In preparation for the conclusion of my publishing fundraiser, I created a playlist of songs that cover the narrative movement of my book and will be releasing blogs offering commentary and context until the campaign ends on September 22.
So without further ado, let’s begin with the winter seasons: Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphany. (Titles contain links to lyrics)
Mercury and Lightning | John Mark McMillan
The title track from his 2017 album about searching for faith after faith, “Mercury and Lightning” speaks of the relentless pursuit for God. As ungraspable as quicksilver, God’s revelations appear and disappear into the night like lightning—leaving our eyes imprinted with a shadow of light crackling across a darkened sky.
Frustrated in the hope for Divine encounter (and later, for success), McMillan feels as though he needs either a new religion, or a new lie to quiet the questions keeping him up at night.
The chorus speaks of the haunting echoes of God’s presence that have dimly reverberated in my heart all my life and serves as the opening epigraph to Part I: Adventus, in Tracking Desire:
I swear I’ve heard the echoes of a voice
Like a dream that you feel, but you don’t remember
I’ve known it ever since I was a boy
Like a word on the tip of my tongue
There’s a reason he’s the only “Christian” artist I still listen to.
I don’t much go in for astrology, but as an Enneagram 4,1 there may not be a more on-point song. Honestly, it’s so obvious as to be almost on the nose, so I debated including it, but here it is…
This is first U2 tune I remember hearing (on my mom’s Runaway Bride soundtrack to be exact), and Bono’s rasping, plaintive cry captured me immediately. How did he know what I’m always feeling? I wondered.
In keeping with Advent’s theme of unfulfilled, yet expectant hope, the singer recognizes—through several biblical allusions—that he believes in a God who will break humanity’s bonds of disunity and who, personally, freed him and carried the burden of his shame.
And yet . . .
And yet, he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.
But maybe someday.
Hunger | Florence + The Machine
I’m embarrassed at the limited number of women-led songs on this playlist (and in my general rotation until recently), but I can say that the ones on there pack a punch—much like the vocals of this song.
Lead singer Florence Welch is a waifish woman with a voice many times too big for her. As she sings “Hunger”, the listener is drawn into her longing through the sheer gravitational force of the vocals. You are immediately thrown into the deep end when the first lines reference the eating disorder which she began battling in her late teens, though the idea of forced hunger is turned on its head as almost (though not quite) preferable to the indefinable, gnawing emptiness of being lonely.
She goes on to mention other attempts to feed this beast, all to no avail. There is fear of ongoing rejection, but the faltering commitment to continue searching. In the end, Florence finds companionship with one who does not try to force the answers, but simply sits with her in the midst of the unknowable, ever-present hunger.
Perth | Bon Iver
Following the largeness of “Hunger” was going to be a difficult task, but the opening track to Bon Iver’s self titled album2 begins with an expansive song opening the work’s general theme of place-memory. As with most of Bon Iver’s stuff, there’s a Grand Canyon scale of layers—musical and lyric—to work through.
“Perth” is based on a seemingly random encounter between frontman Justin Vernon and music video director, Matt Amato. During the three days of filming, Amato’s childhood friend and worldwide movie star, Heath Ledger, died. Though ostensibly together to shoot a music video, Vernon found himself the recipient of Amato’s memories with Ledger growing up in Perth, Australia. At times, he simply held the bereaved as he wept over the sudden, unexpected loss.
As I describe in the opening chapter of Part I (and read aloud in the first live advance reading), my father died when I was only seven years old and this event, as you would expect, left an indelible impression on my young mind—one I had not allowed myself to process until very recently.
Part of writing this book has been to, as the song says, “rid all my stories,” to “break my ground” and allow myself the compassion to grieve, and then to live on, my father’s memory growing and changing as I live on.
The Fear | Ben Howard
Fitting in well as a transition between the expectancy of Advent and the burning brightness of Epiphany is the dark mystery of Christmastide, when we wonder if something so small can stem the tide of so much evil and pain.
We all feel too small and unequal to the task of life (just a blade in the grass, a spoke unto the wheel), but deep down, we know that if we do not step out, we will fulfill that fearful prophecy of letting it simply flow by. “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future,” as Galadriel says.
