I’m not sure I have ever needed an album more than I needed War Paint.
Sometimes, as a music fan, you lean on the records you love to help get you through things: breakups; losing loved ones; navigating huge tectonic shifts in your life; global pandemics. As someone whose love for music springs from an extremely emotional place, I have leaned on a lot of different albums over the years, for a lot of different reasons.
But even in that context, War Paint, the sophomore LP from Baltimore-based rock band The Dangerous Summer, was an album I needed. I needed it so badly that I listened to it more times in July and August 2011 than I have ever listened to any other album in a two-month span. It was the rhythm of my days and nights; the heartbeat of my dreams; the soundtrack of my summer. To this day, I can’t think of a single thing that happened that season without also remembering the songs on War Paint. For me, that time in my life and this album will always be inextricably intertwined, as if they were hardwired together.
Two years ago, I wrote about The Dangerous Summer’s debut album, 2009’s Reach for the Sun, and how that record caught me on the brink of adulthood. Reach came out mere weeks before I graduated high school, as I was beginning to wrap my mind around what it would mean to say goodbye to friends and places that had been a part of me for years. It’s an album that, for me, still radiates two seemingly contradictory emotions at once: the visceral, thrilling anticipation of staring down the unknown and being excited to chase after it; and the debilitating terror of looking at that same unknown and wondering whether you’re really ready for it yet.
It turned out I was ready, but not in the way I thought. My early college years gave me a lot of gifts, chief among them a relationship with the girl I would end up marrying. But they also challenged a lot of the things I thought were givens in my life, particularly my dreams. A choir kid for years, I went into college as a music performance major, with aspirations of performing on big stages, touring the world, and getting paid to do it. I know people who got that dream, but I wasn’t destined to be one of them. By the end of my second year of college, the writing was on the wall that I was in the wrong major, aspiring for a career path that would never be. To tell the truth, I felt like I was at the wrong college, too. I hated my classes, hated my job as an RA, hated so many parts of my day-to-day routine. I remember spending weekends with my girlfriend, 100 miles away, and then driving back to school on Sunday evenings and dreading Monday. Four days a week, I was miserable.
For my entire life, I’ve viewed summer as this kind of utopian oasis: a time where the music sounds better, the world tastes sweeter, and the responsibilities weigh less (if they exist at all). Every spring as far back as I can remember, I would start to bristle at the constraints and limitations of school, like I was outgrowing the grade I was in and wanted—no, needed—a fresh start. Summer was always the rebirth, the reset, the rejuvenation. I have never needed a summer reset like I did in 2011. I remember that April, counting down the days to the end of the month when spring semester would end and I’d be able to get in the car and get the hell out of town. When that day finally came, a part of me felt like I’d never come back.
One of the things that makes a summer a summer is the perfect brand-new soundtrack. Because how can you have a rebirth if you’re listening to the same old songs? Summer 2011 brought an embarrassment of riches, music-wise, but War Paint was the record that I knew from the outset was going to have my heart. I remember coming home every night that spring, late into the evening, and sitting down with my laptop for a half hour or so before turning in for the night, just to see what music had leaked that day. One of those nights, the leak was a Dangerous Summer demo labeled “Dark Chocolate.” All thoughts of sleep forgotten, I quickly downloaded the song and listened to it half a dozen times. “Tell them all that I’m a work in progress/Pour it out and I will stay out of the way/Feel it out for what it’s worth I’m harmless/Cut me down and I will leave with what I take.” Hearing AJ Perdomo sing those words, at a time in my life where I felt like being a “work in progress” was an embarrassment, a failure, a mark that I’d done something wrong, was akin to feeling a weight lift off my shoulders and breathing the longest, loudest sigh of relief imaginable. I was 20 years old, and there was still time left to figure things out. It seems obvious in retrospect, but it was a revelation at the time.
My journey with War Paint would ultimately come to be that lesson in a macrocosm. When the full album finally hit the internet in early July, I was as primed for it as I’ve ever been for any album. The idea of hearing new Dangerous Summer songs had been a thrilling proposition ever since Reach for the Sun had captured my imagination in 2009, and I already knew from “Dark Chocolate” (titled the more obvious “Work in Progress” in the final tracklist) that this album was going to be a hammer for me emotionally.
