Review: Noah Kahan’s ‘Stick Season’ beautifully captures the complexities of homesickness
Fueled by a sense of deep nostalgia, the new album explores being sick of home and being homesick through a strong sense of people and place.
Growing up in a desert city, I never thought that I would be so deeply connected to an album written about a small town in Vermont. Yet, Noah Kahan’s “Stick Season,” released on Oct. 14, perfectly embodies the transitional period between fall and winter in New England — something Dartmouth students are all too familiar with. For the Dartmouth community, this album is already a community treasure: Kahan graduated from Hanover High School and draws on his upbringings in Strafford, Vt. and Hanover in the album. Whether a New England native or someone who has never visited, Kahan has created widespread nostalgia for the region through the album.
Kahan said in an interview with Insider that stick season is “the time between peak foliage and Halloween and the first snow — when all the leaves are off the trees. It's a time of transition. And it's super depressing.” Mimicking this bleak time of the year, the album is full of transitions surrounding leaving home, growing up and getting help for mental health. Kahan further highlights the transition from quarantine to semi-normal life as “Stick Season” touches upon the inability to leave home because of “COVID on the planes.”
The first two tracks on the album, “Northern Attitude” and “Stick Season,” were released before the rest of the album and gained widespread popularity on TikTok: “Stick Season” was released first on July 8 with “Northern Attitude” coming out on Sept. 16. Stick Season immediately became a Dartmouth anthem for me, despite being extremely far from Hanover at the time. The lyrics “I love Vermont,” and “I’ll dream each night of some version of you,” immediately caused me to reminisce about autumn in Hanover.
The connections to Hanover continue throughout the album. In “Come Over,” Kahan sings about “a sad house on Balch street,” possibly referencing the street in Hanover. Then, in “New Perspective,” Kahan describes “the intersection got a Target and they’re calling it downtown,” which reminds me of the Target in West Lebanon that opened recently. Even as a relatively new Hanover resident, the connection to this town felt incredibly resonant. Lyrics throughout the album remind me how much I have grown here and how Hanover will always be part of where I grew up.
In addition to the sense of place, Kahan also draws on a deep sense of nostalgia for the people of his adolescence throughout the album. “All My Love” is a beautiful song that references a past love, as Kahan sings “Now I know your name, but not who you are. It's all okay. There ain't a drop of bad blood.” This upbeat song makes my heart ache as Kahan reminisces about former relationships that are still filled with love. “Strawberry Wine” continues the feeling of lost youth and lost love with lyrics, “Strawberry wine, and all the time we used to have. Those things I miss but know are never coming back.” Kahan’s masterful instrumentalism is highlighted with “Strawberry Wine” as the last two minutes are filled with melodic instrumental guitar and Kahan vocalizing and whistling.
“Come Over” is my current favorite on the album because it gives a similar high-school reminiscent feeling, while beautifully addressing the fear of financial insecurity. The bridge of this song will continue to repeat through my mind as Kahan describes the feeling of inviting a stranger into his space: “I know that it ain't much, I know that it ain't cool. Oh, you don't have to tell the other kids at school. My dad'll strike it rich, we'll be the big house on the block. Someday I'm gonna be somebody people want.” Kahan reveals small details about his family life, such as their “sad house,” while expressing the overarching desire to be wanted. The intimate inclusion of these vague — yet powerful — lyrics strengthens “Come Over.”
In addition to seasonal New England nostalgia, mental health is a deep theme within the album. In the second verse of “Stick Season,” Kahan sings, “So I thought that if I piled something good on all my bad, that I could cancel out the darkness I inherited from dad.” Kahan highlights his experience in therapy in the song “Growing Sideways” opening with “So I took my medication, and I poured my trauma out.” Kahan also talks about the struggles of relapse in mental health recovery in the same song. In the second verse he writes that he forgets his medication and drives on an empty engine, but that “there are worse ways to stay alive.” These “worse ways” are alluded to with Kahan’s frequent references to alcoholism throughout the album. “Orange Juice” specifically captures the painful struggle of a friend’s alcoholism in a heartbreakingly beautiful song.
The album also touches on the desire to leave one’s home — while still being haunted by the location and the people connected to it. In “Halloween,” Kahan sings about “The ash of the home that I started the fire in,” and still being followed by “the ghost you’re dressed up as.” Then, in a much more upbeat “Homesick,” Kahan laments small-town communities that don’t change. The happy-sad combination within this song emphasizes the love and desire to leave home that exist at the same time. Using the word homesick as both a way to describe sick of home and homesick for home, Kahan really emphasizes the unique experience of loving and hating one's hometown.
The final track “The View Between Villages” feels like waking up from this hibernation and includes one of the most beautiful moments of this album — the crescendo of this song that coincides with Kahan driving home. Kahan references passing Alger Brook road, a road in Strafford, Vt., and continues to build through memories of his dog, the people he knew and the people he lost. Then, the crescendo ends as Kahan sings “I'm back between villages and everything's still.”
This album will certainly be getting me through all future fall and winter terms when the Hanover weather feels particularly hard. But even if you aren’t experiencing stick season in New England, the album captures complicated feelings of home for everyone. Whether the listener has a connection to New England or not, the nostalgia and growth that Kahan captured is universal.