Hard to believe that it is *that* time of year again, but here we are closing out 2012 and with it comes the attempt to tier the music that has overwhelmed (and at times underwhelmed) our hearts and souls these past 12 months. It has been a year with some surprises to be sure – from the horse dancing glee of Psy with “Gangnam Style” to the recent (so-called) reunion of Nirvana with Paul McCartney fronting the grunge remnant like some grandpa harbinger of the second coming (for what its worth… I thought the performance was a blast… especially Dave Grohl’s Animal from “the Muppets” drumming and Krist Novoselic dressing in Cosplay for the opening of “The Hobbit”).
Like many of you I have a drive-by accident fascination with top 10 lists. Most are a flaming car crash of personal choices that I just can’t help myself to spent too much time pouring over which usually only distracts me from more pressing things.
To that I say to you, dear reader, just keep driving if this isn’t your cup of green tea…
So here we go.
These are not meant to be ordered from top to bottom, best to worst but is merely a cataloging of the music that challenged my mind, stirred my soul, surprised me musically and lyrically, and at times put a smile on my face, a strut in my step, a fist pounding on my dashboard, or moved me to stillness and contemplation in an ever increasingly frenetic world:
Fun. Some Nights
Thought I better get this one right out there: I freaking LOVED this record.
OK… there… I said it.
Yes, this New York band seriously blew up this year and has become something of a radio/internet staple with “We Are Young” and “Some Nights” topping Spotify and Pandora for longer than anyone wants to remember. Fun. are a pop band pure and simple with great vibes and fantastic beats and production values that makes it near to impossible to sit in your chair and blithely listen with your brain alone (when your band website is ‘ournameisfun.com‘ you know they are not seeking emo cred). The fact that my young kids *and* my college students are jamming to this band tells you about the reach they have achieved in a short period of time. Whether they will go the way of one hit wonder acts like T’Pau (Remember them? Nah… didn’t think so…) of course remains to be seen and heard, but this year they certainly showed that the big drum sound coupled with looping chorus sing-a-longs speak to the masses. Also, the slightly ambiguous message of trying to break free from the lock step mechanization of life seemed to grab at people as good anthems often do. I for one certainly enjoyed these tracks as my guilty pleasure of the year.
Admiral Fallow, Trees Burst in Snow
This past Spring I was on sabbatical in Oxford and had a chance to see Mumford and Sons live in Scotland on the banks of Loch Lomond at Rockness 2012 and just missed seeing these guys at the festival. Thankfully my Scottish friends encouraged me to jump on the Admiral Fallow bandwagon and have loved their recent album Trees Burst in Snow. True, I am a sucker for the Scottish sensibilities and themes and lead singer/songwriter Louis Abbott doesn’t disappoint. In talking to Paste magazine about his writing for their first album Boots Meet My Face, Abbott says that
“All of the songs document the first chapter of my life, be it memories from school or kicking a ball about with my childhood chums. All are taken from real life events. There’s no fiction. I’m not into making up stories or characters for the sake of trying to stir emotions. They are songs about friends and family as well as a fair bit of self-evaluation.
The collection from the first record was all more personal stuff about my upbringing and teenage years, but when we went to put these songs together [Trees Burst in Snow], or rather, when I started working on ideas for them, I realized that I hadn’t really done an awful lot in my own life.
I realized that I’d have to look outside what was going on in my own life a little bit to try to find inspiration for a new set of lyrics. So it is more worldly-feeling, whether it’s financial problems or violent crime, mostly stuff from newspaper articles…and trying to put myself in the shoes of the characters that are created from those situations, which I hadn’t done at all on the first record.”
There is something ‘true’ in Admiral Fallow to be sure – not so much fiction as a transcendent realness in the simplicity and calling for ‘something more’ in our lives. This is particularly true in the recent single from Trees Burst in Snow “Isn’t This World Enough?” which calls for a life that doesn’t seek religion in order to escape the pains and joys of this world, but learning to dwell deeply and richly in the world we have been given. While I am not saying this is a song that aligns perfectly with the Christian story, it paves a road worthy of the Gospels and certainly Jesus’ now and not yet framing of the Kingdom of God in the Sermon of the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6). While this road doesn’t take us all the way to the Cross, it certainly drives a better route for most of the journey than most escapist CCM tunes.
