Precisely 35 seconds into the opening track of 16 Frames’ debut album, the clouds part and a monumental chorus breaks through. “Then you wake up to the big change/To the breakup done at close range,” sings bandleader Steve Sulikowski, climbing upward through a dense forest of guitars to the top of his range. “And that love is such a cruel thing,” he continues, as he relives this heartbreaking moment, “What you want, you got/But you can’t hold on anymore.” At once intimate and overwhelming, it’s a breathtaking passage, one the listener isn’t prepared for, not only because it happens so quickly, but also because such transcendent moments are so uncommon in 21st century rock. As it turns out, conjoined musical and emotional crescendos are plentiful on Where It Ends, the album in question (released March 24 on Verve), produced by the veteran Matt Serletic (Matchbox 20, Santana’s “Smooth”).
Take the album’s first single, “Back Again,” where the lyrics trace the aftermath of a break-up, contemplating the emptiness left behind, while the widescreen musical payoff captures not only the sense of loss, but the fullness of the love affair that has come to an end. Or consider “Coming Home,” its vivid narrative carried along by a cruising groove evoking miles flying by on the interstate, the chorus acting as a door opening to reveal faces from a life left behind. Other tracks, like “My History” and the title song, erupt out of intimate, acoustic essences, the former buoyed by shimmering harmonies redolent of L.A. circa 1972. Then there’s the pivotal “Daylight,” recorded quickly as a demo following the completion of the album, swelling up from a loping, jangly opening to a thrilling goosebump chorus. It was added to the album in its original form, because it was just that good . Every inspired musical touch is there for one reason: to serve the song.
Some bands function as democracies; others are shaped around a single-minded sensibility. L.A.-based 16 Frames is wholly the product of Sulikowski’s vision, and his talented bandmates—guitarist Josh Dunahoo, drummer Daniel James and bass player Dylan Wilson, the most recent addition to the lineup—are dedicated to the task of bringing that vision to life.
The band name, referring to the rate at which film runs through a projector, isn’t arbitrary. “I think of writing a song as being like making a little movie, with a beginning, middle and end,” Sulikowski explains. “It’s exciting and satisfying to get something that feels complete, even if I’m playing it on an acoustic guitar. I get this high when I come up with a melody, and I chase it, but I beat myself up over these lyrics. I wanted them to make sense, to tell a story—something meaningful to me, so that when I sang a song night after night I could draw from it. I love performing live and I love recording songs—although in the end I’m never really happy with anything I do.” At this he smiles uneasily, not wanting to come off like a tortured artist but unable to play down what he describes as “a weird ordeal.”
Where It Ends represents an intensive creative process that stretched over six months of painstaking effort. The album is a song cycle about a relationship at a crossroads, and the story unfolds in dramatic and coherent fashion from song to song, each functioning as a scene in this aural film, the lyrics forming the dialogue.
“The record is about that point in a relationship where you’ve got to make a decision about which way you’re gonna go,” says Sulikowski, whose touchstones include some artists you’d expect (Beatles, Stones, U2) and others you might not (Elvis Presley, the La’s). “The songs reflect where I was as a writer and as an artist at the time, and how I felt about what I was doing. ‘Back Again’ was the first song written for the record, and the benchmark for where it was going, both thematically and in terms of the feel. Then other songs just fell into place.
“‘Coming Home’ was an important one,” he continues. “I’m from Western Massachusetts, and it’s about where I came from and how I left. It’s been hard to go back, but I have, and I wrote it during one of my trips back. So it means a lot to me, but I think the song is universal enough where people can associate their own experiences with it. ‘My History’ encapsulates the theme of the record. It’s a breakup song, and in my mind I see the narrator writing a goodbye letter just before he or she leaves. And ‘Daylight,’ the last song I wrote for the record, is about moving on, and making it through one last, hard night where you’re alone and facing your problem, knowing that in the morning things will be different; you’re gonna finally break free and move on. So every song has a life of its own, but they’re all meant to work together.”
During the album’s creation, Sulikowski would get up every morning, enter his work room, grab his acoustic and spend all day writing, surrounded by notebooks filled with lyrics, some of them devoted to the development of a single song. “Melodies come to me easily,” he says. “It’s the lyrics that are torture.” At night he’d read books like Kerouac’s On the Road and Dylan’s Chronicles, and watch DVDs, including anthologies of The Dick Cavett Show (providing up-close looks at the likes of George Harrison, Paul Simon, Sly & the Family Stone, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell), Scorsese’s Dylan film No Direction Home and a documentary on the making of Born to Run.
“That stuff was like nourishment,” he says of his nightly consumption. “I found it all incredibly inspiring.” Especially the Springsteen documentary: “A lot of it was about what he went through to write that one song. Watching him questioning what he’s doing, second-guessing himself and putting himself through this laborious process to come up with this masterpiece was really meaningful for me. I’m not saying these songs are ‘Born to Run,’ but realizing what he went through gave me the confidence to keep going.”
Then he’d get up the next day and repeat the process. “I intentionally put myself through this in order to get these songs,” Sulikowski acknowledges. “I have no idea if I could ever do it again.”
Where It Ends is a fiercely ambitious, supremely accomplished work that also happens to be totally accessible. Charged emotions embedded in monster hooks—that’s a combination to celebrate. Writing the follow-up will surely be a living hell.