Where the Light Shines Through – an exercise in being surprised by joy

switchfoot_where_the_light_shines_throughI confess I had a hard time making sense of Switchfoot’s new album, “Where the Light Shines Through,” at first. I’d read that frontman Jon Foreman said it was the product of one of the darkest times he’d ever been through, and then I listened to the album and thought, really?

The songs of “Where The Light Shines Through” are not the creative product you’d expect to emerge from a place of pain and difficulty. Most of the songs are not sad dirges or tragic laments, strictly speaking. They’re the kind of tunes that lift your head up, that make you smile, that send your feet moonwalking on the ceiling.

It didn’t make sense. Songs about wounds aren’t supposed to be warm summer rock tunes that make you want to roll down the car window or crack open a cold one.

But I kept listening, and soon I began to see the album’s starting point of pain and loss. It’s in the blackened Southern California landscape scorched by wildfires. It’s in the orphans and refugees of the Middle East, looking for a way to float above the trials and tribulations that have devastated their homes. It’s in the way we fall apart better than we fall in love. It’s in the wound that can’t be numbed with the bottom of a bottle. It’s in the Choctaw and the Cherokee that America will never see.

It seemed like there was a disconnect there, but perhaps a better word is “tension.” “Where the Light Shines Through” is stretched to the poles of the human experience with the tension between how things are and how they should be (the signature tension, incidentally, that marks every Switchfoot album). Darkness is pierced by light, fear and despair run parallel with hope and confidence, slow moments of contemplation give way to the raw, energetic life of rock and roll.

As Annie Dillard said, this is the only honest way to live. “We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here,” she once wrote. “Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”

Disconnect and tension. Swaddling bands of darkness and songs of praise. Could these paradoxical places be the intersections of joy?

I believe they are, because joy is mysterious like that. It springs up in the most unlikely places at the most unlikely times. You can’t predict it, can’t summon it by force of will, can’t earn it – only accept it as a gift.

We often miss this in the modern age because we conflate joy with happiness, and our longing for the former drives us to pursue the latter. But happiness is a yuppie commodity (at least that’s what the billboards tell us). It has a knack for lingering just out of reach. Maybe we try to bridge the gap with a salary increase or vacation or a lover, and yet it keeps drifting away, and all the while everything around us fails and runs its course.

“Where the Light Shines Through” reminds me that something runs deeper and truer through our lives than the American pursuit of happiness. It proclaims that there’s a purpose and redemption out there that only shows up at the point of despair – that hope appears most bright and burning just when its object seems furthest away. We find meaning at the brink. We encounter the healer only after we’ve been wounded.

That’s something worthy of rock and roll – something worth singing out when our hearts are beating like blown speakers. The healer of souls is out there, holding out a hand to the wounded and broken, offering a freedom that isn’t contingent on the appearance of our scarred bodies or the size of our bank account or the quality of our political leaders.

That’s my takeaway from “Where the Light Shines Through.” It’s an exercise in being surprised by joy, a proclamation that even in the hardest, saddest moments of our lives, hope deserves not a lament, but an anthem.

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My Top Five Music Albums from 2015

Like last year, here is my annual, obviously subjective, list of the best music albums of 2015. If I could only listen to five records from 2015 for the rest of my life, it would be these. Give them a spin.

1. The Wonderlands – Jon Foreman

Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman released his second quartet of solo EP last year. Like his Seasons Eps, in which each album was named for one of the four seasons, respectively, The Wonderlands revolve around a cycle. Each track represents an hour in the 24-hour cycle of a day, and each album draws its name from the appropriate part of the day: Sunlight, Shadows, Darkness, and Dawn. Together, the Wonderlands capture much of the remarkable breadth of the human experience, including Foreman’s signature reflections on mortality (“Terminal”), his compassion for the broken and downcast (“You Don’t Know How Beautiful You Are”), his personal vices (“Ghost Machine”) and doubts (“Inner Peace”), and above all his desperate faith in the saving work and person of Jesus (“Mercy’s War”).

These aren’t the wonderlands of the fantastic imaginings of a Lewis Carroll type, but the wonderlands of life in this world – a place of tension between the beautiful and the oppressive, between eternal truths and damnable lies, between paradoxes and facts and leaps of faith. They’re part of that rare breed of music that I can listen to no matter what mood I’m in, though more often than not I’ve found myself seeking solace in the Wonderlands in the hard times of despair, doubt, and fear. Indeed, Foreman may be the most empathic music artist in the business these days.

