now, “Retrace” speaks of an intimacy acquired through time and effort, a step toward reclaiming the beauty and value of belonging to another:
And nowhere else has ever felt like home
And I can’t fall asleep when I’m lying here alone
I replay your voice, it’s like you’re here
You moved the earth, but now the sky is falling
Retrace the steps we took on that lost summer night
In my mind I’m back by your side
Retrace the steps we took when we first met
Worlds away, counting backwards while the stars are falling
That song, insignificant as it might be in the band’s overall catalog, carried me through some of the darkest times of my own life, through the fracturing of my parent’s marriage and the decisions I made when faith was a wearable accessory. Combined with the admonition in “Burn Out Brighter” to “die for something higher than myself,” the album New Surrender, for all its flaws, helped me realize how radical the simple idea of being rooted in a place and to my faith could be. It was liberating to realize Christianity, something I alternated between idolizing and despising, was a life worth living because it was the only way to endure and love life at all.
Our conversation lasts nearly two hours, and we discuss everything from the state of the American church to the two albums—Dark Is a Way, Light Is a Place and Vital—Christian feels represent his strongest attempts to convey truth. Light Is a Place has “Closer,” dealing with the struggle of understanding and accepting the weight of sin, and Vital has “Other Side,” which is an evident nod to the afterlife, with lines “Inhabitations through / I can finally forget a past you say you never knew / I reach my hands to the sky” a reflection of what awaits believers. Yet that transparency was tempered by a life of love and respect for Anberlin’s industry. The band managed to convey its beliefs without condemnation, a trait that endeared them as tour mates with bands from My Chemical Romance and Smashing Pumpkins to Fall Out Boy and Yellowcard.
Perhaps born from the responsibility of being Christ in an environment known for its chaos (Christian mentioned some rock stars as owning a permanent “get out of jail free card”), the conversation’s final minutes center on the idea of “lost causes,” a theme that’s present in every Anberlin album post-Cities and reaches its climax with Lowborn’s title reminder. Christian sees himself as a missionary, but what’s the intent behind those words?
“My hope is identification. I want people to be able to relate; I don’t know how you were between the ages of 18-25, but I remember an era when I believed everyone had life figured out. They were on a beeline to clarity—I was lost and confused. I felt displaced, and the future was intimidating. There are still so many people in my life like that, who must look around and wonder why everyone else is found and they remain lost.
“So with Lowborn and when I use those words, it’s exactly what I was going through in my life. And each album and step of my life has been necessary. If Vital was our first record, I don’t think people could have grasped that idea since we would have been in different places. But we were in the same place, and my honesty seemed to reach them. A song is like a cast net—you throw it out and hope to reach a large group of your listeners.”
From a distance, it seems Anberlin walked that line well, crafting a sound that would serve as an approach vehicle for the honesty of their lives. When I ask Stephen what impact he hopes his lyrics have had and about Anberlin’s potential legacy, he’s quiet for a moment.
“There’s a poet named Rumi who says—and I’m paraphrasing—that when I die, I hope my place is not in the earth, but in the hearts of men. My hope and thought process is that perhaps I helped someone find grace. I want to live within the hearts of men so that they can impact their children better and those children can impact their children. Chesterton had an analogy in Orthodoxy that if a ship leaving North America on its way to Europe were to be just one degree off, it would eventually end up in Africa.
“That’s my hope—that young impressionable lives could be shifted by just one degree. That’s our legacy. I’m not under the illusion that we were this massive band—we weren’t the Foo Fighters, and we’re not Kiss who I’m sure will still be touring in 30 years. I know we will be forgotten and that in 30 years nobody will remember my name. Beyond between two dashes, my name is nothing. But, maybe, I helped a trajectory. And silently, as a prophet of my time, I can hope that I’m an influencer or a preacher and that I helped align someone’s life towards the good. ”
Before we leave, I ask what’s next for him beyond the fracturing of Anberlin. And what he says reflects a hope he’s had since recording side project Anchor & Braille’s The Quiet Life in 2012. “That’s what I look forward to—just being. The quiet life. I still have aspirations, but they must look so weird to others. The mundane and simplicity of just living—of kayaking, of rock-climbing, of renting a cabin and reading a book. I’ve missed funerals, birthdays, graduations, and I’ve realized the quantity of life I’ve been given doesn’t replace the quality of life I’ve missed. That’s what I want to capture—that sense of adventure. That sense of adventure is no longer traveling, but in four walls. That’s not a negative thing, but something people experience every day and take for granted.”
When I next see Christian, I’m in the crowd at The Norva with the same friends who discovered Anberlin with me. We only see each other a few times a year, but the concert is exactly what Anberlin intended: a farewell to those who walked with them. And when they appear on stage to play a throttling version of “Never Take Friendship Personal,” I smile and think little beyond how fantastic they sound live. There’s no opening act, but Christian compensates by telling us “tonight’s show will be a little longer” before moving through 24 songs of a catalog filled with rock anthems just as booming and alive as when I first heard them. Classics “Dismantle Repair,” “Self-Starter” and “We Are Destroyer” set the tone for the evening, and the middle section of the show revolves around ballads “The Unwinding Cable Car,” “Inevitable,” and the final live performance of “The Haunting,” an overlooked gem from 2007’s B-side album Lost Songs.
The show is the longest and best of the three times I’ve seen Anberlin. The eclectic crowd around me enjoys every second: the married couple to my left nod their heads in unison with Nate Young’s relentless drumming; the slightly intoxicated group of women to my right scream until their voices betray them and all they offer are hands that mimic guitarists Christian McAlhaney, Joseph Milligan, and Deon Rexroat; and my friends and I relish every moment. Make no mistake. This is a rock show, and the commanding presence and energy of the men on stage is infectious.
When the show reaches its finale, there’s only one song that we expect. In fact, from the moment we bought our tickets, the show’s end was a forgone conclusion. It’s appropriately named “Fin,” and the band closes so zealously it’s nearly enough to make me forget I’ve watched them for the last time. It’s bittersweet, yet the perfect goodbye. As they leave the stage, my conversation with Christian reminds me that their choice to step away to seek the simple life echoes a life lived well. And each of us, in our way, must contextualize this simple life. As Anberlin departs, they leave us with a reminder of how we all were once lost causes and how seasons of life—and the endings of bands we love—affirm our faith. It’s appropriate we’re left with a final album that speaks of the beauty of simplicity and our lowborn place before God. After all, we’re on the same side of the stage now.
And I rejoice.
I’ve seen faces I may never see again
I’ve been places I never could have dreamt
I’ve touched hands with those who touched me
Seen the marks of a skeleton keys
I found peace in a foreign atonement
I’ve loved where I’ve lived, yes I’ve loved where I’ve been
but my heart’s where I’m going —”Atonement” by Anberlin