I know, I know
(knots that we make)
The doors won’t close
The pipes are froze
Just let it go
(an easier time)
Ten years ago yesterday, on September 5, 2006, a little-known band from Brooklyn named Grizzly Bear released a rather unassuming album called Yellow House. It was technically their second album, though for all intents and purposes it was their first. Founding member, singer-songwriter Ed Droste, had released one full-length under the Grizzly Bear moniker a few years prior entitled Horn Of Plenty that featured drummer Christopher Bear. That album, though, wasn’t too much more than a collection of scraggly demos and sketches, a mere hint of the potential within. Yellow House brought with it the addition of fellow singer-songwriter Daniel Rossen – who had already made some minor waves in the NYC indie scene as one half of the hybrid folk and samples-heavy duo Department of Eagles – and multi-instrumentalist/producer Chris Taylor – who would rotate between bass and a multitude of woodwinds while almost singularly shaping the band’s recorded sound. This album was their first released as a full quartet and would turn out to be a powerful opening statement of what this group could achieve together.
But that’s not why I’m writing this.
Most people have an album or perhaps set of albums that define certain moments or periods of their lives. For reasons both more practical and far more deeply intimate and personal, Yellow House came to represent so much about one of the most emotionally-fraught periods of my own – my four years spent in undergrad in upstate New York. On the practical side, the album was released right at the beginning of my sophomore year of college. My freshman year could be largely summed up as a period of intense and constant musical discovery and reinvention. Having come out of high school as a relative musical luddite (at least on the listening side of things) outside of some jazz and whatever alt-rock/metal was making the rounds on the radio, I suddenly found myself surrounded by people who had been already steeped in the worlds of classic rock, of the punk and no-wave movements of the 70s and 80s, of the emergence of DIY indie and alternative rock in the late 80s and early 90s, and of the modern tastemakers of alternative and indie of the early into mid-aughts. I was submerged in an entire new universes of music, and the combination of campus-wide broadband wifi now being the norm with the technology of peer-to-peer file-sharing programs being as ubiquitous as it was for people of my age, I had virtually unlimited and unfettered access to all of it.
So I consumed as much of it as I could possibly manage. I didn’t understand or even like all of it at first, but as the year progressed, my tastes began to adapt, expand, and change. I would blast college-rock staples like Pavement, Spoon, Interpol, and more. I received my first introduction to post-rock in the form of Mogwai’s Mr. Beast. I began regularly reading Pitchfork, and when I returned home to my friends that summer the air of superiority was surely wafting strongly from me. I distinctly remember sharing my hard-drive of new acquisitions with them, and upon someone stating that they hadn’t heard of any of these bands, my response was something to the effect of “That’s the point.” It was, of course, all a front, an attempt to mask my insecurities and pretend that I had fully assimilated with my more musically-attuned peers.
From the first morning light
I can follow along
Chance to stumble and find
What turns out to be wrong
If my freshman year was a crash course and constant catch-up, though, then by the time I entered my sophomore year I felt like I was finally hearing about new things when everyone else was. Enter, as if on cue, Yellow House, an album that not only felt like was mine but immediately resonated with me musically in a way nothing else I had been listening to the past year did. I remember going to Grizzly Bear’s website and listening to the full stream of the album (still a novelty in those days) over and over while I waited for the CD I ordered to arrive. The opening flurries of flute and quietly-picked guitar of “Easier,” the cascading crescendos of “Chin up, cheer up” on “Lullaby,” the heart-rending vocal harmonies on “Central and Remote” and “Little Brother,” all the way to the pleas of “What now?” on “Colorado,” those moments hit me in ways I didn’t know music could at the time. Chris Taylor’s ingenious incorporation of flute, clarinet, and sax on tracks like “Plans” and throughout was unlike anything else I had heard. I was entranced, unable to focus on much else when listening to it. It possessed a beautifully serene melancholy to it that I was only really beginning to understand but would become so integral to my being soon enough. Against the backdrop of autumn in the Hudson River Valley, it provided a perfectly bucolic soundtrack.
