Last updated: August 20, 2021

Record as Symbolic Form: Ben Platt’s Reverie

Ben Platt recently released his second studio album Reverie (his first one, Sing to Me Instead, was out in 2019). Not sure how unusual this view is, but to me it’s better than Sing to Me Instead perhaps on all counts. Platt eventually grew out of Evan Hansen and established himself an authentic and sophisticated storyteller through his music. And I’d hope the record, evidently Platt’s preferable term over “album,” would be recognized as a significant contribution to queer cultural memories in years to come. Just some quick thoughts here.

I’m particularly pleased by Platt’s unusual insistence of the totality of a record as a device for storytelling. For me, the memorable songs from Sing to Me Instead each from a narrative within themselves: “Older,” for instance, opens with a specific setting and relates the dialogue between the speaker and “a gray-haired man”; “Run Away” is a mini musical in three acts. Perhaps Platt, being a Broadway actor, understands the narratological potentials that a record affords more than anyone else. In fact, a curious thought has crossed my mind: Reverie feels somewhat like the second act of Ben Platt: a Musical. The climactic moment from Sing to Me Instead as a whole is this from “Older”:

And will I get to?
get to know myself in the place I am?
get to fall in love with another man?
and understand?

Before that moment, all the queer references are encrypted, mostly subject to interpretation; but now, if “spending quality time with your mother” (“Share Your Address”) is not obvious enough, “If you come out then so / will I” (“Honest Man”) should be. That moment allowed us to view all the preceding songs in a different light. Those songs are not opaque and generic; they are personal, and behind them is an actual person singing to you. And that’s where Reverie begins.

The tripartite “​king of the world” makes it evident that the entire record is best understood as a coherent whole. From its first part, we are hinted that the songs that follow deal with youth, or when we “just set sail.” In interviews 1 and the Digital Fan Exclusive edition, Platt mentioned he wrote many songs in the record quite literally in his childhood bedroom, a place that stirred up nostalgia and reminded me of where he came from. In effect, Reverie feels like Platt’s own autobiography, and we start where he started. The musical style is notably nostalgic, and Titanic is a cheesy yet evocative metaphor—indeed, that’s where people in our generation met R & J for the first time before we knew Shakespeare. In terms of lyrics, “childhood bedroom” might have been Platt’s first song that has nothing to do with his sexuality or romantic longings (“In Case You Don’t Live Forever” is somewhat related in context), and in “happy to be sad” we see this interesting linguistic experiment, like a baby babbling, redefining what “sad” and “happy” means and making “sad” paradoxically “happy.”

“I wanna love you but I don’t” introduces us to the love-themed portion of the record, but unlike the similarly themed ones in Sing to Me Instead, there’s neither anxiety nor encryption. The language in both “leave my mind” and “dance with you” is also quite direct, and you see the speaker/Platt himself maintains his agency, and the occasional anxiety tends to manifest only through the stylistic repetition. This to me is a significant departure from Sing to Me Instead—his debut album is reminiscent of Dear Evan Hansen as well as the musical theater tradition, where for the better half of the twentieth century, queer was bad, and sexual dissidents had to hide. Reverie, on the other hand, is distinctly Ben Platt. When we were still young and exploring, we could be direct; we sensed our difference, but didn’t quite grasp its stakes yet. This psychological complexity is beautifully captured in the first half of the record and we see Platt’s repertoire expanding.

I am constantly impressed by Platt’s remarkable capacity for capturing the queer sensibilities and representing one specific kind of gay cultural identity of our times. This is even more apparent in the second half of the record, where there’s someone telling you “you’re the king of the world” (“king of the world, pt. 2”). I am only about three months older than Platt is, and Broadway had witness Tony Kushner’s Perestroika by the time we were born. I’m similarly in a rather formative relationship. “carefully”, “chasing you”, “come back” all represent different attitudes and emotions one could have during a relationship. The language evolves as the narrative evolves. In “carefully” we see hypothetical aplenty; the speaker is no longer direct and needs something more than the truth; “chasing you” blurs the boundary between cliché, metaphor, and reality—“I’m running on a treadmill / your heart is dangled in front of me / I’m walking over eggshells”; “come back” is the first instance of a curious convention familiar in Sing to Me Instead: misleadingly name a song after what’s explicitly rejected.

