Monday, May 15, 2006
Album Review: Pollyanna's Attic
Title: Pollyanna's Attic
Artist: Carolyn Arends
Label: 2B Records (2006)
What's in your attic? Mine, until recently, had rats, but that's another post altogether. Some people have nicely finished attics -- with bright windows illuminating well-organized playrooms or storage areas. I think that most, though, have dark, seldom-visited areas with the artifacts of memories stowed away in cobwebbed corners and dusty alcoves. So, when Eleanor Porter's bubbly heroine, Pollyanna, leaves off playing the "glad game" one rainy afternoon and creeps away to explore her attic, what will she find there?
Carolyn Arends' music normally exudes sunniness, which is ironic, since she comes from the even-more-Pacific-Northwesty-than-Seattle province of British Columbia, Canada. When we have showers, they have rain. When we have rain, they have . . . really quite a lot of rain? But she, in defiance of environmental influences, has made songs and stories of hope and life in light of that hope almost a trademark of sorts. One typically Carolyn tune, from 1999's This Much I Understand, declares, "You can call me Pollyanna, you can call me a child. But I will not lie down -- that's not my style. And I will dare to dream. I will dare to believe in something, baby. And I will dare to be happy." But no one is inside-outside-upright-downright happy all the time, no matter what the children's worship song says. So, we fans probably knew that a "Prozac and razor blades" album would come someday. And, now it is here.
Of course, that's a little unfair. I don't think that this album represents a current state of Carolyn Arends' emotional well-being (unlike Amy Grant's downbeat offering of 1997, Behind the Eyes, which really did reflect a soul struggling with unhappiness). As she admits in the liner notes, many of the songs on Pollyanna's Attic had been slated for release on her earlier albums, but they had been cut -- either because they didn't fit with other albums' more upbeat tone or, perhaps, Carolyn was a little afraid to reveal the thoughts they contain. I wish, though, having listened to this album through several times now, that she had had the courage to include them earlier. Because, to tell truth, it gets a little oppressive hitting you all at once like this. Even the spoonfuls of sugar to make the medicine go down -- particularly in last two tracks -- are so subdued that, as you are recovering from the heaviness of the earlier tracks, you are too drained to realize fully their hopefulness. But, I am grateful that we have these songs at all, even though I'm a little exhausted by the end of the album. It's a journey.
The songs are everything you would expect from Carolyn Arends in terms of lyrical complexity and musical experimentation. She's really done some very interesting things on this album -- at least it seems that way to my novice ear. One of the first things that struck me in listening to the sneak preview songs that she posted on her MySpace site is how lovely her voice is. That may seem like a strange thing to note, considering that I listen to her music almost every day, but I think that familiarity breeds oblivion in this case, since I know so well what is coming that I'm only listening to the lyrics. When I do not know the lyrics, I really hear her voice. And, on this album, her voice seems to have grown in range and character. It is quite beautiful.
Carolyn Arends collaborated with her long-time touring partner and stringed-instrument maven, Spencer Capier, on two songs that were included on Pollyanna's Attic. The first is the lead-off track, "Just Pretending." This song is about the masks of perfection that people don to hide their cracks and brokenness. The lyrics are quite clever, and the vocals and chords on the chorus are so unusual, that the song captivates the ear. The chorus reminds us that maybe we shouldn't try so hard to project these illusions, since "life's not some greeting card." Let's not forget that "models and movie stars" are "just pretending." Carolyn and Spencer are so deep in their ponderings, though, that I don't think that they realize that a lot of people out there are really as shallow as they seem.
Their second track is the most upbeat song in this collection. "Something to Give," which features jubilant trumpet solos -- a rarely heard, but always welcome, instrument on Carolyn's albums -- is a gentle admonition to use the gifts we are given to glorify the Lord and give a hand to our fellow man. The chorus says it all: "There's nothing so rude as a gift you don't use or a live that you choose not to live. 'Cause you're blessed to bless, and the best of possessions is having something to give." And how true is that?
