Stick Season 

and the Meaning of Home

Words: Riley Stevenson
January 8, 2022

If you’ve never driven over the Piscataqua River Bridge from New Hampshire to Maine, you’re missing out on a prime driving-music-montage moment.

The view is a sweeping panorama of the small, twinkling city of Portsmouth to the east, the blue black of the Piscataqua River below, and far-off mountains to the west, covered in the deep green of the forest. My family has a tradition of rolling the windows down as we drive over the bridge, filling the car with fresh, salt-tinged Maine air as we head home. I’ve added my own layer to the tradition, blasting the same song each time. Invariably, a smile spreads across my face, as I become lost in the feeling of being home.

When I began this tradition, I knew there was only one song which fit the bill: Noah Kahan’s “Maine”. Cliche? Maybe. Perfect for the moment? Definitely. Maine is the first song I heard by Kahan, and I was instantly drawn to its quiet guitar intro, the sound of birds squawking in the background. Maine sounds to me like driving on the narrow, tree-lined backroads near my house, fingertips trailing out of the window as I take in the smells of spruce and salt that are forever etched into my memories of home.

Maine is about love and loss, a relationship that falls apart when one half of the partnership moves to the big city, leaving small-town Maine behind. The chorus, “I wanna go to Maine, mmm/ I wanna go to Maine” is best sung screamed at the top of one’s lungs. Admittedly, the first time I enacted my new tradition, driving home for my first break since starting at Brown, I burst into tears. I literally always just “wanna go to Maine.” Kahan gets it.

When I first heard this song I was certain I was hearing from someone who had lived my exact life––growing up on the coast of Maine, falling in love and falling apart all at the same time. I was shocked to learn that Kahan is from Vermont, and in fact has never even been to Cape Elizabeth, Maine, the title of his 2020 EP. I love the song nonetheless and stumbling upon it happily introduced me to the genius that is Noah Kahan.

Enter Noah Kahan’s third studio album, Stick Season, released October 14, 2022. Stick Season draws from Kahan’s experience growing up in the small town of Strafford, Vermont, only a few miles from the New Hampshire border. On the album he dives into feelings of loneliness, inadequacy, and, above all, what it means to be home.

The lead single from the album, “Stick Season”, was released in July of 2022 and quickly shot to Tik Tok, and real-world, fame. It is a beautiful, aching song and one of my favorites to sing loudly with the windows down. I can’t stop myself from feeling every syllable of it, written with touching tenderness and a true understanding of place.

I recently turned non-New Englander college friends onto the song, who asked “but what is stick season?”. I gestured outside my dorm window and said, “Tthis.”. The moment of the year that is filled with in-betweens. The verdant summers are gone (as Kahan sings on track 12, “Homesick”: “And every photograph/That's taken here is from the summer”), and the snowy, picturesque winters have yet to begin. It is a time of drawing close, short days and long nights, a season only truly understood by the locals.. To love a place’s stick seasons is to truly love it, even when it’s dreary and gray and cold. That’s love. That’s home.

This album came out at a pivotal moment for me. The album was released about a month and a half into my college experience and consists of/includes some of Kahan’s most stripped-down sounds to date. I was just beginning to come to terms with being away from my northern home and trying my hardest to immerse myself in this new place filled with concrete and people. I began to listen to Stick Season obsessively, finding new moments to love and relate to each time I hit play.

The album is an ever-morphing beast. The songs swell and shrink, doubling over themselves and changing key, tempo, and time signature on a well-designated whim. Often the bridges are the best part, heightening to new emotional levels just as you think the song is winding down. Kahan released the album right on the edge of stick season, as we headed into the colder, quieter months filled with reflection and 4p.m. sunset drives down hometown backroads. I’ll never forget when I went home for Thanksgiving and finally got to listen to this album as it was intended, speeding down those very backroads that hold my favorite memories.

The song that by far got the most listens that Thanksgiving week was track 12, “Homesick”. Here at Brown, my experiences feel different from many of my peers, who grew up on subway systems and in suburbs. I have yet to find many people who share the experiences of growing up in a small town, knowing each neighbor and seeing the same faces every single day.

