the first single
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I remember when I promised myself I would never return to Philadelphia.
I was in Boston. It was April 21st, 2016. I was in a Starbucks near The Sinclair, a 500-capacity venue. There was a show in two hours and I wasn't sure if I was going to make it. Iced tea had spilled onto my jeans because my hands were shaking. My legs, no strangers to their own convulsions, answered with their own, different rhythm. My head and heart were not in sync. It was cloudy and weird upstairs, and my friend kept trying to stay ahead of my weather.
“What's going on?”
“I think I have to stop.”
“Stop being a part of something where I don't belong.”
“You do belong there, though.”
“I just feel like I should go away.”
This had started in New York City not even a week earlier. I was standing at the back of the live music room at Rough Trade, a record store in Brooklyn. I had done my best to sprint – although any onlooker might've considered it a brisk hobble – to make it in time for this gig. I showed up late, slick with sweat and embarrassment. My same friend was there, their infinite patience keeping me grounded as I was weaving in and out of focus. I felt like you would after long periods of dehydration: vague and hollow, an outline of myself. I stared at my shoes, avoided eye contact with important industry heads I should've schmoozed, and left before the headlining act had set up. I didn't say goodbye. I texted a group chat – close friends from Philly whose set I had just decomposed through – and explained I just had a panic attack. They thought nothing of it. It would be the last time I would see all three of them together.
Alone, I now wake up in Philadelphia every morning. 5 a.m. comes early and the city knows it, my corner of Rittenhouse Square groggy and bare. My walk, affected by a limp on my right side, shudders as I jostle myself present. It's not the future I imagined two years ago, but it fits like the one I wanted. It echoes the same way, subtle reminders of noise and love rattling around my skull. When I step outside, I stand six blocks from where this all started, when this city became the city. It's been three whole years of me thinking about it every day.
On the corner of 21st and Chestnut, the First Unitarian Church cuts an imposing figure. It's the basement that's concerning, though: a furnace of a room flanked by winding, jagged steps. It's where a tangled mess of bodies gathered as Valentine's Day 2015 clamored to a close. Every person seemed to share the same central nervous system: this confused, caffeinated mix of shouts and raised, flailing arms. It's where home changed location. I can never return to that Philadelphia, though. It doesn't exist.
The headliner that night – as part of a benefit show called Strength in Weakness – was Modern Baseball, a band that's no longer one. They'd been the opener on that same stage a year before, setting the scene for The Wonder Years. That band was part of another Philly, one whose landmarks became lyrics shouted across the country. It's not like they were the first to turn their backyard into belted statements, and they certainly weren't the last. MoBo (their punchy abbreviated form) proved that the torch was passed, and they used it to burn a new Philadelphia into my brain.
MoBo came armed with a microscope, exploding the smallest details of college life into urgent matters. The sterling example of this is “The Weekend,” a gnarly, buzzy pop-punk song that's driven by sugar and laced with pheromones. There's talk of a Hipster with Glasses – she's typeset as such in the lyric sheet because she's Capital-I Important to vocalist/guitarist Brendan Lukens. There's an implied ice cream bash followed by bloody brain freeze. It's goofy debauchery that matched the idiosyncrasies of art school kids and an amorphous blob of twenty-somethings from three nearby schools. No wonder it took MoBo only a year to rival their neighbors on that Church floor. Their sermon might've been sillier in 2015, but it was a deeply felt one.
The MoBo legend was quieter down south, but the murmurs were still there. It was Valentine's Day 2013, and I was in a small town in southern Virginia. I was spending the holiday with my then-girlfriend's family. It seemed serious. It was our second consecutive year celebrating this together, the skeleton of tradition begging for a ceremony. Something had to be done to memorialize this – something huge – or that's how I thought things like this should go. She was the one to make that move. During one of the only moments we were alone that weekend, she wanted to show me a new band she found. This seemed routine – we traded playlists as much as we traded trips between our zip codes – but it wasn't.
