Memories… Do Not Open

Bloodstream

How many times in one week is too many times to be drunk? Asking for a friend.

The Chainsmokers pose this question at the outset of “Bloodstream,” a slow, contemplative track from their debut album Memories…Do Not Open. It’s a question that hangs over the whole song: the chorus features the refrain “I’m fucked up, I’m faded,” the second verse opens with with a lyrical parallel between binge drinking and depression — even the song’s title is an oblique reference to the narrator’s blood alcohol content.

It’s an interesting question, but several things about it remain unclear. First of all: what is the issue here, exactly? The song’s somber tone and the artlessly self-excoriating lyrics suggest that the narrator is doing something wrong by drinking to excess on three nights out of seven, but is the problem that he wants to get drunk too often? Or is the problem that he has the means by which to get drunk too often? More succinctly: is this an issue of desire or ability?

Based on the lyrics, it would be easy to assume that the narrator’s desire to drink away his troubles is the real concern. He shows a good deal of dissatisfaction with his life, from the troubling disconnect between his wants and his needs (“I thought I don’t need that much/I guess I was out of touch”) all the way down to his living situation (“Things were sweet three months ago/When I was living how I wanted, on my own”).

In the chorus, he expresses frustration towards himself (“I’m so complicated”), demonstrating the sort of soul-baring self-hatred that can only be attained through years of practice or through one night of emotionally irresponsible alcohol consumption. The narrator regrets the things that he’s said and the way they were taken, regarding them as “overrated”, i.e., not worthy of the attention that has been directed towards them.

There is a potential for redemption suggested in this dismissal of his past actions — apologize for what you’ve done, acknowledge that you can do better, and the problem is solved. But something holds him back and prevents him from doing the one thing that would make his life better. He stands by his words: “But I meant it/Yeah, I really fucking meant it.” Is this pride? Or just the result of a prominent self-destructive streak?

To address the question of ability, we must look outside the song’s lyrics and to the words of the artists themselves. In their track-by-track breakdown of Memories…Do Not Open originally published on Facebook on the eve of the album’s release, the Chainsmokers had this to say about “Bloodstream”:

In the year that we spent writing this album, a lot changed. We experienced fame for the first time. It wasn’t what we expected. After years of being relatively unknown, all of a sudden people were commenting on everything we did from what we wore to what we tweeted. The feeling of being taken out of context and misrepresented in the media weighed heavily on us. While the song represents the frustration in dealing with our newfound attention it also touches on relationship. We are often criticized for being “party boys” in what seems to be an attempt to discredit our artistry, when in fact, our partying has led to some of our most sobering song writing moments. We wrote this song at 4am in London after one of our shows at Brixton. Bloodstream is about the acceptance of who we are from ourselves.

Obviously, there’s a lot to unpack here: the defensive scare-quotes around “party boys,” the faulty syntax of “it also touches on relationship” and the confounding assertion that this song is about “the acceptance of who we are from ourselves.” But for now, let’s take a step back and consider what this tells us about the song as a whole.

With the added context that comes from the image of an early-morning post-concert writing session, we can understand that “Bloodstream” is actually about the struggle to come to terms with newfound fame and attention. Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall feel their actions and words are overly scrutinized by the media and, as a form of self-medication, they have taken to overindulgence of alcohol.

As strange as it may seem, in order to understand this song we must put aside any concerns we have about whether or not Taggart and Pall’s actions are worthy of criticism. Because regardless of whether one is right or wrong, one still feels the stress of criticism in the same way. And in times of great stress, even when it’s not the most sensible option, it’s only natural to reach for something that will numb and temporarily disintegrate those painful feelings.

The unique aspect to this situation is that Taggart and Pall are well-paid musicians working in the public eye. They have a career that affords them a certain lifestyle, and this lifestyle affords them the ability to get drunk nearly as often as they want. They have the funds and the free time to binge drink between shows (and, potentially, before and during shows) and feel little consequence to these choices, whereas someone working a more typical nine-to-five job might see their performance and reputation suffer if they show up to work hungover multiple times in the same week.

In the end, “Bloodstream” tells a tale as old as time, or at least nearly that old: the exceptional pressures and unique opportunities of life inside the entertainment industry enable those within the profession to pursue their self-destructive tendencies to the furthest end. When viewed through this context, keeping in mind the tragic fates that have befallen other musicians with substance abuse problems, the idea of getting drunk a little too often seems almost quaint in comparison, and  not especially deserving of any serious self-interrogation.

For the rest of us, though, it’s still an open question.

