Just as in my book the feast days Epiphany and Pentecost receive their own portions of the narrative alongside traditional seasons, so does Holy Week. In the evangelical church of my youth, we rarely observed much of this week’s goings-on: occasionally we’d do something for Palm Sunday and of course, Good Friday was at least mentioned, but Maundy Thursday (the Last Supper, when Christ washed the disciples’ feet) or Holy Saturday (his full day and night in the tomb) were almost universally ignored or merely wrapped into Easter.
As I became aware of liturgy and saw how these moments of Jesus’s life were handled in other traditions, I came to see this week as a magnification of the “bright sadness” of Lent. In this short period, the Christian takes the themes meditated upon during the previous thirty-three-odd days and highlights each in turn. My song selection does much the same.
Stay Or Leave | Dave Matthews
Dave Matthews’s, “Stay or Leave” is a look back on a relationship that has run its course. As it progresses, you understand it is in fact the very day he’s been left––what day is this, besides the day you left me?––and he stands amidst the memories of their love, asking the perennial question, did I do all that I could, that I should’ve done?
During this broken period of my own story, I believed I deserved to be left (and for a time, Mikala seriously, and understandably, considered it), but somehow, through some sort of deeper magic than we possessed, the question of whether to stay or leave was decided in a different way than this singer’s experience.
Slow Dancing In A Burning Room | John Mayer
Continuing the theme of what by all accounts should have been a broken marriage, we turn to my favorite song in what is easily a top-three album for me. The lyrics and music mesh perfectly to create an unparalleled emotional charge, describing the paradoxical sense of listless desperation as a doomed couple plays out the already-foreseen failing of their relationship.
The central lyrical image is deeply evocative: a couple dances slowly––are they enjoying one last moment of intimacy or are they running on passionless fumes?––as the room in which they stand, their relationship, slowly burns down around them. One knows with certainty that they’re going down, doomed, even going so far as to say that whatever particular fight they’re currently having is not a silly little moment, but is the deep and dying breath of this love that we’ve been working on.
Again, during the long months in which my illegitimate relationship was ended (mostly) but I still couldn’t bring myself to love the one to whom I’d committed my life, I felt this scenario deeply. I truly believed that we were slow dancing in a burning room, just waiting for it all to crash down around us.
The fact that it did not actually die, that it actually grew and turned into something new and vibrant, was beyond my ability to conceive at that time––but I am forever amazed and grateful that it did.
Weight of Love | The Black Keys
I mostly chose this song for the title and musical continuity between it and “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room”.
Love is indeed a weighty thing. Whether it lights up or burns out, it contains enough energy to consume entire lives. Falling in love is not for the faint of heart, and choosing to remain is difficult even in the best of circumstances, much less when such tremendous energy and power is turned against you.
On one hand, the song isn’t best understood from my side, as the lyrics are from the perspective of the jilted lover, rather than the… jilter(?), but I, too, know the feeling that your partner is losing strength, giving themself away to the weight of love.
Also, the guitar solo at the end is just fucking incredible.
Stop Listening | Derek Webb
Oh man, this song. This album.
I remember when Derek came on my friends’ podcast, The Inglorious Pasterds, and discussed the lyrics and stories behind many of these songs. From the first listen, I was hooked. In Fingers Crossed, Webb speaks of his estrangement from God, the Church, and his family. He speaks candidly about betraying his wife and how a part of him desperately wants to go back and choose better––and yet there’s another, subtler strain in there, holding out promise for a new beginning if he can make it through.
“Stop Listening” opens the album with a conversation between Derek and the faith community in which he’d previously found a family and a career. The first verse is essentially a disclaimer, letting the audience know that what they’re about to hear will be difficult and, if they are not ready to hear his uncensored thoughts about God, life, love, and everything in between, they are free to stop listening, in fact if they do, he affirms that we can still be friends.
Derek (and I) have been told at various points that the doors of Christian community are always wide open for us . . . provided we remain penitent and obedient, provided we don’t climb down from the cross. We’ve been told that if we stop listening now, it will simply affirm their own rightness. They’ll piously pray for our recalcitrance, but they can’t dig in with us, much less empathize––above all else, they must remain aloof from the failure, so that if we don’t agree they can wash their hands of us: in the end we’ll grieve a brother lost.
In a stroke of lyrical brilliance (or more likely, from personal experience), Webb’s interlocutors use his own previous song against him as a cudgel––as well as the current song––finally saying they will leave the moment he stops listening to them.
But for those who go forward, he admits his own insufficiency, if your eyes can see what’s killing me, I’ll need you by the end and even ends the song with hope that if we can get through this, we may have a shot at something even we can’t tear apart.
So we may be, ever so slightly, turning toward a brighter day.
Man, this song. This album.
Should Have Known Better | Sufjan Stevens
Yet another example of stealing lyrics meant for something else. The entirety of Carrie and Lowell is Stevens working through his childhood after the death of his estranged mother. He has spoken of his depression, of the feeling that his relational might-have-beens were haunting him, leading to every conceivable self-destructive act––all in the pursuit of . . . what? Absolution? Connection?
I know the distance from the world and those you love, as though my black shroud were holding down my feelings. I know the frustrated helplessness of seeing the effects your depression, delusion, and destructive tendencies have on those around you––of only wanting to be a relief.
Basically, the magnification of my failure and brokenness during Holy Week led to many dark nights of waiting for the remedy, thinking all I might or could have done, but always saying helplessly I should’ve known better.