The album quickly became a critical and popular (by indie standards, at least) hit as well, which perhaps isn’t surprising given how well it fit into the music of that period. At the time it was given a psych or freak-folk labeling and often lumped in with the likes of Animal Collective, which, even during the earlier/more acoustically-minded stages of their career, never quite made sense. But it did fit in well within the context of indie folk/rock of the period, coming shortly on the heels of albums like Seven Swans and Illinois from Sufjan Stevens, The Mysterious Production of Eggs from Andrew Bird, Picaresque by The Decemberists, Everything All The Time by Band of Horses, and more. It was raw and decidedly lo-fi in production. Recorded in an old family home of Ed Droste on Cape Cod, there’s a certain spaciousness and natural reverb to the production that made the house a fifth band member of sorts (if you listen closely you can hear creaks and other sounds from the house faintly in the background), giving the album a natural title in the process.
Like the bands/artists mentioned though, the music possesses a certain meticulousness to it that can sometimes be criticized as fussiness. It represented an ascendancy within the indie scene of lush composition and over-the-top layering and incorporation of decidedly un-rock instruments like strings, woodwinds, and brass. Banjos, mandolins, and other stringed instruments would live side-by-side with acoustic and electric guitars. Intricate vocal harmonies harkening back to the old days of 70s folk-rock and more was back in style. Yes, this is the kind of music that would unfortunately bring with it its more mainstream and homogenized counterparts in Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers, and the like. Grizzly Bear certainly played a part in that, but Yellow House is really not like any of those albums. The music that would come would never dare make you feel so alone, so utterly isolated and disconnected from the world.
Pressing matters bear
An able wear and tear on you
Tear on you
It was this aspect of the music, if even subconsciously, that really bore itself into me and became such a critical sonic touchpoint and safe haven for my life in those years. That sense of persistent and relentless isolation was something I already carried within me when I left home for college, but it wasn’t something I had much understanding of at the time. My childhood wasn’t an unhappy one. I grew up in a small, idyllic town in the middle of New Jersey. I went to high school in Princeton and was provided with incredible intellectual and musical outlets. By all objective and quantifiable measures I had a pretty good childhood into adolescence, afforded all of the privileges of an upper middle class white existence and making the most of it, eventually winding up at a well-regarded liberal arts college. But I was not emotionally healthy. I was reclusive. I had little interest in making new friends beyond my extremely small circle of 2-3 people. I assumed the worst in people, and I assumed that there was something inherently wrong with me that would prevent people from wanting to get close to me. I could put on a face and be friendly and joke around with people in class, but I had walls to prevent me from getting any closer and face potential rejection. Perhaps I could be tolerable or even likable to people, but certainly not lovable.
The details and foundations for these issues aren’t exactly shocking or uncommon. Lots of kids get picked on and bullied to varying degrees, and no single event caused me to feel and behave this way. It was more a persistent and chronic ostracization by people who I was led to believe mattered and betrayal by those who I thought were friends or perhaps could be – a consistent weight upon me pressing me down into the earth, shrinking me until I felt like I was nothing. The way I coped with it was to essentially make myself invisible. The less people saw me or noticed me, the less I put myself out there, the less likely they were to hurt me.
College was supposed to be different though, I thought. It was a time for a fresh start, a clean slate with entirely new people who were presumably far more similar to me than my previous peer groups. That illusion was broken within the first few weeks as I sat inside my dorm room on the night of a big freshmen dance/party in the student center, the weekend before the incoming sophomores and upperclassmen were set to arrive and classes were to begin. I was alone, bawling, the mere thought of entering the space and finding myself surrounded by others I didn’t know well or at all utterly paralyzing me inside-out. I knew then that I could not just leave what plagued me behind, that I was still carrying the same weight as before. Which isn’t to say I didn’t make friends my freshman year. I managed to absorb myself into a rather large social circle centered largely by our dorm, and I had some great times with them. But the weight was still there, the nagging anxiety and disconnect, and I think part of me knew that this group I had fallen into was a crutch, that my lack of effort to extend myself much outside of them would hurt me eventually.
Now I’ll go back to the other side of my bed
I’ll go back to the place where you get started
And I’ll sleep, just put the pillows under my head
Yellow House is an album about failed connections, of struggling to find a place in the world, of betrayal and longing for love and to be loved but finding it to be impossible to obtain or maintain. The lyrics are often fairly minimal and rather abstract, serving as vignettes or tone poems rather than full-on stories. “Easier” pines for a time when a couple can return to an earlier point in their relationship, before bitterness and the chill of winter wore them down. “Knife” speaks of a kind of betrayal that one cannot return from. The narrator of “Little Brother” mourns the loss of someone close to him and his inability to move on or feel right with the world without him. “Plans” is a long-distance love whose logistical impossibilities bely a deeper desire for connection but incapability to commit and expose oneself to it. The repetition of “My love’s another kind” in “Lullabye” and then later in “Reprise” feel less like a boast than a whispered plea into the wind, a yearning to feel connection with others but a concession of one’s limits to obtain it. In “Colorado” Droste moans “When I clung to you/There was nothing to/Hold on tight with/You left me adrift,” with the open expanse and swallowing isolation of the track’s name invoked after. Even “Marla,” an adaptation of a song Droste’s great aunt – a failed musician herself – wrote, has the haunting spectre of something and someone lost, forever in search for it. It is an album of ghosts, of dead relationships and people, and of finding yourself left in the cold, alone, when all is said and done.