2. Blurryface – Twenty One Pilots

If last year was the year my eyes were finally opened to the wonders of Needtobreathe, this was the year of discovering Twenty One Pilots. This duo out of Columbus refuses to be pinned down by genre conventions. They serve up elements of hip-hop, pop, rock, electronica and more, not so much blended together as implemented at different stages of their songs. Frontman Tyler Joseph has said he didn’t realize there were rules to songwriting when he first started creating music, and it shows. Their songs don’t follow an expected progression, but somehow they work.

What truly makes them the cream of the crop of today’s music scene, however, is their lyrics. Twenty One Pilots songs are full of angst, but the not the sort of angst we laugh about when we think about listening to Paramore and Linkin Park in high school. It’s the post-youth angst found in coming to grips with one’s eternal responsibility. The stakes are higher. As we realize we cannot retreat to the petty problems of childhood (“Stressed Out”), we see more and more clearly the struggles and insufficiencies embedded deep in our “heavydirtysouls.” So put away all the gods your fathers served today. Put away your traditions. Believe me when I say we don’t know how to put back the power in our souls. We don’t know how to find what once was in our bones (“Hometown”).

3. Dear Wormwood – The Oh Hellos

My music tastes heavily evolved in another way this past autumn: I fell in love with folk music. I’ve know of The Oh Hellos for years, but they didn’t show up strong on my radar until I saw them open for Needtobreathe last year. It was an opening act that I’ve rarely seen matched, so when they went on a headlining tour for their new album, Dear Wormwood, I made sure to catch a show. These guys are one of those bands whose live show markedly changes how you hear their music, infusing it with vivacity. How many times has a banjo player snuck up behind you during a concert? Probably never, but thanks to the Oh Hellos, it happened to me. That’s not a show you forget in a hurry.

Their second full-length album, Dear Wormwood, draws its name from C.S. Lewis’ classic work, The Screwtape Letters. The book follows an imaginative situation in which a senior demon named Screwtape writes letters to his nephew, Wormwood, instructing him in the art of tempting human souls. The title track of the album speaks to that scenario from the human perspective, perceiving with clear eyes the purposes of the tempter and declaring opposition: “I know who I am now, and all that you’ve made of me. I know who you are now, and I name you my enemy.

4. Home – Josh Garrels

I had the privilege of interviewing Josh Garrels this year shortly after this album dropped. Garrels is one of those artists who (it seems to me) has succeeded through the sheer force of raw talent rather than stage presence or marketing. He first caught my attention with his breakout album, Love and War and Sea In Between. As the title suggests, it is an album full of conflict, spiritual warfare, taking a stand, and persevering on the journey home. On his latest album, Home, Garrels makes a shift in style and tone toward the soulful and contemplative, seeking that deep, intractable, divine rest and comfort available to the believer in the here and now.

Like Jon Foreman, I go to Garrels’ music for therapy and for encouragement. He captures the difficulties and joys of the Christian experience without sounding cliché or effusive. Here’s what he had to say about the new album: “In Home, there is the sense that I needed to know that things could be ok. I can tend towards being melancholy, wearing the weight of things on my shoulders. That can be a good thing, but I think on this album I really was searching. Where is the place where it’s going to be all right? Where is the place that we can find rest and joy and peace?”

5. Strange Trails – Lord Huron

This last slot was a tough choice, but ultimately I have to give the nod to Lord Huron, if for no other reason than that it is autumn incarnate. In the months after I saw them at DC’s Landmark Music Festival at the end of September, Lord Huron was the only band I wanted to listen to. Their music evokes recollections of long, formative journeys and stirs fond memories of foolish romances. I would describe it as ethereal and detached if it didn’t conjure such concrete images of the Virginia countryside descending into winter – cloudy days, damp paths, cool air, old forests and falling leaves.

If I were to sit down to write poetry or literary fiction, this is the album I’d put on in the background.

 

Honorable Mentions

Kids in Love – The Mowglis: This band takes the millennial ideal of love to its most extreme. Sometimes it’s fun to let my worries go and feel like I’m not alone, and even if I show up late, my friends will love me anyway.

Every Open Eye – CHVRCHES: The track “Clearest Blue” might have the sickest build and drop of any song I’ve ever heard, and the album as a whole represents a solid sophomore effort from the Scottish electronic trio. Also, I might be in love with lead singer Lauren Mayberry.