Jack White, Blunderbuss
Jack White is a ‘freak of nature’ in all the ways that phrase connotes. Seriously, the guy just makes sound/music/noise in ways that is simply uncanny. I have always been a lukewarm White Stripes fan – pretty late to the party with ‘Seven Nation Army’ and have never actually purchased a full CD of their work. But then Jack White slowly began to grow on me as he ventured into production work (his work with Loretta Lynn on 2004′s Van Lear Rose rivals any of the minimalist comeback projects Rick Rubin took on including the American Recordings with Johnny Cash), his geek-like passion for vinyl and old school record stores (check out his Third Man Records and on-going commitment to pressing vinyl in an age of digital) and his part with Jimmy Page and The Edge in the documentary “It Might Get Loud” where he talks about the influence that Delta blues clashing with Motown had on him as he developed into an artist. Blunderbuss as a solo album is a fantastic example of a rock star slowly moving away from being a one or two trick pony and truly reaching for the next rung on the creative ladder. He is no longer merely a retro act who seems to mimic Robert Plant. More than any album I heard this year Blunderbuss lives up to its title in that it is a tightly packed, muzzle loaded weapon that fires in short, explosive unpredictable blasts that might aim at one thing yet hit anything in its range regardless of creed or culture. Songs like “I’m Shakin’” show an unashamed love for roots blues and that he is not afraid of having a good time. Yet it is tracks like “Love Interruption” that you see risks being taken that unnerve you and force you to ask “what the heck is going on here?” Set against a simple guitar riff with Motown-era backup singers, White seems to be singing about anything BUT the notion of love that is so ubiquitous in pop music. He wants love to destroy, ravage, consume, renounce and ultimately remain distant and distinct from him. Over and over he essentially acknowledges something in the true nature of love that many will only acknowledge to their therapist and rarely sing about: that love is always something that we can never, ever control. Love in the human and divine sense share this truth – it will always master us and we will never master it. Yet pop music has sold generation after generation the half truth that love is merely a lovely, beautiful, redemptive and hopeful thing while Jack White, that ‘freak of nature’ has told us something approaching the full monty in regard to love: that it is not a thing at all… but found in relationships which means that we will never, ever survive as isolated individuals as if we add love on top of our unchanged lives.
Jack White is right… love will destroy you and this is more Gospel than most preachers on a Sunday will tell you from the pulpit. And this honest madness of word and sound bleeds through Blunderbuss. It is not a perfect album and this is also its strength. White is giving us a raw experience that punches and grasps like a starving animal or a drowning man seeking something, anything to give evidence of life.
I do not see the world that Jack White sees nor do I find everything appealing…
But I could say the same thing about the prophets and ministry of Jesus as well.
Macklemore+ Ryan Lewis, The Heist
What is there to say that hasn’t been said about the amazing rise of the “pull yourself up by your boot straps” story that is Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. These local Seattle hip hop artists have been working the scene for a few years now, releasing a few EPs and finally pushed through with a fantastic debut album that doesn’t disappoint. Yes, there are Macklemore haters out there, but most of them want something from this duo that was never in their job description. While so much of hip hop recently has become angry and cynical to the point of requiring some anti-rage medication just to listen through the first track, Macklemore has chosen a different path paved with a long forgotten core trait of humanity: the search for joy. From their hysterical song and video “Thrift Shop” (check out this live performance on Jimmy Fallon to get the vibe) to the tent revival preaching against consumerism in “Wings” and the serious call for churches to acknowledge that taverns and bars are more committed to the lost and lonely than their locked up sanctuaries are in “Neon Cathedral”, Macklemore brings an optimism and joy to his rhymes that Ryan Lewis lifts up through his ample supply of spare beats and deep cuts that enliven a smile on your face and a commissioning to change and live that is simply absent from the gansta mess of what has become the depressing death march of many hip hop artists today. Whatever your views on discussions of sexuality debates that have polarized the church today, I will go on record as saying that Macklemore’s “Same Love” is perhaps the best love song written this year. As I wrote on my reflections on the song for the Rock and Theology project:
The video/song draws us to a celebration where confetti as a manifestation of Grace continually flutter down from the ceiling akin to pure white communion cards falling on everyone announcing that the sacraments are now open to all as Macklemore sings:
Whatever god you believe in
We come from the same one
Strip away the fear
Underneath it’s all the same love
About time that we raised up.