Kahan, with his captivating hooks and relatable lyrics, is that small-town friend. “Homesick” is a joyful and simultaneously melancholy picture of his tiny hometown, illustrating how it feels to be so deeply attached to a place and unwilling to leave it, despite some of the complicated memories there. In the first verse Kahan sings, “Well, I'm tired of dirt roads/ Named after high school friends' grandfathers/ The motherfuckers here still don't know they caught/ The Boston bombers.” Kahan’s music is filled with these in-jokes, witty details that place the album in a distinct time and place, relatable to anyone familiar with dirt roads like these and creates a unique sense of these places for those who aren’t. Kahan’s music hits home (pun intended) for anyone who loves where they are from and understands that that love is complicated.

Places like where Kahan and I are from have a reputation for being stagnant, cyclical, built on the tides and the changing seasons, making them both homey and sometimes claustrophobic. Kahan is conflicted about these elements of home. He’s sick of them, and yet, as he sings in the chorus: “I would leave if only I could find a reason/ I'm mean because I grew up in New England”. This too, speaks to my experience. I can’t imagine building a life anywhere but in Maine, and at the same time, I recognize its faults and inadequacies. New Englanders, especially the ones from rural areas, can be independent to a fault, hard-edged, gruff with outsiders. And at the same time, no matter our politics or points of view, I know my neighbors will help me when I need it. Mainers always wave, whether to someone they’ve/we’ve met a hundred times or not at all.

Kahan sings beautifully about what it means to be in love, with people and place, and how it feels to lose it. The titular song on the album, “Stick Season”, is a meditation on love won and lost and having to cope while being stuck in a place filled with familiar echoes. The song opens with evocative storytelling which foretells Kahan’s emotions perfectly: “As you promised me that I was more than all the miles combined/ You must have had yourself a change of heart/ Like halfway through the drive/ 'Cause your voice trailed off exactly as you passed my exit sign/ Kept on driving straight and left our future to the right”. Kahan is trapped, coping with his own feelings and failings in the relationship while in the place he knows best, which at times feels stifling. The song echoes this in its almost repetitive rhythm of syllables and pitches— he sounds like a man desperate to move on but who can’t find his way out of this particular story. Kahan is honest and lonely: “It's half my fault, but I just like to play the victim/ I'll drink alcohol 'til my friends come home for Christmas.” These lines reminded me of the multiple stick seasons I spent at home after my friends had left for college. I certainly didn’t drink myself into a stupor, but there was a familiar feeling of waiting, aching for something to change, for something new to stop the all-too-familiar feelings of loneliness that can crop up in those gray times.

“Stick Season” directly addresses the season of the sticks, and the way that a place takes on a whole new light when it is completely empty of its frills: “And I love Vermont, but it's the season of the sticks.” No matter how much we love the places we’re from, those months can drag on, any romantic notions of green hillsides and blue rivers disappearing. Stick season is about gray and brown, crackling ice and dead grass. At the same time, stick season is the magnificent, drawn out November afternoons, skies tinged with thin blue air and swirls of golden clouds. No other season features those dramatic three colors besides each other: the juxtaposition of dull gray, thin blue, deep gold. I love it, and I miss it when I’m anywhere else.

In track five, “Come Over”, Kahan tries to convince a partner to love his little hometown. In the second verse Kahan sings “And the Dow Jones keeps falling, but I promise you, darling/ With the view in the morning, you won't ever go back.” These little towns we love can feel like an escape from everything else, a place away from the hustle and bustle of “the real world,” but Kahan does an exquisite job describing what it is actually like to live there, the challenges and loneliness that accompany living in the woods. It’s worth it for the view, but that doesn’t make it any less hard to be so alone, especially as a young person.

The sweetest love song on the album comes in the form of Track 9, “Strawberry Wine.” Behind a simple, soft guitar line Kahan sings about his pining love, singing “I'm in love with every song you've ever heard” and his fears about losing the person he loves. Just before the chorus Kahan hurriedly whisper-sings, “I said love is fast asleep/ On a dirt road with your head on my shoulder,” a beautiful line delivered in the style of someone telling you their most tender secret. Kahan struggles with the emotions of a love of missed timing, singing “Strawberry wine, and all the time we used to have/Those things I miss but know are never coming back.” You can almost feel the memories here, hear the long, slow nights that precipitated the writing of the song. One of Kahan’s greatest talents as a songwriter is his ability to draw out a set of lyrics from a single idea or memory, making them all the more potent.

