2003 was a difficult year that ended with a definite feeling of hope. These last few months were an experience of closing the door on old worries and “what ifs” – getting the heck over some of our issues and moving on toward brighter days ahead.
In with the New:
Dave Matthews (as a solo artist – appears elsewhere with Dave Matthews Band)
Out with the Old:
It Was Worth a Try:
Matthew Thiessen & the Earthquakes
As Christine’s first winter in California approached, we made the best of the cold weather and drove up Angeles Crest Highway into the mountains, which were covered with far more snow than usual. I don’t think she had seen a winter wonderland on this scale before, and it turned out to be one of the most memorable afternoons that we had ever spent together.
Where in the world is this?
1) “Rain Down”, Delirious? (World Service, 2003)
It rained a ton that fall, leading into the winter. The upside of this was the aforementioned snow; the downside was the fragile landscape after the wildfires. But for the most part, it brought much-needed healing to the land. That’s the metaphor that worship songs often use rain to refer to, which this new track from Delirious? was all about. It seemed like this one got stuck in my head for most of the month of December. I loved the unexpected chord changes during the bridge, when they cried out “Do not shut the heavens, but open up our hearts.”
2) “Tourniquet”, Evanescence (Fallen, 2003)
Going from a worship song to a suicide song is probably about the biggest instance of mood whiplash I’ve ever invoked on any of these mixes. It was the trend then for me to pile up the darker songs at the beginning and then have the mood get lighter as it went on, but I was conflicted between that and thinking “Rain Down” made a really good intro track, so that’s how it worked out. I’ve never struggled with suicidal thoughts, personally, but I thought this song’s question of whether a person on the brink of taking her own life was too far gone to still be saved was interesting, from a theological perspective.
3) “Savior”, Skillet (Collide, 2003)
Skillet’s symphonic side came together quite nicely with their thrashing hard rock side in this aggressive song, which I intentionally put here as a sort of response to “Tourniquet”. Sort of a response from the savior being cried out to in that song, saying “There’s nothing left to lose, so give what you’ve got left to me and watch me bring it all back to life.”
4) “Readyfuels”, Anberlin (Blueprints for the Black Market, 2003)
This is where it all began for Anberlin – the first track on their debut album, and probably one of their clearer ones in terms of interpretation. Addressing the subject of lust tastefully is no small task – more direct Christian rockers will usually come across as unsympathetic and condemning as if they’re above the temptation, while your typical mainstream rock song doesn’t even see a problem with it. This song walked the fine line between “I know this is wrong, and we should let cooler heads prevail before we’re so hot and bothered that we can’t think straight” and “DAMN, she looks fine in that dress.” I’m sure any honest man can relate.
5) “You Feel Like”, Denison Marrs (Then Is the New Now, 2002)
I found Denison Marrs’ CD for like a buck at Amoeba Music in Berkeley, so I figured, why not? A buck’s worth it if you like at least one song. And this was the one song that I could really get into, so… worth it, I guess? “You feel like home, and I’d much rather hide inside your arms.” Solid chorus hook, even if the vocals were a bit “yelpy” for my tastes.
6) “Numb”, Tait feat. Rob Beckley (Lose This Life, 2003)
Tait’s second album was a trainwreck. Pete Stewart had left the band and been replaced by a guitarist who was such a non-entity that their new work got overrun with synthesizers. This was one of the few songs on that disc that had any real bite to it. And while a guest rap from Pillar’s lead singer wouldn’t sound like a worthwhile addition to a synth-heavy rock song, it really didn’t come across that much differently than the typical Toby Mac break in a genre-hopping dc Talk track. This was pure guilty pleasure, but I loved it anyway.