Howard discusses his fear that not only will his sins and proclivities someday catch him up (I will become what I deserve), but also speaks aloud the inner thoughts of many young people, fearful of their lives simply passing them by:
I’ve been worried
That my time is a little unclear
I’ve been worried
That I’m losing the ones I hold dear
I’ve been worried
That we all
Live our lives
In the confines of fear
In The Blood | John Mayer
Speaking of fear, this song pretty well sums up the nagging worry that we are doomed to repeat the mistakes and failures of our family. How much of who we become is due to nature, nurture, or the force of our free will to break from the orbits of those we love but do not always want to imitate?
Mayer recognizes the sort of man––of love––he wants and needs to both give and receive, yet knows that without a massive effort, he will continue to repeat the (in his case, widely publicized) mistakes of his life and relationships.
I know deeply this desire to be different, to break away from the failures of my forebears and the conventions of my upbringing (especially faith traditions) without losing the relationships attached to these things, but the execution is difficult. This ultimately leads to the unanswered question: will it wash out in the water, or is it always in the blood?
You Don’t Know How It Feels | Tom Petty
Though I would never speak ill of the legendary Tom Petty, I chose this song because of its (yet again) almost on-the-nose explanation of my internal monologue. There are other things going on in this song than what I’m highlighting here, but for me, this tune simply reminds people that I’m dreadfully, tragically unique (*insert eye roll here*) and that they cannot possibly know what it’s like in my head.
Also, Wildflowers is a damn near perfect album and came out in 1994, the year my mom remarried and I was given a new father. My dad and I are incredibly different from each other, so it would make him laugh to hear me say, as if from a cue card, you don’t know how it feels to be meeee.
Ends of the Earth | Lord Huron
It’s tough to follow Petty, so I kept with the semi-country/folk feel, but needed to widen the aperture from the more immature feelings of feeling misunderstood. The first time I encountered Lord Huron was through this song as it played over the emotional series finale to one of my favorite shows, Community. The scene this song accompanies shows the final breaking up of a group of friends—two in particular3—who met in community college and became a family over the course of their time together.
Right before this scene, the group broke the fourth wall (as they were wont to do) and discussed what their ideal seventh season would entail. As each character creates and populates a world without all of their closest friends involved, there is a sort of catharsis given to the ending of a journey and the beginning of something new and unknown.
Similarly, “Ends of the Earth” encapsulates a totally fictional narrative, as the band went to great lengths to create an entire world about which they could sing.
In this song, the main character (known as Lord Huron) is ready to set out on an adventure into the wide unknown, but begs his love, Helen, to accompany him. The wanderlust is upon him and even love cannot hold him down––he must strike while the desire is hot and his body is still young enough to answer the call: No time for ponderin’ why I’m a-wanderin’, not while we’re both still alive.
He wants nothing more than for her to partner in the journey, but the chorus begs the question4 to the ends of the earth would you follow me? It appears by the end of the song that he sets out alone, but the question has been asked, and I felt it reverberate in my own heart as in this season of my life, I took the first tentative steps away from the life-track and traditions of my youth.
Awakening | Switchfoot
That’s right, chumps, we’re getting another semi-Christian band!
These dreams started singing to me out of nowhere
And in all my life
I don’t know that I ever felt so alive
The album Oh! Gravity is really the last one I paid attention to from these California rockers, though admittedly, I had no reason to stop listening: I loved everything before and this one became more beloved as time went. (In fact, there will be another song from this collection before the end.)
The desperate crying out for an awakening, a breaking out of the apathy and old ways into something fresh and dynamic, is the longing of many a young person, and I was no different. During this epiphanic season of growth and new experiences, I felt myself coming spiritually alive in a way I had not known was possible.
The cry was answered in my heart and, for a flashing moment, I felt what had always been described by others claiming to intimately experience God. Of course, the feeling and its effects were not to last, but that’s for the next post.
1. Love you, hon.↩
2. Even that has multiple layers. Technically, the work is called Bon Iver, Bon Iver, in keeping with the all-important comma in each album title, leading to the 2019 release, i,i (or i comma i).↩</sup
3. Annie and Jeff are obviously in love but the show runners wisely withheld the easy satisfaction of their getting together, ending ultimately with a kiss and a goodbye.↩
4. I hope you’re seeing how many of these songs ask questions with no definitive answers.↩