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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

A Pleasantly Irrational Christmas

“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.

by C. C. Kurzeja
2009 All Rights Reserved


Justine said...

I wish I could write as well as you . . . but so grateful just that you're writing again!

Love that you -- who obviously understands music on a sophisticated level -- used "intuitive" to describe the ways in which she crafts a melody! Not being a "music" person myself, I tend to focus on her lyrics, but those melodies are every bit as wonderful. My father (the heathen -- sshh, don't tell on me) was listening to her songs one day and said, "I can see why you like her music: it is structured so well and falls so pleasantly on the ears. You feel acquainted with it immediately." He is a musician. And I was trying to think of what sort of quality that was, and I, too, came up with "intuitive." It's such that even when you are hearing a song for the first time, you know it. Her songs seem to touch on that inter-connectedness between human and divine that was torn at the Fall and is only glimpsed in this time through art and prayer.

One question: Did you mean "Alas" in the first paragraph?

What a pleasure to read your masterful and insightful review! Thanks, Flicka!

Flicka Spumoni said...

As for "alas" Hahahahaha! I love the way you gently point out my stupid blunder. As if, "Perhaps she means to bemoan the point..." What's sad is that I would have read that a hundred times w/out catching it!
As for "intuitive" the reason you like it so much is that it was from *you* that I first heard her music described that way and I thought it perfectly fitting. So, I borrowed a phrase from you. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery...
But, I still feel like it's very hard to do this artist justice. Describing her music and copious body of work is, well, just hard. It's like scribbling a picture of the Mona Lisa in crayon to describe it to a person who's never seen it before.

Justine said...

Tee-hee -- you sent me to my OED to see if there were some archaic precedent for using "alas" in a positive sense. Having found not a one, I decided to pick a nit.

Forgot to mention that your throwing in of a GKC-ism all casual-like made my heart pitter-pat. Speaking of whom, I am facing a similar impossibility to the one you so elegantly overcame in this review: how to sum up the revelatory, life-changing Orthodoxy in a manner succinct. Every time I pick up my copy for a pithy quote or delicious angle, I just get absorbed in its meaty goodness and forget where I am and what I am supposed to be doing. Ah, Gilbert . . .

God bless ya! And then may He bless ya again!