If there’s a musical equivalent of the bildungsroman (bildungsrecord?), then Downhaul’s debut full-length Before You Fall Asleep certainly qualifies. Throughout the album’s 33 minutes, Gordon Phillips and company try to navigate their twenties – with varying degrees of success. When they do fail, which seems to happen fairly often, they at least come back stronger.
So it is, in fact, when the album begins. “Grace Days” is a slow, drawly opener that stops and starts back up again twice within the first minute, like the band is just getting used to this whole music thing. “Word reaches me that you’re not taking care of yourself,” Phillips sings in the first verse. If you’re expecting some profound words of comfort, you’d be disappointed. He doesn’t call or write to check in, “because I don’t know how to, and that’s something I’ve got to live with.” This becomes a recurring theme on Before You Fall Asleep, that feeling of powerlessness you have over your own life, not to mention those of the people you love.
What becomes of that long-lost friend we never hear, of course, and we never find out “what you’ve been doing lately,” as Phillips begs to know on “Lately.” Nor do we learn what happens to the subject of “Notched” after Phillips sees a lookalike at a show march table. As you grow up, people who were once immeasurably important become footnotes in the story and all that seemed solid melts into memory, and no matter what they once meant, you’re powerless to change it.
Part of this is due to friends moving and relocating, a common theme in Downhaul’s catalog. On “Double Time,” the first track from the band’s 2018 EP Where We Started, Phillips revels in “the freedom of anonymity in a place where nobody knows me,” before admitting in the song’s last line that that freedom wasn’t worth the relationships he’d sacrificed. This “selfish transience,” as he calls it, is revisited in “Shelf Life” – moving is revealed to be a “yearly practice.” Even despite the frequency of Phillips’ moving, there’s always “a certain uncertainty” that comes with transitioning from one home to another, just as there is transitioning from one stage of life to another.
That uncertainty, that feeling of powerlessness often manifests itself as anger, and the jaunty pop-rock single “Wires / Enough” finds Phillips “lash[ing] out constantly” at his family and friends, to the point where, as he admits on “Shelf Life,” his friends just stop inviting him out. And it’s not like anyone could blame him; it’s hard trying to balance all the various aspects of one’s life, and he’s not the only one feeling it. Suicide rates are surging, especially for millennials; wealth is growing ever more stratified; the climate is very possibly beyond the point of repair. Things are bad for everyone, really.
But it’s in this shared suffering that Downhaul finds hope. The album’s ever-building closer, “Ring Out,” is a rebuke to the desperation of the previous nine songs and a declaration of solidarity to anyone who can relate. Phillips calls to “normalize the things we all experience at slightly different paces” – the anxiety, the self-loathing, the uncertainty, the powerlessness. “Do you get anxious like I get anxious?” Phillips and bassist Pat Davis ask together in one of the most human vulnerable moments on an almost embarrassingly human and vulnerable album. “If you won’t admit you’re struggling, then no one knows to help you,” Phillips croons. The solution? Don’t be ashamed, don’t be afraid, don’t be embarrassed; just “let it ring out.” Downhaul let it ring out all through Before You Fall Asleep.