Artist: Carolyn Arends
Label: 2B Records, Vancouver, BC
It is a tricky thing to write about Carolyn Arends's work. At least, it is for me. Mostly because I simply like it too much. You will find me, whenever Carolyn's newest music is the subject, a curious composite of Bingley, Georgiana and Darcy from Pride & Prejudice: ready, eager, and determined to be pleased. And I always am and then some. But, there is another aspect to her art that makes any discussion thereof difficult, if not completely superfluous -- her lucidity. I can think of no songwright that crafts a cleaner lyric. Do not mistake the sparkling clarity for simplicity, or rather, for superficiality -- she draws her water from a deep well; however, she is able to present a cogent idea so completely in a four minute song, that you may be fooled into thinking that you've got a handle on her. And, at the moment you think you've got it all figured out, she slips in a twist or paradox with such elvish glee that it will take your breath away. So, my two-pronged problem in writing about Carolyn's tenth album, Love Was Here First, is how to keep from gushing like a fool and how to say something worthwhile when she's already said it so well in the songs. Here goes . . .
Love Was Here First is a labor of that very primary stuff three years in the making. Even if you haven't been privy to what Carolyn has shared of the journey of tenacious faith and trials by fire that have marked the years since Pollyanna's Attic (2006) was released, you can hear it in these songs. But, it is a happy, hopeful album. As always, she has brought together a stellar group of musicians to give texture and depth to her already probing lyrics and cadenced melodies. There is, I think, only one "cover" on this album -- I only have the download, not the physical disc with the production notes, so bear with me -- and it is a hymn. There is a lot here in these eleven songs. One of the keys to Carolyn Arends's music is that she revisits themes repeatedly with ever-increasing insight. The fact that these themes never come across as worn or banal is a testament not only to her craftsmanship and genius, but to the eternal, ever-renewing-yet-never-changing nature of God.
The lead off track is "Be Still." Now, when I tell my daughter to "Be still!" I usually mean, "Be quiet!" This song is anything but quiet. There are horns. They are awesome! Carolyn's trademark linguistic gymnastics in the verses are contrasted deliberately with the far simpler refrain of the chorus. Behold the first verse and chorus:
Words fail, but I just keep talking I/Derail but there's just no stopping/The train of my thoughts, it goes faster and faster/This juggernaut is my natural disaster/My 'what-ifs' collide with my 'wherefores' and 'whys'/Til the only way that I'll survive is if
I will be still/And know that You are God
See? She uses words so well. Being a logophile who increasingly despairs for my mother tongue, I confess that it gives me a thrill to hear "juggernaut" thrown effortlessly into a song.
The next track is "Standing in the Need of Prayer." Sometimes I think that I am lucky in a way for having been raised by pagan parents.* When an artist covers an old hymn, he runs into the problem of church-going folks' saying, "That's not how my mama sang that song when she made us chicken dinner on Sundays!" I have no history longer than fourteen years with any hymn, and I tend to hear them with fresh ears. Carolyn's version of this classic is a triumph, because she has brought an added color to the words and made me hear them anew. The song starts with a haunting solo vocal: It's me, it's me oh Lord/Standing in the need of prayer. Then, additional voices swell into a chorus, repeating the same: It's me, it's me oh Lord/Standing in the need of prayer. I found this very effective, because it emphasizes both the individual need of prayer -- as, from the lyrics, you would expect -- and then unanticipatedly makes the cry a universal one. Every heart at every moment can make the same declaration. It is I, it is I, it is I, it is I . . . The plaintive, almost melancholy, arrangement helps to focus the attention of the listener on the straightforward lyric, while the chorus lends irony to those words: Not my father not my mother but it's me oh Lord/Standing in the need of prayer/Not my sister not my brother but it's me oh Lord/Standing in the need of prayer. Though I do not have the album credits handy, I do believe that is Gayle Salmond's ethereal voice woven between the refrains that gives "Standing" an additional evocative beauty.
Track three, "My Favourite Lie," is a contender for my favorite song. When I first heard this song in 2007, it was stripped to its essence and sung with only piano accompaniment. I thought it so beautiful and true and clever. Yes, clever. That can almost be a pejorative in Christian music -- you do not want to be clever, you want to be holy and honest. Well, this song is both of those, and yet, the lyric is so magnificent and affecting . . . and, well, playful. And, what I love most about this song, is that it tells me something that I know in a way I had never thought of before.
I am a caterpillar who will not cocoon/Feels like a tomb/I will not die
I am a seed that will not be broken/For the flower to open/No, I will not die
I am a pilgrim on a dead-end road/Who refuses to go in a new direction
I am a sucker for my favourite lie/That you don't have to die to live the resurrection
The arrangement lightens it up considerably as well -- though the words tell of a human condition that can have tragic consequences, the joyous music saturates the song with hope. I think G.K. Chesterton would like this song muchly. It explores one of the many, many paradoxes Jesus left us to ponder and wrestle with until Kingdom come. Mark 8: 35: For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. We have to die to live the resurrection.