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Break Up Every Night

At first glance, there’s not a lot to say about “Break Up Every Night,” the second track on Memories…Do Not Open; it’s a catchy, fast-paced song that utilizes the style of pop-punk and mid-2000’s alt-rock to deliver a deeply silly (and mildly offensive) story about a relationship between two unstable young people. In the context of the album, it’s rare burst of energy among a group of tracks that can sometimes blend together. Looking at it critically, it’s difficult to find anything to engage with. Even still, I find it interesting, but what I find more interesting is the fact that I find it interesting.

For example: “Break Up Every Night” represents the biggest — and perhaps only — creative gamble on the album. Unlike most of the songs here, it doesn’t seem reverse-engineered from the DNA of their runaway hit “Closer”, nor does it cast the Chainsmokers as semi-anonymous producers backing better-known artists. “Break Up Every Night” actually demonstrates the group’s willingness to experiment. Granted, the group’s attempt to step outside of their comfort zone is simply adjusting their style to resemble that of a radio-ready indie-pop band — but it shows an interest in growth or, at the very least, an attempt to reach out beyond their current audience.

Or rather, it would show that, if “Break Up Every Night” had been a single. Five songs — nearly half the tracks on the album — were released to radio, but “Break Up Every Night” was not. An odd choice, given the song’s obvious aspirations towards crossover appeal, but not entirely unheard of, particularly in the age of digital streaming, when any single track can potentially break free of an album and climb the iTunes charts unbidden.

But the lack of radio support seems a bit stranger when you consider that “Break Up Every Night” was co-written by songwriting/production team Captain Cuts, a three-man collective closely affiliated with radio-ready indie-pop bands GroupLove and Walk The Moon. It’s not hard to imagine a label executive pairing up Captain Cuts with the Chainsmokers in the hopes of recreating the success of “Tongue Tied” or “Shut Up And Dance” — in fact, considering the pressure that they must have been feeling to score another hit, it would be surprising if that didn’t happen.

The situation becomes a bit stranger, however, when you consider that Captain Cuts then recruited their lesser-known associates from the indie band Smallpools. Despite having nearly all of their music produced by a trio of known hit makers, Smallpools remain basically unknown. It’s difficult, then, to imagine what could be the benefit of tossing three more cooks into the already overflowing proverbial broth of this song.

Throw in the standard credits for Andrew Taggart on songwriting and Alex Pall on production (along with DJ Swivel, who receives a co-production credit on the entire album) and you end up with nine credited songwriters all working on a song that landed the coveted second track on the Chainsmokers debut album (a track number usually reserved for lead singles) and was then completely forgotten about.

This is certainly a lot of information, but none of it is very interesting. One could argue that it is always worthwhile to consider the amount of effort that goes into the music that most people consider “disposable,” but that’s only interesting on a grand scale. When you break it down to a case-by-case basis (particularly when discussing a band that is widely dismissed or disparaged), any larger point grows fuzzy and indefinable; the whole thing starts to feel like trivia. But trivia only matters if it relates to something that people care about. Star Wars trivia is interesting. Trivia about the Rolling Stones is interesting. Trivia that revolves around the creative minds behind a 2017 Neon Trees single is… I’m not even sure what it is. But it’s not interesting.

And yet, somebody does care. Somebody is out there right now, poring over the Wikipedia page for Memories…Do Not Open and puzzling over the fact that a song with a small army of talent behind it was performed once on Saturday Night Live and then forgotten forever. And that same person is reading reviews of that same SNL performance and struggling to understand if the underwhelming response to “Break Up Every Night” led to it being nixed as a future single — but then, that doesn’t make any sense, because the Chainsmokers have been receiving mixed reviews for the entire careers, but they’re still releasing singles at an almost alarming rate. And that same person is checking the Chainsmokers’ stats on setlist.fm to determine if they abandoned “Break Up Every Night” the way their label seems to have abandoned it, only to find that, no, it’s their eighth most-played song in concert!

I know this person exists, because this person is me. Admittedly, my own musical tastes and the way in which I choose to spend my time is not enough to prove any particular thesis. But at the same time, I’m not such an outlier than my experience of the Chainsmokers is totally unique. The fact that I care as much as I do proves that anyone is capable of caring as much as I do. There are others like me out there. And if we care this much about the Chainsmokers, then it stands to reason that we could care this much about almost anything.

Everything is interesting. You might think this would mean, paradoxically, that nothing is interesting, but you’d be wrong. What it really means is that nothing is inherently interesting; something only becomes interesting if someone is willing to invest their interest in it. It makes just as much sense to think about the Chainsmokers as it does to think about the Beatles, provided that you think about either of them hard enough.

