Do you remember your first kiss?
A few weeks ago my mom stopped by for dinner and brought with her a shoebox she had found in the basement. The box, now flimsy and tattered, contained love letters and notes from elementary school up through college. I laughed when she gave them to me. Over the years she’s dropped off countless things from my childhood whenever she decides it is time to redistribute the stuff neither of us knows what to do with any longer. When she left, I almost just tossed them aside. However, on top of the pile, I caught a glimpse of something that caused sensory memories to start flooding back. I took a sip of beer, mumbled “fuck it” under my breath, and pulled a few folded pieces of paper from the box.
I recognized handwriting. I recalled the way specific notes were folded. Ink colors. Inside jokes. Faded pencil sketches of pen-names and scribbled between class “I love you’s.” I started to feel long-buried memories of when these little pieces of paper, pre-cell phone and instant messaging, meant everything to me. When each letter represented possibilities and of being so in love that these possibilities, these fleeting ideas of a future, all felt inevitable. And each, now, clearly also representing a moment of heartbreak; of unfulfilled youthful promises.
Do you remember your first kiss?
Do you remember the way the car tires sounded when you pulled into the driveway to drop her off? Do you remember going back years later and driving by his house? Just trying to feel, something. The turns and directions from your high-school to the front door came back almost too quickly. Imprinted on your muscles in ways not even time can erase. Do you remember feeling the knot in your chest when you first said I love you? And laying in bed alone with your heart ripped out and never thinking you’d recover? Do you ever stop to think about what’s between the missing and loving — knowing now it was never to be and can’t ever be again?
Do you still feel the hair on your arm raise when you catch a smell, hear a particular record, or read their name?
That feeling of wistful remembrance, of looking back at what was once great and once equally as painful is the feeling the debut album from The Night Game captures in eleven songs. It’s goddamn exhilarating.
The Night Game is the brainchild of lead singer Martin Johnson. Martin, best known as the frontman for Boys Like Girls, has always had a knack for a hook and catchy melody. While Boys Like Girls got pulled into the Fall Out Boy/Panic! at the Disco wave of pop-punk, Martin’s ear for melody always seemed slightly more heightened than his peers. Moreover, while this album has ties to the more pop side of his former band, it stands as a new entity altogether. Martin’s created a group and a record that alludes to his past work — in lyrical themes and even some melodies — but also stands alone in a distinct way. It doesn’t feel like a solo album as much as it feels like a reimagining. His vocals are undeniable, but the way he plays with pacing and almost speaks some of the words help to differentiate between this project and the still poorly named former band.
At first, I wanted to call this music “nostalgia rock.” Not nostalgia in that it sounds like something from the past, although it wears those influences on the sleeve, more-so in what the songs are about. It’s about going home, seeing the town you grew up in, thinking about the times spent there, the friends, the girls, the boys, the love and the heartbreak. It’s about wondering where your youth went, where your friends are now, and what could have been. It’s flipping through the pages of a yearbook with a beer. Thinking about the people you used to know, the people you forgot, and getting lost in that moment. It’s thinking about the conversations you had with a summer romance, stealing moments away from the heat and dreaming about the future. You wonder where they are now. Did he get everything he wanted? Does she ever look through her yearbook and think the same things?
This album excels at creating a mood. It reflects this universal feeling back into your ears, and by surrounding it in melody, you get the essence of what good pop music always strives to be. You think about the person you were, the person you wanted to be, and you measure those summers of possibility up against the person you became. An album like this unlocks the part of you that wants to believe your best moments aren’t behind you; one that ties a nostalgia for youth around your battle-worn heart. It’s a fine line to walk, and it takes a songwriting daftness that borders right on the edge of cheesy to pull it off. We know it’s silly. That’s why we love it.
