Here is where the dream that got deferred finally started to come true. This was the season when I made the transition from introducing Christine as “my girlfriend” to introducing her as “my fiancé”. It’s hard to enumerate all of the thoughts that went through my head as I prepared to take this great leap forward… but hesitance was no longer one of them.
In with the New:
Iron & Wine
Out with the Old:
Listen on Spotify:
At the end of September 2004, I took Christine on a trip to a destination that remained a secret to her – though since I told her we wouldn’t be flying anywhere but we also couldn’t drive to our destination, she figured out pretty quickly as we were driving toward Long Beach that it was Catalina Island. I had bought a diamond ring a few weeks before that, and my intent was to propose to her that day. Unlike some guys who have elaborate plans for how things are going to go exactly, I decided to play it by ear, and just pick whatever seemed like the best spot and the best moment to do it. That moment ended up being back at the Bed & Breakfast after a long walk up Avalon Canyon to the Wrigley Botanical Gardens and back. The gardens were too desert-like to be an ideal romantic spot, and when we finally got up to the Wrigley Memorial (the interior is pictured here), she was too tired to climb the stairs that led up into it, which forfeited what might have been a good location. The B&B turned out to work just fine – I took the opportunity to preface the proposal by pulling out my guitar and playing Nouveaux’s “Maybe Tomorrow” before telling her that the song represented things which had already come true, except for one line – “Until the day you say you’ll marry me”.
Where in the world is this?
1) “Pain”, Jimmy Eat World (Futures, 2004)
This one’s rather intense and cynical – not at all relevant to how I was actually feeling at the time. Beyond the superficial appeal of the song just being plain catchy, I think the reason that it appealed to me was that it talked about how can delude ourselves into thinking we’re enjoying something because it numbs the pain of stuff we don’t want to deal with. Some relationships – or even seemingly harmless instances of flirting and hooking up – aren’t really entered into out of genuine interest in the other person. They’re used as more of a drug to avoid dealing with our issues. To some extent, I had been doing this toward the end of my first serious relationship – the reasons for getting into it were genuine, but as it dragged on and we grew unhappy with each other, I’d try to push those thoughts out of my mind any way that I could. I knew at this point that I had definitely done a lot better for myself in the second relationship.
2) “Poor Man”, Plus One (Exodus, 2003)
I knew that Plus One’s career was going to be rather ephemeral back when they got started. A few years later, the general climate of the music bix had more or less proven me right, with boy bands on the decline and many of them scrambling to downplay their original image and stay musically relevant. What I didn’t count on was Plus One’s attempt to morph into a genuine band, after losing a few members in their waning years, actually producing some music that I really enjoyed in the process. Don’t get me wrong, Obvious was still hit or miss, perhaps trying to be too many things to too many people with more organic pop songs here, heavier rockers there, and even a worship cover. But this song… dang. Instrumentally speaking, it was pretty fierce, and you’d be hard-pressed to guess that the slamming guitar riffs and slightly psychedelic overtones of this song came from the same group that used to croon about God being your supernatural boyfriend. The end result was a bit closer to something the new Luna Halo might have come up with.
3) “Wasting Away”, Luna Halo (Wasting Away EP, 2004)
And hey, speak of the devil! This group floundered for what seemed like forever, completely reinventing themselves in between their first and second albums, with a string of random EPs in between to document the shift in their sound. Nathan Barlowe had done the “sullen Radiohead crooning” thing well enough on Shimmer, and I adored that album even though I’d discover later that it followed their favorite influences a little too closely for comfort. But this was definitely a lot more edgy – the dude was practically screaming the chorus, and he had the vocal chops to make it a complete shot of adrenaline rather than an embarrassing misfire.
4) “Where the Sun Never Dies”, Blindside (About a Burning Fire, 2004)
I don’t remember what started it, but something sparked my curiosity about the state of Alaska that fall, reigniting a dream of visiting the place that I’d had as a child. One night I found myself looking up information on various Alaskan destinations and going off on a long Wiki walk, just trying to get a handle on the scope of the place and what parts of it I’d like to see someday. This song was a fitting soundtrack for that desire – Blindside is from Sweden, and there’s similar scenery in their corner of the world, near the Arctic Circle, where the summer days are seemingly endless on you can see forever across the tundra in certain places. I loved how this song morphed from heavy rock to a techno-inspired outro that people kept telling me reminded them of Bj&omul;rk. Now that I’ve been to Alaska, Scandinavia has become one of the many northern places on my hitlist, that I hope to someday visit.
5) “Control”, Mute Math (Reset EP, 2004)
“Take control of the atmosphere. There’s no reason I should breathe unless you’re in the air.” I had been meaning to check out Mute Math for a while, knowing that they were an offshoot of Earthsuit, one of my favorite bands from the turn of the century. But I didn’t get around to it until the evening before our Catalina trip, when I was packing and trying to figure out some sort of a plan for the next day’s big proposal. It was the kind of song that left me with a confident, exhilirated sort of feeling, as if to say “God’s in control; you can accomplish anything you want so long as God has blessed it.” The uncertainty was gone. I was headed full-throttle towards an exciting future.
6) “Atmosphere”, Toby Mac feat. Kevin Max & Michael Tait (Welcome to Diverse City, 2004)
In my mind, this song was the definitive finale for dc Talk. Toby managed to pull the other two members together for guest vocal spots on this remix of one of his album tracks, which in its own right was a lovely enough ballad about God being in everywhere and everything, even inhabiting our darkest moments. The reunion made it that much sweeter, but it was interesting that he left the final result as a surprise to both Mike & Kevin, having each come into the studio separately to record their parts, so that they only found out all three were on the track when they heard the final mix. Sure, these three guys have occasionally been seen together (or at least two at a time) a few times since then, but for me, this was the ideal way to bid a fond farewell to one of my all-time favorite vocal groups.
