Balance and Composure’s ‘Separation’ at 10: an unrelenting debut that defies time
There’s a time and place for every scene and genre, but especially for emo. When it comes to Balance And Composure, I was late. Andrew recently reminisced about their golden era — ten years ago, when Separation, which some consider their magnum opus, came out on No Sleep Records. It was their debut, but they were in an emo hotspot in Pennsylvania alongside Tigers Jaw (who they released a split with a year earlier), Title Fight, and The Menzingers. If you want to get even more specific, they’re from the same town — Doylestown — as the ever-elusive, cult-followed Superheaven. I’m sure everyone was well-acquainted with them there before this first record. It was unveiled amongst a flood of other similar records: Title Fight’s Shed, La Dispute’s Wildlife, Touche Amore’s Parting the Sea Between Brightness and Me. The experience of Separation was not singular in any way; it was riding the collective wave of post-hardcore songs reflecting on how much life sucks, essentially.
Anyway, I was not there for that era. I was 10 and listening to Taylor Swift on Long Island or something. It would take my depression and anxiety to settle in a couple of years later until I turned to emo for solace. I started first with mainstream pop punk bands I won’t name, and then ended up obsessing over Joyce Manor and La Dispute. The first song I heard by Balance And Composure was the last on Separation, “Defeat The Low,” probably in the mid-2010s. I don’t know why it was that song I found first; it’s what someone would call a deep cut. I wasn’t ready for the constant yelling and absolutely relentless anger of their hit “I Tore You Apart In My Head” — it was too much for me. “Defeat The Low” is tame, Jon Simmons’ vocals struck me as distinct and calming, and I adored the way the song turns into a kind of chant only about 30 seconds in.
I didn’t do too much digging into them after that. Then they announced a show at a local venue called Revolution Bar. It was on 4/20, and as someone who didn’t smoke weed, I thought it would be a fun way to spend the holiday. I dragged a friend from high school who knew nothing about emo. The show was for Light We Made, the album where they strayed from emo and played with dream pop and autotune, and it was basically the preface of their breakup. Throughout the night, the band drifted in and out of violent, post-hardcore anthems that provoked everyone to mosh, and slow, atmospheric songs that felt like dreams. I was converted on that random school night in 2017 and never shut up about them after that.
Once I saw everyone’s live, visceral reaction to “I Tore You Apart In My Head,” I understood the purpose of aggressive music. It was powerful. I can see why the early 2010s were special for that band and all of the bands surrounding them; they must’ve been playing tons of shows, and that’s just a constant reminder of the vitality of songs that you can mosh, crowdsurf, and stagedive to. And as soon as you experience that, the listening experience is different. After that show, I’d put on the record and hear “Void,” the opener that begins with isolated vocals and has a subtle build up until it crashes into a crazy, introspective instrumental. I’d close my eyes and remember everyone yelling along to Simmons’ words, where there’s only one small riff quietly playing in the background but the voices overtook all of the space. Then, of course, bodies flung around right when the drums hit and the instruments all came in. I associated that moment with The Push — when the fans, at the exact second, catapulted themselves forward and either you were prepared or you weren’t. The lyrics, probably about an ex-girlfriend or something, were more transformed into a call to action: “Let it all out/ Let it all out and show/ All said and all done.”
These intense moments are scattered throughout Separation. That’s what people look to Balance And Composure for: catharsis. The emotions are so dramatic that they feel physically tangible. It’s hard to exactly say what it is about its sound that’s evocative; it just feels right, especially when you’re a sad teenager. The album art of a painted woman in a dress with a sun for a head has become a symbol — a symbol that stands for unrestrained feeling. That’s why this record, and a lot of emo classics, are timeless; as the world continues, there will always be hormonal teenagers. They will, with each generation, stumble upon Separation. It will never fail to resonate as long as angst lives on.
In the Pitchfork review of the following record The Things We Think We’re Missing, Ian Cohen described their lyrics as “sensitive dude poetry.” I thought that was rude and untrue when I was 17, but it’s accurate — they’re extraordinarily depressing. Besides, no one really listens to Balance And Composure exclusively for the lyrics; the sound is what pulls a listener in, just absolutely dynamic and immersive. This is an album for escapism (no Seahaven pun intended). “Progress, Progress” is a door into a fantasy world: “Let’s jump out a window/ Maybe we could fly/ Yeah, we talked a lot about it/ But never tried.” A couple of tracks later is a more intimate song, “Echo,” on which Simmons sings: “It’s nice to have hope/ Even when you can’t believe/ The world that I know never had a care for me.” Separation seems to be an oasis from that dark world; it’s where you run when you feel like the world hates you. It’s an album to listen to with headphones at full volume with your eyes closed, or blasting on your car stereo on the highway, or, more preferably, at a live show while losing your mind with everyone else who feels the same way.
It’s hard to pick apart Separation and discuss each song individually. It’s truly a listen-through record where all of the tracks bleed into each other. Another memory I have is crying to “Stonehands” at one of their final shows — I’d gone to the ones in Brooklyn, Boston, and Philly, trying to cling onto them before they left. The song has the texture of a closer, but it’s only the fourth track. Simmons, again, starts the song with isolated vocals: “Don’t say goodbye to me too fast/ Even though I’m fast asleep/ Try your best to hold on to the past/ Wasted it on all me.” It’s another build-up, though less intense, leading to the vulnerable bridge: “I know you got hands of stone/ And I know you got hands of stone/ Crush everything I’ve ever known.” It’s about anticipating inevitable destruction, a topic the band usually reckons with. Their hit “Tiny Raindrop” has the same idea: “The line ‘I’ll be your tiny raindrop’ is me giving a warning that while everything is great at first, I will be the first to ruin things,” Simmons explained when it came out.
Balance And Composure’s music embodies what it means to feel like a fuck up. One of the most memorable moments on the record is the ending chant in “Galena”: “I don’t belong here/No, I don’t belong here.” Even if 2011 was ten years ago, that feeling of being an outsider constantly tempted towards self-destruction never really goes away completely. I return to Balance And Composure — and La Dispute and Title Fight and all of those other bands — very often, because it’s comforting to let the angst back in. It’s indulgent, but it’s necessary sometimes. I still know every word; I can still drum every rhythm with my fingers. The last words of the record, “Defeat the low/ Defeat the low,” are a mantra that transcends any era; it defies time completely, a reminder that, yeah, we’re fuck ups, but we’ve made it this far and can keep going.