by JEN GIRDISH
"Your Hand in Mine" is a slow burn. A few ascending notes from a shimmering guitar build into a patient, but deliberate, melody. Over 8 minutes and 16 seconds, the song crescendos into fuller, brighter chords, adding more guitars, cymbals and drums. It sounds like the sun coming out on a day when you weren’t sure it was going to.
According to my iTunes playlist, I’ve listened to the song over 170 times, adding up to one thousand, three hundred eighty seven minutes of my life that I’ve devoted to a single instrumental track. That’s nearly 24 hours devoted to a single song by a Texas post-rock band called Explosions in the Sky — more if you could count the unarchived listens on vinyl, CD, or the times that my husband’s computer was closer.
I listened to "Your Hand In Mine" right before I walked down the aisle, while taking long baths, while I write, after I got laid off, walking home from the Metro. I included it on a mix CD for my grandmother's 92nd birthday on a gamble that she’d like it, and we could talk about it like we once talked about the last man she kissed before my grandfather.
I listened to "Your Hand in Mine" on repeat on a plane to Boston a few years ago. Right before takeoff, before I could slide my phone into airplane mode, a friend that I rarely talk to on the phone called to tell me that our mutual friend Alison had fallen waiting for a bus in New Jersey. “She just collapsed, she’s dead.”
I promised to call back when I landed in Boston. The woman sitting next to me handed me an aloe scented tissue, and I closed my eyes. As soon as the seatbelt sign went off, I pressed play and tried to process the words: New Jersey, collapsed, and bus stop.
Alison was 28, and was five weeks away from graduating from Brooklyn Law School. She was coming home from a class project, and “she just collapsed.” She had not been sick. She didn’t have a previous medical condition. Her only known ailments were lactose intolerance and a shellfish allergy. She was in New Jersey, she stopped breathing, and she fell to the ground.
I sat on the plane, with my knees digging into the folding tray, and I hoped that what I had heard was that she had collapsed but was going to be fine. Or, that she has collapsed but only might die. Might is better than nothing. I begged to whatever kept the plane in the air that there was a might.
She wasn’t, of course. She was dead when I got to Boston, just as she had been when my plane took off from the BWI runway.
I listened to the song again alone on the fourth floor of the Boston Hilton, on top of a billowy duvet in room that I didn’t pay for. I was there for a conference with no one to talk to, no one to hold, no one there who would understand how this was the last person anyone expected to die. I listened to the song as I shopped for funeral-appropriate shoes, and wondered why all black shoes that are worth wearing pinch your toes. Then I listened to it again on an 8 a.m. train to Penn Station, as I noticed that the zipper on my indigo wash jeans had broken. I sat down in the window seat, and I wondered what Alison would have done to fix them. I pressed play so I wouldn’t have to keep asking.
Explosions in the Sky will never spawn a thousand think-pieces. They never make the top of the Pazz & Jop Poll, but when they play Coachella their name gets the second or third-biggest font on the poster. They’re solidly midlist. Though I've lost the colonialist appetite to claim a favorite band or a favorite song, "Your Hand in Mine" is always the right song.
It’s incredibly accessible. When we talk about accessibility in music, it’s usually meant as synonym for commercial, fluff, not complex, minor, sentimental. Whatever connotation that word has for you, I mean accessible in the most straightforward way. It’s hard not to like the song. It’s pretty.
I met Alison through a few mutual guy friends who were just as afraid of sentimentality as I had been. Alison and I latched on to each other, and joked about forming an alliance, because we were often the only women at the table. She and I had been the type of women who were used to being friends with guys, and celebrated it as if it set us apart.
We were both only children, and judiciously deployed eye rolls. I had never seen anyone else use humor to diffuse tension so deftly. When we ate brunch, it was often in silence — she did the crossword, and I read a book. We would rage over gchat about the newest proposed anti-abortion bill, and complain about the underlying misogyny in that week’s Times trend piece. We mourned the boys we had crushes on who didn’t like us back, and we distrusted the ones that did. She knit me fingerless gloves, and I bought her a teal, 1970s Olivetti typewriter. I was occasionally her emergency contact. I learned how to use her EpiPen in case she ever came in contact with lobster.
We lived less than a block away from each other on 13th Street in a Washington, DC neighborhood that was a lot like us: full of anxiety of what we were turning into. When I’d walk home at night and see her light on through the balcony window, I’d call her to make sure she didn’t fall asleep on the couch.
“Don’t tell anyone, but I’m watching a special on the myths and truth of Indiana Jones,” she would say. “For the second time.”
And I never told.
Explosions in the Sky’s second album, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, was in the class of albums released right before 9/11 that suffered from unfortunate parallels. Beyond having “die” in the title, and “Greet Death” as the first track. And though the cover is a reference to the Angels of Mons who protected the soldiers during World War I, it does have an angel guiding an airplane. The liner notes have the inscription: “This Plane Will Crash Tomorrow.”
Truth’s follow-up was called The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place, and that’s where Explosions in the Sky broke from the pack of late nineties post-rock and came into their own sound. After The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place, you could hear music that sounded like Explosions in the Sky, and for the first time that didn’t mean warmed over Mogwai or Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
You could say that Alison was my emotional emergency contact. The night I found out that my father died, I called Alison before anyone else.
Instead of listening to music, we sat in a bar that used to be the only bar in the neighborhood, next to the door in case I needed to escape. It was midnight, but she didn’t let on that she cared how late it was.
My father’s death came after a decade of anticipatory grief. His heart valve was calcified and inoperable, he was too stubborn to give up the things that were killing him, and it was always only a matter of time.
Hugging was not Alison’s thing. She bought beer, encouraged me to take small sips, and listened. She let me say ridiculous things like my father is the only man who ever loved me.
