During 2015, we’re going to be looking back on some of the best albums that were released 10 years ago and discussing their legacy. Feel free to share your thoughts and memories in the replies. Enjoy!
Suicide. Regret. Death. Guilt. Grief. Confusion. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? In a year in which so many bands exploded to stardom through pseudo-emo anthems that were as much celebratory and tongue-in-cheek as they were pained or reflective, Armor For Sleep managed to craft one of 2005’s most captivating and thoughtful albums in the form of a suicide note put to tape.
As odd as it seems, What to Do When You Are Dead is a far cry from the cheap attempts to cash in on the strange mid-aughts trends of gloomy style and image that plagued the scene during the decade. Instead, Armor For Sleep’s sophomore record digs deep at concepts of depression and fear without ever feeling forced or fraudulent.
The New Jersey rock act cut their teeth on 2003’s Dream to Make Believe – a rough-around-the-edges debut that showed flashes of what was to come. With What to Do When You Are Dead, Armor For Sleep slammed on the gas, crafting a technically sound, thematically brilliant work that appeared to prime the band for the big time.
Truthfully, you could listen to just the instrumentals of the record and come away feeling impacted – the music moves this album in such a way as to capture every twinge of pain. Nevertheless, Ben Jorgensen’s vocal work became a thing of legend. His hollow, agonized delivery pierces you at every turn, whether angry, sad, defiant or empty.
Jorgensen’s lyrics tell of a young man who takes his own life during the album’s opening song and then follows his journey through the afterlife as he comes to terms with his fate. He reflects on relationships, purpose and loss as he travels through the stages of grief, peering in on loved ones along the way. This is not a glorification of suicide or an exaltation of emo culture – it’s an honest depiction of the resonant pain of depression.
Even as the themes cause you to swallow hard, the band’s delivery of each song finds a painful beauty. Tracks like “Car Underwater” and “The Truth About Heaven” fire away with crunchy guitars and soaring choruses. The screeching guitars on “Remember to Feel Real” battle Jorgensen’s angry defiance of his plight. There’s deep, anguished irony in the opening lines of, “So here’s the truth, you were right all along / They were never my friends and I was living a lie / But I won’t fall for it next time”.
The technical execution and overall production of the record helps it go down easier than you might expect, whether the band is soaring through the chords of “Stay on the Ground” or calming down with the haunting electronics of “A Quick Little Flight”. What to Do When You Are Dead is a rock record through and through, but it’s the quiet moments that pack the most punch. The delicate guitars of “Walking at Night, Alone” give Jorgensen the opportunity to explode with sorrow as he repeats, “Don’t leave me alone!” during the song’s chorus.
As the album swings back and forth on an emotional pendulum, you ache for the character to find relief or release. On the album’s epic closer, Jorgensen sings, “I saw pretty clear that when I left you all stayed the same / Now I think I believe that I was never alive in the first place” before crying out, “Don’t believe that the weather is perfect the day that you die” repeatedly as the album closes.
Whether you want process the work as an anti-suicidal statement or simply a story with a grounded understanding of what it’s like to battle such thoughts, it’s hard to ignore the poignancy. As much as What to Do When You Are Dead is a great album, and it certainly is, it’s also a sobering reminder of the personal internal war that so many face.
With such a rapid growth and maturity from their debut, Armor for Sleep exploded from an indie-emo afterthought to a highly sought after act. The band signed with Sire Records to release their major-label debut, Smile For Them, in 2007 before what appeared to be a scene fairytale-come-true screeched to an abrupt halt.
The band’s breakthrough resulted in an uneven album that lacked the conviction and direction of their prior releases, leaving the band’s fans confused and new listeners uninterested. The band released one final EP in 2008 before dissolving.
In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine the band’s unique and dark approach carrying over to a major label audience. What to Do When You Are Dead was never crafted for rock radio, no matter how pleasing the music sounded. While the mid-2000s scene explosion resulted in a handful of bands crossing over to acclaim, it left far more casualties than we’d likely care to admit. Armor For Sleep may be the most frustrating and painful among them.
It’s impossible to say whether avoiding the major label circus would have held the band together and given them the freedom to pursue their unique brand of dream-like, thoughtful rock, but it seems possible, if not likely. Regardless, What to Do When You Are Dead teaches us that pain demands to be felt, not repressed. What an appropriate way to remember a band that left us far too soon.
by Kiel Hauck
Kiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.
Those first two tracks make the entire album. Another good one that’s a decade old. Where has the time gone?