As the song fades out, Mary Lambert who sings with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis on “Same Love” repeats the refrain from 1 Corinthians 13 “Love is patient, Love is Kind” over and over as an echoing mantra so that the last words we hear are not merely song, but scripture. In this Macklemore and Ryan Lewis truly take on the role of prophet. With a musical shift that recalls a vintage era of Salvation Army brassand an off-tempo tambourine, the song is no longer disposable as most pop songs are but now woven into our collective memory by binding it to one of the most popular scripture passages evoked at wedding services. St. Paul’s grand call to Christian virtue in his epistle to the church of Corinth is now bound up in this Hip Hop song that calls a generation to take seriously [what the prophets of the Old Testament hold as core values]: justice (mišpāṭ), righteousness (ṣedāqâ) and offers a challenge to turn (hāpak) away from anything that prevents another human being from experiencing the grace and mercy God desires to rain down on all creation like pure white falling confetti at a wedding celebration where the Bridegroom awaits for us all at the alter.
I don’t often tear up when listening to a song for the first time and rarely on repeated listens, but there is something so stirring in this simple, Gospel-tinged plea for another vision of humanity, of love, and of God that I continue to be challenged to pray, to rethink my witness in the world, and who I am inviting into my life as friend and who Jesus challenges me to consider as “neighbor”. I believe that this is the type of song that may even save lives in ways that the recent “It Gets Better” campaign has done for many teens struggling with their identity in a world that offers cruelty when difference is shown. If this isn’t what Rock and Theology is about, I don’t know what it.
I do hope Macklemore keeps an eye toward critical excellence and works harder at his lyrics. But I also hope that he doesn’t lose sight of this (dare I say it) romantic calling to a generation to seek after a joyous depth to life, to challenge our systems for the sake of love, and to dance till our ‘grandpa style’ bursts into flame.
Of Monsters and Men, My Head is an Animal
Honestly… what is the *deal* with Iceland?! I mean, with bands like The Sugarcubes and Bjork, Sigur Ros, Mum, and now Of Monsters and Men… you have to wonder what is in the water over there! Of Monsters and Men hit the airwaves with all the gleeful force of a circus parade that everyone is given free tickets to and the popcorn never ends. As they say on their website, they consider themselves an “amiable group of day dreamers who craft folkie pop songs” which sums up their debut My Head is an Animal quite well. Continuing the traditions of the ensemble stylings similar to Arcade Fire and The Polyphonic Spree – both of whom invite a constant sing-a-long vibe – Of Monsters and Men is certainly a band to watch. In his review in the Guardian of My Head is an Animal, David Simpson points to the simple joy of “la la la” and “hey hey’s” in their music as a big part of their success:
The reasons for their success are simple: terrific songs that combine the folky with the epic, and instantly infectious choruses big on “la la la”s and “hey hey”s. Delivering these songs using everything from glockenspiels to Motown drums, chants and stomping feet, they turn campfire singalongs into skyscraping anthems, the contrast between male and female vocalists Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson making them sound something like a fusion of Cyndi Lauper, the Cardigans and Arcade Fire. Songs about beasts and forests abound with joy, but with a less tangible, mournful undercurrent that gives them an otherwordly, magical quality.
As with many bands that evoke a similar sense of crazy instrumentation of found items from the children’s toy chest to the joyous handclaps and “la la la’s” of a sing-a-long, Of Monsters and Men also reminds us that we are not alone and have a party that we are invited to. This is one of the things that music does for the sonic mystics among us: locating harmonic reminders that in a world of darkness there are people and songs who we have been seeking all our lives and when we find them – be it in a singer/songwriter or in a Icelandic circus parade – we will follow and sing along with all our heart.
