When singer Stephen Christian calls The Aquarian from the road, he’s in both an upbeat and contemplative mood, which is appropriate given the thematic landscape that his group Anberlin have carved out on their fifth album, the superlative Dark Is The Way, Light Is A Place. It is a record drenched in passion, from the radiant anthems “You Belong To Me” and “Impossible” to the percolating “The Art Of War,” to the seething closing track “Depraved.” The album traverses wide emotional terrain and delves deep into personal emotions and intimate moments.
The gorgeous sounding music is balanced by the reflective lyrics accompanied by it. The album title comes from a poem by 20th century Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who wrestled with life, the existence of God and the afterlife. The contradictions inherent in his poetry echoed what Christian felt he was writing about on this album, especially the idea that one has to keep up the “eternal and internal struggle” of who one is, how they fit into the world and whether they are in control over their own destiny.
On the whole, Dark Is The Way is a propulsive rock record, ripe with ’80s influences ranging from The Smiths to U2, even a touch of metal, all mashed up into their own distinct sound. One could easily call them “retro modern,” a tag that Christian approves of. “There’s a different feeling about that [era] than any other time frame in musical history,” he says.
Make no mistake, Anberlin are not living in the past. Christian feels that the group’s latest CD is “an absolute progression in songwriting, and I think the most notable [aspect] would be production,” which he credits to their new producer, Brendan O’Brien, who has worked with Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. “It felt like this different level of pushing… and striving to make the absolute best record we could. Not only to maintain the musical integrity but, to make the music the best it could possibly be, and I think Brendan O’Brien challenged us in that. I think this record shows a massive amount of growth from the early records.”
One line that stands out on the album hails from the song “You Belong To Me”: “A heart not worth breaking isn’t worth much at all.” When asked about the inspiration for that lyric, Christian responds, “I think with most humans right now, there are probably four or five people that in your lifetime you will truly allow yourself to love. If you’re not willing to give all of that over 100 percent… to that person, I don’t feel that you’ve truly loved. If you hold some of that back and don’t give all of yourself, did you ever truly love? If that person is not worth trusting enough to say, ‘You know, you may break my heart someday, you may walk away, this may end, I’m giving all of me—all of this love, I’m giving everything I have,’ that is not worth it. It was never truly love, if you’re not willing to give it over in spite of the other person maybe breaking your heart.”
Throughout the album, the theme of trust rears its head. Until this comes up in the conversation, Christian admits that he had not considered it. But when one listens to tracks like “To The Wolves” and “The Art Of War,” it becomes apparent. The latter track was inspired by the work of ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu, the military strategist who wrote about war and getting into the psyche of his enemy. The song derives its title from the author’s most famous work and Christian connected the philosophies he read about with how he sees people handling modern day relationships.
“I feel like, a lot of times, people get to the point where they read books on how to win over the opposite sex or gain what they want, or these self-help books that almost strategize about love, how to get it and how to receive it,” explains Christian. “I feel that when you start to strategize love it defeats the whole point of it. It’s not like this strategy game. It’s just love, and I think that people try to overcomplicate it. When it becomes this theory or strategy or strategic opportunity it becomes fake, it’s gross and you’ve taken everything that makes love love and made it almost maniacal.”
But it doesn’t end there. Anberlin’s frontman also tackles that beast which is fame. “To The Wolves” addresses friendships in his life that have gone awry. His “inner” sanctum” of friends has become very precious to Christian, and he admits that it is harder to trust people the bigger that his band gets. He does not say this in an arrogant way; it’s just the reality facing anyone who becomes a public figure.
“It’s hard for me to let people in it, especially at this stage in my life because it’s like, ‘Are you here because of what I do for a living? Are you here because of my career, or are you here because you actually like people and actually want to be my friend?’ That’s hard. So when you let those people into your inner sanctum and you find out their true motives, it’s a crushing blow because you to take one step back again from people, and you’re even more selective and more nervous and scared to let the next person in.”
Don’t think that Christian is down on humanity, though. He maintains that he loves what he does for a living and the people he gets to do it with. He is very active in humanitarian causes, specifically Faceless International, a non-profit group he co-founded that is dedicated to ending human trafficking and sexual slavery worldwide. And while Anberlin is Christian’s main focus, he would love to spend more time balancing music and advocacy. “I would love to do six months on the road and six months working for Faceless, but the problem is that doesn’t pay the bills,” he admits. “It doesn’t keep the band afloat if we take that much time off. I would love to dedicate more time, but at this stage in my life we don’t have that much luxury of doing our own projects on the side for half the year. That sounds like a great goal that I would love to achieve someday.”
Right now, like everyone else, Anberlin is coping with the economic downturn that has hit the music industry like a slap in the face, and they have not been immune to its sting. “It’s tough, I’m not going to lie,” confesses Christian. “Our A&R guy said if we had a number one hit on the radio 10 years ago we’d all be millionaires. No joke, when I was home on this long break and we were recording the record, I actually went on Craigslist and found a job, a day labor job. Not that I had to do that to eat—I’m not starving by any means—but if I wanted to make money… that’s crazy, that’s insane. It’s tough, but you adapt. And it’s all we know. It’s not like we were millionaires 10 years ago, and now we’re suffering. Five years ago we were sleeping in a van because we couldn’t afford a hotel, so the fact that I’m on a bus right now, it’s all up from there.”
By the same token, Christian says he can’t complain. Despite all the ‘what ifs’ floating about what things were, or might have been like, he maintains a positive perspective on his life. “We just happened to catch the pendulum [swing] at the wrong time, but I don’t know what the other side feels like so I’m not looking at it in anger. I’m taking every day for what it is and realizing that I have a great opportunity to travel around the world with my best friends and create art. There are tons of bands even in the ’90s that never even got to five records. The fact that we’ve gotten to do five records is a massive achievement for me. I don’t take a day for granted and look at everything and really appreciate it for where I am now.”
Anberlin will be performing at Irving Plaza on October 30 and their new record, Dark Is The Way, Light Is A Place, is available now via Universal Republic Records.