The third song is one of my favorites, because it addresses something that floats up into my mind, unbidden, most every day. It is "What in the World," and its question is: "What in the world makes us act this way and turn away from You?" This is such a gut-wrenching idea, because it gets to the heart of our human dilemma. Two thousand years after the peace and salvation of Christ was given to the world, and we're still just as perverse and faithless generation after generation -- killing, hurting, warring, fighting, blaspheming, cursing -- cutting into God's heart and each other's too. There is something new, too, in Carolyn's voice as she sings this song. The best I can describe it is as "raw anguish." Her voice cries that darkness is in her heart too. And in mine. And in yours.
The next song is another early favorite of mine, and it might just be one of the most desolate on this album. Its appropriate title is "The Wasteland," and its message is a lot clearer than T.S. Eliot's interminable poem of a similar title, but the clarity makes it more devastating. "There's a snake in the shadows, and he's looking us over. A vulture above us, and he's circling lower. See, we're poisoned and we're dying just a little every day. You've got to lead us away from the Wasteland." And, according to Carolyn's notes, this was to be the last verse in this song. But, God gives mercies anew every morning, and He gave her some mercy to pass along to us with this last verse that came suddenly: "You can give us Your justice, but we'll only defy it. You can give us salvation, but we'll just crucify it. Still You rise from the ruins and You promise us a day when You'll lead us away from the Wasteland."
"The Land of the Living" is the next track and it brings us back into more familiar Carolyn Arends territory, both musically and lyrically. It is a simply arranged song based around Psalm 27:13, which is (in my NKJV): "I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living." This is a song about a winter of emotional desolation, with a summer of spiritual fulfillment coming in dreams, only to vanish. The core message is one of holding onto the hope, no matter how seemingly threadbare, that again we shall see His hand in this land of the living.
"To See Your Face" is the first of two covers on this album. This is a Mark Heard song, which Carolyn recorded "Keith Green-style" by singing and playing the piano simultaneously. I love that she did that, because there is an immediacy to this recording that captures a little of what it is like to see Carolyn Arends in concert. Mark Heard was an intriguing songwriter -- his lyrical imagery is astounding. "If I ever get to see Your face, and if You will spare me, I know that my allegiance to the human race will not ensnare me." That is certainly our hope in Christ, but what a lovely way to put it.
The next song is a collaboration with her brother, Chris Jonat. Rock Star Carolyn emerges from a nine-year hiatus (see 1997's Feel Free) to jam on "Everybody Wants Everything." When Jason first heard this song he asked, "Is Carolyn rapping?" Well, it's not rapping exactly, it kind of reminds me of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire." It's a really cool song -- I know that's not very eloquent, but I do think it's the best word. The music is throbbing, Carolyn's vocals are husky, the lyrics are bitingly humorous. "Everybody wants it. Everybody needs it. Everybody wants everything."
"More is Less" is next up, and it is the second collaboration with Spencer Capier. The lyrics are a commentary on contemporary consumer culture; wherein goods are so cheap and available, human relationships are both more immediately intense and intensely perishable, and our lives feel emptier and fulfillment less attainable. Here is something that has never been done before on a Carolyn Arends album: She uses the word "sex." I only mention this because she was so funny about warning her fans about the word's introduction into her lyrical lexicon. This is just another example of why I would never want to be a "public Christian" or, rather, a Christian in the public eye. Her use of "sex" is as follows: "Here the money makes you paranoid; there’s no one you can trust. The sex will leave you lonely, and the love all turns to rust." As you can see, there is nothing at all offensive about it, but a warning was issued nonetheless. I appreciate her concern for our children's delicate ears, which I know was a part of the warning, but I'm sure that fending off an attack was lurking there too. I applaud her artistic integrity. In Pollyanna's attic, one trunk apparently contains carnal knowledge. Gasp! I like the bridge: "No one could blame us for wanting more, but isn't it strange how the more leaves us wanting?"