Give “Mountain Song” a listen and just try not to be optimistic…
Sera Cahoone, Deer Creek Canyon
A few months back I had one of those musical encounter moments that you always long for but only happens every once and a while. It had been a rather long day, some discouraging conversations with folks and bad traffic beyond belief. I wasn’t really listening to the radio as much as hearing some buzz in the midst of scatter thoughts when a song I had never heard powered by a voice I swear I had heard before filled the car. At this point I turned – rather floated – off the highway and had one of those ‘driveway listening’ times where you sit and wait for the song to finish in order to find out who it is. While the DJ didn’t give me the artist and song in the set, I did go through the KEXP setlist and discovered Sera Cahoone.
Every season needs some midtempo time keeper and Sera Cahoone’s debut release with Sub Pop records – Deer Creek Canyon - is it for 2012. Paced at a perfect Goldilocks speed – not too hot, not too cold – Cahoone has a voice and musical sensibility that finds the space between rush and rest with ease. She is not the low fi queen that Gillian Welch is nor is she banging out manic tunes of worry and wonder like some alt-country Screamo band. No, Cahoone is not in a rush to tell her stories of love lost and found. Backed by an able band of traditionalists on fiddles, banjo, drumbox and what-have-you, her voice rises and falls with the beating of a heart at restful peace. And it is that voice of hers that make all the difference in these compositions. She has a distinctive deep luster that draws from the lower register of life yet sits vocally with toes in a clear reflecting pond drawing circle upon circle as the daylight turns slowly to night and then raises with the dawning of new hope. She brings energy to the stand out track “Naked” that pulses strong and true with a clear rhythm section which shows something of her legacy as the daughter of a dynamite salesman in Colorado who took to the drums at the age of 11. There is the subtle blasts of deep mining in her compositions that tease you out of the caves of solitude and leave you longing for some connection in this life or perhaps the next. More substantive than mere audio comfort food, Sera Cahoone sings in the ways you always hoped the thing called ‘home’ would sound.
Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
OK… low hanging fruit to be sure… but as hard as I tried to justify why this album doesn’t stand up to the contemporary voices in order to not be accused of giving in to my heroes, I couldn’t deny the Boss his place on the list.
To be sure, with a back catalog that is a pillar and standard of rock and roll for the ages (yup… hyperbole warranted…) it is certainly not the best album of his long career. But Bruce has recently seen his musical output move from merely self discovery and past commentary of a bygone era and now moved, akin to Leonard Cohen (see my comments below) into the role of a prophet and sage with a musical repose facing hopefully and fearlessly into the future. As a timely commentary on economic downturn, political disappointment, and the crushing loss of male dignity in an age that calls for men to choose between either aspiring to (1) become mindless steroid induced killing machines or (2) emaciated emo priests in varying reposes of indifferent despair cowering and mumbling insipid poetry written in their own navels, Bruce in Wrecking Ball has faced into the howling winds of our time and offers a path through such extremes. As a prophetic, populist bard and paladin for our times, Bruce begins the album with a Walt Whitman-like ‘barbaric YAWP’ essentially screaming into the abyss of our age with certainty and courage through this song cycle and offers a unique and necessary form of communal action and humble masculinity that acknowledges the models of power that have been used in the past to solve the clear and present dangers of our time but holds back enough to allow wisdom and community to arise. While the title track to Wrecking Ball was written as an ode to Giants stadium built in the swamps of New Jersey only now to be torn down, Springsteen takes this metaphor to universal heights as a tale of modernity seeking places of gathering and meaning and the enduring drive of common folk to rebuilt and soar even under the worst of conditions. Songs like “Jack of All Trades” and “Death to My Hometown” are as solemn a lamentation for the loss of purpose during economic downturn as it comes. Yet akin to the best U2 albums (you *know* that we would come to them at some point…) that begin with lament and end with a benediction, Wrecking Ball leaves the listener with a gospel call for unity, humility and hopefulness with “Rocky Ground” followed by “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “We Are Alive” that ask us to work together for a common good that is a breath of fresh air. As Springsteen crests into his sixties he has become the rock sage calling for the better angels of our nature and for that I am thankful.
