When We Were Young We Wanted to Die
I always think of it as the sound of travelers cresting a hill, how it starts with approaching sleigh bells. Three musicians count time. Then, in seraphic harmony, words:
When we were young we wanted to die.
This is the opening lyric to Low’s “The Last Snowstorm of the Year,” the line hits just past the half-way point on Trust, the band’s sixth album.
Trust came out in 2002, the year I graduated high school. It was the first Low record I owned. For me, hearing Trust was like hearing the edges of what was possible in rock music. A tempo so slow it barely moved. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s voices so haunting they seemed neither to have existed now or at any other time.
As a kid who grew up in the era of Green Day and the Offspring, before I branched out into things like “slowcore,” I had mostly listened to punk music. When, in seventh grade, I heard Operation Ivy on a cassette tape, it was as though no other music existed at all. They were melodic, smart, and compassionate, and were the fastest band I had ever heard. In songs like the minute-twenty-second “Hoboken” meter & tempo seemed to dissolve entirely, as if instead of playing together, each musician was individually careening towards a finish line.
But by the time I was nearing the end of high school, punk wasn’t working for me anymore, at least not like it had. One reason was that I had experienced depression, a real and true depression that was often hard to grapple with. There was therapy, diagnoses: depression (seasonal), insomnia (primary). More intense than either of those, though, was the realization that I was bi.
Looking back at the time now, the combined experience of everything is one I can only describe as vertiginous: a simultaneous feeling of heightening, and plummeting. Everything going on at once was just too much. Being depressed and bi at a time when neither felt accepted (or, for that matter, cool), made both difficult to talk about. Each felt like an albatross, a marker of difference that, I wanted to hide. Most of the time, I wanted to not exist at all. In suburban San Jose, pop-punk was the norm. But by then the common pop-punk refrain of “Everything will be alright” had began to feel almost inappropriate—less like the words of a peer, and more the condescending words of an adult who wasn’t actually listening at all.
Because, of course, they weren’t listening. By that point, punk was the sound of national radio, a sound brokered through major label deals and industry networking. It didn’t need to listen. When it came to the radio, you listened to it. It did not listen to you.
What had originally drawn me to punk music was the energy. I loved the incomparable, invigorating power of the musicians’ ability to weave counterpoint into microseconds, the zen-like liquidity of the drum fill, the reliable bloom of the chorus repetition. Together, it was a buzzing eudaemonia. But by my senior year of high school my relationship with music had changed. No longer in touch with the eudaemonic, what I needed instead was music that understood this feeling I was going through—had in fact experienced it itself.
That year, as a Christmas gift, I got a copy of Trust.
Aside from their lugubrious pace, one of the most distinctive things about Low is their use of harmony. On their own, both Parker and Sparhawk are beautiful singers, their voices unaffected, and cool, and honest in their pain. But on Trust at almost all times,they sing together, uniting to form a miniature choir. When, on “The Last Snowstorm of the Year,” they suddenly appear on the horizon and proclaim: “When we were young we wanted to die.” Their plurality is earnest: there is a collective behind it.
It is a mysterious apparition, this we. From a narrative perspective, they say very little. Instead of giving reasons, the they who speak simply appear, and state the case:
When we were young we wanted to die
Held the right way, it almost sounds inspirational. “When we were young we wanted to die” could very well be applied sloganistically to social movements like the “It Gets Better Project,” which seeks to help at-risk LGBTQ+ youth by bringing together the voices of adult survivors, telling them that the struggle is worth it.
But for Low there is no statement that things get better. No prescription, no guarantees: just a then (“when we were young”), and an implied now. Instead of inspiration, Low opt for the dirge: a space where pain is shared, acknowledged, and released. With it’s sing-song melody and processional pace, “The Last Snowstorm of the Year” has an almost hymn-like quality to it, as though the listener is invited (but not required) to join in its expansive we.
Yet, within the dirge, there is somehow an optimistic glimmer. In singing these words at all, and in hearing them sung, there is an act of passage, an act of passing through. Rather than inspiration, what the lyric contains is something much more fundamental. What it contains is futurity itself.
It is often said that depression takes away one’s future. Or, that it takes one’s ability to conceive of a future. Writing on alcoholism, Gilles Deleuze described the condition as an “extraordinary hardening of the present.” It is as though, for the alcoholic, time itself is the liver. Depression has a similar affect. For the depressive, too, all futures are precluded, time stuck in an inescapable, fossilized now. As with Deleuze’s alcoholics, “everything culminates in a ‘has been.’”
It feels a little strange stating this in contrast to Low’s music, since theirs is so clearly, so undeniably, depressive. Yet, against all odds, “The Last Snowstorm of the Year” shows a way out of this depressive now. It happens in the space of a single word: “Wanted.”
To want in the past-tense is a freedom worth pausing over. Freedom usually implies space to want what you want—that elusive pursuit of happiness.
Freedom from desire on the other hand is almost a kind of death—a place where that space is no longer necessary. But to want death in the past tense is something else entirely, something bordering the unknown. How does someone speak from beyond a desire for death? It’s like reportage from within a black hole: an impossible communication: a gleam from beyond the event horizon. “Could it be the case that the death Instinct, by going as far as possible, would turn back on itself?” Deleuze asks, in The Logic of Sense. “Is it possible, since it absorbs every instinct, that it could also enact the transmutation of the instincts, turning death against itself?”
These days, I play music for a living. Like the transmutation of a teenage dream, the band I play in most often is a punk band. Behind us when we play is something I never imagined back then: an American flag whose stripes have been replaced by the stripes of the pride (and trans pride) flag. The message is plain: whoever you are, whatever your identity or sexuality, you are welcome here. It is the kind of message I wish more punk bands of my youth had consciously put forward.
This world is still depressing, and it rarely seems to get better. Often it seems it is the worst among us, those most willing to do harm, whose actions are rewarded. Deceit, commercialism, and abuse—all the things that Operation Ivy were railing against in 1988—remain currencies of power. At a macro level, very little has changed. At a macro level, very little ever seems to change, the whole structure caught up in another, massive fossilized now. But there is a final defiance to “The Last Snowstorm of the Year.” No, Sparhawk sings, at song’s end, I would not face the last snowstorm of the year.
Though it knows a future is coming, the song refuses to pass into it. It sits and waits out a storm which always remains on the horizon, all the while facing the other way, facing, instead, us. “The Last Snowstorm of the Year” may not see the future when it comes, but in the song’s refusal, a future becomes visible.
When we were young we wanted to die. But we’re not young anymore.