7) “Will You”, P.O.D. (Payable on Death, 2003)
Also a guilty pleasure was the new P.O.D. Some of it, anyway. That album was probably more overhyped than any other that year, and what surprised me about it was that it significantly toned down the rap influence and general aggression of the group’s sound. Unfortunately, this put more emphasis on bad lyrics. The upside was that songs like this one were a little more palatable to play with Christine in the car – well, at least up until the crazy screaming at the end. The question at the core of this song hit me pretty hard, though – “Will you love me tomorrow? Will you stay with me today” Did I have what it took to hang in there for the long run and let love be an act of devotion, not just a feeling?
8) “Wizard Needs Food, Badly”, Five Iron Frenzy (The End Is Near, 2003)
I remembered playing Gauntlet on my Commodore 128 as a youth, but despite hacking and slashing my way through every level, I didn’t remember the cheesy computer voice telling me “Wizard is about to die.” FIF must have played the arcade version, and they clearly had an affection for the game, using it as a metaphor for the kinds of hobbies that men can so often express die-hard devotion to even though it makes them appear to women as though they’re just little boys playing with their toys. It’s humorous and wacky, but underneath it all they have a good point – we guys love you girls and would do pretty much anything to have your company, but at the same time, sometimes you gotta let us retreat into the man-cave and play mindless video games (or go out and knock each other around on a court or field, or perhaps go shoot at things) to blow off some steam.
9) “Disease”, Matchbox Twenty (More than You Think You Are, 2002)
This song was about a year old before I got into it. I don’t think it really took off as a single the way “Unwell” and “Bright Lights” did, because it had a melody that was just plain odd. (And the lyrics were a collaboration with Mick Jagger, of all people.) In typical messed-up Rob Thomas form, it described a relationship as a sort of terminal illness that the guy couldn’t shake. Sort of a creepy way of saying “I can’t live without you”, but also a really fun way, thanks to the bouncy, hard-riffing rhythm section backing him up.
10) “I Would Rather Hide”, Joseph Arthur (Redemption’s Son, 2002)
I had no idea that Joseph Arthur had entered the mainstream in any way until I heard the opening strains of this song, piped through the speakers, while heading out of a restaurant that a bunch of us had eaten at on our way to a Jars of Clay concert in November. It was one of those lyrics that I constantly got wrong – it was “Baby, I know where I am safe, when there’s no one else around” rather than “Baby, I know we’re all insane when there’s no one else around.” But I liked my interpretation better. People are pretty good at putting on faces and looking like their lives are orderly and everything’s under control. Maybe they don’t put on this show intentionally, but it’s just the natural way of things. But there’s a part of me that figures, when I catch myself in the middle of some really bizarre phobia I’d never admit to anyone, or else just talking to myself about the immaterial details of life that irritate me, probably everyone does this in some fashion or another. And I feel a little better about myself knowing that everybody’s a little crazy on the inside.
11) “Testing 1, 2, 3”, Barenaked Ladies (Everything to Everyone, 2003)
E2E represented some growing pains for the Barenaked Ladies, but I was confident enough in the group at that point to make this the first album of theirs that I purchased with my own money. The budding songwriter in me related to Ed Robertson’s frustration in this song – you try do something new, be more authentic to who you are as an artist, but once you’ve got a catchy novelty hit that has taken the world by storm, they want more of the same. So this was a bouncy, psuedo-rappy song that sort of poked fun at the segment of their audience who wanted them to do nothing but write a bunch of bouncy, psuedo-rappy songs. The part I related to most was the underlying question: “If I acted less like me, would everybody cheer me?” Do I have to betray who I am in order to get people to like me? And is that really worth it?
12) “So Damn Lucky”, Dave Matthews (Some Devil, 2003)
Dave Matthews solo wasn’t as interesting as he was with the band. But I fell pretty easily for this acoustic whirlwind of a song about narrowly escaping a horrible death in a car accident. It sounded like the sort of thing that Dave could play with Tim Reynolds at one of their acoustic gigs and make it sound as engaging as the album version. (And lo and behold, I dug up a video of them doing exactly that.)