In a review I did for Rock and Theology when Wrecking Ball first came out, I cited Fr. Andrew Greeley’s fantastic article “The Catholic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen” from Americaback in 1988 where he points what animates and enlivens Springsteen’s music and the Catholic spirit he draws from and why we must continually attune our ears to hear the grace notes between the bars of the rhymes and turns of the chorus:
Springsteen sings of religious realities—sin, temptation, forgiveness, life, death, hope — in images that come (implicitly perhaps) from his Catholic childhood, images that appeal to the whole person, not just the head, and that will be absorbed by far more Americans than those who listened to the Pope … The piety of these songs—and I challenge you to find a better word—is sentient without being sentimental…
I have no desire to claim Springsteen as Catholic in the way we used to claim movie actors and sports heroes. I merely observe that this is (not utterly unique) Catholic imagery on the lips of a troubadour whose origins and present identification are Catholic. I also observe that the Catholic origin of the imagery serves to explain them. I finally observe that the critics seem to pay no attention to the images, perhaps because without a Catholic perspective one has a hard time understanding where they come from and what they mean.
So if the troubadour’s symbols are only implicitly Catholic (and perhaps not altogether consciously so) and if many folks will not understand them or perceive their origins, what good are they to the Catholic Church? Surely they will not increase Sunday collections or win converts or improve the church’s public image. Or win consent to the pastoral letter on economics.
But those are only issues if you assume that people exist to serve the church. If, on the other hand, you assume that the church exists to serve people by bringing a message of hope and renewal, of light and water and rebirth, to a world steeped in tragedy and sin, you rejoice that such a troubadour sings stories that maybe even he does not know are Catholic.
And to this point I lift up Wrecking Ball as truly one of the great albums of the year. Yes, it is a popular album with some patently simple hooks. Yes, it is an album where Bruce trades once again on his trademark sound and doesn’t invent nor deconstruct anything of note musically similar to Mumford and Sons’ Babel. Yes, Bruce is a multi-millionaire singing about the common person that seems bizarre to those who believe that only those in suffering and loss can sing such things (an argument that rings flat akin to saying that the best car mechanics are those who drive irresponsibly and have crashed their cars). But the truth is in the songs and the people who have responded over and over to them.
While Wrecking Ball is not his best, it will be an album that is worthy of the Springsteen canon… and that is saying something.
Mumford and Sons, Babel
Few things are worse for an artist than the challenge of returning to your fans with a sophomore effort after such a debut smash. For Marcus Mumford and his band the bar was set impossibly high with Sigh No More, and while critics were fairly ‘meh’ about their sophomore album Babel, I have to say that it really holds up in ways I didn’t expect it to.
For my money, if Mumford and Sons had formed a decade earlier, they would have probably been a great grunge band. Their ability to connect with their audience both lyrically and sonically, the turn in their music toward the life born in flesh and wrestling to escape this mortal coil, the frantic attack of their instruments packing as much sound [btw - not noise... but sound. Remember, sound has purpose while noise does not. This is a common error for those listening to grunge - thinking they hear noise when they are being walloped with sound] as possible into the smallest space. Yet Marcus Mumford missed the grunge boat as an adult but was certainly surrounded by it in the midst of his Vineyard childhood in the UK. Sandwiched between the spirit praise of the Charismatic movement born in California with the likes of John Wimber that fueled a generation of early Christian rock pioneers and the tidal flow of acts like the Clash washing onto American beaches that returned bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, and Nirvana to the UK shores, Mumford had a sonic baptism of the ‘now and not yet’ Kingdom which forged into the musical counterpointing of a clash of musical cultures found in the band’s two albums and certainly seen in their live shows. One of the critiques of Babel is that the band hasn’t strayed from Sigh No More in their sonic pallet choices. I always find this a peculiar critique if the band has used the tried and true format to good (if not great) effect. Akin to the Eucharist, the question isn’t if it is novel every time, but is it efficacious? (Which is to say in relation to the communion meal ‘Does this have meaning and connect deeply with our present, the past of the saints, and the future of the Savior’s banquet prepared from the foundations of the world for us’?) While Babel is not the Messianic banquet by any means, it is certainly efficacious in that while it is not ‘new’, it does call for ‘renewal’ in ways both deep and wide in the lives of the listeners and the world at large.
