Brief Thoughts on The Nashville Sound

Brief Thoughts on The Nashville Sound

My copy of Jason Isbell’s new record came in the mail Tuesday night and I’ve been able to listen to it a couple of times since then. My first impression is that The Nashville Sound is a sonic gem. The vocals are recorded pretty dry at times, especially on the opener and the lovely “If We Were Vampires”, and it gives a cottony intimacy to the quiet songs. It’s a sound I just can’t get enough of. The double-tracked vocals “Chaos and Clothes” are another excellent choice. The record is also louder than its predecessor. The electric guitars come out more often, which is just fine by me.

And then there’s the songwriting. Isbell has traded in some of his storytelling (which is superb) for more commentary and that makes a few of the songs hit pretty on the nose. Some people might find this troubling. When Isbell is telling stories, he comes at the poetic heart of what he has to say at an oblique angle. That distance on his part allows the listener to get in right up close, so to speak, and sop up the imagery and let it flavor their own longing and memory.

But, on new songs like “White Man’s World” and “Hope the High Road”, Isbell isn’t showing as much as telling. For 3-4 minutes, it’s about him more than you. He gets right up close, and in order to keep the same space between artist and listener–space that let’s the listener feel a sense of belonging with the song, space that Isbell provides free of charge with fiction songs–the listener needs to shift. Understandably, some might not like this affront to their sit-back-and-consume habit of listening. But, I’m ok with it. I’m willing to work at approaching the songs from a distance because I trust Isbell as an artist. So, here’s what I make of the aforementioned tunes.

Isbell and his wife (who sings and plays the violin in the band, which lends a heartbreaking dimension to that vampire song) have a daughter, their first kid. And so the music isn’t just art anymore, it’s legacy. It’s not an offering to some disembodied audience, it’s evidence of the kind of man Isbell is within his time. Evidence which his child will gather with a Holmes-like prodigy. Our kids are the master sleuths of who we really are, and Isbell wants to be found out to be good.

So, for me, these uncomfortably direct songs aren’t just about what Isbell has to say (and I do happen to agree with a lot of it, awkward as it feels), it’s about why he’s saying it. I feel that fatherly panic of wanting my own sons to find me out to have been a good man in the end. What forays I make into artistic expression (like this very thing you’re reading and all the other things in the same digital attic) I make with more than half an eye to how they might guide the boys I love. I’m glad Isbell broke the show don’t tell rule. I’m glad he went that route. It shows me that he’s the same kind of father I am no matter what he’s telling.

A Pasture Cropped Down by Lawnmowers

Even up here
Perched above the whirling
Blades of an economy
All fury and vanity
Blowing a gale to cool
That guardsman’s sword aflame
Which will not yet be cooled
Against dread look and see
Swallows fly low over
Machine-cut pasture in
The heart of the city
Catching bugs and trailing
Their slender vee of tail
Banking hard away they
Catch the reclining sun
On underplumage light
As golden hay

Before the First Haircut

Stay the shears one more day.
There’s something to be said
for the hair of a small
child grown wild and uncouth
from birth to this sunny
afternoon. It will be
a while yet before self
awareness and pride can
coalesce into style.
Until then my boy runs
joyfully facing out
into the world, launching
peals of belly laughter.

 

Neighborly Hope

Neighborly Hope

It strikes me that any politician only wins by the slimmest popular margin (and sometimes not by a popular margin at all). Their use of power–and this is the inherent nature of power; it cannot do otherwise–will please half of the population and send the other half into bouts of depression and paroxysms of outrage. So I cannot for the life of me figure out why anyone who claims to be a Christian would throw any flamboyant support at all towards any politician, much less the mode of the in-the-highways, in-the-hedges gloating and mocking and general mouthing off that passes for political speech these days. In doing so, these professing Christians (of all political stripes) are showing themselves willing to alienate half their neighbors just so they can feel like a winner in a losing game. Talk of depression and outrage, that pretty much does it for me.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t have political leanings or even an idea for what kinds of policies would best serve the common good. I’m just saying, what happened to that ambition to live a quiet life? To do your level best to live at peace with people? Have we so bought into the narrative that politics is the final arbiter of riches and ruin–a narrative that, mind you, tilts awfully heavily in favor of the politicians–that we are too afraid to laugh at such a preposterous notion? And live out that laughter by being decent neighbors?

We’re too caught up in the utopian, the treadmill lies that we’ll get there just around the next bend, but only if the right people hold the reins. We need a good does of the apocalyptic, the settled realization that, based on a few thousand years of pretty much ceaseless and fruitless power struggle, things are pretty well going to flame out long before we get anywhere so we’d best look away from the squabbling in the dining car and consider that ghostly spirit seated up in the engine. Christians are supposed to believe God is that one up there with a hand on the whistle and a hand on the brakes working to save as many from ruin as will be. It’s why we go on so much about ‘Thy Kingdom come’. It’s because that Kingdom is supposed to be so much more desirable and assured that it cools our jets about wrestling over this one.

What can a government do? They can stop and start the flow of money and they can stop and start the infliction of punishment which is, as I said before, laughable along the arc of the cosmic. And it’s also a real source of suffering for those on the receiving end. Is it really such a good look to be merrily clutching the coattails of someone’s oppressor?