13) “Love Me Like That”, Michelle Branch feat. Sheryl Crow (Hotel Paper, 2003)
The prospect of Michelle Branch attempting country music seemed ridiculous at the time – even more so when you threw in Sheryl Crow, an artist who I’ve always found to be a bit too bland for my tastes. So color me surprised when their little duet ended up being one of the best tracks on branch’s new album, foreshadowing her attempt to do the country thing full-time with The Wreckers. Solid steel guitar riff running throughout this one – and for some reason, I never grew tired of the “Love me or leave me” theme that seems to recur throughout most of Branch’s songwriting.
14) “Lesser Things”, Jars of Clay (Who We Are Instead, 2003)
One of my lasting impressions of the new Jars album, as its more laid-back mood began to settle in and I slowly fell in love with its rootsier sound, was that it’d be perfect for a relaxed afternoon spent road-tripping through the countryside somewhere far from here. This song’s chugging freight train rhythm and its harmonica solo that welled up with a sense of longing definitely put me in that mood. It was the deepest song on the album – cofnronting the ease with which we Christians tend to sell ourselves out to false gods, and then asking, “Is there grace for a wayward heart?” The song overcomes its own sense of melancholy and feels like it answers that question as the key change lifts up the refrain towards the end. Yes, there is grace. But we sure wish we were not small enough to get caught up in the lesser things to begin with.
15) “Misunderstood”, Dream Theater (Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, 2002)
I decided late that year that one genre of music I’d like to explore a little bit more was progressive rock. I’d participated in an Email discussion list for the group Iona, on which I’d some discussion of groups like Dream Theater that took songs to ridiculous, non-radio friendly lengths, and I found the concept intriguing. So I finally took the plunge on one of their more ambitious albums, a suite of six songs spread out over two discs, with the second being a continuous 45-minute composition split into eight distinct movements. This nine-minute behemoth with its slicing chorus and its pleas to be understood was the standout of the first disc, despite the gratuitous experimental guitar noise that most of its back half got drenched in. Sometimes I think Dream Theater can be too cheesy for their own good, but this one’s got enough genuine pathos and paranoia to it that it still works for me.
16) “Lifelong Fling”, Over the Rhine (Ohio, 2003)
In the interest of more deeply analyzing the music we lived, those of us who posted at The Phorum briefly attempted a semi-regular feature called “Song of the Week” which got renamed to “Song of the Unspecified Time Period” as we got lazier about picking new ones. This one was one of bloop’s suggestions for a good discussion, a flirty, jazzy track from Ohio that I hadn’t really noticed until he brought it up. it was just like OTR to take something as true and pure as a marriage and describe it in less “safe” terms as a fling that just wouldn’t seem to end – a series of risks taken and emotional flare-ups that was nevertheless good for the soul. Lots of Christian bands like to talk about the commitment in relationships, which of course is important. But OTR had a way with words that sort of painted their relationship as a process of continually falling in love. That idea appeals to me – having known someone for years, but still seeing these new sides of them that color otuside the lines in ways you didn’t expect and make you fall hard for the one who had already captured you years ago.
Christine’s aunt Keiko (Cousin? Second cousin once removed? I always forget the exact relation) and her family live in Long Beach; we try to go and visit them every now and then. During one trip to Long Beach, Christine suggested we explore the El Dorado Nature Center, which is right in the middle of the city. Turns out it’s got two miles of trails through preserved woodlands, and the lake pictured here, populated with turtles birds and lots of moss. There are so many interesting little places tucked away in my L.A. County that I never would’ve known about if not for Christine stumbling across them in her searches for something to do with our Saturdays.
Where in the world is this?