Leading off with a call to worship in the title track “Babel” with the frenetic crash of banjo, guitar, and kick drum , Marcus Mumford calls out to the unnamed God of Acts 17 to “come down from the mountain and stand where we’ve been/breath is weak and our body is thin”. This crying out is fueled by the twinned push of the ensemble showing no slack in pacing (a worthy critique to be sure… they could learn something about pacing from Sera Cahoone and Leonard Cohen as I mentioned) and the raw, anguished pleading of Marcus Mumford’s vocal delivery. In the lead single “I Will Wait” Mumford takes on to the penitent lover/devotee who will “kneel down” and “wait for now” and in this kneeling will “know my ground/Raise my hands/Paint my spirit gold/Bow my head/Keep my heart slow” Throughout the album the roles of the prophet who calls down God from the mountain tops and the penitent devotee morph into one another and in one of the last tracks entitled “Hopeless Wanderer” the narrative lines come together in the trope of the Prodigal Son who is called out of the woods as someone who has ”wrestled long with my youth” and “tried so hard to live in the truth/But do not tell me all is fine” Admitting his inability to reconcile the life of calling and the life of despair, Mumford admits that “when I lose my head, I lose my spine” and “won’t remember the words that you said/You brought me out from the cold/Now, how I long, how I long to grow old” To this Mumford cries out the chorus as a “hopeless wanderer” who wants nothing more than just to be held, embraced and strive to “learn to love the skies I’m under.” This sums up Babel and why I challenge the critics who too quickly dismissed the album as an also-ran to Sigh No More. Push and crash of the frantic acoustic fireworks coupled with the pleas to be still, to be held, to find peace makes for a fantastic exploration of the modern cry to find some solace in the midst of the maddening acceleration of 21st century so-called life. There is a reason that Mumford and Sons found such a rabidly loyal audience for they are writing and singing the modern life into a sacred/secular hymnody in ways that much of contemporary Christendom needs to listen to. This is noted by Will Hermes in his review of Babel in Rolling Stone:
“But proselytizing is not the mission on Babel. Where Rick Ross slings church flavor to add levity to street tales, Mumford uses it to supersize and complicate love songs. “Lovers’ Eyes” is merely the best of several songs that wrestle with betrayer’s guilt. On “Broken Crown” he seems both sinner and sinned against. “The pull on my flesh was just too strong,” he cries with moving hair-shirt candor. Disgraced politicians could learn something from this dude. Colored with brass, group vocals and Ben Lovett’s understated piano, “Lovers’ Eyes” and “Broken Crown” (which, like “Little Lion Man,” makes showstopping use of the word “fucked”) show the subtler and more British folk elements that marked the group’s debut. Those flavors get toned down on this record, which is too bad. But the power of the arrangements and Marcus Mumford’s tortured-vicar vocals is undeniable. And if his conflation of love, lust and Christian spirituality sounds more like pre-dawn confusion than neat Bible lessons, it feels all the truer for it. His parents should be proud.”
Father John Misty, Fear Fun
What’s not to love about an album that name checks Martin Heidegger, John-Paul Sarte and Neil Young all in one song? Contrary to the claims of transcendental realness espoused by Louis Abbott of Admiral Fallow who made claims that their music includes ‘no fiction’ (see comments above), Josh Tilliman aka ‘Father John Misty’ holds that what animates his album is pure alter ego. As he says on the Sub Pop website, paraphrasing author Philip Roth, the entire project for his is summed up as “‘It’s all of me and none of me, if you can’t see that, you won’t get it’. What I call it is totally arbitrary, but I like the name. You’ve got to have a name. I never got to choose mine. People who make records are afforded this assumption by the culture that their music is coming from an exclusively personal place, but more often than not what you hear are actually the affectations of an ’alter-ego’ or a cartoon of an emotionally heightened persona.”
