It’s funny the way that albums can mark time. How hearing the right songs at the right moment can make them sound like more than songs, or how going back to those songs after 10 or 15 or 20 years can reawaken every feeling you had when you first heard them. It’s funny, too, how the music that does those things to you might not do anything for anyone else. How something can be an incredibly meaningful and important document of your past, but just sound run-of-the-mill to someone else. Or how, if you’d heard an album a decade or a year or six months too early or too late, it might just be a footnote in your musical history rather than a symphony.
No album has ever taken me more by surprise than The Dangerous Summer ‘s Reach for the Sun. I didn’t see it coming, and I wasn’t looking for it. I had no knowledge of the band or their past work, no clue what they sounded like or what their songs might have to say about my life. I just read a rave review of the album one day on AbsolutePunk and decided to give it a shot. Ten years later, those songs still shoot shivers down my spine and choke me up, because they sound like the cusp of adulthood, and like all the friends and memories I’ve left behind in the past decade.
Reach for the Sun had remarkable timing. Its release date was May 5, 2009, just as spring was bursting into full, glorious bloom. I first heard it on May 3, in the early evening, coming out of old boombox speakers in my bedroom, with the gentle glow of the sunset streaming through my window. The day before, my sister had graduated from college. In another month, I’d graduate from high school. My parents and I had driven home, from Ann Arbor to Traverse City, that afternoon. I had a boatload of calculus homework to do and was dreading the evening. AP exams were just days away, and I needed to buckle down and focus. Certainly, I knew I needed a good soundtrack for the study session. So I downloaded this record on the recommendation of a glowing 95 percent review from Blake Solomon and loaded it onto my iPod.
“I gave my things away/I called the people that I only see on holidays/This next year’s gonna burn a hole in me.” That line, from “Settle Down,” was the first one that made me look up and pay attention. It felt like someone articulating this tiny fragment of anxiety that was building in my chest. Watching my sister graduate college had made the end of my then-current life chapter seem real. I was so close to finishing high school; to leaving home; to saying goodbye to my friends; to accepting that I’d only see my parents on stray weekends; to having to start a brand-new journey in an unfamiliar town. “This next year’s gonna burn a hole in me.” Holy shit, I couldn’t believe someone was actually taking all those thoughts in my brain and putting them into words.
I can’t tell you how many times I listened to this album over the next month, as graduation drew closer and all the “lasts” of high school started raining down on me: last concerts; last exams; last proms; last classes; last assemblies; last days. I knew I was supposed to be excited about the impending end of high school, and about the promise of college. And in part I was! The other album that I had in regular rotation in my car that spring was Born to Run, which captured all the promise of the freedom that was waiting for me just around the bend. Born to Run got the daytime drives; Reach for the Sun got the nights. The back half especially sounded so boundless and expansive on dark spring evenings, rolling the windows down and letting the warm air hit my face and mess up my hair. It didn’t matter that The Dangerous Summer were making music in a genre that tended to be built for hot weather and sunny days. Something about the way AJ Perdomo wrote lyrics, in this emotive, stream-of-consciousness way, felt so much more appropriate on late nights. Alone, with nothing but the music and your thoughts. There was an earnestness to his writing and his voice that I wasn’t used to. The way he talked about love and loss and dreams and sacrifice felt so real and unguarded to me. It was everything a guy with a lot of reservations about his future needed to feel a little less freaked out about things.
Reach for the Sun is a debut full-length album, but it doesn’t sound like one. It doesn’t sound like the tentative first steps of a band just molding their sound and their identity. Instead, it’s bold and unabashed and completely willing to wear its heart on its sleeve. The way AJ writes is with a type of reckless abandon that makes his stories feel like your stories. When he writes about friends dying in “The Permanent Rain,” its with all the messy emotions that grief leaves you with: heartbreak and guilt and a desire to make something of yourself to honor the people who won’t ever get a chance to write their own stories. And when he writes about falling in love on songs like “Northern Lights” and “Never Feel Alone,” he somehow captures all the wonder and excitement and fear of experiencing that phenomenon for the first time. I’d go as far to say that I have never heard a song that does a better job than “Never Feel Alone” at encapsulating the exhilaration of letting your guard down for another person. Giving someone else your heart; trusting them not to break it; knowing that they might anyway, and being willing to take the risk regardless. When you do that for the first time, it’s insane, and it’s wonderful, and so few songs do its justice, because writing a song that captures those feelings means letting your guard down again, this time to your listeners. Not a lot of songwriters are brave enough to do that in this way. On Reach for the Sun, AJ Perdomo was brave enough to write like that on every single song.
Songs like that are perfect for coming-of-age stories, and The Dangerous Summer were absolutely the soundtrack to my coming-of-age. Reach for the Sun went from being my “spring of senior year” album to being my “summer between high school and college album,” and then to being my “freshman year of college” album. I remember playing it on drives back and forth between my college town and my hometown, trying to fight the loneliness and homesickness I was feeling at the time. Making friends is fucking hard—at least, it’s always been hard for me, as someone who is shy and reserved and a little bit afraid of letting his own guard down. I got comfortable with being alone when I was a kid. As the youngest of three with older siblings involved in sports, I spent a lot of afternoons after school on my own, learning to embrace the silence—or at least, to break it apart with music. But that changed in high school, when I found a friend group that felt like a family. Leaving that behind left me feeling unmoored, and this album was one of the only things that made it better. It reminded me of those last weeks of high school, and of all the people who were now hundreds or even thousands of miles away. I wondered if I was the only one feeling this way. Songs like “Where I Want to Be” and “Settle Down” and “A Space to Grow” convinced me I wasn’t.
I’ve heard Reach for the Sun so many times at this point that every word and melody and guitar chord and drum hit feels embedded in my soul. It can be tough to have new revelations about albums like that, because they are so heavily tied to a different time of your life, and to a different version of you. But I recently had the chance to listen to these songs without distractions, and they blew my mind all over again. On a short flight home a few weeks ago, late into the night, I put this album on and closed my eyes. And it was like hearing ten full years replayed over the course of 41 minutes. I heard the sunny days of my last weeks of high school; I heard my last strolls through those high school halls; I felt the homesickness of that first year of college; I saw the faces of friends I don’t see anymore. I couldn’t believe that ten years had passed already. Was I “grown up”? And if so, when the hell did that happen? Mostly, I couldn’t believe how moments like the bridge in “Weathered,” or the chorus of the title track, or the very first notes of “Never Feel Alone,” could still make me feel my heart was beating a million times per minute. It had been ten years since I’d first heard these songs; on that listen, I could have sworn no time had passed at all.