Before Explosions in the Sky, some background:
In June of 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in his journal, observed, “A man must have aunts and cousins, must buy carrots and turnips, must have barn and woodshed, must go to market and to the blacksmith’s shop, must saunter and sleep and be inferior and silly.” This is transcendentalism at its most practical, intended for people who, unlike Emerson’s moody disciple, Thoreau, don’t have the time to sit by a pond and complain about society. Were that the case, we’d all be living in Portland, Ore., making Bright Eyes records. Instead, we live on the Internet, which is why this quote is oddly relevant, as we seem to have, unconsciously, absorbed its practical lesson.
It is undeniable that, in order to exist, one must take part in routine activities. It is also undeniable that we seek dividends on our time investments, usually—unless you’re God-fearing—in the form of existential meaning. Many of us, several times a day, through Facebook status updates, alert vast networks of friends, family, and random acquaintances that we’ve just “eaten a stack of pancakes!” or “kicked a pigeon.” This kind of self-celebration annoys many, but I’ve never understood this brand of “who cares?” logic. Yes, it’s awfully vain to assume anyone cares about the trivial details of your early afternoon, but it’s also stupid to disregard those details for their quotidian nature. After all, 90 percent of life is spent eating pancakes and kicking pigeons—that’s a sizeable portion of one’s overall narrative.
Reality is generally a modest affair, and that we perpetually seek out ways to transcend the commonplace is a testament to our collective depth and will to persevere, not a symptom of our narcissism. Social scientists, often negatively, suggest that we increasingly believe life is like a movie, and numerous technological advancements have turned life into a movie. This, however, is a positive development, and one of these technological advancements, finally, is Explosions in the Sky.
For several years now, I’ve tried to understand this band’s place in popular culture, an endeavor that is pretty ambitious, inasmuch as they’re basically an anomaly. Their songs, over the course of five albums, average out to roughly eight minutes apiece and lack vocals or an obvious pulse to which a listener might anchor himself. This alone should pose a major problem; the eight-minute time frame, barring jazz, is typically reserved for men singing about patriotic baked dishes or undomesticated winged creatures, and Explosions deals with neither of those beguiling topics.
In fact, Explosions doesn’t really deal with topics at all. Not overtly anyway—you need lyrics for that. Instead they create soundscapes, consisting of flying notes and shots of noise which take off into the stratosphere, burst, and return to earth gently, leaving behind traces of color like fireworks. I suppose this is why they’re often characterized as “post-rock,” a term that implies the cosmos. Just read their album titles in slow succession: How Strange, Innocence; Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever; The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place; The Rescue; All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone; and, most recently, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. See what I mean?
Yet Explosions has amassed and sustained a devoted, dynamic following. They create music that cures banality by redeeming banality, and though the band has crafted, over the span of a decade, 38 separate tracks, it would be more accurate to say they’ve crafted one, gorgeous, ever-evolving score, to which listeners establish an individual relationship. While the music is very emotional, per se, it resists revealing itself and never asks to be “understood,” which is why it tends to attract people who have nothing in common, as there is no singular message to unite under—no inside joke to be shared among fans. Instead, the music attaches itself to the situation in which it is played, giving shape and purpose to moments worthy of status updates while, simultaneously, recalibrating the planet’s hierarchy of importance in the process. Suddenly the Arab Spring takes a backseat to the eating of a Boston cream doughnut. Suddenly the death of Osama Bin Laden takes a backseat to a trip through Target. Suddenly, like a teenager, you feel as though you’re the center of the world.
It makes sense, then, that Explosions in the Sky scored the film Friday Night Lights and has also contributed arrangements to the superior spinoff television series of the same name. The latter, over five seasons, has garnered a diverse, cultlike following, almost exclusively, and perversely, on its ability to convince you of the universal worth of high school football and the religious function it serves in a static, middle-class Texas suburb. The weekly Friday game, which dwarfs Sunday church in importance, provides the show with both a narrative engine and dramatic arc—shape, in other words. The townspeople, laying down, like roses, their hearts and souls at the cleats of these athletes, transform them from boys into pagan icons. A victory means catharsis, and a loss warrants grieving. Either way they, the people, are redeemed—the static punctured. The show is the music’s aesthetic equivalent.
Last April I saw Explosions in the Sky with my girlfriend, Sam, at Radio City Music Hall. Shortly before the show got under way, I scanned the crowd for some kind of anthropological consistency but, like a failed Russian spy, found nothing of significance. Directly in front of me sat a couple who looked as though they’d just walked in from the Kentucky Derby, sipping gin and tonics, pastel knitted sweaters wrapped around their necks. Beyond them sat a woman with a massive blonde puff of hair and a tattoo of a smoking gun on her shoulder. She talked loudly and, I swear, repeatedly said: “I don’t sympathize with senior citizens. No no!” And beyond her sat a group of three men wearing thick-framed glasses and plaid shirts. They often high-fived and snapped pictures with their cell phones, as if repeatedly confirming they were, indeed, dressed identically. I was wearing a plaid shirt, too. I hoped they wouldn’t notice.
When Explosions eventually appeared, the crowd applauded loudly. And when they began their first song, the preppy couple in front of us, as if on a timer, began to make out. Both Sam and I agreed this was both agitating and mildly disgusting, as they were kissing each other ever so gently, ever so theatrically, and getting in the way of what was supposed to be our unique experience. But, as they continued in this manner for the next 20 minutes, it occurred to me they, too, were having a unique experience, a private, quotidian moment made public. If Explosions in the Sky enhances the trivial into the epic, then, in the context of the concert—where we all were hoping to validate our private, trivial selves—the individual responses generated by each of us would bump into one another. It wasn’t their fault that they were making everyone around them sick.
Meanwhile, guitar lines cascaded and swelled from the stage. Pretty melodies morphed into storms of sound. And eventually Explosions played “Your Hand in Mine,” a song I first heard back in the spring of 2007, in San Francisco, as I sat in a park with Sam. She handed me her headphones, imploring me to pay close attention to her new favorite band. I began to listen and she smiled her pretty smile. “Two minutes and 27 seconds,” she said, tapping my leg. “That’s the best part.” I glanced around the park, a drum roll steadily building in my ears. The sun was out and the sky wide open. Sam and I looked at each other, blinking in the shafts of dazzled light. We were unemployed and had plenty of time; it was just a normal day for us. But then again, it was much more.