127. Song No. 1,857: “The City Gets Lonely,” The Prom
Under the Same Stars, 2002
When it comes to music that sounds like college, The Prom is one of the earliest and most prevailing examples of an album that forever preserves a time and a place in its 11 tracks.
The Prom’s easiest-to-find full-length album, Under the Same Stars, just dominates memories of my very first semester, starting with staking its claim as the first shred of evidence that Princeton Record Exchange was a worthy successor to the small indie music chain that supplied more than its fair share of high school’s music and memories.
In college, no record label showered me with a veritable deluge of treats quite like Barsuk did (they were Death Cab for Cutie’s label for the longest time and the two entities still collaborate on the occasional project, while the likes of Rilo Kiley, The Dismemberment Plan and They Might Be Giants are all among Barsuk’s more recognizable alumni). Like, there was a time when Barsuk represented a disproportionately high percentage of my modern favorites, to the point where I almost exclusively found all of my new music through their upcoming-release announcements.
I was over the moon when I learned that one of those releases was The Prom’s piano-driven label debut, being just as big a sucker for piano-rock as I am for a horn section or gratuitous sax solos. That joy only escalated when I found the album during a very early instance of what wound become college’s almost-weekly ritual runs to PREX. I had recently set up a bank account and was still a little wary of ordering things online with it (also, the campus mail room was SO. FAR. from the dorms), so I had resigned myself to waiting until it emerged from rows and rows of used CDs, bracing myself for an interminable slog that, gratefully, never came.
College was also the beginning of my long saunter into a life of casual, mostly functional substance dependency, which is to say that certain memories are lost and gone forever, sacrificed to the Swiss-cheesing gods of esophagus-burning shots and ill-advised cocktails from some nameless liver-calcifying hell. But I can tell you exactly where in PREX’s hallowed enclave I found a brand-new copy of the very same Under the Same Stars I was hoping to either pilfer from the college radio station or eventually order when I had enough accumulated packages to make that trek to the mail room worth it.
An eagerly awaited album is a dangerous thing. It’s easier when it’s a new-to-you band, absent the expectations of previous releases, but there are still some hopes to manage. With The Prom, I had exactly two: that it would live up to all my beloved bands it called label-mates, and that it would sound as pretty as its gilded album cover. No big asks there, yeah?
Fortunately, Under the Same Stars was everything I wanted and more, and it all but took up permanent residence in my hardworking and well-traveled Discman for that entire first semester. It sounds like waiting for my friends outside the dining hall. It sounds like shuffling to class in baggy corduroys, lovingly defaced Chucks and a meticulously band-pinned messenger bag. It sounds like going for walks along the campus promenade as the trees changed color for the first time I actually relished autumn (a phenomenon exclusive to my four years of college, but my naive-freshman self had no way of knowing that). It sounded like train rides on the weekend, emotional reckonings, and lyrics desperately parsed for the words I didn’t yet know how to say but keenly felt.
It is the kind of richly emotional and lushly nuanced album an emo kid trying to grow up needed to latch onto to aid in that transition. Melodic and easy to curl up with on a moody day (of which there were many), there were some sparkly oases of more upbeat offerings: Despite the melancholy of its titular assertion and its recurring lyrical observation that we’re all always dying, “The City Gets Lonely” is catchy as hell (a treat that’s all the more noticeable after the beautifully somber “Brighter Than the Moon” two songs ahead of it) and absolutely was on every mix I made for at least three years.
Part of its appeal was that I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t think about death almost constantly, and I had finally arrived at the point where I’d read enough canonical manifestos of existential ennui that I’d accepted there was no use railing against it, at least in terms of my own inevitable end. It made death far less inimical and, honestly, a lot less powerful (unless I was thinking about an anthropomorphic Death coming for the people I loved—THAT still fucks me up even now). Hearing someone, even just for one song, looking at death as a challenge to run full-bore at rather than a looming sentence to cower from was a little bit of validation I didn’t know I needed, and it felt like I found my anthem for justifying a newfound confidence in saying yes instead of shrinking away from what I wanted because today is the only guarantee we have and it is time to start living.
For as long as I’ve considered the finality and release of death, I’ve loved both the symbolism and reality of road trips, and this song scratches that itch by invoking that intimately personal image, too. Nothing to me is as freeing as getting in a car and driving: The longer the trip, the happier I am. It’s nonstop new scenery, sure, but it’s also one of the last excuses we’ve had for a long time to disconnect and be unavailable to the world around us. And there’s nothing I love like dropping off everyone’s radar for a while, which, I suppose if it weren’t mostly a function of my strong preference for being left the hell alone, one could speculate is a sort of trial-run death itself.