Back to sophomore year. Yellow House is out, and I’m listening to it, by myself. I found myself in that situation a lot that fall and throughout that academic year. The friend group I had relied on had split into two factions, each located in different parts of the campus. Meanwhile, I found myself in a single room in one of the cruddiest dorms on campus and away from all of them save for a couple I was friends with and in that group, though they rarely left their room themselves. I wound up in my situation due to an unfortunately high room lottery number and one of the few people I had become friendly with outside of my group ditching me at the last moment to get his own single rather than room with me.
When not in my room or at class, I often found myself alone, walking back from one of the two places on campus where my friends were. The campus was sprawling, sections often separated by paths winding through woods of various manicured upkeep. There was one area in particular I would go through as a shortcut, but late at night and shrouded by towering trees and twisted branches there would be little light to go on beyond the moon (if it was out). So many of these nights I would find myself in this one grassy area in the middle of the woods, feeling terrible and lonely and without anyone else in the world, wondering how long it would take for anyone to notice I was gone if I just simply disappeared.
And yet in those moments of complete isolation and brooding misery, I could find a certain kind of peace, a revelry in being alone without the external pressures or anxieties in dealing with other people. I could return to those feelings when up in the mountains of New Hampshire, where I had the luxury of escaping to with my family every so often. Surrounded by falling leaves of orange and yellow in the crisp autumn air or by blankets of white snow against bare birch, Yellow House felt like an emotional retreat and safe space. In particular, “On A Neck, On A Spit” would run through my mind. Dan Rossen croons about a loss of home and belonging, ultimately winding up out in the wild expanse of nowhere, shouting “Out here no one can hear me” into the void. That single line encapsulated seemingly everything for me then. It was an expression of willful isolation, a beautiful kind, where it was suddenly okay to be alone. In reality it was still painful, and I would be miserable again once transplanted back into (relative) civilization and surrounded by reminders of my disconnect. But in those moments of listening to that music, I could escape it and pretend that everything was okay.
What now, what now, what now, what now?
Yellow House would continue to have a special and significant meaning for me the remainder of my college life. It was there as I dove into works of personal documentary for my film classes and began to pick at the scabs of my youth, opening up a Pandora’s box of repressed memories and emotions I still didn’t fully understand or knew how to cope with. It was there as what I would later understand was acute social anxiety would continue to render me unable to attend social functions or be at all comfortable around people I didn’t already know quite well. It was there from the beginning to the very end of my first serious relationship, a long-distance one with a girl I met through online forums because I still found myself unwilling and incapable of opening myself up fully and making myself vulnerable to those around me. And it was certainly there when I finally worked with a therapist to help me understand why I was this way, to dredge up all of the things I didn’t want to think about, and finally come out the other end far better than I came in.
Ten years on, I still recognize that person I was and see him inside of me. Once in a while he comes back to the forefront of my mind to make a mess of things. But overall there’s a sense of distance now that comes with the passage of time. So, too, has my relationship with Yellow House. I still return to it occasionally, and I think and speak of it to others with a holy reverence and weight to convey its significance to me. But these days that burning pain and pleasure that bound me to it has faded, and returning to it now has whiffs of nostalgia attached to it. In the past decade my personal tastes in music have continued to evolve, and it and Grizzly Bear as a whole are forced to compete with leagues of other albums and bands in my head for prominence. It will always be one of my favorite albums ever, hands-down, but that intense connection feels more attached to the person I’ve left behind than the one I am now. I honestly hope that I never have another album in my life that I form that kind of relationship with. It carries too much weight and far too many complicated emotions at a time when the realities and natural ups-and-downs of my own life, my career, and my relationships, are more than enough to keep me occupied.
I don’t need another Yellow House, but I will be forever thankful that I was given one when I needed it most.