Lyric of the Day: Rise To Me

Well, for the third Lyric of the Day installment in a row, the theme that grabbed me is Love.

The source of today’s lyric, Rise To Me, from The Decemberists‘ most recent album, The King Is Dead, is just about the most beautiful song I’ve heard in a long, long time. From a musical perspective alone, the song has a lovely, simple chord progression and verse-chorus-verse-chorus-etc. composition; and the arrangement, rooted in acoustic guitar, piano, harmonica, Chris Funk‘s gorgeous, pining pedal steel guitar, and Gillian Welch‘s perfectly placed harmony vocals, provides a lush canvass for Colin Meloy‘s characteristically poetic lyrics.

So, let’s dig into those lyrics and see what’s going on here. I think you’ll agree that Rise To Me is a very powerful expression of love.

Big mountain, wide river
There’s an ancient pull
These tree trunks, these stream beds
Leave our bellies full

In this first verse, Meloy sets up an image of a maternal natural world that lovingly sustains us. And while the mountain is big and the river wide, the first chorus that follows speaks of challenges and threats.

They sing out:
I am gonna stand my ground
You rise to me and I’ll blow you down
I am gonna stand my ground
You rise to me and I’ll blow you down

The photo I’ve included above seemed to capture something of nature’s stubborn determination to stand fast in the face of challenges. While the tree may have been shaped by the wind and receding glaciers may have moved those boulders around tens of thousands of years ago, the boulders now seem unmovable, the tree still stands, green with life, and the green grass, too, seems to have decided that it will stick around as well.

With this image of steadfastness established, Meloy turns to the subject of his son Henry, who has high-functioning autism.

Hey Henry can you hear me?
Let me see those eyes
This distance between us
Can seem a mountain size

As a father of a son myself, this is the part of the song that first caught my attention. There may be nothing more painful, emotionally, than to witness your child suffer, and so it’s only natural that a parent, out of pure, primal love, might desire that their child learn from the example set by the unyielding force of nature in the first verse, so that he may be as prepared as possible for the many challenges that life will bring.

But boy:
You are gonna stand your ground
They rise to you, you blow them down
Let me see you stand your ground
If they rise to you, you blow them down

Finally, Meloy adresses his wife, wishing for her the same kind of strength and resiliency. And I can’t help speculating that there’s recognition here too that the strain of raising a child with autism can lead to strain in their marriage, and that on top of all the usual challenges most couples face, there’s hope that their relationship can stand firm.

My darling, my sweetheart
I am in your sway
To cold climes comes springtime
So let me hear you say

My love:
I am gonna stand my ground
They rise to me and I’ll blow them down
I am gonna stand my ground
They rise to me and I’ll blow them down

Reminds me, in a beautiful way, of a line from the famous sonnet:

[Love] looks on tempests and is never shaken

–William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

Anyway, enough analysis. Here’s the band, sans Gillian Welch unfortunately, performing Rise To Me live.

Lyric of the Day: Love & Death

Just a few days after I posted the last Lyric of the Day installment, wherein I examined, amongst other things, how the experience of a newborn baby can be a symbol for the purity of love, I happened to hear a song I hadn’t heard in a while that contains an expression of love from another part of the life cycle.

Love is watching someone die.

–from Death Cab For Cutie‘s What Sarah Said, 2005

As you might recall from last week’s post, the lyric by Mason Jennings suggests that freedom is the ability to feel love for everyone, and freedom is described by U2’s Bono as having a scent like the top of a newborn baby’s head, a beautifully clever way of describing pure love.

But how does watching someone die constitute love?

Even if you aren’t that close to someone who dies, witnessing their passing — if not at the time of death, then through attending the funeral or visiting with the deceased’s family — can make you feel quite the opposite.

I remember a few years ago I attended a neighbor’s funeral. He was someone I’d gotten to know only slightly, having interacted with his wife and two sons more than with him, but when I was at the service, thinking about how his family would miss him, and thinking of how he lost them as much as they lost him, very deep feelings were stirred up for me. And, when the first shovel of dirt was tossed into his grave and landed with a thud on the coffin, the floodgates opened up and I wept as if he was a very dear friend.

Nothing else, it seems to me, can explain that experience except that we humans have an inherent and enormous capacity to love.

Lyric of the Day: Love & Freedom

Today’s Lyric of the Day installment actually pulls together two lyrics from two very different songwriters, from songs released four years apart, one from a, at the time, hardly-known up and coming artist, the other from an internationally famous superstar. And, despite these disparities, whenever I think of one of these lyrics I always think of the other, regardless of which one I hear first. They are inseparable for me.