Kahan tackles other topics in this album, as well. On “Orange Juice” he sings to a former lover, now changed and grown up from previous misadventures: “Honey, come over/ The party's gone slower/ And no one will tempt you/We know you got sober.” Kahan discusses issues of drugs and alcohol throughout the album, tracing his own and others’ struggles with a deft hand.

Throughout this album Kahan seems to be trying to convince a love interest, or the average listener, to love his hometown, to “come over”, to come in, To stay a while longer and, appreciate the season of the sticks in the same way he does. At the same time, he sometimes seems to be apologizing for the person the place made him: “Forgive my northern attitude/ Oh, I was raised on little light”, he sings on “Northern Attitude”, the album opener. That independent spirit that makes these places so unique can be hard to love and can make opening up in the way that love demands difficult. Like cold winters,  cold exteriors can turn people away from making a place, or a person, home––but, as Kahan argues on this album, the payoff is worth it.

On “New Perspective”, Kahan struggles with changing places and people. He sings, “Ooh, this town is for the record now/ The intersection got a Target/ And they're calling it downtown/ You and all of your new perspective now/ Wish I could shut it in a closet/ And drag you back down.” He wants things to stay the same yet at other times seems to rebuff the past. Here, Kahan encapsulates a classic New Englander idiom: The only two things we hate are change and the way things are. Kahan can’t decide what he wants, toggling between looking at the unpleasant changes taking place and lamenting the past. He is perfectly caught in the struggles of rural America. Everything is changing, the past is over, and yet we want things just as we want them to be.

Kahan’s album also comes on the heels of two years characterized by loneliness and by changing perceptions of what it means to be at home. Kahan voices some of those feelings on “Everywhere, Everything'', when he practically shouts into the abyss, “It's been a long year” (better read as: “it’s been a loooooooong year”). Kahan seems to be carving out his own little haven in the midst of chaos. Later on the same track he sings, “We didn't know that the sun was collapsing/ 'Til the seas rose and the buildings came crashing/ We cried, ‘Oh.’” Kahan seems content with the little life he has created for himself as he sings about providing for a loved one, oblivious to the outside world. Like on “Come Over”, Kahan views his little village as an escape, a place to visit and stay a while, asking us all to forget the rest.

The final song on the album, “The View Between Villages”, illustrates Kahan’s drive home, winding down backroads interspersed with beautiful valleys and sweeping bridges. It is a perfect closer–– evocative and contemplative, building to a point before releasing the listener back into their life. It builds slowly, Kahan’s voice gradually crescendoing over intensifying drums and guitar as he recalls, “The things that I lost here, the people I knew/ They got me surrounded for a mile or two.” Kahan shares the cathartic release of re-living and subsequently shaking off these feelings as he gets closer to home, as many college students do on their return to sleepy and memory-laden hometowns this time of year. The song fades shortly after this climax, Kahan’s emotions morphing from near-anger to peace with these realities This place will always be inescapably fraught, filled to the brim with everything that has come before.

This flood of memories, rushing in with the cold air through my car window, is something I experience each time I round the corner to my little backroad, seeing all of the places I know and remembering all of the people I love. There’s something so special about coming home, especially after time away, and getting lost in remembering. Like the album, this song is about getting stuck in one’s memories, pulled over on the side of the road of your life with the past on one side of the bridge and the future on the other.

I don’t think I would have appreciated this album nearly as much before this year, when I was still in the thick of everything Kahan describes. Rather, this album pulls me back in when I’m away, reminding me of the things I love and miss every day. As I sit here in my concrete dorm room, a gray dreary December day taking place, this album makes me envision my home, 227 miles away, sounds made equally meaningful no matter how far one is from where they’re from.

Home is more than a place we love–– it is the experiences, the words, the memories we associate with it. Especially now, we’re all searching for home, whether we find it in a person, a place, or a feeling. Kahan knows this struggle and captures it brilliantly, reminding me that no matter where I am, I’m only a play button away from heading home.












 

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