The One

Memories…Do Not Open begins with the sound of a drink being poured, but it’s a very particular kind of drink, the kind you pour for yourself when you’re long past the point of measuring out shots and have decided to just eyeball it. It’s the kind of drink you pour when, after several hours of mentally torturous back-and-forth, you have finally decided that no, you’re not going out tonight. It’s the drink you pour as a reward for yourself after you send a delicately-worded text your friend, explaining why you’re not coming to their party, even though you promised you would. You need to make it seem like you have a legitimate reason for bailing on them, so you try to be honest — but not so honest that they would be worried about you, because that would mean that they might ask a follow-up question. You might actually have to talk to somebody about what’s going on with you. And if you wanted to do that, you wouldn’t be drinking alone in your apartment.

Because even if you did decide to go out, if you marshaled every last bit of strength within you and forced yourself out the door, dreading the arrival at your destination more and more with every step — then what? The first verse of “The One” makes it clear exactly what would happen: you would smile and nod and joke with your friends, but every second would feel like a nail being jammed into the base of your skull. You would try to hide it, keep up a pleasant appearance and say all the things you’re supposed to say, maybe even lose yourself in conversation for a moment, but sooner or later something would remind you of how you actually feel, and you would literally wince at the painful sensation of falling back into yourself.

You would watch the clock, anxiously awaiting the moment when it would be socially acceptable to leave. You do the math: would it be too obvious if I left at ten? Would they notice that I had just been waiting for the clock to strike double-digits? I got here just before nine, and I need to stay at least two hours, but if I spend half my time hiding in the bathroom or checking my phone in a dark corner of the kitchen, they’ll still act like I wasn’t really there at all, they’ll ask if something is wrong, putting on a big show of compassion, trying to figure out if I’m feeling “okay” — and then this whole thing will have been a complete waste of time.

No, better to just stay home. But even that isn’t the perfect solution, is it? Because there’s one person you can’t avoid, no matter how much you try. Because you owe them a conversation, but Jesus Christ, you’d do anything to avoid that conversation. You’d rather fake your own death and move across the country to start a new life than have the talk that they want you to have.

And you know it’s pathetic, that you can’t even muster up the courage to look them in the eye, but fuck it, you’re drunk, you’re alone, there’s no reason to lie to yourself right now. Maybe that’s just who you are. Maybe you are pathetic.

As long as you’re being honest, you figure you might as well try to explain this to them. So, you try to write a text. Yes, a phone call would be more appropriate, but hey, you’re pathetic, remember? No use pretending that you can give them anything more than this. And anyway, maybe it’ll be for the best. Maybe if you can craft the perfect message — be careful with the length, you don’t want it to get split up and sent to them all shuffled around — then you can make them understand, on some level, why this isn’t working. Maybe you can make them see why you shouldn’t be together, although if they haven’t figured that out for themselves by now, they’re either blind or insane.

But you can’t even do that. You can’t even force your thoughts to cohere for a few lines of text, can’t even shape the whirling vacuum inside of you into something comprehensible for the time it would take to write a single message.

So, you toss your phone aside and leave it face-down as you sink further into your couch, drink in your hand, glass already sweaty with condensation. Maybe you silence your phone before you put it away, or maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re hoping that they’ll be the one who decides to send that long-awaited text. Because they must want out as much as you do. Neither of you are happy, and while you have become reasonably certain that you won’t be happy no matter what happens, at least when you finally burn this thing to the ground, you won’t have someone who depends on you, who needs you to depend on them, and who, worst of all, is always trying to get you to fucking go out and see your friends. And then you will be perfectly at peace, balanced on the razor’s edge of oblivion, alone in your dimly-lit apartment, drinking cheap whiskey in silence.

On Youth

The Chainsmokers are closely tied to the concept of youth. The most obvious reason for this is also the most depressing: these are the guys that made “#SELFIE,” and “#SELFIE” is about taking pictures of yourself, which is, apparently, something that only young people do. This in itself is enough to cement the connection in the mind of any hack culture writer, but the band’s association with youth runs much deeper than that.

The Chainsmokers, at least in theory, make music that falls under the banner of EDM (Electronic Dance Music). EDM is about chasing a temporary high; it’s the music of day-long festivals and all-night parties and it focuses on visceral excitement as opposed to depth. Rightly or wrongly, these are things that most people associate with being young. Beyond that, however, the idea of being young is central to the lyrical identity of the band and features as a recurring concept within their music — and their take on it is a lot darker than you might expect.

“Closer” remains, with one aforementioned exception, the song most people associate with the Chainsmokers, and it seems, on a surface level, to glorify the experience of being young — the refrain, “we ain’t never getting older” is certainly not a thing that anyone over the age of thirty would ever say, at least not out loud. But if the characters in the song are still within the realm of the young, then they’re right on the precipice of leaving it behind; they’re looking back on a time where they were more carefree and unafraid to pursue what they wanted. While the song as a whole is more about nostalgia than it is about actually being young, that focus on nostalgia implicitly defines youth as a time worthy of being looked back upon fondly.