LOVETAP! – Smallpools: If I were to rank this list by songs I listened to the most, this album would have cracked the top five. These guys are like Walk the Moon’s cool little brother.

Mobile Orchestra – Owl City: While I think this is Adam Young’s weakest album as Owl City to date, I still has a lot to enjoy. He takes his faith to new levels of explicit spiritual expression in My Everything and You’re Not Alone, yet also collaborates with mainstream artists across a variety of genres – namely Jake Owen, Aloe Blacc, and Hanson (yeah, apparently Hanson’s still around). The juxtaposition doesn’t always work, and it lacks the innocence and charm – but not the sentimentality – of his earlier albums. Even so, I still count myself a dedicated fan.

California Nights – Best Coast: I’ve lived in DC for three years now, but I had a friend tell me recently that I still exude a decidedly Californian aura. I’d like to think this album by Best Coast (meaning the west coast, of course!) helps keep the Californian alive in me – sunny, beach-bum, alt-rock. The opening track makes me want to roll down the windows and drive through Los Angeles in the summer. And if you want a way to sonically capture the experience of going up to the Hollywood Bowl overlook at night, fire up the title track and drift into the psychedelic night.

Thaumatrope – Marah in the Mainsail: Rather than feeding off of petty breakups and navel-gazing emotion, this self-described “cinematic indie” outfit out of Minneapolis strives to tell stories fit for the movies, and I think they succeed. Their aggressive, boot-stomping folk is the perfect soundtrack for any post-Christmas winter adventure, yet Thaumatrope also has enough deep tracks to undergird those long, cold nights spent around the hearth, gazing into the fire.

Autumn’s death and the whisper of resurrection

It’d be a damnable shame to dwell on morality, as in my previous post here, without a subsequent meditation on the prospect of immortality. Namely, the hope of resurrection.

Autumn is like dying. There’s a reason we use the seasons as metaphors for the trajectory of life. We have the glowing, invigorating spring of childhood, the glorious summer years of adulthood and family life, the ripening of autumn and decay of old age (not without its own beauty of peaceful, resigned contentment) and finally the cold death of winter, the lifeless chill from which the fauna retreats into hibernation and the flora goes dormant.

Here we are in the heart of autumn. October is over, but November and December feel full of promise. The holidays bring with them the prospect of rest – most of us aren’t farmers these days, but even those working in today’s information economy need rest from the digital harvest of their labors. And so winter seems to me to offer a gateway to restoration, through time to retreat and reflect, to spend long hours in reflection and conversation under blankets and around fires with hot mugs of tea and coffee. Winter is a time to take stock of my soul, to descend into dark places so as to correct the awry trajectories of my heart, and to refresh my zeal for another year of adventure in a world of stories.

What I’m getting at here is that whispers of restoration and resurrection run everywhere through the fibers of the natural world. “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime,” said Martin Luther. From the falling of the leaves to the eclipse of the moon, we live in and among these divinely orchestrated cycles, mighty and mysterious. The rain falls down, waters the land, fills the rivers, and runs to the sea. What brings it back? Evaporation, changing from liquid to gas… you can describe the scientific process, sure. We might as well call it a miracle.

Marilynne Robinson has some wonderful reflections on this question in her book “Housekeeping.” At one point the narrator, a young girl named Ruthie living in her deceased grandmother’s house, looks out and sees that two of the apple trees in her grandmother’s orchard have died:

“One spring there were no leaves, but they stood there as if expectantly, their limbs almost to the ground, miming their perished fruitfulness. Every winter the orchard is flooded with snow, and every spring the waters are parted, death is undone, and every Lazarus rises, except these two. They have lost their bark and blanched white, and a wind will snap their bones, but if ever a leaf does appear, it should be no great wonder. It would be a small change, as it would be, say, for the moon to begin turning on its axis. It seemed to me that what perished need not also be lost.” (emphasis mine)

shutterstock_343082936Things perish. That is their nature in a universe of entropy. And even though they have a tendency to come back in new incarnations, what about when those cycles cease, as surely someday they must? Will they perish forever at the end of all things? Robinson doesn’t think so, for it would contradict our nature, our great expectations, our pesky, tenacious human impulse to cling to hope in the most wretched circumstances – especially, in fact, in the most wretched circumstances.

