It’s been a funny old time since the great revelation of last month. But I fully anticipated that. Getting used to something that was hidden being out in the open takes some adjustment. But one of the interesting questions from the Q&A after the service on depression was what some of us found sustaining or supportive in the midst of the darkness. As someone for whom music has been a lifelong essential (both from playing and listening), it is only natural that music would be my first port of call. Which is not to say that art, poetry and books haven’t helped from time to time.
Now, please understand. This is not about supplanting the foundational comfort or guidance of the scriptures. It is simply a question of those means of sustenance that point in new, refreshing or challenging ways to the ultimate reality that they reveal. For as I’ve maintained passim on Q, artists (in the broadest sense) are so much better at seeing, hearing and sensing, and then describing, conveying or expressing what they’ve found.
And I sense that often the things that have helped me most when at my darkest and most despairing are those that deftly walk the tightrope between realism and optimism. Some art/music/writing exacerbates or deepens the despair. I can remember at university being challenged by a friend’s passing comment about the effect that Pink Floyd had on her. I absolutely loved Pink Floyd then. But it hit me. They often unwittingly deepened the pits. When more buoyant, I could appreciate them. But when down, they drove me deeper. So with a confusing mixture of reluctance and relief, I gave away my Floyd CDs.
What I need is not despair-deepeners. But ironically enough, trite, happy clappy triviality offer no help either. Their detachment from reality (or rather, if I’m being more generous, from my reality) only infuriates and frustrates even more. Of course, the Psalmist was the perfect tight-rope walker – total realism (occasionally to the point of despair – Psalm 88, anyone?) with rock-grounded confidence and revelation-based optimism for the future. So of course, the psalms are seminal.
But sometimes I need others to help me to cling to that tightrope. So here are my top 5 picks (of 100s), in no particular order, drawn simply from the albums that have the highest plays on my iTunes.
I’ve mentioned this album before on Q. It’s like nothing else you’ve ever heard. This extraordinary Norwegian jazz singer takes on some classic African American spirituals and simply nails them. There is a deep world-weariness in her voice right from the start – the album’s opening words say it all: “Lord, I’m bearing heavy burdens, trying to get home”. And as the set list progresses, the centre of gravity shifts from the 4 parts of the line: focusing on the Lord, being open about the heavy burdens, experiencing the journey but always with a goal, and finally, rejoicing in the home at the end of the journey.
So these songs carry you along the way because they seem to offer contact points at each stage.
Beauty Will Rise by Steve Curtis Chapman (2009)
I do not listen to a lot of “CCM” (contemporary Christian music). I’m pretty much with Steve Turner all the way, and agree with the verdict of a rock journalist that he played some to:
“I felt embarrassed. The music is paralysingly dated. There is no fire in it. There is no innovation and energy. The music is basically a prop for the lyrics which sound like a groovy Californian sermon. The music and the words don’t mesh together and the sentiments are pretty wet.” (Steve Turner, Imagine, p101)
Harsh. And sadly, usually fair.
However, this album does not fit here. For it is raw with pain and incomprehension but kept alive by a sometimes tenuous, sometimes furious, sometimes desperate faith in the goodness of God. Written in the aftermath of family tragedy – (an adopted Chinese daughter was unwittingly run over by one of the older children driving a 4×4) – this walks the tightrope with honesty and hope. It is a remarkable achievement.
Piano Sonata in B flat, D960 by Schubert (esp played by Alfred Brendel, recorded 1986)
Music is able to walk the tightrope without words, of course. And Schubert has been a constant friend for 25 years. Did he know that he only had a matter of weeks to live when he wrote this last (posthumously published) sonata? It is the subject of much scholarly debate. It doesn’t matter too much. But as with so much of his work, this sonata is exquisitely poised (and one of the reasons I love Brendel is that he is a great expositor of music – no frills, no showmanship, just complete and utter dedication to the composer’s text). It is achingly beautiful, never triumphalistic.
At 15 minutes, the opening movement is longer than the others. It’s lyrical but gently insistent motif gets developed in the most sublime ways. But every time it returns, it always evokes in me a sense of breaking through in hope. It is one of those pieces that I can’t listen to without stopping whatever I’m doing and getting lost in it. It breaks the heart. But in a good way.
Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Johannem by Arvo Pärt (1982)
This requires dedicated listening, coming in at 70 minutes. And unless your Vulgate latin is up to snuff, then you probably need to have the text open in front of you. But it is worth it. The writing is spare, haunting and sometimes chilling. But then if you’re going to set John 18-19 to music, then how can it not be. Pärt (pronounced Peart) is an Estonian Christian and composer, who managed to escape Soviet rule to live in the west in the 1980s. His is a form of minimalistic music that is not perhaps to everyone’s taste, although it is far less repetitive than a lot of the more derivative minimalism – but immerse yourself in it and the rewards are great.
One of Passio‘s great achievements is that it conveys the value of slowness. In the modern world, slow is bad, fast is good. Nonsense, of course. And this piece shows what happens when you work methodically, meditatively and carefully through a text. Throughout, there are hardly any musical resolutions – and in fact the structure of the piece is itself fascinating (see the Wiki description linked above) – but that is primarily because it closes in John 19 before the resurrection. As a Holy Week/Good Friday meditation, that’s totally appropriate.
The most magical moment, however, comes at the end. After 70 minutes, there is a glorious conclusion, musically, theologically, emotionally. The words are simple enough. Nothing else is:
Qui passus es pro nobis, miserere nobis. Amen // You who have suffered for us, have mercy upon us. Amen
Achtung Baby (1991) + No Line on the Horizon (2009) by U2
Of course U2 is in here. As I said in my talk the other night, their music has sustained me more than any other. I can’t think of many other artists at the top of the tree who walk the tightrope with such authenticity, integrity and intelligence. I always loved the early stuff. It’s raw, visceral energy and power was great. But for me, their 90s stuff hit the nerve. And Achtung Baby really did the trick.
As writer Stephen Catanzarite has shown, Achtung Baby is essentially an extended meditation on trying to live with faith in a fallen world. This interpretation has subsequently been confirmed by Bono himself in a fascinating anecdote from Beth Maynard. It is a deeply theological album. But it is also brutally honest about pain and confusion (e.g. One for starters or So Cruel, or Ultraviolet). The tightrope is sometimes as taut as it can be. But they still manage to offer a way to walk it.
I’ve discussed No Line frequently on Q so won’t add much here. But despite the fact that it didn’t quite do as well as the band hoped for some reason (and all that means is that it didn’t have bionic only, pretty incredible), I do think it is up there. The triple whammy of Magnificent, Moment of Surrender and Unknown Caller is nothing less than sublime.
So there we have it. Perhaps you can offer your own top 5, whether musical or not.