"Something Out of Us" is a showstopper. Carolyn is currently polling on whether folks would pay more for a concert ticket if she toured with a string quartet. My answer: Yes; but, I would pay even more if she would tour with a brass section. I seriously do not have the grasp on music that would define the genre here, but it reminds me of swing and jazz -- I could easily see Louis Prima and Sam Butera wailing this at The Sands circa 1955. And I haven't even gotten to the words yet, which are purely Carolyn -- everything we've come to expect but will never truly deserve from Mrs. A. Wry and witty, yet with zing and sting; realistic, yet with that sense of trust and hope that the now is not the yet-to-come; benevolence without blinders.
We want our way like David with Bathsheba/We are dreamers we are schemers like Jacob the deceiver/But You meet us at the river and You show us a good fight/Then You bless us and You name us and You make morning of our night
'Cuz You made cosmos out of chaos/You made Adam out of dust/You made wine out of the water/You'll make something out of us
You make light shine in our darkness/You make life to conquer death/You make children out of sinners/You'll make something of us yet
Track five, "I Am a Soul," is soothing and pricking at the same time. Carolyn is never afraid to ask the questions in her songs that fill the heart of every human, be he a believer or not. Why, materialists, if we are simply a chemical concoction born of evolution, destined for decomposition and oblivion, do we have the pulls of creative expression and abstract thought and deep brotherhood and deep cruelty in our DNA? We may have bodies, but we are souls.
"Willing" is, to me, a song of spiritual exhaustion and spiritual renewal. Every person of faith has experienced seasons like this. That point where we know with our minds that what we need most is God's work in our lives, but we cannot get our hearts opened or our spirits energized enough to be willing to let Him do that work. But, we can be "willing to be willing." And, the great work of faith is believing that He can take it from there.
The spirit of "Go Tell it On the Mountain" from 2004's Christmas: An Irrational Season is alive and well in "Roll It." Here's your rollicking old-tyme gospel sung with soul by the grooviest batch of Canadians west of Winnipeg. It is lighter and fun and breaks up the middle of the album quite well. Which brings up a point not often mentioned when writing about song collections -- track order. It is important, because, much like the chiaroscuro technique in painting that contrasts darkness with light, giving both greater dimension in the process, mixing up tempos and lyrical depth in an album can help quieter, less showy songs get the hearing they deserve because a frothier, if you will, tune has awoken the ears of the listener. "Roll It" does that job so well and prepares the way for track eight, "The Last Word."
It is tempting to see "The Last Word (Love Was Here First)" as the heart of the album. After all, the name of this collection was taken from this song. And, I do not think it would be far amiss to grant it that pivotal status. The important thing about this song is that it makes in such an elegant way that connection of which we constantly need to be reminded -- what started in the Garden with a lie and was finished on Calvary with truth is a love story of epic proportions. One of my favorite lines that illuminates this truth is from Philip Yancey's The Jesus I Never Knew, "In a nutshell, the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 tells the story of a God reckless with desire to get his family back. (Zondervan, 1995; pg 268)" Consider the last verse and chorus in Carolyn's song:
Bad day in the Garden could not erase/All that was started with original grace/Though we have wandered, we will find if we search/Love was here first
And there will be a day when the Kingdom comes/When love has finished all that it's begun/When we're face to face we will know for sure/Love's gonna have the last word
"According to Plan" is an interesting song -- perhaps controversial? Not to me. I'm not a Calvinist. Here is the wrestling between the notion of God's sovereignty, free will, and just the strange randomness of life in this fallen world. The chorus is a powerful summary of these questions that fill our minds:
Well I'm not so sure that God moves everything/Like pawns in a chess game or puppets on string/I can't determine just whether or not/He causes our troubles or He makes them stop/But I am convinced we get one guarantee/There's no situation that He can't redeem/When He moves in our hearts that's when we understand/It's going according to plan
Carolyn's albums always finish strong, and the last two tracks of Love Was Here First are no exception, though they are -- so far as songs go -- exceptional. "Nothing Can Separate" is an anthem of certainty, of Paul's vision of the peace that passeth all understanding, of that transcendent love for which we yearn. Here's another key to Carolyn's songwriting: She is going to tell you what you know with your mind to be true and remind you to carry those things in your heart. I mean, I know
Neither death nor life not the past nor the present nor the things to come/No foe -- neither depth nor height can separate us from the love of Christ
but it is SO GOOD to hear it again and again and again. I need to hear it. The world needs to hear it.
The last song is "Never Say Goodbye." Carolyn writes the most profound songs about Jesus I have ever heard. That fact that she so rarely uses His name just infuses them with greater mystery and poignancy. "In Good Hands," "What Love Looks Like," and, now, "Never Say Goodbye" are just soul-searingly good. I'm blubbering right now even thinking about it. Trust me, it's that amazing.
OK, this is a long write-up, but I do hope you've stuck with me until the end -- or, at least, skipped over my poor, faltering words and just read the lyrics I've quoted. If you for some reason do not know Carolyn's music and writing, I pray that something I've said here will encourage you to visit her webstore Feed the Lake and sample her music. You will be blessed by it surely.
*My father, whom I value far above rubies, diamonds, and even salt, has told me that he did not appreciate my saying I was raised in a "heathen household" -- and what's more (and even more guilt-inducing) he told me my mother would not like it either. He prefers, mysteriously, the term "pagan" -- or, at worst, "infidel." I did not want to lose my alliteration entirely, so I went with "pagan parents" -- though, to tell truth, I cannot imagine my mother would like this any better -- nor would she like my referring to an "infidel infancy" or any such like. But, as Emperor Joseph II might say, there it is.