This past Monday, I happened to think of the more recent of the two first:

Freedom has a scent
Like the top of a newborn baby’s head

–Bono, from U2’s Miracle Drug, 2004

I thought of these beautiful lines, when I happened to catch a glimpse of a photo of my son, taken soon after he was born, his head resting on his mother’s bosom. It’s a photo that, when I look at it, always brings a surge of very deep, strong feelings and vivid memories, of holding him myself, his head nestled in the crook of my elbow, and then raising my arms and lifting him closer to my face, so that I could kiss him on his head and breathe in that utterly unique smell, the very odor of love.

That’s what I think of Bono’s lyric, that it’s a clever way of describing pure love.

And yet he writes: Freedom has a scent…. What does freedom have to do with it?

That’s where the second lyric comes in:

Freedom’s the ability to feel love for everyone

–Mason Jennings, from United States Global Empire, 2000

So, you can see how these two quotes complement one another. Freedom, Jennings suggests, is feeling that pure love that Bono speaks about, not just for newborn babies, but for everyone. And, circularly, if you define freedom as Jennings does, then you understand how Bono can refer to pure love as a Miracle Drug.

Lyric of the Day: It Overtakes Me

It’s just one of those Monday mornings, waking up a bit overwhelmed by the wild, unpredictable roller coaster that is life, a roller coaster that provides many more questions than answers.

And I thought about this Flaming Lips song, It Overtakes Me, from their 2006 album At War With The Mystics.

It’s an amazing piece of music that perfectly reflects my state of mind at the moment. The song starts off with this funky, over-the-top bass line and hand clapping, even something that sounds like a siren, a cacophony of weirdness, a veritable soundtrack for the roller coaster, with the lyrics:

It overtakes me, It overtakes me
It overtakes me… Oh oh oh I
It overtakes me, It Master-Slaves me
It overtakes me… Oh oh oh I

It overtakes me, It overtakes me
It overtakes me… Oh oh oh I
It overtakes me, It Wakes and Bakes me
It overtakes me… Oh oh oh I

And the chorus comes in, suggesting something that, within that cacophonous context, seems almost absurd:

You know that it isn’t real

But then the song seems to stop abruptly, the cacophony is replaced by a soothing chorus of synth, gentle slide guitar, and an angelic choir, and Wayne eases in, with that shaky falsetto of his and the sweetest expression of what it’s like to live with so many questions:

And I’m there
Looking up at the sky
And I’m scared
Thinkin’ ’bout the way that I
Don’t understand
Anything at all
And how it overtakes me
And I am just so small
Do I stand a chance?

No actual video on YouTube, but someone did post the song with just a shot of the album cover:

Lyric of the Day: Dave Matthews

Last year I explained my slightly complicated relationship with Christmas, so you won’t find me complaining that holiday songs have been streaming through our house pretty much non-stop for the past few weeks.

I’m a real sucker for traditional carols or jazzy songs like Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, but I don’t really care for many of the contemporary additions to the repertoire.

That said, there’s one contemporary song that really moves me — Dave Matthews’ Christmas Song.

Now, I’m no Christian, but I do appreciate some of the messages Christianity brings. And to me, those enduring messages, messages that transcend humanity’s often flawed attempts to live by and share those messages, are beautifully captured in Dave Matthews’ telling of the Christmas story.

Simply put, the message that I most connect with is the message of love, and it is this love — the love of Mary for Joseph and vice versa, the love of the wise men for the baby Jesus, the unconditional love Jesus had for the “less than refutable” Mary Magdalene and his disciples: gamblers and robbers, drinkers and jokers — that Matthews weaves into the heart of the song. The refrain toward the end — Father up above, why in all this hatred do you fill me up with love — always makes me choke up, a stark reminder of just how difficult it can be sometimes to sustain love, so difficult that even Jesus famously asked why he was so forsaken.

She was his girl; he was her boyfriend
She’d be his wife and make him her husband
A surprise on the way, any day, any day
One healthy little giggling dribbling baby boy
The wise men came, three made their way
To shower him with love
While he lay in the hay
Shower him with love love love
Love love love
Love love was all around

Not very much of his childhood was known
Kept his mother Mary worried
Always out on his own
He met another Mary who for a reasonable fee,
less than reputable was known to be.

His heart full of love love love
Love love love
Love love was all around

When Jesus Christ was nailed to his tree
Said “oh, Daddy-o, I can see how it all soon will be
I came to shed a little light on this darkening scene
Instead I fear I’ve spilled the blood of our children all around”

The blood of our children all around
The blood of our children’s all around

So I’m told, so the story goes
The people he knew were
Less than golden hearted
Gamblers and Robbers
Drinkers and Jokers, all soul searchers
Like you and me
Like you and me

Rumors insisted he soon would be
For his deviations
Taken into custody
By the authorities less informed than he.
Drinkers and Jokers all soul searchers
Searching for love love love
Love love love
Love love was all around

Preparations were made
For his celebration day
He said “eat this bread and think of it as me
Drink this wine and dream it will be
The blood of our children all around
The blood of our children’s all around
The blood of our children all around

Father up above, why in all this anger do you fill
Me up with love, love, love
Love love love
Love love was all around
Father up above, why in all this hatred do you fill
Me up with love, fill me love love love
Love love love
all you need is love
you can’t buy me love
Love love love
Love love
And the blood of our children’s all around

Lyric of the Day: More Flaming Lips

While I continue to be extremely excited about my latest musical obsession, Portland, Oregon band Menomena, I listened to a song today titled If, by my predominant obsession over the past year or so, The Flaming Lips, and it really caught my attention.

