There's a Trick of the Light I'm Learning to Do

This is a collection of songs I wrote and recorded in January - March, 2020 while on sabbatical from ministry. They each deal with a different aspect or expression of the Gospel. Click on the image above to listen.

Three Hands Clapping

This is my latest recording project (released May 27, 2019). It is a double album of 22 songs, which very roughly track the story of my life... a sort of musical autobiography, so to speak. Click the album image to listen.

Ghost Notes

Ghost Notes
A collections of original songs I wrote in 2015, and recorded with the FreeWay Musical Collective. Click the album image to listen.

inversions

Recorded in 2014, these songs are sort of a chronicle of my journey through a pastoral burn-out last winter. They deal with themes of mental-health, spiritual burn-out and depression, but also with the inexorable presence of God in the midst of darkness. Click the album art to download.

soundings

soundings
click image to download
"soundings" is a collection of songs I recorded in September/October of 2013. Dealing with themes of hope, ache, trust and spiritual loss, the songs on this album express various facets of my journey with God.

bridges

bridges
Click to download.
"Bridges" is a collection of original songs I wrote in the summer of 2011, during a soul-searching trip I took out to Alberta; a sort of long twilight in the dark night of the soul. I share it here in hopes these musical reflections on my own spiritual journey might be an encouragement to others: the sun does rise, blood-red but beautiful.

echoes

echoes
Prayers, poems and songs (2005-2009). Click to download
"echoes" is a collection of songs I wrote during my time studying at Briercrest Seminary (2004-2009). It's called "echoes" partly because these songs are "echoes" of times spent with God from my songwriting past, but also because there are musical "echoes" of hymns, songs or poems sprinkled throughout the album. Listen closely and you'll hear them.

Accidentals

This collection of mostly blues/rock/folk inspired songs was recorded in the spring and summer of 2015. I call it "accidentals" because all of the songs on this project were tunes I have had kicking around in my notebooks for many years but had never found a "home" for on previous albums. You can click the image to download the whole album.

blogs I follow

Readings, 2020

Readings, 2020
Paradise Lost, John Milton

Adorning the Dark, Andrew Peterson

The Soul of Shame, Curt Thompson

Cure for the Common Life, Max Lucado

Halos and Avatars, Craig Detweiller, ed.

Fool's Talk, Os Guinness

Brendan, Frederick Buechner

The Screwtape Letters

Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis

The Pilgrim's Regress, C. S. Lewis

Becoming Whole, Brian Finkert and Kelly Kapic

Real Sex, Lauren Winner

Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

Voyage to Venus, C. S. Lewis

That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis

random reads

The Theology of Bruce Springsteen (Part 3): Life through the Eyes of the Losers

One of my favorite Bruce Springsteen albums is 1982’s Nebraska. The story goes that the album is really just a collection of demos that Springsteen recorded in his bedroom, on a four-track Tascam cassette recorder. In his autobiography he describes the process: “I’d sing, play, and with the two tracks left, I could add a backing vocal, an extra guitar, or a tambourine. On four tracks that’s all you could do. I mixed it through a guitar Echoplex unit onto a beat box like the kind you’d take to the beach; total cost for the project: about a grand.”

Springsteen took these demos into the studio to record them with The E Street Band, but after re-recording them and remixing them, he realized that the unpolished sound of those bedroom tape-recordings were actually truer to the spirit of the songs he'd written: “On listening [to the studio versions] I realized I’d succeeded in doing nothing but damaging what I’d created. We got it to sound cleaner, more hi-fi, but not nearly as atmospheric, as authentic.” In the end, he released those original demos as the finished album, and 35 years later, you can still hear the dim background noise, the ever-so-subtle low-fi grit, the rough edges and the spare four-track arrangements that give Nebraska its haunting quality.

This haunting quality is perfectly suited to tell the stories of the haunted characters that lurk the lyrics and people the worlds of the songs on Nebraska. If the characters in “Thunder Road” were fleeing from “a town full of losers” and pulling out to win, the songs on Nebraska are stark, compelling portraits of all the losers that got left behind.  “The tension running through the music’s core,” Springsteen writes, “was the thin line between stability and that moment when the things that connect you to world, your job, your family, your friends, the love and grace in your heart, fail you. I wanted the music to feel like a waking dream, and to move like poetry. I wanted the blood in these songs to feel destined and fateful.”

 If the blood in these songs is indeed destined and fateful, it is destined, in particular, to fail, and fated, especially, to lose.