1) “Fingernails”, Skillet (Collide, 2003)
Skillet’s always had a rather jarring mix of the poppy, Jesus-cheerleading stuff and the harsher, more extreme and violent stuff, but Collide really ramped up their hard side to the point where it was a total love-it-or-hate-it proposition. I came around to really loving it. And this was about the harshest song that the album had to offer – some of John Cooper’s scratchiest singing and screaming, power chords stomping all over the place, jarring changes in the rhythm, and the whole thing feeling like a brutal beatdown that went on for a solid five minutes. I loved it for that. It was a song about having a death grip on things you know you weren’t meant to hold, clawing at them with your fingernails as you feel them being yanked away. It had to be extreme in order to work. Not the song I’d choose to introduce someone to Skillet, but it was amazingly cathartic for me at the time.
2) “Bring It Low”, The Juliana Theory (Love, 2003)
“We’re playing a game, we’ve gotta let it go. Nobody’s winning this way, we’re gonna lose it all.” That was the opening sentiment on an album that I quite nearly wore out over the course of the year 2003. It was vague enough to mean whatever you wanted it to, I guess, but for me that harshly screamed warning was about playing with people’s hearts. It was a reminder that a time was coming when I’d have to make up my mind about what I wanted, and either commit to this relationship for the long haul or let it go.
3) “Everybody Down”, Matthew (Everybody Down, 2002)
Brian McSweeney formed this short-lived band as an attempt at more mainstream alternative rock after Seven Day Jesus broke up. I liked his voice, but a lot of this new group’s music seemed rather indistinct for me. So this was another of those $1 bargain bin purchases that was worth it for the one good song, I guess. (On the other hand, the Supertones side project Grand Incredible that I got in the same Amoeba Records haul… not even worth it for a single song.)
4) “Silence”, Fiction Plane (Everything Will Never Be OK, 2003)
This song was one big neurotic freakout. Guitars and drums bouncing all over the place, trying to keep up with Joe Sumner’s vocals. All pretty abstract stuff, so no deep meaning here – just a song that was fun to excitedly gasp along with.
5) “Something’s Missing”, John Mayer (Heavier Things, 2003)
And now, a bit of sudden whiplash to get us back into a calmer, more relaxed and pensive mood. John Mayer was going through the classic existential quandary here – I’ve got all this stuff, but does any of it matter? You can check off the list of all your favoriet things, all the status symbols that the folks who aren’t as cool as you wish they had, but still have this unidentifiable sense of deep loneliness that you don’t know how to fill. To me, the obvious answer to that quandary was God. But it’s easier said than truly understood. I felt that God spoke to me often through circumstances, through people. So sitting alone in a room trying to experience “God in a vacuum” wasn’t always the solution. Rather, it was trying to discern which aspects of life God was trying to use to tell me something, versus which ones were just time-wasting noise. And I’ve never been terribly good at this, at least not until I can look back on it all later and see whre God ended up leading me.
6) “Shopping”, Barenaked Ladies feat. Blue Man Group (Everything to Everyone, 2003)
This manic, intentionally insipid ode to America’s true favorite pastime was basically the BNL’s snarky response to suggestions that we show solidarity for America after 9/11 by continuing to pump money into the economy. Some politician somewhere made some sort of a remark like that, which sounded good on the surface, but really amounted to “Go out and spend money so the terrorists won’t win!” I found this one to be quite indicative of my general attitude around Christmastime. I always put off buying gifts, so it becomes this mad, stressful rush to purchase objects for people that are most likely going to be forgotten with a few months. What’s it really all about, and why do I continue to delude myself into making it about getting people stuff?