As I listened and took in the lyrics, I found myself seriously challenged, challenged as I have been by much of the Lips’ most recent album — Embryonic. From the disturbing album cover (shown here) to several music videos containing images that I can barely stand to look at, and finally the near total absence of fun, melodic hooks, I pretty much wrote it off as a stumble from an otherwise consistently great band, determined to ride it out in hopes of a better follow-up.

And then I saw them in concert in November, where they played a half dozen songs from Embryonic, which sounded really frickin’ good, pulsing with energy and fitting in nicely with the rest of their repertoire.

And then I started to listen to the album without all the visual aids, and the songs sounded better and better. Dark for sure, but moments of beautiful, peaceful respite interspersed.

And then I listened closely to the lyrics of If and I came up with an interpretation of Ebryonic that I think helps me accept what Wayne Coyne (lyricist) is up to creatively.

People are evil, it’s true
But on the other side
They can be gentle too
If they decide

But they don’t always decide
We live on the impulses
Love is powerful
But not as powerful as evil

People are evil, it’s true
But on the other side
They can be gentle too
If they decide, they decide

Now, I’m NOT someone who believes that evil is more powerful than love, and I don’t subscribe to the old biblical canard that people are born with an evil inclination and a good inclination and it’s a matter of free will as to which way they will choose to go. Oh, I know people certainly do choose to act in evil ways all the time, but I don’t buy it that they do this because they were born with some evil predisposition.

The song If and much of the rest of Embryonic, then, suggest to me that Wayne has been exploring the dark side of existence, wrestling with the extreme dichotomy of life, the miraculousness of beauty and love mingled with the horrors of evil. It’s an understandable wrestling match to engage in.

We want to make sense of this painful Ying & Yang, and we’ve been trying to make sense of it for millennia. And somehow, when I consider the full body of Wayne’s work, work that contains lyrics like “Love/In our life/Is just to valuable/To feel/For even a second/Without it”, and when I think about the impressions I have of Wayne as a person, gleaned from the documentary The Fearless Freaks, interviews, and in person at the concert I attended, I don’t think he really believes that evil is more powerful than love.

Does anyone, while considering the darkest of dark human actions, not lose faith, at least temporarily, in the inherent goodness of people?

Surely, there’s nothing in the Embryonic lyrics, or on the album cover, or in the videos that even comes close to the real terrible and violent events that happen everyday, and if it makes me uncomfortable then so be it.

Lyric of the Day: Death Cab For Cutie

The glove compartment
Is inaccurately named
And everybody knows it
So i’m proposing
A swift orderly change

‘Cause behind its door
There’s nothing to keep my fingers warm
And all i find
Are souvenirs from better times
Before the gleam
Of your taillights fading east
To find
Yourself a better life.

–Death Cab For Cutie, from “Title and Registration”

So, I’m walking to work these days, after nearly ten years of commuting on my bicycle. It was a fitness choice. While I work hard first thing in the morning, climbing several considerable hills to campus, not all of it is uphill and I’m only on the bike for 20 minutes. Likewise, the ride home is mostly downhill.

Walking, at a brisk pace, it seemed to me, would be a better workout, and walking downhill is actual exercise, while cycling downhill is nothing but a joyride.

Anyway, along with the increased health benefits there’s the added luxury of getting to listen to my iPod during my walks, something, for safety reasons, I don’t do on my bicycle. And, while I listen to music through speakers throughout each and every day, listening with earbuds really allows me to hear the lyrics much more clearly, often revealing hidden treasures.

I love the opening lines (above) of Title and Registration, from Death Cab For Cuties’ 2003 album Transatlanticism. Ben Gibbard is a wonderful writer. He really takes his time with details, metaphors and minutiae, a kind of impressionism, I’d call it.

The entire first stanza of Title and Registration, playfully, does not give you any indication as to what the song is about or where it’s heading, and when the word ’cause starts off the second stanza, heralding some kind of explanation, we get this lovely, indirect image of a glove compartment void of gloves, both literally and figuratively, the latter a symbol of the cold reality of lost love.

Funny thing: As I was walking along, listening to this wonderful song, I realized as it ended that I actually wanted to know what Gibbard might suggest as a more accurate name for glove compartment.