[Editor’s note: The Look Back offers a review of a Nebraska album from the past, along with interviews with its creators. See all installments of the series here.]
by Jacob Zlomke
In 2006, I was a moody 15-year-old who watched Garden State too often and thought my knowledge of Modest Mouse’s back catalog made me a beacon of culture in Broken Bow, a small dot in the center of a Nebraska map, far way from any semblance of a creative community.
I wore skinny jeans and bought pins printed with words like “Pavement” and “Pixies” from Hot Topic because somewhere on the internet said I should. I hated the first Bright Eyes record I’d ever heard (I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning) but pretended I liked it until I actually kind of did.
And, of course, I wrote music reviews for my high school’s newspaper.
They were vapid articles, an awful arrangement of ultimately meaningless words. I knew nothing about anything, especially about music. I still won’t claim to be a bastion of musical insight, but these days I can at least express my views with more complexity than “this song has emotion.” Suffice it to say, I badly needed a ruthless critic with a bold red pen.
One of the first albums I ever reviewed was Eagle Seagull’s 2006 self-titled release. Who knows what I said about it. Nothing that could have added any insight to a listener’s experience with the songs. But I liked the album. I liked that the band was from Lincoln because I felt like I could claim them, even from 200 miles away, because I had no other music to claim. The imagery in titles like “Your Beauty is a Knife I Turn on My Throat” and “Death Could Be at the Door” appealed to my sense of melancholy. I liked the album art, a man’s and woman’s face pressed closely together. Both look like they are emoting some strong feelings, and I thought, “Yes, this is the way life is.”
Seven years and a college education later, I’m better equipped to articulate why I like the album. Like me at the time, the album is moody. Tracks like “Photograph” and “It’s So Sexy” ostensibly come from sources of joy, but they drip in a helpless dread, a friendly smile to hide an icy-blue heart. “Your Beauty is a Knife I Turn on My Throat,” which might be the album’s most pop-minded track, rides along a bouncing keyboard riff that in another context could be heard as amiable. But with lyrics like those in the track’s title and chorus, and, “Is loneliness what loving you’s about?” there is little room for optimism.
As Eli Mardock, Eagle Seagull’s lead vocalist, said in an e-mail interview about the album, “There are moments of elation or hope maybe, but hanging over everything is a feeling of sadness and dread. Life is full of sadness.”
While for me, Eagle Seagull represents the beginning of talking about music with supposed authority, for Mardock, principal songwriter for the album, it too represents beginnings: the beginning of releasing professional-quality music, the beginning of record label relationships (with Paper Garden Records, for whom Eagle Seagull was also the label’s first release), the beginning of attention for his art and the beginning of life in a band.
“I’d never released an album, never played much in a band or done many shows other than by myself with an acoustic guitar,” Mardock says. “So recording with a bunch of mics and bunch of tracks, it all seemed pretty darn fancy to me at the time.”
The album, recorded in a basement by Ian Aeillo — who, according to Mardock, offered to record the band after seeing them perform at Duggan’s Pub in Lincoln — drew lofty comparisons from critics at the time to the likes of Arcade Fire and The Cure. The lush soundscapes and epic, stadium-sized build-ups quickly garnered attention.
“It seemed like suddenly there were about a million reviews rolling in and we were getting a lot of college radio play and suddenly European labels were contacting us and it all just seemed to move pretty fast,” Mardock says.
The record sold quickly enough that Paper Garden Records repressed it at least three times in the United States to keep up with sales, according to Mardock. (Sidenote: Fellow Broken Bow native Bryan Vaughan founded Paper Garden.)
If the album’s content is morose, intense and passionate, it was a reflection of Mardock’s own attitude at the time.
“I was pretty me-obsessed at the time, pretty focused on myself, my feelings,” he says. “I didn’t really write songs about other people or songs that told a story or that were about events. And I still don’t. I’m just not into fictitious songs or songs that aren’t true to what I’m feeling.”
The acutely personal nature of the writing comes across on the album. Lyrics such as, “Won’t you come and crucify me / Judas kiss me and then deny me / Drink my blood and eat my body / Come on bitches, deify me,” on “Hello, Never” could not be the product of a songwriter’s empathy. They are the product of a hyper-aware conceit.
“There was very little bullshit as far as the lyrics go,” Mardock says. “It was the easiest album I’ve ever written because I was less self-conscious then. I wasn’t thinking about other people — about reviews, about what people would say about the songs because it hadn’t ever really occurred to me that they would. I was still innocent.”
The album feels like an allegory for youth. With its shadowy valleys and high peaks, even at the mountaintop, the sun struggles to break through the clouds. For my own youth, when, even though I didn’t have the experience to relate to Mardock’s torrid lyrical content, I certainly understood the desolation. In that same way, it serves as a symbol of the band’s youth, which Mardock says was hardly a band at all at the time. And for Mardock’s youth as a recording musician.
Like youth, Eagle Seagull is a learning experience. With it, I was learning to qualify my opinions. Mardock learned the difficulties of being in a band.
“You learn a lot about people, about human nature, about your bandmates, about relationships, about yourself, about your ego,” Mardock says.
But remembering the past is tricky. Our memories latch onto the positive qualities from a given time in our life and tend to gloss over the difficulties, the struggles. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism, so we’re not just miserable all the time. Objectively, I know that while I was in high school, I wanted nothing more than to not be in high school, at my high school. I’m not unique in this. Yet the more removed I become from those years, the more gently I tend to remember it. Mardock’s experience with Eagle Seagull and the time in his life it represents is similar.
“It’s easy to be nostalgic about that time. It was the infancy of my adulthood. There were a lot of fun moments,” he says. “It’s easy to forget how hard and broken my personal life was.”
“I read once that we forget the vast majority of our lives simply because our brains don’t have the capacity to remember it all. Sometimes you wonder what the point is.”
Maybe that’s what the experience of an album is for, to get a feeling, a time in one’s life, down on paper, so to speak. The record doesn’t lie: “This is how you felt when you wrote this song, remember?” it seems to say. When Mardock wrote “Lock and Key,” he felt “your love fading away.” Whatever love was fading, Mardock may be over it — the present is harsher than the past — but it was there once.
The album stands as more than a window into the psyche of a young musician or a high school wannabe music journalist. At its core, these are the songs of conflicted and complex emotions, steeped in turmoil and anxiety. It’s an album obsessed with its own depth, its own poeticism and point of view. To me, that sounds like being 17.
Jacob Zlomke is a Hear Nebraska editorial intern. There are nice people in Broken Bow who have good taste. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.