When Ben Gossow, a third-year Mechanical Engineering student at Tech, was sent home in March midway through his semester abroad, he didn’t pick up bread-baking, Animal Crossing, or any of the standard quarantine hobbies. Instead, he dropped an album.
What started as something he mentioned jokingly to his mom — “What if I just record these songs?” — became “The Annual,” a seven-song record that deals with themes of nostalgia, growth and the passage of time.
Gossow attributes the beginning of his musical journey to his dad, who he describes as “a musician but not in the professional sense.” Growing up in St. Louis, he listened to a lot of bluegrass and picked up guitar in elementary school.
His real appreciation for music, however, came when he started playing trombone in his school’s band program in the sixth grade. Gossow participated in band all the way through his senior year, teaching himself piano and guitar along the way.
Midway through high school he started a band called “Beatrix Kiddo” with his buddies, which got him started song writing. Still, a solo project was always in the back of his mind.
In college, he started experimenting with more instruments — bass, synthesizer — and writing more songs, needing a creative outlet to contrast his school work in the ME program. The turmoil of the corona virus outbreak created, for Gossow, the perfect storm.
He returned home with a fresh perspective from being separated from his instruments while abroad. After three days in quarantine, fueled by a ton of pent-up energy and “more time spent sitting in my room than ever in my life,” Gossow “opened the faucet,” and music came out.
“The Annual” features acoustic, electrical and bass guitar, piano, synthesizer, drums and trombone, all played by Gossow himself. He intentionally constrained himself to recording every instrument on the album, using only sounds that he had played with his own hands. Many of the sound effects on the various tracks — cicadas and frog sounds, for instance — Gassow captured on his iPhone. The sound of a child’s voice audible throughout the album is his own, sampled from old home videos.
The album is a deeply personal expression of Gossow’s perspective as a 20-year-old college student, looking back at his childhood and forward to the future, finding closure for the latter and hope for the former. The idea of leaving behind his childhood and realizing that every day takes him further away from it is one that haunts him. This sentiment is embodied in “Now Is Not The Time,” where Gossow sings “Moving further / Every single day / Lost behind me / Every single day.”
One of the standout songs on the album is “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” a cover of the infamous song by Otis Redding. The original is one of Gossow’s personal favorites; he describes it as an upbeat, happy tune with existential, almost depressing lyrics. Gossow gives it his own flavor with calming sound bites, understated strums of the guitar, and his own wistful vocals. The track, like most on the album, comes back to time, and the way it never stops moving forward, “even if you’re sitting in that one moment, on the dock of the bay.”
Another notable track is “The Seasons,” an eight-minute, fully instrumental masterpiece that takes the listener from the beginning of spring to the very last day of winter. Gossow struggled to find the lyrics for the piece until he realized that it didn’t need them; words, he said, “would get in the way.” Many of the songs on the track deal with the existential dread that Gossow has faced, but “The Seasons” is different — it’s a reminder that the passage of time can be beautiful and humbling as well as frightening, that with it comes growth. As Gossow says himself, “at the end of winter, spring always comes around again.”
“Annual,” the titular — and possibly the best — track off the album, is inspired by a camping trip to Lesterville, Missouri that Gossow has taken nearly every year since he was born. It is something of a sacred experience for him. The people there, he says, “are so unlike any other people I’ve met in my life.” Music is a central part of the experience, and the hours-long jamming sessions heavily influenced “The Annual,” which is the perfect soundtrack for sitting by a campfire under the stars.
“Annual,” the song, has the strongest narrative of all the tracks on the album, and for a reason. It tells the story of Gossow’s experience on the trip this past year, when he woke up troubled by an unusually vivid dream. Later that day, he had a heated discussion with a drunk, older man that made him stop and think.
“You are so confident you know how this world works,” he remembers the man telling him, “but you don’t. Nobody does.”
That night, Gossow recalls walking off into the dark, away from the lights of the campfires. He wandered into a field a little ways away, stars shining overhead and fireflies dancing in the grass.
Crickets and cicadas were singing, and Gossow took out his phone to record the sound.
It was a magical moment for him, a reminder of how small he was on the scale of the whole universe.
“The Annual” is available now on most streaming services, as well as on chesirelnrecords.com.
Find Ben on Instagram and YouTube, @bengossow.