Though lacking in the lyrical depth of “Closer,” “Last Day Alive” does attempt to paint a picture of what it is to be young. This is accomplished through an unceasing barrage of insipid lyrics about the magic of youth that would be more at home on a dorm-room wall than in a song. The blame for that falls at least partly on featured vocalists and credited co-writers Florida Georgia Line, whose clumsy hands can be felt all over lyrics such as “Now or never/It’s now or never,” “Twisted up in adolescence… feel alive and dangerous,” and the axiomatic line, “the night is young and we are young.” Not poetry, by any means — hell, even Nate Ruess would give these lyrics another pass — but it clearly communicates an idea: youth is a dramatic and confusing but ultimately an exciting period, where life-altering events of great importance can happen any time.

But a closer reading of both those songs reveals darker undercurrents. While the verses seem to celebrate youth, the chorus of “Last Day Alive” works as both a rallying cry and a warning. “Run into the bright lights most nights/Now or never/Always and forever, the last day alive.” Divorced from the high-energy music that accompanies them, these lyrics seem to depict an unending cycle of empty hedonism and depression. The idea of living without regrets, even for a single night, certainly has its appeal, but what sordid situation would drive a person to pursue that way of life every night? It might be empowering to, as Tim McGraw would say, live like you were dying, but what are the physical and emotional consequences of actually living each day like you won’t see tomorrow? There’s a name for that kind of philosophy: it’s called nihilism.

“Closer,” for all its nostalgia, takes a far from romanticized view of its characters. Not only are they both miserable and poor, there’s no suggestion that their reunion will alleviate their suffering or restore even a bit of their youthful grandeur. This song is not about the rekindling of a lost love, it’s about an all-caps BAD IDEA casual hook-up between two lost souls. Honesty, the two characters in this song don’t even seem to like each other all that much. One gets the impression that they feel almost compelled to have sex with one another, either because of their undeniable sexual chemistry or an unhealthy attachment to the past. Possibly both.

“Paris” is the closest the Chainsmokers have actually come to making a song about the power of youth, with its lyrics about youthful defiance paired with a sort of musical pseudo-glamor. But even at their most anthemic, the Chainsmokers can’t help but let darkness creep into every corner of their music.

The first sentiment we hear from either of the song’s doomed lovers is a pained combination of substance abuse and fatalism. “If I could take this in a shot right now/I don’t think that we could work this out” does not exactly fit within the theme of Love Conquers All. It seems to suggest that once this illicit vacation has ended, both parties and the love they share will be crushed by reality.  The couple in “Paris” are only together because they’re hiding from some set of ill-defined consequences and they’re struggling even to hold on to what little happiness they’ve found.

The song’s refrain. “If we go down then we go down together,” initially reads as defiance in the face of adversity, but Taggart’s subdued vocal style and the downbeat instrumentation make the fall from grace seems almost pre-ordained. The only sliver of hope lies at the end of the chorus: “let’s show them we are better,” a sworn oath to go down fighting that does little to inspire. Failure is inevitable. The best these two people can hope for is to fail in a manner that demonstrates character and proves that they’ve been underestimated for the entirety of their brief lives. But don’t hold your breath.

Perhaps the key to unravelling this theme lies in the appropriately named “Young,” an album track (and mildly successful single) from Memories… Do Not Open. “Young” almost entirely eschews any EDM stylings, aside from a brief burst of synth after the chorus that sounds more like lip-service to the idea of the Chainsmokers as a band you can dance to. “Young” is a plaintive semi-ballad sung mainly over an acoustic guitar, with lyrics that catalogue the numerous miseries in the lives of two young lovers.

Darker even than “Paris,” “Young” offers almost no hope and absolutely no suggestion that all of this pain and struggle is anywhere near worth it. Everything these two people do leads to dysfunction and/or destruction. They fight constantly and they have to sneak around just to see each other, all the while hoping that their love will carry them through to better times — but even this feels perfunctory: “maybe we can go from this” is hardly a grand romantic statement. But even that small bit of hope is snatched away by the end of the song.

I’m calling you up, you tell me it’s over
You say what you want
But it’s hard when you’re young

This final refrain efficiently captures the frustration and longing that comes with youth. Even if your intentions are good and your feelings are genuine, it’s not always enough to tame the confusion and pain that churn ceaselessly within you. The song’s ultimate moral, “It’s hard when you’re young,” is, perhaps, a bit simplistic, but it’s also honest in the way only a very simple statement can be, and it’s certainly backed up by the rest of the lyrics.

In the song’s most striking image, the narrator crashes his partner’s car and then engages in a late-night shouting match with their father that almost turns violent. Who can look at this pathetic, dismal state of affairs and say that young love is beautiful? Who can say that being young is anything but hard?