Indeed, for Robinson, desire and longing are a type of prophecy. As C.S. Lewis might say, we have cravings only because something exists to satisfy them. Here’s Robinson again (emphasis once again mine):

“Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water—peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when does our sense know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”

The darker life gets, the greater our craving for the light. Where evil and oppression proliferates, our cries and prayers for justice go up all the louder. Where the world is salt, there is greater need of slaking. In the valley of the shadow of death, the soul yearns for life abundant beyond the grave.

I’m at a loss to explain why, but the plain fact is that struggle, destruction, and lack are built in to the universe – often as a necessary precursors to some good end. Craftsmen labor for decades to hone their handiwork. Scholars study books without end in order to master a subject. The athlete trains with weights that make his motions more difficult and becomes strong. Salmon swim upstream against nature’s currents. Irritation turns grains of sand into pearls. Forest fires till fertile ground. Grapes are smashed, left to ferment, and become wine.

Back to the question. Does the autumn of life, the waning years, represent the final descent into vanity and death, or is it the path to new life? That’s the rub. Like Robinson, I can’t bring myself to accept and end of nothingness, of trees that never return with spring leaves. If autumn were followed by a never-ending winter (a la “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”), it would be a depressing time indeed – the last gasp of life’s pleasantries and warmth and joy. The sentimentality we experience during this season – harvest festivals and joviality, pumpkins and spices, flannel and friendship, bronzed foliage and wood fires burning through the nights – would become impossible. It would be the season of deepest despair and futility.

For those with a limited view of reality, it is a season of despair. Death is the last enemy, the one fate that we cannot defeat. We all fall to winter’s chill in the end, completing the cycle from dust to dust, and we cannot see past it, at least not with our physical faculties.

“Is there someone buried beneath this skin?” sings Jon Foreman. “Is he free when I am locked in my coffin?” Foreman finds a grounded answer first by looking back to the Maker, the one from whom all births spring, who ordained the seasons, turns the rain back into clouds, tells the trees to put out new green leaves, and who has himself passed through the great death of winter. From that old story we look forward, with the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen.

“Resurrection comes, but death comes first. All of our entitlements and rights drive the hearse. In the Maker’s death, death is unmade. And when I lose myself I’m saved – in my coffin.”

Ulysses and the Paradox of Freedom

Last year the band Switchfoot released an EP of songs they recorded for a documentary tour/surf film. One of the songs is called “Liberty.” As the title suggests, it is about freedom, but it begins with a metaphor that challenges our conventional understanding of what freedom actually is:

I tie myself up to the mast

Give up the semblance of control

The sirens sing, but I let them pass

‘cause only you can free my soul

The reference, of course, is from the classic Greek epic The Odyssey. At one point in his journey home, the hero Ulysses is warned about the irresistible song of the sirens, which entices men to chase after it to their destruction. Because he wants to hear the song, Odysseus has his crew tie him to the mast so that he can hear the song without pursuing its seductive beauty.

The songwriter Josh Garrels makes a similar reference in a song called Ulysses, in which he asks to be tied to the mast of the ship on which he is sailing.

But look at those first two lines from Switchfoot’s song: I tie myself up and give up control. What kind of freedom is this?

I had a professor in college who used to point out in his philosophy classes that anytime you are freed from something, you become enslaved to something else. In other words, you always freed into a new place of slavery. Any realistic talk of freedom must include this nuance because freedom cannot exist in a vacuum. The song gets this in the reference to giving up the semblance of control. To deny our “creatureliness,” as the late anthropologist Ernest Becker might say, is to live in an illusion.

“We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our own lives,” he writes in The Denial of Death. “We don’t want to admit that we do not stand alone, that we always rely on something that transcends us, some system of ideas and powers in which we are embedded and which support us.”

Odysseus-003Becker is saying that our meaning and motives are contingent on forces outside of us; we simply must give ourselves away to something or somebody. If we don’t, we will despair, go insane, and generally cease to live in any meaningful sense. It is our nature to latch onto something bigger and better than the self because we are weak and live in the constant shadow of death. This greater object can be a lot of different things – an abstract ideal of virtue or heroism, a lover, a god, or even something as debased as a number in a bank account.

The pastor Tim Keller gives a practical example to explain how freedom must coexist with slavery. If you want the freedom to play the piano, he says, you must put in long hours of practice, forfeiting the freedom to do many other things with those hours. But it is only after you’ve enslaved yourself to the practice of the piano that you can sit down and play stunning pieces of music.

