The fall of 2003 was quite possibly the most turbulent couple of months I’d been through since the summer and fall of 2001. While there were enjoyable occasions – a bit of traveling here, a few concerts there, and lots of time spent with our new Sedaqah Group – I could tell that a difficult decision might be looming ahead of me.
In with the New:
Cool Hand Luke
Out with the Old:
Listen on Spotify:
Christine and I went on our first overnight “road trip” together in September 2003, with Linda along for the ride (we dropped her off so she could spend the weekend with her family without having to drive up all by herself) and then continuing on to the East Bay to hang out with Lina for the weekend. We also drove up to Berkeley to see Francis, who was doing a stint in UC Berkeley’s math department while on sabbatical from Harvey Mudd that semester. While in Berkeley, we spent part of the afternoon at Tilden Park, a beautiful nature preserve just north of the University campus, with trails that just barely provided a view over the hills and into San Francisco Bay. This picture shows the massive trees and vegetation right above the parking lot.
Where in the world is this?
1) “Wise”, Fiction Plane (Everything Will Never Be OK, 2003)
The final track from Fiction Plane’s first album was also an eardrum-blowing closer at their concerts. It didn’t make much sense, to be honest, since it vacillated between social/political commentary and dealing with relationship issues. These lines give me a bit of a chill now when I think about what Christine and I were going through then, even though they might be laughably melodramatic at the same time: “I tried to talk to my lover/But silence fell around me, I drew my last breath/I couldn’t tell her I loved her/Bring back the living with the kiss of death.”
2) “Glass to the Arson”, Anberlin (Blueprints for the Black Market, 2003)
This track was among the first ones that sparked my interest in what would turn out to be a long-time favorite band of mine… and also a good name for a cat. There’s nothing really specific about this heavy, bitter song that applied to my situation at the time 9early Anberlin could be almost indecipherable at times), but its scathing guitar riffs and melodic screams were quite cathartic all the same.
3) “Waiting”, Dakona (Perfect Change, 2003)
I loved how the sound of the departing train at the beginning of this song segued into its driving rhythm. it’s a song of regret expressed after a loved one leaves, and you’re wondering if you could have done anything differently to make her stay. Adjusting to life in California was getting difficult for Christine; at times she spoke of taking a break from the stress and going back to Hawaii. Part of me worried that if she did this, it might be the beginning of the end for us.
4) “So Far, So Bad”, Five Iron Frenzy (The End Is Near, 2003)
Taking a hard right turn out of the angsty stuff and diving headlong into sardonic humor is this track from FIF’s farewell album, which laments a supposedly awesome song that the group was going to write, which they sabotaged because they knew it’d never get played on the radio anyway. The joke is that a song that awesome couldn’t really exist, but it sort of expresses the frustration that the group felt with not being understood by a mostly Christian audience. Indeed, there seem to be a number of fans who remember the group’s legacy and who can say “I’m not a Christian, but these guys made pretty good music.” FIF strived to relate to the misfits and outcasts a lot of the time, and in doing so, they hit harder than a lot of the more “safe” Christian rockers on the radio could have ever hoped to. (At other times, they were just plain goofy. But I loved them for that.)
5) “College Kids”, Relient K (Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right… But Three Do, 2003)
For a while there, I thought RK might pick up Five Iron Frenzy’s torch, and become the silly, youth-group friendly band with the humorous but hard-hitting lyrics. Ultimately, they went in more of a mainstream direction with both their sound and their lyrics – though I don’t consider this to be a terrible thing. Still, I miss the days when they’d turn out such thoroughly funny songs as this one, for no purpose other than the lolz. I was sometimes as lazy as this song’s protagonist during my college days. I could relate.
6) “Missing You”, Big Dismal feat. Amy Lee (Believe, 2003)
It was almost a crime that Big Dismal could be so ridiculously simplistic and yet so catchy. Pretty much a straightforward love song here, about missing someone who’s gone away. It could apply to pretty much anything. great vocal tag team work between Eric Durrance and Amy Lee here, though. Linda really enjoyed this song – she was the one who got me into the band, which is funny because she tried to get me into Kutless, and that totally backfired because I rejected them as a total ripoff of Creed. And Big Dismal was what, then? This track was a good way of getting her to like a singer she otherwise couldn’t stand, by way of stealth. She never got into Evanescence… too creepy and dark, and bands with female singers seemed to never do it for her anyway.