We open with “The Outfield” and are met with synth, glossy vocals, and a soaring chorus. It’s the kind of pop song that feels equally capable of being played with friends on an open road and experienced alone on a warm night. The album finds a way to blend pop, rock, and even a little hint of Nashville. It flows together perfectly to set the hook, then set the mood, and then expand its theme. By the time it is over you’re thinking about the nights with friends sitting on the tops of cars with a song just like this playing over the speakers. You’re thinking about what you wish you could have told your stupid younger self. As this album progresses, you’ll have sung along to the obvious pop hits, like “Bad Girls Don’t Cry,” and stadium built “American Nights,” and you’ll have found yourself wishing the album ended with “Coffee and Cigarettes” instead of “Back in the Van.” However, besides that small misstep, odds are you’ll be grabbing another drink, hitting play again, and re-opening this mythical musical memory-book.
Through 45 minutes this album puts a modern spin on a pop-sound that’s proven timeless. From the soft instrumental interlude of “Sunset on the Beltway” to the call and return pop-magic of “Do You Think About Us.” The programmed drums and electronic elements found in some of the songs provide a nice mix between 1983 and 2018. Often the vocals and melody are the focus and only a few times do these electronic flourishes seem to overpower the songs. Most of the time the instruments or vocal effects provide a modern dichotomy to the more classic songwriting style.
The feeling of the album shines through in moments like, “The Photograph,” where the chorus begins:
Cause it’s gone, in the past,
but we’ll always be together in the photograph.
No, our love didn’t last, but we’ll always be together in the photograph.
No I won’t forget/all the things she said/and the way she looked at me.
And in how the song ends with a refrain of “she’s not the one,” a repeated mantra that’s almost trying to convince the singer to believe it. Or in one of the album’s highlights, “Die a Little,” where you’re pulled through an exceptionally catchy song with:
What killed me yesterday, baby it’s still a part of me.
I had to die a little, to learn to survive a little.
And after all the pain, baby there’s nothing I would change.
I had to die a little, to learn to survive a little.
A song of self-reflection and coming to terms with how the worst we go through can become what makes us stronger. The vocals reach a crescendo as the emotional punch in a song built to get stuck in your head. Then we can look to “Summerland,” where the narrator reminisces about a summer romance and “fire and matches and cigarette lips” while searching for true love in the sand. But, the feeling unlocked with these songs always carries with it that key ingredient of nostalgia … a bittersweetness.
Summer loves always end.
It’s precisely because of this shelf-life, this never fulfilled fantasy, that they sit on our minds for the rest of time. I think that’s the magic in this album. It taps into a universal feeling of what yesterday was, and just as importantly never became, because that lets us lie to ourselves about what could have been. Deep down, we all know that feeling is a mirage. It’s a feeling you can only get because you don’t see the ending. The roads not taken are full of infinite yous doing infinite impossible things. You can find yourself staring at a box full of letters, and each one can represent a different version of who you might have been. That feeling is perhaps personified best in “Coffee and Cigarettes,” where a soft beat and whispered vocals reflect on a love that once said they’d wait forever but are now gone.
Pop music is often dismissed for its saccharine sentimentality or melodramatic portrayals of youth and love. However, when a pop song hits you just right and can pull memories of what it was like to routinely feel those feelings, isn’t that part of why we’re drawn to it? There’s the innocence of a simple song getting stuck in your head and what it was like to put it on repeat. There’s a beautiful release in remembering the look and feel of your teenage bedroom — the CD covers taped to the walls and the pain of adolescence feeling as melodramatic as the music coming over your speakers. When the music can capture a feeling you’ve experienced and send it back to you wrapped in a chorus you can’t get out of your head — that’s when pop music feels transcendent to me. That’s when these silly songs can become so much more. Because I think there’s much good in being reminded of where we started, being forced to reflect on what we once let dominate our thoughts, of where we once dreamed we’d be, and the people we once thought would be there with us. Like reading a love letter full of words you thought were lost to time and then letting yourself, for just a brief beer-painted moment, remember, and I mean, really remember, that first kiss. That first I love you. And seeing how closely all of these feelings, these gloriously brutally perfectly awful feelings, coincide with when you first fell in love with music as well. They were tied together from the start. They still are.