When I was in college, I saw this firsthand as I roomed with a number of music majors. Many days they would leave for the practice rooms early in the morning and not return until midnight. Sometimes they looked weary and miserable from the grind, other times elated because of a breakthrough in mastering a new technique or portion of a piece. Their spirit changed according to how the work seemed to be going in the moment, but at the recital at the end of the semester I saw the fruit of their labor. It was always wondrous to behold – both the magnificence of the piece they played and the raw elation they displayed from performing it.

As finite beings that can only exist at a single place and time, any meaningful sense of freedom must therefore mean a sort of enslavement, because as the example of practicing music implies, saying yes to one thing means saying no to everything else.

Now extrapolate that freedom-enslavement paradigm to the soul – the self, the seat of our core identity and deepest desires. What would it look like to free that? What would it take to free the part of us that has the longings of eternity written on it? Is there any one thing, any one person, to which we can subsume all of the lesser pursuits of freedom?

The philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard thought so. Becker summarizes Kierkegaard’s view thusly: “Once the person begins to look to his relationship to the Ultimate Power, to infinitude, and to refashion his links from those around him to that Ultimate Power, he opens up to himself the horizon of unlimited possibility, real freedom.” In other words, real freedom comes when one grounds his identity and purpose fundamentally in the almighty God.

Both of the aforementioned songs have two additional components to their understanding of liberty that shows us why nothing short of this infinite God will do. The first is an implicit understanding that our impulses and desires are fundamentally flawed.  Ulysses understood that even though he had been warned that pursuing the siren song would kill him, he still had to lash himself to the mast. He knew his own self-control would not be enough to stop him from throwing himself to his doom, and so he gave up control. He sacrificed his own volition, but he preserved his life.

This is profoundly instructive for us today in a world where similarly destructive comforts and pleasures are ever before us, singing a siren song that sounds damn good. When one embraces his own self-centered passions under the guise of authentic self-expression or self-actualization, he will inevitably find himself thrashing after the siren song to an end of bitterness, despair, and (perhaps literally) death. Individual stories of these self-destructive pursuits abound – just read some history or great literature, or look at the lessons of your past.

Thomas_Cole,_The_Voyage_of_Life croppedWe’re bent out of shape, but how can we be set straight? What’s the solution to disordered desires? You can lash yourself to the mast, but that won’t help in the long run unless that mast is on a ship and unless the ship has a destination. Therefore, the final component to this theology of freedom we see in these songs is the idea of the present journey and the hope of home.

Here’s another line from Switchfoot’s Liberty:

Mine is the story headed home.

And Garrels:

I’m sailing home to you and I won’t be long…

So tie me to the mast of this old ship and point me home

Before I lose the one I love

Before my chance is gone

Here we see the faith that our lives have a destination, an ideal home that this world only gives us a small foretaste of. These songs understand that the experience of lashing yourself to the mast is not the end goal of freedom, but a means of self preservation until you make it to your true home – the final resting place.

But how can we reconcile that hope with the siren song in the here and now? How can you be free at your current home when so many of our impulses and desires are misguided? I believe Kierkegaard rightly found the resolution in Christianity, a faith that holds forth a paradoxical freedom by proclaiming both our liberty and our enslavement. One moment, Jesus Christ is saying “come unto me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.” And the next he says “if you would follow me, you must deny yourself and take up your cross.” The Apostle Paul says that “where the spirit of the Lord is there is liberty,” but then he says “you are not your own, because you were bought with a price,” and it is therefore incumbent upon you to live for God’s glory.

And so the Christian, looking beyond the limited possibilities of this present life, submits to a temporal, liberating enslavement. He entrusts himself to Jesus Christ, the freest man to ever live who, in his freedom as God-incarnate, submitted himself to the will of his Father. In being united to Christ, the Christian has hope that one day we will experience true freedom from our selfish, damning impulses in a new home – the Father’s house.

But for now we live in the tension of our depravity. In matters of the self and the soul, we only find freedom by denying our baser nature, fencing ourselves sin, cutting off hands and putting out eyes, tying ourselves to the mast and giving up the semblance of control. The sires sing, but we can let them pass, because only You can free my soul.

Dyin’ to Live: Smallpools’ millenial anthem

A good friend of mine once remarked that our generation is the first that isn’t willing to die for anything. I think he was on to something – not to say that we don’t care about anything (quite the contrary), but rather that confidence and conviction in something outside of self is hard to come by these days.