To put it another way, if you’re waiting on the power of kings and presidents, you’re going to be waiting an awfully long time. Anyone in this country who’s been waiting around on a state-drafted and -enacted solution to the human condition has been waiting 241 years and things have only gotten as good as they are now. I mean, we have free wifi just about everywhere, but all that’s really worth is bringing the full scope of human atrocity and pettiness into our pockets and living rooms. We did get penicillin, though, and that’s hard to find fault with.

So, while I realize that the world is crazy and it’s a perfectly good instinct to want to stop the crazy, against the blinding angels of our misplaced hope, nonetheless, I pledge my grievance:

The hope for preventing crime and dissuading criminals isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

The hope for feeding hungry kids and and keeping the homeless from freezing to death isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

The hope for rebuilding the family unit as a stable and reliable source of flourishing society isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

The hope for anyone not already hell-bent on racial hate isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

The hope for anyone not already hell-bent on seeking an abortion isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

And, by God, no strong right arm of any legislature will ever be the hope for anyone hell-bent on anything. Then, hope can only be neighborly.

On Tools

On Tools

When you have small boys, you get a window of time when they want to help out with everything (besides laundry and dishes and room cleaning, but, surprisingly, yes sometime to dog-poop-picking-up). When you have an oldish house that you and your wife are slowly renovating–she the design and you the labor–you therefore get a lot of help when you’re sawing and nailing. Of course, saws and tiny fingers do not always make the best playmates and this goes probably quadruple when you’re talking power saws. An electric saw poses a danger even to adults (ask any ER nurse), but they also tend to terrify kids because they’re extremely loud. This all poses a bit of a dilemma because that window when your boys’ highest aspiration is to be a good project helper is a precious time to pass along not just the know-how of completing a carpentry job, but also more broadly the value and pleasure of working and building something.

The solution to this dilemma, I think, is to slow down. Why did we start using power saws in the first place? IMG_2885They were fast and they left a cleaner, more squared edge (although that cleaner, more squared edge really only applies in comparison with a rushed or inexperienced cut with a hand saw). But, in speeding up our work and removing some of the necessary skill, we also removed some of our available company.

A while back, my parents gave me a de-lectrified miter saw they found at a garage sale. It has its limitations. It can only accommodate a 2×4 or a 2×6 at most and it doesn’t always cut smoothly (though that could be user error). But, it does cut straight and fast enough. As I used it earlier in the spring to saw lumber for a bookshelf and my two-year-old squatted right at my elbow to watch, even held the handle and ‘helped’ me make a few cuts, I also couldn’t help but notice that this little hand saw had torn down the barrier of fear that used to keep my boys far from my work (and often crying at the hideous screeching whine).

His presence and interest increased my enjoyment of the task immeasurably and the extra time it took felt golden.

 

Dead Darlings: convergence

In a piece about wonder and accepting that some things can be true whether or not we can do the math on them, I had to chop this. So, it is resurrected here.

The point where contradicting lines of thinking converge is simply outside the furthest limits of our imagination, to say nothing of our perception.

 

Dead Darlings: the Lamb of God

Culling more stuff from another piece and, since I was writing about my beloved Jacques Ellul, I couldn’t just let it die in unfamy. So, here it is. And don’t worry, I had a second Ellul quote that got to stay in (at least so far). 

In its call to courage, our capstone [back-to-a-wall fearlessness in front of hardship, suffering, and even death] presses us into the cornerstone, the Lamb of God in whose flesh and blood we partake precisely because he was made the cornerstone through sacrifice. Our call to bear this image in the world should shape us in the most fundamental ways. Jacques Ellul, a Frenchman who never shied from calling Christians to an otherworldly fullness of faith, drew out the implications with characteristic clarity:

“It is the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who takes away the sins of the world. But every Christian is treated like his Master, and every Christian receives from Jesus Christ a share in his work…[the Christian] is the living and real ‘sign’, constantly renewed in the midst of the world, of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God…Christians should be very careful not to be wolves in the spiritual sense—that is, people who try to dominate others. Christians must accept the domination of other people, and offer the daily sacrifice of their lives, which is united to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.” (The Presence of the Kingdom, p. 4)

This is a bold claim. Ellul leaves the word sacrifice completely unbounded and, more alarmingly, weds it to the sacrifice of Jesus which, remember, persisted through humiliation and pain and finished in death. Blessedly, God often spares us full imitation here—especially if by extraordinary luck we were born American—but neither does God rule it out. If the crowning achievement of faith is Christ-likeness, well, behold the likeness. How can we endure such a hazardous calling?

We look to Jesus, who looked to the joy set before him to carry out his pioneering work, enduring the cross. See, Jesus saw the world in totem. The material world which tyrannizes our own perception, but also the hidden things. The spiritual things which we only see as shadows and copies and sometimes not at all, but which are inseparable, pervasive, and essential to a full accounting of the world and our lives in it. Such a vision told Jesus there were more fearsome hordes than our inevitable last breaths and, better still, that there’s a Kingdom of life beyond this walking death. This hope flows straight from the attentive awe of the Lord. Our assurance of eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven should settle into place and keep the entire life of faith and virtue from falling apart, even in those risky times when death gnashes its teeth (or smiles a placid smile while teasing and calculating our end with its barbed-wire bat).

*     *     *

You can look for the whole piece soon at Christ and Pop Culture (if you’re not a subscriber there, it’ll pop up from behind the paywall eventually, but less soon).