“Christmas An Irrational Season”, by the amazingly prolific singer/songwriter, Carolyn Arends, is a CD collection of Christmas tunes and the joyful object of my happy obsession lately.
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild
For if Mary had been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child
Thus begins the album with a poem by Madeline L’engle and music by Carolyn Arends, a prelude that lays the thesis every song builds on. Not just in this glorious album, but also in the four others with which I’m familiar, deep and weighty theological truths are the intellectual hook of every song. Like a finely faceted trinket she turns this way and that in the light; here a rainbow, there a laser beam, she examines the abstracts. This is signature to her songs, equal to her woodwind voice and gentle rock-and-roll rhythm. So often the lament rises from the pews, “I wish modern worship can be as meaty and theologically deep as the hymns of yore. Modern worship music is so trivial by comparison.” At last, in Carolyn Arends songs we finally have both.
This is no more apparent than in one of my current favorites, “Is Bethlehem Too Far Away”. This song has a kind of smokey, soft country feel to it. It evokes lonely cowboys on the range under a night sky. As an artist she tends to move fluidly between a folksy soft rock and country with blues and Dixieland jazz influences, a style she is very good at and comfortable in. At first this song appears to be a simple question about faith, succinctly put, beautifully painted, as in the refrain:
Can we find our way to the baby king?
Can we worship him now in the hay?
And can we believe he can change everything?
Or is Bethlehem to far away
But then she veers into a tight change up musically and theologically. She pulls back the scope of the question and masterfully touches upon God’s magnificent, irrational I might add, condescension towards man.
O little town of Bethlehem
How far it must have been
From heaven’s throne of glory
To your humble manger scene
But if God saw fit to travel there
Should not also we
She proves with this one song what a shining poet she is. And she proves it more over with every new song she writes. However, she is not just a great poet, but a really fantastic storyteller also. To me, she brings to mind McCartney in her ability to tell story through song. This skill she demonstrates well in, “Now in Flesh Appearing” and in, “My First Christmas”. The first song has to do with the true meaning of Christmas, the second with experiencing Christmas for the first time. In the case of the latter, this simple reflection has many layers. In the first song she sings of two separate people working two separate ministries. In the second she follows a woman through stages of her life; infancy, the day she’s born again in Christ, and the day she’s called home to eternity. In both songs she paints such a vivid picture that one almost looks for these people at church on Sunday, forgetting that they aren’t real friends. She uses simple words, and yet they manage to sink deep into the psyche. She employs her (not too) folksy side for these songs; Her guitar sound brings to mind Patty Griffin, her voice a bit of Carol King and, as in all her songs, they have a very intuitive build to the melody. Indeed, there aren’t too many songwriters who can match her grasp of melody, of how to stretch it over a song, to soar through its natural rise and fall. I think this is the thing that most astounds me about her: She has a fabulous grasp of language, an equally fabulous grasp of the ebb and flow of melody, also a fabulous, almost guttural, feel for how to build a song, and can use all these things to deftly express deep, theological truths. She’s just so suited for what she does. But, I digress.
“Come and See”, is another of my current favorites and the second track on the CD. I love how much fun she has with it. This song is about as “big worship” as she gets and is infused with a really cool “island” sound that makes you just want to tap your toes and boogie. It’s perfectly celebratory. To paraphrase Chesterton: The chief aim of order is to allow good things to run wild. And that’s what I sense in this song, a wild appreciation for God. She approaches profound truths not piously, but joyously.
Come and see, come and see…
He’s a new baby boy
Who’s the hope of us all…
It’s the great love of God
In the cry of a babe
It’s the paradox, the whole irrationality of it all, that strikes us as most true in these brilliant lyrics. In our heart, we know that salvation could not come any other way. And instead of exhorting us to pay obeisance, she entices us to dance! I love it.
If you long for original Christmas music, you can’t do better than this album. It’s a compilation of seven original tunes (all of them better than the last), three covers and then the prelude/postlude which she wrote the music for. If you aren’t familiar with Carolyn Arends, you’d be doing yourself a favor by getting to know her. If you are lucky enough to give this album a listen, then you’ll fully understand why I wish you all very irrational Christmas this year.
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