7) “Bright Lights”, Matchbox Twenty (More than You Think You Are, 2002)
Another rip-your-heart-out song about a girl wanting to get out of town and never look back. The funny thing was that this one never depressed me. I thought it was a pretty awesome example of a classic power ballad kicking into high gear near the end. I didn’t realize until later how I had subsconsciously identified it with Christine wanting to move back home, and me frantically trying to figure out a way to keep her here even when letting go was the path of least resistance.
8) “Clarity”, John Mayer (Heavier Things, 2003)
Sometimes we fail to let ourselves enjoy the present because we’re too preoccupied with worries about the future. There’s a time and place when it’s a good thing to plan carefully and exercise caution. But sometimes we do so much of this that we fail to take any chances or risks whatsoever. I was holding out for a degree of certainty that wasn’t reasonable to expect. I only wanted to continue this relationship if I had some sort of guarantee that things would work out for us, that I wasn’t wasting my time only to have to start over again later. I got temporarily blinded to the fact that nobody gets this guarantee. Falling in love, and staying there, is always a risk. And I was getting so worked up over the risk that you I was having a hard time fully opening my heart and just enjoying what Christine and I had. This song, with its confident hand claps and its beautiful chords, reminded me to take a deep breath and just live in the now.
9) “You Get Me”, ZOEgirl (Different Kind of FREE, 2003)
Look! They’re not just a superficial girl group! They can play actual guitars! Or something. Call it a well-timed response to the industry getting wise and trying to prove that their pre-fab pop groups could function as actual bands. I know studio musicians were still doing most of the work here. Still, I couldn’t deny that it was an improvement when those heavy guitars kicked in at the chorus. I found that I didn’t mind the processed pop stuff so much when it intersected with something a little heavier.
10) “Heroes Will Be Heroes”, Cool Hand Luke (Wake Up O Sleeper, 2003)
Some of my Phorum friends introduced me to the music of Cool Hand Luke. It was a tough sell at first – much slower and murkier than the upbeat and edgy stuff I was into. But also challenging in that “good for the soul” sort of way. This remains my favorite of their songs – I seem to relate to lyrics that hit hard on the topic of grace and ask why we keep missing the point and trying to fight the battle of redemption alone. Normally, I feel like I get that on a conceptual level, but practically speaking, one big mistake sends me back into a cycle of flogging myself for it, trying to do better, and failing. “Hey little boy, bury your sword. Jesus already won this war.”
11) “Trouble Is”, Jars of Clay (Who We Are Instead, 2003)
The new Jars album that dropped that fall took its sweet time to grow on me… like the best ones usually do. This song, with its inventive mixture of drum loops and slide guitar, caught my attention right away, and it seemed like a good follow-up to “Heroes Will Be Heroes”. Sometimes we Christians don’t know who we are instead of the heroes we make ourselves out to be. We don’t really own the idea of salvation by grace alone. I could feel a fundamental change starting to occur within me that year, coming from a weariness over having to fake it just to fit in. It affected my musical tastes and the goodie-two-shoes image I once tried to maintain, and more and more, I just wanted to be among people who could admit to being broken and love one another despite that instead of having something to prove. Finding Evergreen a few years prior was a big part of that shift in my thinking.
12) “Daisies and Sandalwood”, Steven Delopoulos (Me Died Blue, 2003)
Any interpretation this one totally escaped me. I was just mesmerized by Steven’s nimble finger-picking and his weather-beaten voice lamenting the plight of some people somewhere whose land was being raped by powers too large for them to stop. Or something. If it was about the Iraq War (a hot topic at the time) or anything related to it, the references were oblique at best.
13) “The Gloaming”, Radiohead (Hail to the Thief, 2003)
Dark, minimalistic, creepy, and beautiful, in a way that only Radiohead can seem to encompass all at once. This song was repetitive enough that it seemed to annoy a lot of the group’s fans, even folks who could get into the dark and weird stuff on Kid A and Amnesiac. But for some reason, it stood out to me right from the beginning, and it’s still one of my favorites.
14) “Evidence”, Joseph Arthur (Redemption’s Son, 2002)
Also creep-tastic, but quite an earworm thanks to its industrial-strength beats, was this song at the midway point of Arthur’s long, meandering Redemption’s Son – a difficult album to get through, but one that seemed to make me take notice of a new highlight each time I tried. There’s some secretive, subversive stuff going on here – a guy wants a girl to know how strongly he feels for her, but he’s certain that she’s got him all figured out and discovered the “Evidence to know that I’ve been bad.” So he just sort of hides there, alone in the dark.