If Fun.’s “Some Nights” is the anthem of my generation, unsure of what we stand for, then the band Smallpools has written something of a secondary anthem with their new song “Dyin’ to Live.” It probably won’t make the same cultural waves, but it captures the digital ethos of the new millennium. Consider the opening verse:

I wonder, Have I lost my mind?

I was having a meltdown, but I don’t know why

‘Cause I sleep alright, and I eat just fine

I’m not scared of being a lonely man, or even dying, just missing out

That’s a remarkable statement. It is weighty with a sense of its own irony. Who isn’t afraid of loneliness or death? Those are the quintessential human fears. But it is pithy in substance. In the modern age, all of our immediate material needs have been met. We sleep safe and sound with a roof over our heads; we can afford to eat healthy. And so “FOMO” – Fear of Missing Out – is the not-so-deep and dark terror that haunts us. What could be worse than missing out – blowing a chance for greatness or love, not being there with your friends in the most “epic” moments, lingering in your own unfulfilled potential while everyone else goes out and lives awesome lives?

Image from WikipediaWhen you consider the current human condition in the broader perspective of history, it’s not hard to see that FOMO is trite. It is caught up in the present era, decidedly narcissistic, and arises from a skewed view of our friends and acquaintances. But trite or not, the lyric is still an accurate diagnosis. If you were to somehow chart my mind’s activity, a fear of missing out would come up much more frequently than a fear of loneliness or death. And I suspect I’m the rule among my peers, not the exception.

So what is the answer? The song issues no grand aspirations to heroism, honor, or immortality; instead it cries out for an elusive, simple contentment:

It’s not much to ask for

We’re only trying to just feel alright

We’re only trying just to find that steady love

We’re only trying just to buy some time

We’re all just dyin’, we’re all just dyin’ to live

What an anthem. I can imagine this one in a live concert, all of the kids belting it out, voices raised in a unified cry. We wonder why we’re so sad, and feel a rush of fleeting camaraderie with the strangers around us. We think of the love we’re still looking for, and feel just a little more optimistic. We remember the times we wish we could have back and consider the ever-shrinking future. The very act of expressing the longing washes us in a wave of catharsis, which reaches its peak in the bridge:

I know there’s something better

I cannot fight what’s falling apart

I’ll get myself together, together, together

My shield of rusted metal can’t keep this world from falling apart

So let’s tear this down together, together, together

It’s not much to ask for

It’s easy to dismiss the young person’s angst in the midst of raging emotions and a life with hardly any meaningful responsibility. But as C.S. Lewis might suggest, this guttural sense that the life we have right now isn’t good enough is a clue about the deeper appetites of the soul. It’s pretty self-evident, after all, that the world is falling apart. We also know that our lives could be better. And we fear (rightly so) that there’s nothing we can do to stop it or fix it. We don’t think we want much, just to feel alright and find that steady love and not feel pressed for time.

Time, love, and a clear conscience, however, are a tall order. Should we really expect life to deliver them?

The older voices in our lives tell us to suppress these questions. They tell us to suck it up and realize the world doesn’t revolve around us. There’s a lot of practical wisdom in this. Most of us won’t amount to something “special” – whatever “special” means. We may find a surprising amount of satisfaction in casting aside some of our insatiable ambitions, making a decision, and sticking to it even if it doesn’t fulfill all our expectations. Planting ourselves in one place with a steady job, a spouse and a family may feel like settling, but there’s a lot to be said for stability – and for choosing contentment (which is a choice, after all). Here in the routine of selflessly sustaining others, perhaps, is something of that steady love. Maybe by letting go of our obsession over all the things that we potentially could be doing with our time, and enjoying on the present moment, we can buy a little more time.

Maybe. There’s a scene near the end of the film Boyhood where the main character Mason’s mother is about to send him off to college. At this point we’ve spent about two hours watching him grow from grade school nearly to adulthood. He decides not take a certain picture of himself to college. Why would he want to take a piece of his past with him like that, he reasons. His mother sees it, and for some reason the act of leaving the past behind, forgotten, triggers an existential breakdown. She begins to weep.

“You know what I’m realizing? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced… again. Getting my master’s degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my f***ing funeral!”

I haven’t been through the generational process of marriage and children, but that scene scares me. It sounds like even the more traditional steady life, pursued as an end in itself, will leave us like Saito in the film Inception: lost in unreality, “filled with regret, waiting to die alone.”

Where, then, can you go for the life Smallpools is singing about here? I think they’re asking the right questions. They’re right to feel dissatisfied. Most nights we don’t know what we stand for, but we’re pretty darn sure it’s something better than what we’ve got right now. We’re all just dyin’ to live.