There is, for example, the desperate hero of “Atlantic City,” who is down on his luck and caught up in a world of organized crime far bigger than he is. His “luck may have died” and his “love may be cold,” but he still has one last chance to break his losing streak (however shady that chance may be):
Now I been lookin' for a job but it's hard to find
Down here it's just winners and losers
and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line
Well I'm tired of comin' out on the losin' end
So honey last night I met this guy
and I'm gonna do a little favor for him

Well I guess everything dies baby that's a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on fix your hair up pretty
and meet me tonight in Atlantic City
Another great example is the little boy in “Used Car,” who wrestles with the shame and stigma of his family’s blue collar poverty, crystalized for him in the experience of driving home in their new used car, the best and only thing their family can afford.
Now the neighbors come from near and far
As we pull up in our brand new used car
I wish he'd just hit the gas and let out a cry
And tell them all they can kiss our asses goodbye

My dad he sweats the same job from morning to morn
Me I walk home on the same dirty streets where I was born
Up the block I can hear
my little sister in the front seat blowing that horn
The sounds echoing all down Michigan Avenue

Now mister the day my number comes in
I ain't ever gonna ride in no used car again
As a final example, there’s poor Ralph, the out-of-work-auto-plant worker in "Johnny 99," whose turn to petty crime after losing his job on the assembly line leads him down a dark path ending with a murdered night-clerk and a life-sentence. His final statement to the court before the bailiff comes to forever take him away encapsulates the weary-of-losing and out-of-luck desperation that permeates this album:
Now judge, judge I had debts no honest man could pay
The bank was holdin' my mortgage
and they were gonna take my house away
Now I ain't sayin' that make me an innocent man
But it was more 'n all this that put that gun in my hand

Well your honor I do believe I'd be better off dead
So if you can take a man's life
for the thoughts that's in his head
Then won't you sit back in that chair
and think it over judge one more time
And let 'em shave off my hair
and put me on that execution line
I could also mention the torn loyalties of the police officer in “Highway Patrol Man,” caught between his duty to the law and his love for his derelict brother, or the speeding desperado in “State Trooper,” roaring along a wet highway in a New Jersey Night, with unspoken sin on his hands and an anxious prayer on his lips: “Mr State Trooper, please don’t stop me …”

Though it gets its finest treatment on Nebraska, this heart for the losers and the luckless of this world permeates Springsteen’s song writing. There’s the speaker in “The River,” who takes all his hopes and dreams for the future, and exchanges them for the unwanted responsibility of being a teen aged dad.  There's the third-rate thug in “Meeting Across the River,” who's trying to scrounge up the cash to make a sketchy deal with some shady character on the other side of the river.  There's the forlorn, if willfully naïve lover in “Candy’s Room,” who can’t bring himself to ask the truth about the "strangers from the city" who call his girlfriend’s number and "bring her toys" (all he knows is that there’s "a sadness hidden in her pretty face / a sadness all her own / from which no man can keep Candy safe.")

In his more mature song writing, the same theme shows up poignantly in songs like “Philadelphia” (about a man dying of AIDS) or “Jack of All Trades” (about the impact of the 2008 Recession on working class Americans). Even his most famous song, “Born in the USA”—though it’s so often mistaken as an oath blind of allegiance to America the Beautiful—is really about the returning vets of the Vietnamese war, chewed up and spit out by forces beyond their control, and come home to a nation that despised them all as losers.

As a Christian, I can’t help but resonate with the profound empathy that Springsteen’s music expresses for all these inept sinners and failed saints—the luckless, the desperate, the disappointments, the jobless, the outsiders, the mavericks, and the derelicts of this world. Because as a Christian, I recognize something of the Gospel in Springsteen’s commitment to see the world through their eyes. The Jesus I follow, the one who promised that the least would be great in his Kingdom, the last first and the greatest least, showed us that God is, in fact, closest to those who know they really have nothing to offer but their one last chance, their failed-best-efforts, the shards of their shattered hopes.

Surely the Jesus who scandalized all the party guests when he let the town prostitute anoint his feet with oil, could have kept Candy safe from the sadness hidden in her pretty face. Surely the Jesus who hung dying between two of the worst-of-the-worst criminals on Golgotha, would understand the despair and hopelessness of poor Johnny 99. Surely the Jesus who walked away the third day from the empty tomb, answers the hope for something on the other side of death that keeps the singer in “Atlantic City” singing (despite so many times coming up on the wrong side of the line that separates the winners from the losers).

At the risk of putting it the wrong way around: Jesus’ teaching that the meek will inherit the earth, that the poor are truly the blessed ones, and that those who mourn will get the last laugh in the end, could have come straight off a page of Springsteen’s songbook. Put the right way around: there is something arrestingly (if unintentionally) Christ-like in Springsteen’s willingness to look at the world through the eyes of the meek, the poor, and the mourning. This is certainly something I’ve come to admire about Springsteen’s song writing, anyways, because whenever a Springsteen song reminds me that the world looks very different, actually, from the bottom of the totem pole, I remember the Way of our Lord, who seemed to feel more at ease among the tax collecting thugs, the ostracized prostitutes, and the rejected “sinners” of his world, than he ever did among the priests, the religious elite, and the spiritual gurus of his day.

There’s a line in one of Springsteen’s later songs where he rattles off the roll call of everyone who's aboard the metaphorical train bound for the “Land of Hope and Dreams.” It’s never really explained in the song what the train is, exactly. Given the title of the song, it would make sense to read it as an image for the American Dream.  Given the passengers we find on the train, however, it might actually be a metaphor for Springsteen’s life's work as a songwriter (certainly each one mentioned on the roster would feel perfectly at home in a Springsteen song). This is the reading I prefer, but with one important caveat: that whether Springsteen meant it this way or not, the “all aboard” invitation that this song ends with is really the invitation of the Gospel:
This train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls
I said, this train carries broken-hearted
This train thieves and sweet souls departed
This train carries fools and kings
This train, all aboard

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