What is the price we pay for joy, and is it worth it? The thread of this question runs taut through The Fourth Wall’s upcoming album, Return Forever, a fever dream of a record that unearths unresolved complexities of the immigrant experience in nine chapters. Throughout the album, songwriter Stephen Agustin circles a fire that feels so bright and yet so unknowable; there are not many answers to be found, only a disruption, the emergence of a world seen with new eyes.
Return Forever was first inspired by a moment in Agustin’s family history in which he learned that a close relative had left behind a young daughter when she moved to the United States, turning away from her past life and creating one anew. Shocked though he was, Agustin soon became fascinated with the idea of the “poetry of forgetfulness.”
“There was almost a way in which the impulse to revise or destroy history became a condition for achieving this joyous state,” he says. It was a theme he would begin to see over and over again: in the way he saw immigrant families assimilating into the United States, or in the way he saw his own parents—who were from Korea and the Philippines—harbor so little resentment towards America despite the traumatic history of war and colonization it has with those countries. Lush, cinematic, and bold, The Fourth Wall paints the paradox of the exchange of joy for memory so perfectly. Driven by Agustin’s mastery of electric guitar soundscapes and the distorted, impassioned harmonies he shares with the band’s newest member Kendall Sallay, Return Forever is a journey that somehow captures the unfathomable. It is hair-raising, powerful, and gorgeous.
Agustin first begins to explore the loss that comes with erasure in Never A Part, a beautiful, frustrated conversation he imagines between his grandmother and her grandson. “I began to have questions about what the family connection really means,” Agustin says of his relationship with his grandmother. “What does it mean to ‘love’ a person merely because of their biological ties, without knowledge of the person’s aspirations, personality, style of humor, moral concerns?” The emotion is palpable in the music, in the acceptance of this almost divine mystery of unconditional love: “Won’t you hold me close / so I can rest assured / That there’s no words to say / that undoes all the hurt / or time enough to learn / why my love for you returns.” Still, in the song’s uneasy refrain, a shadow blooms within the irreconcilable distance that exists between grandmother and grandson, separated by time, language, and culture: the deep wells of love and loss that underlie the immigrant experience. “We’ll never be a part of whatever they are.”
“My family history has always come to me in fragments and I’ve had the sense that there will always be an irreducible remainder that I will never have access to.” Agustin says. “I became interested in how this unintelligible past affects notions of my own identity.” In some ways, the record feels like a quest for this “irreducible remainder,” one that is futile by nature, but allows The Fourth Wall the opportunity to uncover so many stories that we should be listening to in modern day America. The record’s haunting opening, “Interrupts the Dream” zeroes in on the uncomfortable truths that were revealed at the height of pressurized xenophobia. “Only the Joy,” celebrates the tenderness of a mother who leaves her child to a more joyous life that doesn’t include her. Return Forever holds the darkness and the light together, until it is unclear where one ends and the other begins. Perhaps that is the only knowable truth.
Stephen Agustin grew up in Oahu, and was ten years old when his musician father took him to a B.B. King concert. He quickly thereafter begged his parents for a guitar and soon started forming bands with his middle school friends. He played in various projects until the formation of The Fourth Wall, and eventually moved to Portland where the band continued to find a growing audience while opening for acts such as The Shins, Andrew Bird, Menomena, Band of Horses, and Typhoon. The Fourth Wall self-recorded Return Forever, beginning with recordings Agustin made in isolation during the pandemic. The record features Kasey Shun, Chris Lau, Kendall Sallay, and Andrew White. It is slated for release in 2024 on DevilDuck Records.