My top five albums of 2014

Last year around this time I posted a list of my top ten songs from 2013. Over the past year, however, I’ve listened to more music–and more new music–than ever before. I’ve also been going to more live shows of my favorite artists than ever before. It’s too hard to pick another set of top ten songs, so this time I’ve broadened the scope.

If I could only listen to five albums from 2014 for the rest of my life, here’s what they would be:

1. Fading West – Switchfoot

Anyone who knows me remotely well knows that Switchfoot is my favorite band, so it’s natural that their latest album would the top spot of the year. Spotify data further backs this up as most of the tracks from Fading West topped my 100-most-played-songs list.

As I concluded in my review of the album:

“The subjects and the struggles of Switchfoot’s songs are timeless – brokenness and depravity, cultural numbness and consumerism, time and morality, hope and restoration. Rightly grappled with, those never get old. They probe the vast depths of our humanity with questions worthy of song. In Fading West, Switchfoot found a way to skirt the clichés by returning to the same eternal questions in a fresh musical context, reminding us that true hope is ‘anchored on the other side / with the colors that live outside of the lines.'”

2. Rivers in the Wasteland – Needtobreathe

I will always remember 2014 as the year that I truly “discovered” Needtobreathe. I had heard of them and listened to their hits on Christian radio in junior high and high school, and while I didn’t overtly dislike them, my attitude toward them had been pretty “meh”.

Seeing them live changed all of that. Aside from Switchfoot, it was my favorite concert of the year. I’ve grown to love these guys for many of the same reasons I like Switchfoot. Since opening for Taylor Swift a while back, they’ve been straddling the line between the Christian and secular music scenes (they played in the Thanksgiving Parade this year, for example), but they do it by writing stinking good songs. I think Rivers in the Wasteland is their best album to date.

3. When I Was Younger – Colony House

If one could conceive of an alternative/indie-rock act in the tradition of Switchfoot and Needtobreathe, it might look something like Colony House. Two of the band members are sons of Contemporary Christian Music legend Steven Curtis Chapman. They’ve clearly inherited some musical talent but refuse to live inside their father’s niche. The result is a punchy yet spiritually substantive freshman album that is uplifting without being cliche, guaranteed to cure a case of the Mondays as well as provide emotional solace to those facing the worst of life’s sufferings.

“We’ve got to roll with the punches, fight through the fire,” sings vocalist Caleb Chapman in one of the my favorite tracks. “When the trouble comes baby we can work our way around it / Love is a lesson to be learned with time / If we can climb the mountain then we can work our way around it.”

Tell me you don’t feel better already.

4. Talking Is Hard – Walk the Moon

This one only came out a few weeks ago, so I may be biased by the novelty of it and have yet to see if it will stand the test of time. What I do know, however, is that it features the hands-down best party song of the year, “Shut Up and Dance.” For what it attempts to be, that song is perfect. What Owl City’s “Good Time” was to my summer of 2012, Shut Up and Dance was to the fall of 2014. It has already sparked a number of impromptu dance parties with some of my best friends. It stands as the cornerstone and inspiration for my collaborative “Chairdancing” playlist on Spotify (which you should follow). And I already have no doubt that hearing it live when I see Walk the Moon this April will be one of the best moments of 2015.

There’s much to be said for the rest of the album too, which solidifies Walk the Moon’s dominance in the indie rock world. The opening track Different Colors hits the catchy, progressive, millennial sweet spot, and Aquaman closes it down with some nostalgia-heavy, emotive 80s vibes.

5. Before the Waves – Magic Man

This Boston synth-pop group has been described as a mashup of Death Cab for Cutie and Passion Pit. It’s an apt comparison that effectively sums why these guys are so fantastic. Their music is downright infectious, but it has enough freshness and a sense of romance and wanderlust (song titles include “Texas” and “Paris”, for example) so that hipsters can listen to it without feeling ashamed.

 

Honorable mentions

(read: albums that would make a top 10 list and really good EPs)

Strange Desire – Bleachers: Fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff is a great artist in his own right.

Blonde – Ghost Beach: Self-dubbed “tropical grit-pop;” this is perfect escapist music if warm coastal locales and sticky-sweet electronic pop are your thing.

Supermodel – Foster the People: This is actually a really good sophomore album thanks to its heavy existential bent; I can’t figure out why it didn’t make more waves.

