The JOAT 50 Song Countdown is a blog series where every weekday for 10 weeks I am posting a brand new long form essay where I have ranked and written about my 50 favorite songs of all-time. From Adele to Zac Brown Band, Patsy Cline to Plasma Canvas, Ludacris to Rise Against, this series offers a personal essay about the 50 songs that hit me the absolute hardest.
The first track off Plasma Canvas’s album DUSK is called “Hymn.” It’s a tender, melancholy piano ballad paying tribute to lead singer Ren Ash’s departed friend. The song is undeniably beautiful, but achingly sad. As I listen to it right now in my earbuds, I cannot stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks. As the song draws to a close, these are the final lines: “Goodbye my sweetest friend. I’ll see you in the end.”
And on the word “the” is a single drum strike, the first and only of the entire track, and then on the word “end” comes a giant, distorted sludgy guitar stroke that fills the entire space with some accompanying cymbals for the remaining 17 seconds.
OH. FUCK. YES.
Every hair on my body stands at attention. Chills shimmy their way from my core to my extremities and back again. I’m overwhelmed by a flood of feel-good hormones that cascade throughout my body. My heart races, my eyes start to water, and I feel like I’m floating, if even just for a few seconds. Very little in the entire world inspires more profound ASMR in me than music that moves me.
And then it’s adrenaline time as “Blistered World” kicks the fucking front door in, announces its presence, grabs you by the goddamn lapels, and demands your attention. Few bands go harder than Plasma Canvas, which is what makes the song “Hymn” such an anachronistic, but irrefutably brilliant, choice for an opener. The first time I listened to this album, I looked at my phone twice to make sure I cued up the correct band. I confirmed it both times, but wasn’t convinced until “Blistered World” came in and melted my face off.
DUSK is filled with equal parts beauty, pain, and heavy fucking punk rock. I know nothing of what it feels like to be a transgendered woman in America in 2023, but as a human being, why shouldn’t I aspire to learn from those unlike myself?
I am a straight, white, cisgendered man, which means, as far as navigating American society, I won the fucking lottery. I’m not required to apologize for any of those markers – just as no one needs to apologize for being black or gay or female or transgendered – but as someone who lucked into high levels of privilege based on socioeconomic and genetic happenstance, I have a responsibility to be accountable for it and raise up those with less.
I spent an hour interviewing Ren on the podcast earlier this year, and one of the things she told me was that her “very existence is political.” That seems utterly exhausting. Constantly having to justify your own existence is a deeply cruel trick played by callous hegemonic forces in society, and something that should anger anyone with an empathetic bone in their body. Everyone deserves the rights, grace, and courtesies we would hope for ourselves, yet too many aren’t afforded them simply because they exist outside of some perceived lane of “normal.”
A couple of months ago, Ren announced that Plasma Canvas was finished. In the band’s farewell message she wrote:
The words that I say every time we perform are so heavy to carry, and so painful to spit out. The experiences that created the words that I have to say in our songs come up every time I play. These songs hurt me to sing, and I can’t do this to myself anymore. There were so many times that I stole a few minutes to cry alone when we were on tour because of the toll it takes.
Philosopher Kenneth Burke wrote an essay in 1938 called “Literature as Equipment for Living” which suggests that analysis of stories (theory later expanded to all of popular culture and beyond) reveals that they offer strategies or ways of dealing with recurring situations. In the case of Plasma Canvas, very few of us have the capacity to mine our deepest, darkest thoughts, feelings and experiences and turn them into art. But as an audience, we now have an exquisite entry point to reckon with our own struggles. Ren Ash has opened the door, and we’re allowed to walk through and imprint ourselves on the art when we listen.
“Blistered World” is an ode to the eternal challenge of self-improvement. As she sings, “It doesn’t fucking matter if it’s the hundredth time. This isn’t linear, and there’s no finish line.” We work and we work and we work to be better versions of ourselves than we were yesterday and sometimes we just fail. But we can’t quit. We’ve gotta “change into a person worth the sweat to save.” Because if we don’t, “[We] might dance ourselves right into [our] grave.” I’ve thought about this song a lot as I’ve reckoned with solving my sleep apnea this year.
One of the most indelible memories of 2023 was the Punk Rock Saves Lives Festival. My favorite moment was during this very song. Ren prowled the pit like a hungry puma as Plasma Canvas wailed away behind her. We got to the last line, she strode up to me, put her arm around me, and shoved the mic in my face as I yelled out the last line as loud as I fucking could until my lungs had no more air in them.
There’s actually video of this. Skip to about 1:35 and you’ll see me and my horrible voice caterwauling “right into my grave!”
I love this song. I love this band. And if they’re truly done, then I hope they know they have touched my soul and will always hold a very special place in my heart. Ren’s pain (and to whatever extent this applies to the rest of the band) was not experienced in vain, nor shouted into an uncaring void. And by virtue of sharing time and space on this earth at the same time as me, Plasma Canvas created an indelible moment of pure joy I will never forget both in that moment at the Festival, in the time I first heard them and felt that electricity course through my body, and in every time the opening of DUSK sends me into ASMR ecstasy. Plasma Canvas forever.
Up next: An American idol…