“My Love” is a song from MoBo's first release, The Nameless Ranger, recorded when Brendan and their songwriting partner Jake Ewald were just a duo in 2011. It may close with a thunderclap, but it's heightened to troubling states of alarm the whole time. Bren's quick to brand their love as more than enough, more than just fun. It's a song of bold, uncomplicated definitions, at once setting up cliches and dismantling them. The song's hook ensures that this love is “more than just a movie moment.” These metaphors of love, these easy analogies, aren't the only way to categorize this feeling. And for me and my first love – two antisocial dorks who fell in love on Tumblr – we needed all the signposting we could get. We found it here.
I was greeted by a different thunderclap in that Church basement two years later. It's how a then-brand new MoBo song cracked open, Sean Huber's tom-toms giving way to doubled guitar stabs. “Alpha Kappa Fall of Troy the Movie Part Deux” was a cross-section of the MoBo sound two albums in. After exploring cheeky quirks and social media minutiae – on 2012's Sports and 2014's Billboard-charting barnstormer You're Gonna Miss it All, respectively – this track promised a mutation. It was a diary entry kept in a balled fist, punctuated by skittish phrasing and nightmarish imagery. A crush isn't the one to admit that they're kept safe by a narrator here. Spiders spell that out instead. The signpost of this love is an ominous one.
As a precursor to everything that became of MoBo – the parallel fever dreams of 2015's The Perfect Cast EP and 2016's Holy Ghost spring to mind – it's a sonic Nostradamus. As the flagship cut on Strength in Weakness, a compilation and pair of benefit shows for United Cerebral Palsy, its purpose is hazier. I've probably sweat longer over that collection of tracks more than I need to – even if it's my name that got the dedication in the liner notes. (Why? I still don't know.) It's a narrative that's informed by dangerous amounts of caffeine. It rides that buzz down a rain-soaked Haverford Avenue, through painful glances, a bedroom in a rowhome basement. It's a piping-hot audio tour of an anxious West Philly. That's what it sounds like, anyway.
This is what it must be like to live in that song. It's raining in December 2015. You have to leave to head back to Virginia in six hours. You have a final the next day. You shouldn't have done this.
No one else where you're crashing – a spot formerly known as Michael Jordan House – is awake. You are, so you leave. You go for a walk down Haverford. You get tangled in other unfamiliar streets. You trip on your shoelace – it's always the right foot that unties more often. Your hand splits open. Frustrated, you head back. You finally cross the threshold and you're soaking wet. Someone's awake now, and they hand you a tall glass. It's orange juice mixed with beer. It tastes like shit. You don't really care. This is where you wanted to be, right? This is you kept safe, right?
Six hours earlier you were eating a Jimmy John's sandwich somewhere on Drexel's campus with your best friends. Hours before that MoBo just played “Re-done” and you heard it as clearly as when Bren said it was for you, their boy, in that Church basement. Twenty-four hours before that and you're in a minivan, shrouded in smoke and Third Eye Blind's “Narcolepsy.” It's the first time you've heard that song like this, with friends and half-digested Subway. Everything is fine. So what happened? Why are the spiders spelling something else for you?
Sometimes things take time to construct. Sometimes when they’re done, there's cause for commotion. They get a basement show. They get time to celebrate. There is a time and place for love. I didn't feel it here. I always felt like an intruder to Philadelphia, to that basement, to have traversed these songs the way that I have. It was my own fear that caused me to leave for this long.
It was April 21st, 2017. It's 6:33 p.m, and I have already broken my promise. I was in Philadelphia, in a room far from where I've landed before. I was having the same conversation that I did a year ago. I was with someone else, though, and the dialogue got fed in reverse. They were asking me to stay, to return, to feel the love I felt I had lost.
“I'm only here because of a band.”
“You know I'm glad you're here because of that band, James.”
I can never return to that Philadelphia. There's just mine now.