From the Spark EP – Grizfolk: I’d make this a centerpiece of any roadtrip playlist.

Parallel Play EP – Panama Wedding: All The People is the quintessential summer jam.

Smoke EP – House of Heroes: These guys might have my favorite album of all time in The End is Not the End. Their latest EP continues their signature, spiritually substantive, alt-rock.

The Edge of the Earth: Unreleased Songs from the film “Fading West” – Switchfoot: In addition to being an album, “Fading West” was also the title of a surf film that Switchfoot made; this EP of unreleased songs from the film made for a pleasant surprise later in the year.

Suburbia and the stock backdrop

washington-dc-architecture

Since moving to Washington, D.C. almost two years ago, I’ve been trying to figure out why I can no longer stand suburbia. Every time I go back out to the suburbs, I want to leave after 24 hours – if that.

At the end of last summer, I was driving back from a camping trip in West Virginia with a few friends, and we stopped at a Chick-fil-A in the suburbs on the way back. One of them made a comment about how the shopping center we were in comforted her because it made her feel like she was at home, with its plaza full of nice chain restaurants like Pei Wei and Chipotle and stores like Office Max and Best Buy.

I agreed. It reminded me of my own home in California. You can find plenty of shopping centers like that in Bakersfield or Santa Clarita.

My friend was from Texas, though. And we were in Virginia. You could have swapped out one for the other and no one would know any better.

A week or two later, while listening to an obscure Switchfoot song called C’mon C’mon, it hit me. The first verse goes like this:

You’ve been living life like it’s a sequel

And you’re already bored with the plot

As if the cast and the score

Are more money than before

But the script and the backdrops are stock

The backdrops are stock.

suburbs-tract-housing

That’s it. Songwriter Jon Foreman is speaking about life in a much more holistic, poetic sense than the place you happen to live, but in the chain-restaurant-stocked malls of America, gleaming with affluence, we see the “real life” embodiment of the stock backdrop. It’s like those internet stock photos that make blog posts look like a dime a dozen. The pictures are framed correctly and well-lit, the models are attractive, the scenarios they communicate are clear, but my goodness they’re boring. They’re so ubiquitous these days that we can spot a stock photo in a second. They’re better than no image at all, of course, but they carry the stale whiff of banality.

It’s colorful and pretty, but excessively pastiche, the suburban scene. How can Virginia, Texas, and California all look the same? Why the hundred-store-chains?

More money than before.

There’s something remarkable about how a person can drive 2,500 miles from coast to coast of the United States and eat at the same restaurant every stop of the way. It’s one of those unprecedented facets of our era of late-capitalism. I can understand why postmodern thinkers and urban hipsters feel like the wealth of the suburbs is just a façade of marketing tricks obscuring reality. I can understand how people worry that the suburbs turns our experience of community into a series of isolated dots on a map rather than warm circles of neighbors.

At this point I suppose some readers will conclude I’m saying corporate chains are dehumanizing. Maybe I am. “Dehumanizing” is probably a little too strong though.

As a middle-class consumer, I’m glad that Walmart exists and appreciate how it frees up my budget, but it doesn’t make the world a more interesting place. There are better sights to take in than shopping malls full of Foot Lockers and American Eagles and Forever 21s. There’s more to savor than Starbucks and TGI Fridays. There’s more to do on the weekends than catching a flick at your local AMC Theater.

I love how Switchfoot’s song ends:

So C’mon C’mon C’mon

Let’s abandon this darkness

Oh C’mon C’mon C’mon

Let’s follow this through

Yeah so C’mon C’mon C’mon

Everything’s waiting

We will live like fire and gold

When everything’s new

When everything’s new.

washington-dc-sunset

“Variety is the spice of life,” goes the old cliche, but it speaks to something intrinsic in human nature: the drive to find newness. I have found the true wealth of cities to lie not in dollars or possessions, but in their trove of experiences: the bars and coffee shops; the parks and museums; the neighborhoods and architecture; the surrounding rivers, beaches, and forests; the people from so many tongues, tribes, and nations. Yes, there lies the city, living, pulsating, breathing all around you, an inexhaustible well of newness – flawed and wretched of course – but still a taste of life as it was meant to be.

ADDENDUM: Tyler Castle has a wonderful piece at Values & Capitalism entitled “How the Hipster Ethic Is Revitalizing the American Economy.” It takes a much less subjective and much more clearly articulated angle on the idea I’m trying to get across here.