7) “I Hate Christmas Parties”, Matthew Thiessen & the Earthquakes (Happy Christmas, Vol. 3, 2001)
Relient K’s lead singer, in his first attempt at a side project (though it appears on Relient K’s Christmas album, so you can debate whether it’s a true RK song if you like), kind of went over-the-top melancholy with this sour, minor-key song about a girl dumping him and giving him nothing but a broken heart for Christmas. I put it on here to make fun of myself, but also as a reminder that wanting the wrong things inevitably leads to heartbreak. Things with Christine had improved; our relationship was more stable. Yet I still hadn’t put the final nail in the coffin of this other crush that had flared up during the worst of our uncertainty. It was nagging me. It didn’t feel proper to let it continue, but it didn’t feel truthful to ignore it. So over Thankgiving weekend, after hearing some promising news from this friend about a guy she liked and something possibly happening with him, I decided it’d be safe to spill the beans. It always seems to come across as more of a confession when I have a crush on someone. In this case, I knew that knowing about it would probably make things incredibly awkward, and I felt guilty just for having the feelings anyway, so I just spilled the whole thing out as a big long apology over Email. She found it mind-boggling, to say the least, but was able to pretty swiftly put the idea to rest by clearly indicating that she’d never had any feelings for me, thought of my only as a friend, and didn’t want to risk my relationship with Christine in any way. For the most part, that was a relief. It was what I needed to move forward. But there was a part of me that sulked a bit upon having that little fantasy finally get shot down for good. “She’s out of my league anyway”, I told myself. And when I ran across her at a Christmas party held by mutual friends, pretty holiday dress, toenails painted red, the whole nine yards, I had to remind myself to just politely back away. This person, though kind and sweet and full of attractive qualities, wasn’t meant for me. What I really wanted in a relationship, I already had.
8) “Honey and the Moon”, Joseph Arthur (Redemption’s Son, 2003)
You might not expect such a beautiful song from a man with as caustic a voice as Arthur’s, but he really makes this conflicted love song fly. He’s a man on the cusp between a dream and waking, seeing this vision of a woman who looks so good, he’s sure he might just have made her up. And the better part of him wants to run from that vision, because it will only be torn away from him anyway. But the other half of him, upon reaching the point of lucidity to realize it’s all make-believe, just wants to stick around and enjoy it. That’s the thing about fantasies. They’re fun for a fleeting moment, but we can’t stay there any more than we can sleep through life in the hope that our minds will concoct better dreams for us than what our real lives have to offer.
9) “Losing You”, Big Dismal (Believe, 2003)
The point when you’re most willing to give something up is often the point God gives it back to you. As a single guy longing for a relationship in years past, I had innocently thought that once I had someone who could actually tolerate me, I’d be so grateful that I’d never want to let go. But sometimes relationships hit the rocks and there’s stuff to be worked out. Sometimes two people have to be honest and say, “We might not be a good match.” Fear of facing that and being alone again is what dragged my relationship with Sharon out for so long, so I was determined not to do that with Christine – when issues came up – I would face them head-on and do my best to assess them honestly. My prayers about the relationship weren’t the same prayers of “God, please keep her from dumping me” that I’d once prayed, but rather “God, keep us together if it be Your will, but give us the strength to end it otherwise.” Letting that go and being willing to face the possibility of that loss, then having the relationship survive the turmoil it went through that year, felt like a pretty solid sign that we could handle conflict and the pressures of life and still love each other very much.
10) “Perfect Change”, Dakona (Perfect Change, 2003)
I paired the closing tracks from Big Dismal and Dakona’s lone albums quite intentionally – both ended with the expression of a willingness to give up something that was hard to let go, if ultimately it meant personal growth and deeper faith. This one had a special emotional pull to it – it practically begged to be broken down and rebuilt again, all to avoid the temptation to take God’s gifts for granted. Going through all of that uncertainty and coming out the other side – with a relationship that I just sort of fell into becoming more and more of a conscious choice that I was making – felt like a real refining process for me.
11) “Amazing Grace”, Jars of Clay feat. Ashley Cleveland (Who We Are Instead, 2003)
I saved the most intimate, worshipful, transcendent stuff for the end of the disc. This earthy, somewhat downtrodden track was unusual for Jars of Clay at the time – it wasn’t a cover of the hymn, but their own original song about man coming to realize his utter depravity and desperate dependence on God’s grace. It was a highlight of their all-acoustic live set that we caught at UC Irvine that fall – a hopeful prayer that rose up from the ground like the first sprouting seeds from a field that took endless days of backbreaking work to plant.