15) “This Is Your Life”, Switchfoot (The Beautiful Letdown, 2003)
Definitely a jarring mood shift here, but the strong, synthetic bass chords that open this one made it a perfect musical fit after “Evidence”. This one was a wake-up call. Time to get off of your sad-sack butt, stop feeling sorry for yourself and act like your bad decisions and attitudes are going to bring everything in your life to ruin, and resolve to seize the day and make the best of what you’ve still got. “Are you who you want to be?” If so, then why aren’t you? What’s holding you back? The future wasn’t inevitable. Christine hadn’t left yet, despite having plenty of compelling reasons why she probably could have. If I wanted her to resolve to fight off her fears and stick around, I had to resolve to fight at her side.
16) “Momentum”, Vienna Teng (Waking Hour, 2002)
Such a quiet, delicious little love song. Those gently floating piano chords felt like a supernatural presence seeping into a room, like the first rays of morning after a dark night. It’s really about an amorous experience, not specifically a spiritual one, but the truest feelings of being in love have always felt like something God would look down upon and pronounce, “It is good”. I needed to remember what Christine and I had, what we felt for each other, what was worth fighting for. We were still capable of making each other feel totally overcome with warm emotions, with genuine love and affection. I wasn’t ready to give that up yet. It was too powerful.
Also in September, we went to a Caedmon’s Call concert at Pepperdine University in Malibu. It’s a scenic venue for a concert since they hold them on the lawn, overlooking the ocean, though that does cause logisitcal difficulties due to neighborhood noise curfews. The band shown playing is actually Kepano Green, who I didn’t even know would be there – they’re a local indie band that I thought had called it quits. Once it started getting dark, Mark Schultz took the stage (he was more memorable for his antics and banter than his actual songs, I think), and then Caedmon’s Call delivered a rather lackluster performance. So this picture is from a concert with three artists, none of which actually appear on this particular CD.
Where in the world is this?
1) “O Praise Him (All This for a King)”, David Crowder Band (Illuminate, 2003)
I was skeptical when Sparrow Records sent me a pre-release of Illuminate to review. I was sort of burned out on worship music at the time, and I hadn’t been all that impressed with Crowder’s major label debut, Can You Hear Us? But this one stepped up the artistic quality – I loved how one minute they’d be doing some all glitzy and electronic like the “Main Street Electrical Parade” intro to this unstoppable praise anthem, and then the next minute they’d be doing something organic and jam-oriented, and there’d be all these little bits and pieces that tied it all together into a surprisingly cohesive album. Over the next several years, the DCB would become my personal standard-bearer for what could be done with contemporary worship music – a reason why an artist trying to engage the congregation shouldn’t have to settle for a lack of creativity. (I also got an early clue about the band’s sense of humor when they took a poll on their website to determine the final title of this song, and they jokingly suggested “Boot Scoot Boogie #2” as an option. That option very nearly won the poll.)
2) “Sending”, Charlie Hall (On the Road to Beautiful, 2003)
It seemed appropriate to put Crowder and Hall together. They seemed like-minded and were signed to the same level. I was starting to feel like sitting around singing a bunch of praise songs meant nothing if we couldn’t act on those loving sentiments that we claimed to feel towards God. Part of loving God is loving the people who inhabit the world God made. It’s easier to sing about doing that than it is to actually do it. I figure Charlie must have closed a mostly mellow album with this fiery, upbeat tune because it was important to him as a “final thought”.
3) “Hanging On”, Big Dismal (Believe, 2003)
As usual for Big Dismal, nothing terribly deep here, but I had fun working out the acoustic intro riff to this one and playing it for Linda, the only other person I knew who was familiar with the song. I would often try to do that when a friend loaned me a CD and I really got into it – figure out a song from that CD and play my own acoustic version for them.
4) “Whisper”, Evanescence (Fallen, 2003)
Evanescence was another band that my brother and I could agree on. Since we never agreed on much, it was good to at least have that to talk about on the rare occasions that we saw each other. He had a girlfriend at the time who was thoroughly creeped out by the grim Latin choir at the end of this song – she’d make him turn off the CD before the fade-out. I tried to explain that it was actually a sort of prayer or liturgy, saying “Save us from evil”, but she retorted, “They ARE evil!”
5) “Breaking the Habit”, Linkin Park (Meteora, 2003)
Notable for being the first of LP’s singles to not contain any rap vocals. Sort of a hint at their future direction, which veered pretty heavily away from the rap stuff while retaining the electronic experimentation, but this was much more easily digestible than some of their later material, so of course it was still a sure-fire hit. I really got into this one, since I was at that point of admitting I was beating my head against a wall and not accomplishing everything, and I had to own that and give myself the grace to start over and rethink the kind of person I wanted to be instead of just continuing to approach my problems the same way and expect a different result. it was time to shake things up a bit, even if that felt risky.
