While Cities is widely regarded as Anberlin’s best album, the argument can be made that it never fully received its due. However, it’s quite possible that both the band and its fans would have suffered if it had.
Leading up to 2007, the Florida rock act had quickly ascended the ranks, becoming one of the most revered bands in the scene. Anberlin spent their first two albums, Blueprints for the Black Market and Never Take Friendship Personal, honing their sound and bridging the gap between the popular emo leanings of the time and full-on alt-rock. By the time Cities dropped, it was clear that Anberlin had carved their own niche.
Cities can’t quite be classified as a concept album, but is certainly far more than a collection of songs. The album’s tracks are intertwined by themes of pain and frustration – an acknowledgement of the depravity that affects every community and relationship. Yet amidst the brokenness lies a will to continue the search for hope.
Not only was Cities a deep thematic success, the album showcased a band that had refined its sound to perfection. Underneath the album’s crisp production lied evidence that Anberlin had become a new leader in the genre, no longer following in the footsteps of others. Even 10 years later, Cities sounds unique for its time. If it were released today, it would still sound just as fresh and compelling.
However, just a few short months after its release, and before fans could fully digest the record, the band announced some shocking news. Having completed their contract with indie label Tooth and Nail Records, the band had been courted and signed by Universal Republic and would return to the studio to begin crafting their major label debut.
Although both the promotional and touring cycles for Cities were cut short, fan excitement for the band heightened. Soon, rumors spread that Universal Republic might re-release Cities to a wider audience or that the band might even re-record the album with new guitarist Christian McAlhaney now in their ranks. The events that followed are almost stranger than fiction, but somehow elevated the band to heights that no one expected.
There would be no major label lionizing of Cities. Instead, Anberlin released “Feel Good Drag” in the summer of 2008 as the lead single for New Surrender. The re-recorded song from 2005’s Never Take Friendship Personal left fans befuddled, as did the rushed writing and recording of the new album itself. Before Cities had even cooled off, the album had seemingly been replaced with what many perceived to be an inferior product.
However, “Feel Good Drag” became an unlikely breakthrough hit. During its 29-week climb to the top of Billboard’s Modern Rock Chart, the track became a record-breaker, spending more time on the chart en route to #1 than any other single in history. Suddenly a staple on rock radio and MTV, the band were booking large headlining tours, playing bigger venues, and attracting a massive new audience.
From a fan perspective, New Surrender received flack upon its release for feeling cluttered and uneven. While certainly not without its standout tracks, the album seemed to lack sonic direction, but also suffered from being quickly released on the heels of the band’s masterpiece.
In hindsight, there’s no denying that Anberlin’s major label signing and the sudden unexpected success of “Feel Good Drag” overshadowed what the band had accomplished with Cities, but it also changed the lives and careers of the band’s members. Without those events, would the band have been able to experiment to such critical success with 2010’s Dark is the Way, Light is a Place, return to their aggressive roots with 2012’s highly lauded Vital, or been able to exit on their own terms with 2014’s Lowborn?
Without the perceived slight that Cities received in 2007, the conversation surrounding one of the scene’s most successful and respected bands might be much different. Now, a decade later, we can talk about the album with full knowledge that Anberlin achieved a great deal over the course of their 16 year run, and that later albums like Dark is the Way and Vital even rival what the band accomplished with Cities.
Over the course of seven solid studio albums, it is my opinion that Cities is Anberlin’s most cohesive, focused and exemplary release. It features the band’s best song (“Dismantle. Repair.”), the most powerful album closer I’ve ever heard (“*Fin”), and best represents the band’s sound and purpose. However, if the short cycle of Cities meant the extended career and expanded audience of one of my favorite bands, who am I to complain?
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.