“The first day I was alive I got on a ride against my will. It’s so amazing I’ve made it this far.”
Cody Bonnette, one of As Cities Burn’s two vocalists, sings these lyrics with an impassioned earnestness. They come from “Maybe,” a highlight from the band’s underrated 2019 release Scream Through The Walls, their first release after a decade. In those two lyrical sentences, I am understood, and my emotions of where I am at right now represented. As Cities Burn has always been the band that I could find myself in every single song.
In 2005, this wildly popular local band fronted by two brothers from Louisiana put out their debut record on Solid State. At the time, Underoath were beginning to embrace their position as an undisputed juggernaut of the scene. Demon Hunter and Zao were already established giants. Norma Jean and Haste the Day were coming off two wildly popular releases. Young guns Emery, Showbread, He Is Legend, and The Chariot were skyrocketing in popularity every week. August Burns Red was just a name on an undercard compared to the bands already listed.
And yet, in 2005, As Cities Burn’s thirty-six-minute Son, I Loved You At Your Darkest managed to stand out the most from this pack. Maybe not for everyone, there are a lot of heavy hitters in this pack, but at least they did for me.
It’s safe to say that being fifteen isn’t easy. We’re beginning to be asked and asking our own questions about our future. Friendships and personalities are worn like accessories. We begin to question the institutions that we’ve been raised in—especially religion. Personally, I was more than a little fat and subconscious about it at every turn. I know now this was the beginning of my onset of body dysmorphia. Depression began to creep into my life, turning into an on-going fifteen-year battle that I still face today. And as Taylor Swift tells us: “’cause when you’re fifteen, and someone tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe it.”
Coming off of my parent’s divorce, my church youth group’s fracture, my dog’s diagnosis with cancer, and all of the things as mentioned above, things felt pretty bleak. Things felt pretty dark. I was questioning everything. I know that I’m writing for an audience of readers who have mostly become agnostic in beliefs, but my faith is a huge part of who I am. Throughout the last fifteen years, Son, I Loved You At Your Darkest has been the anchor that’s given me the ability to weather the storms alongside Thrice’s Vheissu. It’s no wonder they make up the top two slots on my all-time favorite releases.
The album begins with a cry of desperation by TJ Bonnette, Cody’s older brother: “I’ve got a growing heap of crosses and burdens I’ve simply lost heart to shoulder. Simply no strength to lift.” The song is the first of ten tracks of confession and question.
“Love Jealous One, Love” roars out the statement: “This is me at my darkest!” Now that I’m older, I have read the Bible a bit more and studied theology as a minor in college; I’m in awe of how many Biblical allusions this album is chock-full of. Every line is nuanced, carrying the weight of chapters in five or six words. I was always amazed how at well this band was embraced by the scene when they wore their faith so openly on their sleeves; but, if anything, it gave me hope that I would be embraced for what I wore on my sleeves, too.
In “Love,” we find lyrics As Cities Burn would return to in a future work. They are a band that constantly builds lyrical intricacies by referring back to their prior work. The refrain, “We will wear compassion, and we will wear it on our chests,” becomes the rallying cry of 2009’s Hell or High Water’s closer “Gates.” Cody sings in that moment that in the face of compassion, “the gates of hell won’t stand against it.”
As I stand here writing this in 2020—in the wake of George Floyd’s horrific murder and the global uprising in protest; in the wake of millions refusing to wear a mask for the simple betterment of all humankind—I can’t help but think of how much better the world would be if we all wore compassion on our chests. Where the gates of hell—the gates of systemic racism, classism, sexism, and the putrid underbelly of capitalism—fall.
The third track on the album, “Incomplete Is A Leech,” is my personal favorite. I learned a few years back in talking with the band’s drummer, Aaron Lunsford, that this is the only song that Cody refuses to play. He didn’t give me any specifics, but this knowledge makes me sad. Were it not for body dysmorphia, the lyrics “part my ribs like the sea and change me” would be permanently inked onto my rib cage. “Bloodsucker Pt. II,” the band’s biggest single and least musically interesting on the album, continues the imagery and story of “Incomplete.”