6) “Downfall”, Matchbox Twenty (More than You Think You Are, 2002)
I loved the Gospel choir in this one. It came out of nowhere and it was such a moment of twisted genius. This isn’t a Gospel song, despite its talk of salvation and someone always being with you. It’s simply another exploration of a relationship that gets really messed up in the head, which is what Rob Thomas does best. You get so tangled up with someone that you expect them to save you from whatever misery you’re dealing with, forgetting that the dependency on that person is what made you miserable in the first place. Then, instead of them lifting you up, you just drag them down. It’s a pattern that has to be recognized before you can break out of it. For me and Christine to survive, I couldn’t let myself try to do everything for her. She had to find a way to stand on her own two feet and beat the challenge of supporting herself while living so far away from the comfortable world she knew back home.
7) “In Conversation”, The Juliana Theory (Love, 2003)
Another acoustic-based song where the chords were intriguing enough that I just had to figure it out on my own. I loved how this one seemed to be championing unbridled, confrontational honesty, and then just as it started to pick up momentum and get way over-the-top with the electric guitars and screams, it sabotaged its own message: “Isolation and division will be our destruction, if we can’t communicate/So as I contradict myself, and forget all I’ve said, I am free.” Say WHAT?
8) “To Be Honest”, Shaun Groves (Twilight, 2003)
Definitely the most downbeat tune on the new Shaun Groves album, which was a bit of a difficult one for me to digest due to its conscious decision to veer away from typiacl CCM production and attempt more of a “live band” feel. Interestingly, it was the more intimate songs like this one that grabbed me first. Shaun had blogged extensively about the making of this album and talked about it some on the CMCentral message boards (where people felt more than free to ofer their opinions of his music, good or bad), and this song felt sort of like a reaction to that. “I’m scared to wander outside major keys/So I sing a song that I wrote just to please/The fools and the fakes, afraid just like me to be honest.” I’m a sucker for minor key and I get easily annoyed when I can tell people are faking stuff, so those opening lines grabbed me right away. It made me think about the difficulties that I was struggling to hide from people. I valued honesty. If I couldn’t open up and share about the ways I needed God to help me out of the emotional maze I was stuck in, how could I expect others to be similarly candid? getting that level of candidness from someone else has always been something that I’ve treasured, so I had to trust that it wasn’t necessarily a burden for me to open up with others and simply say, “This is really hard. Please pray for me.”
9) “Beauty and the Mess”, Nickel Creek (This Side, 2002)
Probably one of the most rhythmically tricky songs that I’ve ever attempted to work out the chords to. It was a lot of fun to try, though I never completely got it right. The group was brilliant here, constantly turning musical and lyrical corners as they described a nervous singer trying to keep her own failings out of the spotlight. It’s easy to look like you’re the one who has everything under control when you’re the center of attention. This was a highlight of Nickel Creek’s set the first time I saw the group live that September. Khat had helped to rekindle my interest in the group, and Kent also enjoyed their music, so a small group of us went to see them perform at the Wiltern one Saturday evening. I was blown away and excitedly blogged that night about how it was the BEST. CONCERT. EVER. (They would beat it when I saw them again in 2005.)
10) “Termite Song”, Joseph Arthur (Redemption’s Son, 2002)
The longest and most indulgent piece on Arthur’s album became one of my favorites despite almost mind-numbing levels of repetition. A big part of it was that delicious sequence of finger-picked chords – I didn’t mind being locked in their trance for nine minutes because it gave me ample time to figure it out on my own guitar. It seemed to be about a man trying to write a love song, but coming up against his own misgivings as he gets deeper into it, those thoughts eventually becoming like termites that eat away at his confidence. Man, it was tough to be in that state of uncertainty, wanting to boldly declare “I love you and that will never change” but having to be honest about my doubts at the same time. I found that I related to Arthur a lot when I was forced to confront my inner commitment-phobe.