“I was starting to shake/From the days I’ve been up/There’s a lot on my plate/And the ones I loved stopped answering/They left me to find myself/In my own hate.” Those words open “War Paint” and kick-start the album that shares its name. Hearing them for the first time knocked me on my ass. They seemed to speak to everything I was feeling at the time: frustration; despair; a crisis of self-worth; the melancholy of losing touch with old friends, and maybe losing myself a bit in the process. Seemingly every song on War Paint had a similar moment: a verse or a chorus or even just a single line that made my heart skip a beat because it felt like AJ Perdomo had somehow broken into my consciousness and put every little doubt or insecurity or worry or hope I had into one of his songs. “Every lonely heart can use an honest song/They can sing along to”; “You’re the song I wrote that I’ll always love, and I will always know”; “When you hardly have a heart/But you need it just to break”; “I’m tired of always being second best/Since everything this year has been a mess”; “Some spaces were made to be outgrown.” These lyrics and others felt like little radio transmissions shot out into the ether just for me, telling me I would sort things out and find my way again.
I listened to War Paint upwards of 200 times that summer. Even amidst a treasure trove of other albums I loved and continue to love today—albums from the likes of Bon Iver, Matt Nathanson, Dawes, Mat Kearney, The Swellers, The Wonder Years, The Damnwells, and so many more—War Paint was somehow just about the only thing I wanted to listen to most days. It was, particularly, a sterling driving soundtrack: propulsive and catchy enough for sunny, windows-down drives along the water; but reflective and emotional enough for introspective drives way after dark. It’s an album where peerless summer anthems (“No One’s Gonna Need You More,” “Waves”) comingle seamlessly with songs that sound a million times better on a headlights drive home (“I Should Leave Right Now,” “In My Room”). It was the kind of record I could put on at any time, for any reason, to soundtrack any moment, and it would be the right fit. For two months, it was my musical form of oxygen.
It was the last time an album meant quite that much to me. When you’re young, you connect with music in a deeply primal way that you can’t necessarily recreate into adulthood. There are plenty of albums I’ve loved since War Paint, but nothing that hit quite the same mark: like it was tying me together and giving me a reason to look forward, all in one. It was also one of the first records that inspired me to actually put pen to paper and write how I felt about it. That summer, as it became clear that I was going to need a plan B for a college major and career path, my girlfriend (now wife) said I should take my passion for music and harness it into a blog. I’d always loved writing for myself, but I’d never shared my writing outside of school assignments and the odd Facebook or Myspace blog. Writing about music that summer—War Paint in particular—not only reminded me why I fell in love with music in the first place, but also connected me with another piece of myself I never knew was there. Going into that season, I had never thought of myself as a writer. Soon, it would be hard for me to think of myself as anything else.
Today, when I put on War Paint, I feel a nostalgic pang deep in my chest, a yearning for the innocence that this record captured so firmly within its grasp. It’s not that I want to go back to that period of my life: to the upheaval and uncertainty that defined that summer. Rather, it’s that War Paint is one of those albums I wish I could hear for the first time again. The tidal-wave rush of “No One’s Gonna Need You More”; the aching regret of “Siren”; the way the bridge of “Miscommunication” seems to convey every single relationship you ever had that fell apart under the weight of it all. Looking back, War Paint seems like a waystation of sorts—between where I’d been and where I was going. When I hear AJ Perdomo sing the first words on the epic closer, “Waves”—“Take my time and move on from all of this/It’s all about the rolling wave”—I’m transported right back to the last night of that summer, wondering where the hell the ensuing weeks and months would take me. Back then, I was scared that I’d end up shipwrecked somewhere, the promise of my youth left a threadbare ruin like a sail on a neglected boat. And yet, with that fear in my head and my heart, I still embarked on the journey anyway. I went back to school; I gave music one more try; I found my way toward an alternate career path that has made the past 10 years of my life rewarding in ways that I never would have imagined when I was in high school. I’m not sure I would have had the bravery or the resolve to pick myself up, dust myself off, and try again if it hadn’t been for this album. But War Paint is a record about bruised hearts and battle scars, about protagonists that have been beaten down but not beaten. It’s about being a work in progress and realizing there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s about fighting to find a place for yourself in this world, and for the people you love. And it just so happened that, when I needed to hear those messages to move on to the next chapter of my life, these songs were right there on the stereo to give them to me.
Lonely heart, meet honest song.