As Tilliman lays bare for us in his debut as Father John Misty, the journey of the artist is truly the dance between the poles of pure autobiography and the abstraction of all realities in order to find and inhabit the clashing of realities both lived out and aspired to. For the artist known as ‘Father John Misty’ the journey away from the types of music Josh Tilliman made with his band Fleet Foxes has been something of a revelation befitting his priestly title he has named himself with. The album Fear Fun is full of chance as well as purposeful encounters with the philosophical and the mundane, the honky tonk and the minimalist, the erotic and the indifferent who all find a pathway both into and out from both our public dreams and our most private confessionals. As Tilliman recounts his journey of leaving his successful gig as the drummer for Fleet Foxes, wandering aimlessly up and down the West Coast in a van and eventually landing in Southern California, the need to escape the life he was in and find another one speaks volumes to a generation who embraced Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues” as a soundtrack for feeling stuck yet not knowing where to go. Fear Fun seems to chronicle what happens in the midst of the journey to “the world outside” which “is so inconceivable often I barely can speak” and leaves us “tongue-tied and dizzy” and so confused and alone that we wonder aloud “What good is it to sing helplessness blues, why should I wait for anyone else?” As Father John Misty muses throughout Fear Fun perhaps singing the Helplessness Blues we take us on a long strange trip that is far from over but sure a heck of a journey worth piling in the van for.
Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas
While I started with the young upstarts of Fun. it seemed only right to give the last words to the true noble sage in this year’s line up. In their list of Best Albums for 2012, Paste magazine sums up Leonard Cohen‘s latest album as a continuation of deeply Hebraic carnality into the twilight of life:
A self-described “manual for living with defeat,” Old Ideas is a Leviticus and Deuteronomy of suggestions of atonement for carnal error and misplaced faith that puts to rest any idea that Cohen has mellowed with age. Though his “days may be few” as he sings on “Darkness”—the closest thing to a radio-friendly hit that Old Ideas has to offer—Cohen proves that he’s not ready to go down yet as he delves into each of these new songs with a ferocity and focus that has been missing in his work in recent years.
At 78 years old, it is simply staggering to consider not only Cohen’s legacy thus far to both the written and sung word, but that he is still so amazingly productive and profound as well. While some might consider the life of a so-called ‘rock star’ beyond the pale of someone who many would think should be enjoying retirement, here he puts out a shimmering meditation on aging, mortality, and the past we drag kicking and screaming into the grave with us. From the opening lines of “Going Home” – “I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/ He’s a lazy bastard/ Living in a suit” – we get the sense that Leonard Cohen fully recognizes the alter ego he inhabits on a regular basis in ways that Josh Tilliman is only slowly coming to grips with as Father John Misty. Yet this ‘sportsman and a shepherd’ in a suit (always Armani by the way) isn’t struggling with this alter ego at all in ways that Father John Misty is. No, Leonard Cohen is at peace with life as he is with his eventual death and so he sings at a pace and plums a depth of gravely baritone that is simply one long meditation on love, desire, joy and peace. Akin to Sera Cahoone, there is a profound midtempo in pacing in this album that speaks of the Buddhist ‘middle way’ of contentment that Cohen adopted so many years ago as a spiritual counterpoint to his Judaism. One of the beautiful modern psalms Cohen offers up on this release is a simple gem of a prayer called “Show Me The Place”. Like “Hallelujah” which has been covered by everyone yet only truly sung from profound depth by Cohen himself (yes… even Jeff Buckley didn’t get to the places of that song like Leonard has), “Show Me The Place” is a secular psalm of praise and shalom that deserves a place in the middle of a worship service any given Sunday.
I don’t know how many more albums Leonard Cohen has in him. He has even made statements that this is his last. If that is the case, then “Old Ideas” is the crescendo that any artist would dream to end on… except Leonard Cohen perhaps. As he has said over and over again, he never dreamed that this life of song was the real thing anyway… merely some appointment he had to keep for the time being. So as Leonard speaks with the other Leonard who is the ‘sportsman and a shepard’ I can only imagine that there is a wry smile passing between them in the spaces of silence and peace as they both show us the way home.
Some honorable mentions that are also fantastic and deserve a listen:
First Aid Kit, The Lion Roars
The Lumineers, The Lumineers
Titus Andronicus, Local Business
The Mountain Goats, Transcendental Youth
Eric Miller, City Lights (go buy it NOW!)
Friends and Family, Sudden Cat (go buy it NOW!)
So my friends… that is my list.
What did I miss?