12) “Intoxicating”, David Crowder Band (Illuminate, 2003)
The DCB took a page from the DMB for this long-winded acoustic jam track that unabashedly mixes its metaphors when talking about Spirit and spirits. Yep, it’s a song about being drunk on the Lord. I normally abhor songs that compare God to any form of intoxicating substance, because the metaphor is generally poorly expressed. But the Bible compares love to wine at times, so I figure a little artistic license is permitted. Plus, this was just pure unadulterated FUN – a loopy, worshipful celebration at just the moment where my mix needed to lighten the mood a little. We had come through a struggle that took its toll with a lot of confused prayers and sleepless nights. Now was the time to celebrate the love that God had renewed within us.
13) “Jungle Trail”, Steven Delopoulos (Me Died Blue, 2003)
We missed most of Steven D’s opening set for Jars of Clay and Caedmon’s Call at that Irvine concert due to a lengthy security check at the door. So I only caught the final strains of this song on the way to our seats. Pity, because watching Steven’s nimble fingers on that acoustic guitar would have been quite a treat. This song slowly drew me in with its primitive approach to describing a man’s encounter with God. It was like seeing a full moon or a majestic jungle creature for the first time, and somehow knowing that in and of itself, that thing was not a god, but that it was a mark left behind by a brilliant creator. If it is true that God’s glory is evident in creation, then there must be ways for man to relate to God even in the absence of established traditions and symbols – to connect with what is there even when we can’t fully grasp the magnitude of what that being is like. (Which we still can’t fully grasp even with all of our education and theology and modern tools anyway.)
14) “Lullabye for a Stormy Night”, Vienna Teng (Waking Hour, 2002)
The rain just poured on and on for what seemed like weeks in December, including Christmas day. It was unrelenting at times. I’ve never been scared of rain, even as a child. As long as I was indoors, it seemed peaceful and harmonious, even when there was thunder and lightning. But I still admired this song that Vienna wrote to an imaginary child, imagining what she’d say to her own daughter as a way of comforting herself through a storm. It’s such a delicate, articulate lullabye, wishing not only to keep the child safe, warm, and comforted until the rain passes, but also hoping to show her that the rain is a good thing, that it heals the land and helps to make the world beautiful.
15) “Eternal”, P.O.D. feat. Phil Keaggy (Payable on Death, 2003)
In a completely unexpected move, a band known for its hard-edged rap-rocker posturing completely ditched all traces of edginess as all of its founding members stepped aside to let their new guitarist (Jason Truby, who filled in for a few albums while they were on the outs with Marcos Curiel) perform an absolutely gorgeous instrumental duet with guitar legend Phil Keaggy. The shimmering beauty of this performance is difficult to describe – it feels like a glimpse at the elation that must come over a person when walking into the throne room of God Himself. It was an oasis of peaceful bliss from just about the most unexpected source.
16) “Doxology/My Offering”, Nichole Nordeman (Woven and Spun, 2002)
With this song, which I had known for a good year but only just started to fall in love with at that point, seemed like a fitting way to end my musical documentation of the year 2003. It was a bookend of sorts – a callback to that prayerful early morning walk in Mililani during the first few days of January with Nordeman’s music as the soundtrack. I felt like I had gone from a naive and wide-eyed optimist to a bit of an “old soul” over the course of that year, turning into a person I almost didn’t recognize at the end of it. Yet I’d hear a song like this, in which Nichole imagined the elements of creation itself crying out in praise to their maker, imagining how she’d do it if she were a meadow, a cloud, a mountain, and it seemed to re-awaken that youthful side of me, reminding me that there was still a part of me that ran deeper than all the temporary, selfish worries I’d been caught up in. What was my purpose? What was I made for? How could I use the elements God had brought together to shape my life such that they might offer praise back to God? No matter what else happens, as long as I get that sense of “This is who I want to be” when I hear such a song, I know I’m not too far gone to be humbled and captivated by the grace and splendor of God’s world.