11) “It’s Over”, Vertical Horizon (Go, 2003)
October 1, 2003 was the day our relationship hit rock bottom. It had been looming for a while. Christine had finally scored a job at the end of the summer, but it didn’t pan out and she was let go after two weeks. The search for another one left her frustrated, and on this fateful night, we had an incredibly difficult conversation in which we seriously discussed the possibility of her going back to Hawaii, just because the burden of having rent to pay and other living expenses was starting to make things really difficult without a steady job. Part of me knew that if she went through with it and got on a plane back home, I might just find myself giving up on the relationship for good. So I panicked. I was taking her home that night, feeling very strongly like I just needed some space, trying to steel myself against her requests to stay just a little longer and talk things through. I sort of turned off my heart at that moment and told myself it was as good as over. And I remember hearing this song during one of those weekends, not too far from that difficult argument, and finally the cold ice around my heart broke and I just lost it. Not a great idea while you’re driving. Despite the fatalistic nature of the song – it portrays just about the most sad sack feeling of resignation out of any song I could have come up with – I felt some lingering sense of mercy, some little bit of curiosity that made me want to give the relationship just one more chance. And that was where things started to turn around.
12) “‘Til I Get Over You”, Michelle Branch (Hotel Paper, 2003)
It seemed only fair to follow up the guy’s side of the heartbreak with the girl’s side. Maybe I was just guilt tripping myself about how Christine would feel if I broke up with her, but I did genuinely enjoy this song, awkward French lyrics and all. If it was time to end the relationship, I had to believe that she’d get over it and find someone else and eventually find the happiness I couldn’t give her. But I knew it’d be difficult for both of us. To admit that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel – that you’ll get over a person someday but you’re just not there yet – is difficult. You either want to wallow or you want to shut it out. Thankfully, neither of us ended up having to find out what that would be like. But the discontented sign at the end of this song would catch me every time and make me think, “Man, I don’t want to do that to her unless I’m really sure that’s the final word on the matter.”
13) “Different Kind of Free”, ZOEgirl feat. Mat Kearney (Different Kind of FREE, 2003)
A confident, upbeat R&B song about coming back from your lowest point, when you’re sure you’re a goner. Sometimes God has to set us free from stuff on the inside that drags us down before we can see that it’s not the external circumstances that are reaqlly enslaving us. Wanting a romantic relationship, and to eventually get married, isn’t a bad thing. But when you cling to it so hard that fear of it not working out paralyzes you, it can be a recipe for disaster. So sometimes you have to face that question of what your life would be without the thing you want so badly in order to realize, God will still be there and God still has a plan. I felt like I let something go that fall that was given back to me, now that I had learned not to cling to it so tightly.
14) “Beloved”, Derek Webb feat. Sandra McCracken(She Must and Shall Go Free, 2003)
“Don’t you ever let anyone tell you that there’s anything that you need but me.” Powerful words that came at the emotional high point of an album dedicated to reminding the Church of its first love. Look to romantic love with another human being, or sex, or power, or money to save you, and you just come up short. Even when it’s as good of an ideal as wanting to be happily married. This song was a reminder from God – “Let go and learn to love Me first. Then all the things I wanted to give you will fall into place in their own time.”
15) “Drought”, Vienna Teng (Waking Hour, 2002)
Normally, I really enjoy summer. But as the dry, smoggy heat drags on, and especially in a year where autumn brings nasty wildfires as it did in 2003, a Southern California resident can find himself longing for cooler temperatures and for rain – normally used as an analogy for sadness and depression in so many songs – to heal the land and revive one’s thirsty spirit. This unusual ode to winter echoed that sentiment within me. Summer had brought a lot of pain, confusion and frustration. I didn’t want that hanging around with me into the winter and the new year. I wanted the old self to drown, to be washed away, to be reborn as something new.
16) “Bothered”, Over the Rhine (Ohio, 2003)
This gorgeous song of reassurance made a beautiful finale at the end of OtR’s long-winding Ohio. I was only able to use it as the finale here without breaking my own rules due to the technicality of it being followed by a hidden track. (I know. I have silly rules.) But there was so much peace inherent in that achingly lovely chord progression that it didn’t seem appropriate in between other songs. The song acknowledges that fear exists, but plays as a soothing balm, not to banish the fear, but to remind us that we can fight it and overcome it. When I think back on that darkest hour of our relationship and ask myself why we stayed together, my answer is always this: Because Christine fought for it. We both saw the consequences of giving up, we stared into that dark abyss together, and ultimately decided not to be shaken by it. She got right back out there and landed herself a job at Macy’s (conveniently located right across the street from where she was living at the time, which meant far fewer worries about transportation), and I was really impressed by her resolve to stick with it even though retail during the holidays is hard, and even though there was no promise of it becoming a permanent position in the new year. It was enough to get us through. It changed everything. It wasn’t so much the job itself, as the thing that it represented – her wilingness to fight for the man she loved despite the looming odds. It can be any number of crazy, silly little things that cause a person to fall in love. But that was the defining event that made me consciously choose to stay in love.