15 years later, ‘Sa Wakas’ still breaks our hearts

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Sugarfree’s 2003 release “Sa Wakas” is, perhaps, the finest album about heartbreak and loneliness ever recorded in Pinoy rock history.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Getting your heart broken when you’re young is one of the most unique experiences in life. Heartbreak, like one’s artistic output and metabolic rate, has an inherent energy in youth that can never be replicated. In your 20s, when someone shreds your heart into pieces, the pain is so rich that it simultaneously feels like the end of the world and the height of self-fulfilment. There is no other period in life where one can feel more dead and more alive at the same time.

Sugarfree frontman Ebe Dancel was in his mid-20s when he wrote most of the songs in the band’s now classic debut album “Sa Wakas.” Fifteen years after its release, the album sounds exactly like that lightning-in-a-bottle feeling, that spark in youth where every hurt is heightened by its newness. Sugarfree would go on to record three more albums and generate bigger hits, including 2004’s “Hari ng Sablay,” but none of them would ever match the singular brilliance of “Sa Wakas” — the finest album about heartbreak and loneliness ever recorded in Pinoy rock history.

To understand why this is not hyperbole, a little context helps. Think about how heartbreak is publicly processed these days, to the point where unrequited love has become its own subgenre on social media. Every hugot post and subtweet is sent to an ostensible wilderness, but is actually a village of kindred spirits, their feelings laid out in various timelines, waiting to be validated and “liked.”

There was none of this emotional network back in 2003. Fifteen years ago, all we had was Sugarfree, expressing things that stewed inside us individually in a language that gave the songs an immediacy that no foreign emo act could offer. When someone you were in love with left for whatever reason, there was no infrastructure of emotional support available apart from your friends and, if you happen to be a Sugarfree fan, a CD of “Sa Wakas” you could play when you’re left alone, with only Ebe Dancel there singing, “Ito ang unang araw na wala ka na.”

Loneliness was so much lonelier in the early aughts. “Sa Wakas is suffused with a closed-door intimacy that no longer seems possible now. “Unang Araw” sounds like the internal dialogue you have when you’ve been alone in your room for days, falling helplessly into the acceptance stage of grief because time has gravity that a closed space will not allow you to escape. Dancel sings about missing the woman he loves in an almost soft cry, as the guitars and the drums fall like fists hitting a wall; the louder the song gets, the more it sounds like denial on its death throes. “Nasanay lang sigurong nandiyan ka, ‘di ko inakalang puwede kang mawala” is exactly the sort of thing you say when you’re still young enough to believe that things can last.

The melancholic apotheosis of the album is “Mariposa” — a sonic rollercoaster of guitar wallops and mournful singing, the kind of contrast that makes youthful heartbreak seem as much like a celebration as it is a tragedy. At the time, Sugarfree sounded “indie” in a way very few mainstream bands did (most were doing kupaw nu-metal, or were simply Parokya ni Edgar), with flourishes that were a bit reminiscent of ‘90s Swedish guitar pop band Popsicle. In songs like “Hintay”, “Telepono”, and the aforementioned “Mariposa,” the Popsiclean shoegaze guitar fuzz and exuberant crescendos make the pain of unrequited love feel like the glorious life-affirming experience that youth makes it out to be. When Dancel cries, “Ayoko nang mag-isa” near the end of “Mariposa”, it almost feels ecstatic.

“Sa Wakas” is not a perfect album in the truest sense. In between timeless gems like the sneakily-hopeful “Burnout,” the lovely elegies and paeans to childhood “Fade Away” and “Los Baños,” and the powerful “Insomya” are fillers like “Taguan” and “The Allan Song” whose attempts at humor and funk have not aged well. But the scant blemishes speak to the album’s general strength, which is its lack of self-consciousness. Even when some of the songs veer into pubescent poetry — as with “Mundong Malungkot” (“‘Di mo maitatago ang mga luha mo sa malungkot kong mundo”) and “Tummy Ache” (“I could be crying out and see if candies do exist in worlds I don’t know” ) — they still give off a childlike earnestness that makes them feel authentic, perhaps more than most present-day Pinoy rock.

There is a certain kind of self-consciousness that afflicts most works of art today — that inescapable knowledge that whatever you create will be judged publicly, in a matter of minutes, from all angles. Whatever we create today no longer feels like it’s truly ours. “Sa Wakas” is one of the greatest albums from the last era to ever allow art to breathe. The songs in the album lived inside Dancel’s head for years. It lived inside locked rooms, in our own tiny “Mariposas,” those private places where loneliness felt both like a sentence and a pleasure. It was all embarrassing. It was perfect.