"Free" is track nine, and I'm still trying to "get" this song. It is by far the most negative song on the album, at least to my way of thinking. There is no redemptive kicker at the end -- Carolyn seems to be in a very dark mood, indeed. We -- and by this I'm not sure if she's addressing Western Europeans and North Americans, the "Free World"so to speak, or just the U.S., since she uses a lot of American imagery -- are "free from the cradle to the grave. We are so free of meaning and we like it that way. We are free, and we played it all so smart. Ain't nobody going to bother stopping what we never did start. We are free." Now, in a typical Carolyn Arends song, the song would end with a ray of light shining out -- maybe a declaration that, while our sinful natures condemn us to the baser actions of detachment, indifference and malice, free will (under the guidance of Christ) brings incredible acts of generosity and kindness. No such luck. This is grumpy Carolyn, a Carolyn unwilling throw us a bone and shine the light, even a little. Ouch. She also says "hell" on this album, which, coupled with the "sex" from the previous track, led Jason to ask jokingly whether this album came with an "explicit lyrics" warning. Now, that would have been funny!
The next track is another of my favorites, since it really showcases Carolyn's lyrical brilliance. It is "No Trespassing," and, again a little grumpy, but not nearly as stark, Carolyn examines our unwillingness to cross emotional and physical boundaries lines that are drawn in this world. I'm once again in awe of her songwriting capabilities. Consider the chorus: "See you can't go near anybody else's private grounds, and folks 'round here have got a democratic right to drown. And you're just a fool if you care about the faces in the crowd. We've got a new edition of the Golden Rule: No Trespassing Allowed." She's amazing.
The last two songs are fireflies dancing in the dark. "Not Alone" reminds us that things sure can be overwhelming down here -- we are often disappointed (Almanzo Wilder once told his daughter, Rose, that his life had "been mostly disappointments."), sometimes depressed, in many parts of the world severely oppressed, all of us battling the occasional bouts of tiredness, discouragement, unhappiness gloominess, etc. -- BUT we are not alone. She sings this song with the unusual vocals of Layton Howerton, which I found a little distracting. I guess the groans don't have to be figurative, but their reality can be a bit jarring. The last song, "I've Got a Hope," was written by Pierce Pettis and Eric Fiedor. Again, it is just Carolyn and her piano -- immediacy, intimacy, and introspection are the quiet and stunning results. The last two songs in tandem seem to reflect so well Paul's words of encouragement to the early, persecuted Roman church:
"For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18) . . . For the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance. (Romans 8:22-25) . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? (Romans 8:35) . . . For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)"
Well, that's my first-take on Pollyanna's Attic in a nutshell. I'm sure that future listenings will yield deeper understanding and appreciation. That's always the beauty of Carolyn's songs. Like any truly great work of art, each one offers something new and different with each exposure or perusal. If I were asked to describe this album in just one word -- you who know me know that that is a difficult task, indeed -- I would choose "challenging." As I posted previously on Carolyn Arends' message board, this album challenges both the listener and the artist. Pollyanna's Attic so different, so concurrently honest and vulnerable, that I do think it will come to redefine our understanding of what makes a "Carolyn Arends album." She's unlocked some doors here that can never been locked tight again. And, I like to think that she's overcome some of the fear she may have previously harbored about alienating her listener base or fully revealing her heart. It took a lot of courage to release something this innovative and divergent. We, her listeners, have been taken to a new level, too -- we'll never hear her work in the same way again.
But, some things will never change. I think that no collection of songs will ever truly be Carolyn's unless there is some kind of reflection of her eternal hope. And, that hope is here too -- in the midst of grumpiness and misanthropy and a wee bit of disgust -- it's shining out. A hope that somehow, because there is Someone who loves us so much that He died to show us what love could be, we can find a way to overcome our indifference, our selfishness, our cruelty, our futility. And the hope that, even when we fail so miserably to live out His love, that there will be redemption and a chance to try again.
I think that Pollyanna finds an ancient trunk in her attic. In that trunk is a quilt -- a quilt that's a little moth-eaten, a little stained, a little mildewed. But woven into the fabric of that quilt are threads of truth and light and love and hope. And, though the colors are faded and the smell evokes years of close quarters with little air, the quilt is beautiful yet. So, even long after she folds it up and locks the trunk again, the memory of that quilt will stay with her. The sunshine of a thousand summer afternoons will not erase what she found that rainy afternoon in the glow of a single lightbulb illuminating a shadowy garret. And the "glad game" gets a new dimension and honesty because of it.