After I ran out of things to say, she looked at me and said, “It’s okay if you just need to be sad.” That’s the moment I no longer thought about myself as a girl who was mostly friends with guys.
In its eight-something minutes, "Your Hand in Mine" manages to capture the transformation of grief and hope. It seems to understand that the earth can shatter in good ways and bad ways. Like a good essay, the song allows you to fit your emotions in the space between the guitars and the marching drum patatattat. Is there anything more simultaneously hopeful and aching than the sound of a marching pattern on a snare drum? It literally asks you to put one foot in front of the other.
A month before Alison moved to Brooklyn, I cut the shallow part of my finger — right near the knuckle, down to the bone — on a piece of broken picture glass. It was a cut that could have gone either way. I could have put a bandaid on it, and it would eventually stop bleeding. Or I could have run screaming all the way to the emergency room. I called Alison, and she was in my bathroom in five minutes.
She came with bandaids and gauze, simultaneously Googling “knife wound” and rolling her eyes at me. She helped me clean up the wound, and she asked if it was okay for her to go ahead and put the bandaid on.
“I might need a mantra,” I said as I looked at the thin, flap of flesh that was barely hanging on to the rest of the finger. “I seem to have forgotten mine.”
“You think you’re Jeff Goldblum in Annie Hall? Stop it. Just say that it hurts.”
While we were deciding whether or not I needed to go to the hospital, we went to dinner. We called her mom. We ate pasta and drank wheat beer with notes of coriander. I kept lifting up the edge of the bandaid to see if it was still bleeding, which would only make it start bleeding again.
On the way home, she flagged down a throng of nurses who happened to be on their way to happy hour, in full scrub attire. She convinced them to stop on the corner of Mt. Pleasant and Irving and look at my finger.
“We normally don’t do this,” they said, but they did anyway because Alison had just received her letter of acceptance to Brooklyn Law School on a full scholarship, and there wasn’t a person that could tell her no.
By the time my finger healed, Alison was already living in Brooklyn Heights.
I sidestepped Explosions in the Sky for years because of my distaste for the first wave post-rock bands they were compared to. Had I known that the band was named after fireworks and it wasn’t some kind of moody machismo reference to war or destruction, I might have listened to them sooner. I might have listened to Your Hand in Mine while I still lived in Austin. I might have listened to it driving down South Lamar, and then I might have fallen too much in love with the city to leave, and I might not have ever met Alison.
After my father died, I overheard a woman in a grocery store tell the check out girl that she could only listen to power ballads after her mother died. Whitesnake’s "This Is Love' was blaring over the speakers. The check out girl nodded blankly and kept popping her gum.
I started avoiding music aggressively. I didn’t want to be that person listening to Def Leppard and oversharing in the Less Than 12 Items aisle. I wanted my grief to be dignified.
I became so afraid of not listening to power ballads, I thought about them all the time.
I read that Coldplay frontman Chris Martin had written "Fix You" after Gwyenth Paltrow lost her father. This fact burned a hole into my head. I didn’t want anyone fixing me, I didn’t think that I was broken. Or I didn’t want to be broken.
If "Fix You" was a modern day power ballad in disguise, were there other power ballads hiding in my record collection? Was Kip Winger hiding behind Isaac Brock’s crusty flannel shirts?
I felt like I had been grieving for my father for ten years. I wanted to something meaningful with all that preparation. I didn’t want my grief to be average or accessible. I had already taken all the AP classes and wanted the college credit.
When Explosions in the Sky stopped trying to sound like other “critically acclaimed” post-rock bands, they started selling more records, got licensing deals, and composed scores for films. In other words, they made money.
One version or another of Your Hand in Mine is featured on Friday Night Lights (the movie, not the TV show), Paul Blart: Mall Cop, a Jennifer Anniston/Aaron Eckhart vehicle Love Happens, a documentary called The Street Stops Here, a Reliant Energy radio and TV ad, and The Weather Channel.
People who seriously listen to music prefer Godspeed to Explosions in the Sky, but I find Explosions easier to relate to these days. Those who love Godspeed say they excel at expressing the extreme emotions in life—terror, existential dread, overpowering joy. Explosions take a subtler approach, aiming for catharsis by evoking a joyful possibility, or channeling loss. Their music is like that proverbial Chinese character that means crisis and opportunity.
I was my father’s emergency contact. I got the first phone call from the hospital. I decided who should know first, and what happened next. I controlled the narrative.
When Alison moved to Brooklyn, I was no longer her occasional emergency contact. I was at least several calls down the relay chain. My instinct was to spread the news, to take charge of the information, but I had no idea who was left to call. I couldn’t remember the names of her friends in law school. I wasn’t in charge of the next steps.
When you stare down the barrel at grief for a second time, you assume that you know the ropes. You assume that you understand the order in which things will happen next, and you tell yourself having an order makes it more logical.
That is just something that you tell yourself in order to keep going. Every grief works in its own pattern. The only thing you can predict is that mourning will always be a slow burn.
There are 10 seconds of silence at the end of "Your Hand In Mine." When you listen to the song on a loop, you have 10 seconds to feel, to know, that the song has definitively ended. It’s not a pause — it’s no glitch.
When you listen to a song on a loop, the idea is to keep the melody going, to not break the feeling. It’s an obsessiveness, a vigilance of not letting a moment die as long as you can. It’s not about keeping the sun coming up again and again; it’s about not letting the sun out of your sight.
Those 10 seconds of silence make it impossible to keep the song as one infinite track. No matter how many times it loops, there will always be an ending. There is nothing you can do to keep it going. But that never stops me from trying.
"Human Qualities" - Explosions in the Sky (mp3)
"Let Me Back In" - Explosions in the Sky (mp3)