This nine-and-a-half-minute piano ballad has become something of a legend among emo fans in the decade since it was written. “Konstantine” is maligned by its writer, Andrew McMahon, but it’s become something like an overwrought emo version of Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna,” or a “Freebird” for suburban teenage romance. It was never released on an album, but it’s become a favorite among fans of the band, and has arguably become their best-known song.
“Konstantine” first appeared on a Drive-Thru Records compilation called Welcome to the Family in 2001, and was later featured on a stopgap rarities EP titled Songs for Silent Movies in 2002.
Fans shared a number of studio and live recordings of “Konstantine” on early P2P networks like Kazaa. This gave the song a mythic quality that McMahon has tried to shake off over the years.
Andrew McMahon in 2009 on the legacy of “Konstantine”:
“If I ever play it, I’ll have to play it forever, every night. If it weren’t such a big deal for me to play Konstantine, then I probably would play it. But the truth is, as soon as I bring that song out one time, I will never be able to walk through a venue, no matter what band I’m playing with or no matter where I’m at, and not have people chant and cheer for it.”
via Blast Magazine
It’s funny and uncomfortable to think about “Konstantine” outside of the context of being a kid in high school. When I was a moody teenager, it was like my MySpace profile – an expression of my identity. But like a Myspace profile, it’s now a little embarrassing to look back on it. It’s like a stunted, ugly reflection of how I used to express myself, and a strange shadow of who I used to be. More accurately, it’s a shadow of how I imagined I would grow up. I can’t revisit most of my old social media profiles, but I can still listen to “Konstantine” and instantly remember how dumb and awkward I felt when I first heard it.
This sad piano ballad spread like a meme, so now a tiny slice of American teenagers from a tiny slice of a chaotic and nightmarish decade share a response to this song that is almost like post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Konstantine” became the soundtrack to a lot people’s first relationships. And young love, as everyone knows, sucks. It’s a quiet song too, something that you can fall asleep to like a maudlin lullaby. It’s vague but obviously emotional lyrics are perfect for scrawling manically on notebooks and walls and the sides of Converse shoes. It’s open-ended enough that it can apply to every relationship and every heartache, and ideal for “away” messages on IM.
It’s a song that could make you nostalgic at 16 for things that hadn’t happened to you yet. McMahon’s angsty piano riffs hinted at an awareness of how imminent the end of something could be, like that feeling of being a senior in high school a few months before graduation.
When I was in college, when someone wanted to kick everyone out of their house after a party, after they’d tried everything to push the mass of drunk 20-year-olds out of their home, they’d put on “Konstantine”. The phases of recognition were always the same every time.
The opening riff would start, and hypnotically lock the revelers in place. The sense of something foreboding would creep across their drunk faces and smiles would melt. Loud conversations would die down. People would lean across tables, rest on fireplace mantelpieces, sit on the damn floor.
But by the time the song would wind around to the four minute mark, there would be groans of “not this song,” while other people would quietly mutter along with the lyrics. There was this weird sense of everyone being abruptly ripped from the present and sent immediately back to some high school bedroom where they were learning some very harsh private lesson about life.
Trying to revisit “Konstantine” is harder when you’re older. It’s awkward, and it doesn’t really feel the way it used to. It makes you wonder how it could have ever been “your song” except for fleeting moments when you remember why in a blast of uncomfortable clarity on a stray line or riff.
Pay attention to the kids in the room; you can see exactly how cathartic the song is for them.
This is my favorite version because of an unexpected moment at the end. McMahon is hammering down during the last bridge of the song. Sweating, tired, clearly a little bitter that he has to play this stupid song yet another time. He lets out the line “I’ll always miss you,” almost by accident. That sentiment is important to remember, that one guy’s heartache somehow leaked out and became an anthem for hundreds of teenagers who dreamed of the future and were convinced they knew what love was.