“come back” concludes the love-themed portion. It shares the musical exuberance of “I wanna love you but I don’t,” but rather than reflecting on what won’t happen, “come back” paints a beautiful picture what could happen. “come back” is also a song where you can experience a narrative moving forward: from “there’s no shadows, there’s no rain” to “we can dance between the rain / living in the world we made”, this is a optimistic portrait of growth. While we’re “headed for an iceberg” (“king of the world, pt. 2”) and “some things live, but all things die” (“carefully”), heartbreaks can be “washed away” (“king of the world, pt. 2”) and there can be a garden and “we might go and never wanna come back” (“come back”).

“dark times” was my favorite song after first listen. Structurally, it is like “Run Away” 2.0; thematically, it’s like “Older” 2.0. And before I couldn’t help looking at it that way, I was deeply touched. I’ve long been of the opinion that we haven’t found an answer to Foucault’s question, “how is it possible for two men to be together” for our generation. There was the gay model, and there was the queer model. And now same-sex marriage is within the orbit of social and political progressivism, and such terms as “queer community” have entered the contemporary vernacular without much questioning. We used to sit on a secret no one knows, and now you can hear people pushing back on the notion of “proud to be gay.” We are eager to fashion an identity, and we are ready to resist to normativity, however defined—but to what end? One major contribution, I’d say, of Reverie is to reassert the crucial importance of memories, both collective and individual, as one grapples with those issues. In memories we see scars, and scars would remind me how far we’ve come, and probably where we are going. Incidentally, my therapist suggested I write a letter to my 13-year-old self a couple of weeks ago. And I did, and it has since become my source of comfort and reassurance.

“I’ll see you in the mirror when you’re older” is probably the most interesting lyric of the record. First, it follows that the we in “We’re 27 now” is the speaker and his reflection in the mirror. This makes the line that concludes this verse, “it’s nice to know we’re not in this alone” particularly memorable: falling in love or having a romantic partner is not going to solve your problem; only you yourself can “figure it out”. I will go out on a limb and say this realization is key to not “crumbling in the lonely” (“happy to be sad”) and genuinely feeling “happy to be sad”. Second, of course, is this subtle reference to “Older” from Sing to Me Instead. “Older” is about being true to yourself because life is too short, about living in the present not the future. From the autobiography point of view, “Older” is when Platt comes out in his own music, and this line does not repeat in the third verse of “27.” Retroactively “dark times” attaches yet another reminder to “Older”: not just about seizing the time, but how much we’ve grown:

But at least no one can say we haven’t grown
Scars turn to memories
They keep us company

In this light, in terms of style, this is the only song that’s most similar to Sing to Me Instead—and indeed, that was the style he’s grown into after leaving his childhood bedroom.

“imagine” is an interesting as the last full-length song of the record. Again, if we follow the autobiography interpretation, the passion and euphoria is closer to what Platt himself experiences at the present, and in other words, what all his growth over the years has led to. In the whole narrative arc, “imagine” takes the space when we’d expect the iceberg, and instead we found “the North Lights” and refused to think about what if something happened. Perhaps this is how one would “gracefully abandon / your youth, your love, your best years” (“king of the world, pt. 3”): you celebrate, not mourn, for the inevitable loss, and you don’t have to think about ever losing anything. In Platt’s own commentary, “king of the world, pt. 3” is about “invest[ing] in the present and in the people around you without being fearful of the end.” And perhaps that’s why it comes right after “imagine.”

Overall, this record far surpassed my expectation. It’s more mature, well-rounded, and thoughtful. It’s hard to imagine a third album with comparable coherence and depth, although I didn’t see Platt’s sophomore album would be this good just judging from Sing to Me Instead.

top 3 songs

  1. dark times

  2. come back

  3. happy to be sad

1

See e.g. this one and this one.

Comments