Some musicians tender their listeners, and sometimes, their music enrages them. Some have mastered the art of carefully placing a note after another, such that it orchestrates the body towards the destinations out of the singer's grasp, wilding beyond their imagination. In today's pop music, Noah Kahan fashions out his own world, carving the listener towards storytelling, placing them beneath the hot weather of his lyrics while ringing to them the range of his musical dexterities.
As an African immigrant in the US studying at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, I would normally listen to Apala and Fuji to feel close to home—I would lean towards long songs in which the musicians sing bullets of proverbs and panegyrics in Yoruba. I would think that in moments of solitude, I would find solace in the solemn folktales of the frontiers of African music or the bop of Afrobeats' freshness. Until Noah Kahan and the playlist of indie folk-infused pop artists filled me with a new light, the possibilities of an association with the stories American artists are telling and how I identify or recognize myself in their narratives.
But Noah Kahan has mastered the art of wreckage.
The first time I listened to him, I was sitting in my tiny room at Latitude Apartment Complex in Coralville. It was snowing outside, and the cold reached through the glass window. A bokeh of light flushed my room in small intensities. The fire burning atop my scent candles dances in the small glass to the hot air blowing from the central cooling system. I was sweeping my eyes through a collection of poems Anyway came on. I remembered the way I turned my head to the television, to this striking wonder dipped in that arpeggio, that entrance to something hunting, the appetite of hunger slumping in the voice. That vulnerability in his tale. From then on, I wanted to listen to everything he had to say with rapt attention. I wanted to sit by his music the way I would by my grandfather if he was alive.
I think I am often struck by the vulnerability—an artist placing themselves on a slab as a sacrifice, a knife drilling through them. It was the time my partner and I were going through a breakup and the season when I was back to bupropion because anxiety was eating me up. Noah's voice offered me a kind of stillness that night because I was wondering about the gravity of grief, the digit of brokenness he may have bodied to have sharpened that voice into what it is. I began to dig up the grave of his discography, spending the entire night listening to Save me, Howling, and other pieces from his past project.
In speaking about Stick Season: the album, one would think about how Noah's art inhabits the meaning of place or home or memory. What we are able to hold dearly as the season passes, who we spent the seasons with, how people are also destinations, as well as seasons, and of course, a distant time already in oblivion. Stick Season, for me, invoked more memory about my home than it did of the realities in the context of Noah's art. And if we wildly think about the metaphors of Noah's name and its biblical essence, we would consider naming him as the collector of existence, his album, Stick Season, an ark in which each of these songs stands as its own kind of beast. Stick Season is preservation for rainy days or days flourishing in the ambiance of snow. It's the album we turn to when desolation follows what is perceived holy at the moment where the body is enveloped by nostalgia—the smoke wheezing from the teapot of years lived in places, the fellowship with silence after.
As he did in Cape Elizabeth, where he paid homage to Maine with guitar strings and acoustic grief, he ushers us through a galley of people and faces, fishermen and life in the countryside. He taunts in, with scattered riffs and the fingers of someone who had had two edibles, towards the sound that would resemble what was played at the Red Wedding in The Rains of Castermere in Season 3, Episode 9 of The Game of Thrones. We would later learn that Northern Attitude was not supposed to be on the album, and I would question the entire album on what belonged where. In thinking about migration, one would intend to leave to become part of a place; one would be ushered out of the home to be found wanting at home. But in the logic of the song itself, Noah sings about loneliness and isolation, correcting the notion of displacement and replacement with the tune of his strings.
Noah singing about Vermont, which has the second smallest population in the United States, and as a result, one of the loneliest places to live in the United States, reminds me of my own state. How I am placed in this album. I am living in Iowa as a black student. For context, Iowa is predominantly white. Fifteen months and several cultural shocks later, I am sitting in my friend's working room, before the flowers his person-friend gave him for his seasonal depression, wondering what indeed is the meaning of life. In Ibadan, the largest city in West Africa. I have a life that is full of people who care about me. Although I had already been diagnosed with depression in Nigeria, I still had people who attempted to cheer me up. Maybe there is something about America that wilts the flower blooming inside us, and maybe there is drought lapping the sea of joy inside us.
I arrive in Iowa City from Atlanta to the dried leaves by my door. And the empty space my stolen parcel used to sit. Through the window, I watch the leaves fall off the trees outside. They rustled in the wind—golden brown, brownish green—as if quickening towards an emergency. In Stick Season, I would follow the miles, the long field of maize, the empty farmhouse standing alone in its solitude, almost fallen against itself. I would think of the people who were once people in my life, who are now at the other end of distance, who are now memories. People I now write in essays as folks who were more than music to me. Noah, in his panegyrics for home, remembers "a sad house on Balch street" in Come Over—but what the song does is invoke the anger of absence. Reminds me there are faces I would rather be leaning into in my vulnerable moments, in this season of depression, when the body is wilting when the weather gets bad in my mouth.
Although I told my family doctor that I felt numb, I have been hiding my state from my partner for a few months. In Growing Sideways, Noah says so I took my medication and I pulled my trauma out—a grand entrance that mirrors my current state. The other day, I dreamed that I was walking through 6th street, the dark pedestrian that led to the racks by the Coralville lake. Then I saw myself weeping under a floodlight. When I woke up, I said a small prayer, but it was never about prayers or dreams. It's that I have denied for too long that there are need to return to my prescriptions. I am further reminded of this by the unending motion in Noah's Everything, Everywhere—what is adjudged by the body but kept a secret, what is deteriorating, the sight of a certain ending. When he said we didn't know that the sun was collapsing, I thought of the ambiance of light in my lover's smile and the darkness she is in about my mental health, about the numbness that has enveloped me.
And if all my life was wasted
I don't mind, I'll watch it go
Yeah, it's better to die numb
than feel it all
In Stick Season, Noah offers you a companion. Although the glistering danger of silence is that the story will suffer, the music I encountered in Noah's album offers a voice for me. The album tells you to imagine how dearly he has poured blessing upon it to flourish as an art—an album. This is what I'm saying about Noah Kahan's music: the cadence, the tender rippling out of memory. The silent eruption. The memory of hurt slowing towards anger, then the peace that comes within the songs. The voice cocooning you. The god sitting by you in your grief.
The last time I was in my hometown, Ijebu Igbo, we were burying my grandmother. She had died of a stroke the year before the funeral. The family had to wait for my father to arrive from the UK before the final burial rites could be done. I remember that we drove through the hills in Igbaire, the small pharmacy where I ran to when my sister was convulsing in 2002, through the large garage that now has an uncompleted overhead bridge, through dust and memory of children with kwashiorkor bellies standing outside the mosque on Haruna Ishola way. In the view between villages is one that offers this kind of familiar unpacking—holding things that had been lost in incandescent light, driving through the valley of bones of loss, and the people who once were. If I go to Ijebu Igbo someday, I, too, like Noah, at the discovery of beauty and blur, would say I'm back between villages, and everything's still.
Noah's Stick Season is a terminal album; it grows, offering the listener a magnifying glass turned inside him. I think of the many ways the stick season reminds me of dryness, loss, home, and displacement. I think of water and memories at the beach, of lovers and the one who holds my heart.