Just after the band’s most traditional “hardcore” song seems like a good time to discuss how often this album goes in directions that you wouldn’t expect it to go. The guitar tuning on this album doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before—somehow marrying the sounds of the early Colour Revolt EP and the sonic overload of Scogin-era Norma Jean. Where you expect a thunderous breakdown, suddenly, you find yourself in an atmospheric whisper. Where a song needs a break in the rolling breakdowns, instead of utilizing silence, the breakdowns increase.
“Terrible! How Terrible For The Great City!” and “The Widow” are a lyrical story-telling experiment. The first is the story of their father coming to grips that he is a “monster.” From his perspective, we learn that he no longer loves his pregnant wife. “The Widow,” a sudden switch to a clean vocal, just above acoustic song, picks up the same story from the perspective of Cody as their father leaves their lives as their mother gives birth to his younger brother. We learn their father was addicted to heroin.
In “Errand Rum” from Hell or High Water, Cody promises never to sing “The Widow” again—even though this would eventually change. It is hard to relive these traumas, even when truth and forgiveness is the through-line of the story: “But I believe there is something here to be learned of grace. ’cause I can’t help but love you.” As I hear these songs, I think back to my heartbrokenness over my parent’s divorce. How I spent decades angry at, yet also so full of love for, my father. The song ends with the confession, “My God, what a world you love.” It’s incredulity mixed with awe.
“Wake Dead Man, Wake,” turns into the perspective Jesus comforting these children—Cody, TJ, myself—directly. In one simple line, they call back to “Love Jealous One, Love,” name their album, and share the Gospel: “Son, I loved you at your darkest.”
It may seem like this retrospective leans heavily into Christianity, but that’s because the album does. The band’s next two releases, Come Now Sleep and Hell or High Water, would continue these questions and themes with considerably more nuance.
The album’s narrator, fluctuating through the men of the Bonnette family, even despite being comforted, returns to doubt in album highlight “Admission: Regret.” Not only does this song feature Josh Scogin in a surprise feature—he helped produce the album alongside Matt Goldman, who would go from this to produce Define The Great Line, the album that rounds out my top three of all time—but it also has the lyrics that have become my lifelong prayer. “One more time, love, won’t you come remind me that I’m someone believed in. I’m someone still within your reach.”
In a world where I’ve lost friendships for demanding the destruction of Confederate monuments while living in the Deep South. In a world where I’ve lost family members for calling them out on their racism. In a world where after a break-up, all of our mutual friends broke-up with me too. In a world where I wear my battle with depression proudly and get mocked for sharing art that helped me understand myself more in that battle. In that world, in this world, I always needed the reminder that there was someone who would never leave.
“One: Twentyseven” has long been the song I’ve overlooked on this record. Not that I don’t know the words by heart, but by this point, I’m often impatient to jump to the album closer. It also might have something to do with the fact that, despite my love of Dr. Brené Brown, I’m still pretty avoidant of things that challenge me to focus on the things I’m ashamed of. That’s exactly what this song calls you to do. That’s exactly what this album forces you to do: watch someone progress through all stages of their vulnerability.
The album comes to a close with the monumental “Of Want and Misery: The Nothing That Kills.” This nearly-seven-minute-long track finalizes the story of the two brothers and their father. “I can’t save you, but I will love you. I’d like to think that this is love, lost in second chances without end.” What a beautiful way to approach the hard relationships of life.
I’ve listened to this album more times than I can count. I attended the tenth-anniversary tour and screamed through the songs with every ounce of emotion I’ve ever felt since I first heard these tracks at fifteen. If you can imagine my surprise, then, when the album closer to Scream Through The Walls managed to bring me to my knees once more fourteen years later. A simple confession drives “Die Contrary,” the career highlight of this band I adore. The confession is: “I don’t want to die this way.” It’s followed by a plea: “Why don’t you give me another chance? Give me a hand; help me onto my feet?”
In that moment, as the album draws to a close, As Cities Burn returns to wearing their faith on their sleeves. As the album—and maybe the band themselves—fade into silence, Cody sings the refrain from “Jesus Paid It All.” No matter the chaos, the questioning, the turmoil, the history, or the path—As Cities Burn pointed us to their answer for all the questions of the world that plague us. It may not be your answer. You may be explicitly against that very answer. But the honestly, the vulnerability, the transparency, and the uniqueness of the craft made their career—and Son, I Loved You At Your Darkest—an immensely compelling listen. This album helped save my life. I hope, at minimum, it can help bring a little peace to yours.