7) “Infinite”, Something Like Silas (Divine Invitation, 2004)
A lyrically simple, but rhythmically intricate, song about trusting God even when we can’t see the way forward. I loved the deep bass and the interlocking guitar melodies in this one – it felt like it was reaching to fill a huge, cavernous space that it couldn’t quite grasp the magnitude of. It’s funny how it’s easy for me to get energized by songs like this during times when I can see the way forward, when the difficulties God brought me through before make sense in hindsight. Yet when trouble starts to loom on the horizon again, how easily I forget.
8) “Currents”, Sleeping at Last (Ghosts, 2004)
This one fits into that same theme of being lost within something bigger than yourself – try as you might to swim back to the shore, where the land is sturdy and you won’t get moved against your will, you can’t fight the current dragging you out to sea. It’s scary having no control. I still struggle to accept that sometimes, this is exactly where God wants me to be. This song was a good reminder of that when Christine and I went to our first SAL concert, a modest opening set for some other bands that we didn’t stick around for, at a small Hollywood club where maybe twenty people turned out. Christine had lost her job at the Hawaiian Boutique that day – a small store in the Montebello Town Center that didn’t last long and apparently couldn’t afford to keep many of their employees around for very long. That was frustrating, coming right on the heels of the engagement, when things were just starting to feel stable again. But she bounced back and had a job at AMC Theaters within a few weeks.
9) “Float On”, Modest Mouse (Good News for People Who Love Bad News, 2004)
Modest Mouse probably didn’t write this one expecting it to become a smash hit, or to say anything profoundly deep beyond “Hey, stuf happens, roll with it.” But there was something appealing to me within its flippant attitude of letting whatever needed to happen, happen. Got in a car crash? Got pulled over by a cop? Got fired? Hey, no worries. It’ll all sort itself out in the end.
10) “The Gathering”, Falling Up (Crashings, 2004)
There was something specifically intriguing about this mangled mess of acoustic and electric guitars, rhythmic changeups, and motor-mouth vocals that caused it to make the cut for this mix… but I honestly can’t recall what it was now. It’s still a fun song, as nearly all of them were on Falling Up’s debut. But so many of them ran seamlessly together that I might have picked a different one, had I burned the disc on a different day of the week. That album was non-stop action.
11) “Hypnotized”, Pillar (Where Do We Go From Here?, 2004)
A song about waking up to who you really are, and fighting against the lies, and… destiny and… something. Pillar could be kind of vague sometimes, so long as the words rhymed.
12) “Beautiful”, Bethany Dillon (Bethany Dillon, 2004)
I was quite impressed by Bethany Dillon’s first album – recorded at the precocious young age of fifteen, but not at all weighed down with the teenybopper trappings of most music aimed at that age group. Her music was certainly still pop, but much more inspired by the folk end of the pop spectrum, so I was hearing echoes of other favorite acoustic guitar-slinging female artists like Jennifer Knapp. This song about the image of ourselves we see in the mirror, and how it defines our self-worth, was her first big hit, and the first song of hers that really grabbed my attention. Trying to keep up with society’s standard of beauty is often a fools’ errand, so this song expresses a deeper desire to be seen as beautiful in the eyes of God. I’ve never been a teenage girl, so while I’ve never felt that pressure to cake on make-up or otherwise try to look more “grown-up”, I can still think of times when I’ve caught myself trying to act or even dress a certain way, to carefully cultivate the image I want others to have of me. It all falls apart eventually when I realize I’m not being myself.
13) “Cinder and Smoke”, Iron & Wine (Our Endless Numbered Days, 2004)
My tastes were expanding more and more into quieter folk music in those days, so Iron & Wine was a natural fit – just one man singing in a sort of hushed whisper over acoustic intruments which were sometimes looped and layered and interesting ways. This song, with its gentle percussion groove and Jim Beam’s calm humming, didn’t quite tip me off that it was about a tragic fire that burned a house down at first. A lot of I&W songs are like that, actually – they sound more innocent and quaint on the surface, but reveal themselves to be a bit sinister underneath.
14) “Holland”, Sufjan Stevens (Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State, 2003)
I closed the first disc with a string of melancholy breakup songs – another one of those cases where it had nothing to do with anything actually going on in my life, but the songs were beautiful and fit well together. Listening to this one reminded me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which we saw that year and which soon became one of my all-time favorite films. As soon as Sufjan whispered “Sleeping on Lake Michigan”, I thought of the scene where im Carrey and Kate Winslet were lying on that frozen river, staring up into the night sky and sharing their most personal dreams and fears with each other. The song was haunted by memories of a relationship that didn’t work out, so it was sort of an interesting parallel to a movie about people who wanted to lose those painful promises of dreams never realized, of promises never followed through. I eventually figured out how to pluck this song’s delicate melody on my guitar, but in a weird twist, I had to tune it down a quarter step to play it in the same key as the recording. That’s halfway in between a regular note and a flat, so I had to do it by ear. What a pain!
15) “Pull Away”, Abra Moore (Everything Changed, 2004)
This pained, delicate piano ballad anticipates the dreaded breakup that two people seem to know is coming – they try to hang on and keep the flame alive, but they can’t deny that they’re growing apart. In a way, it was perfect that Abra Moore’s voice was so imperfect here – the little cracks and squeaks hinting at the emotional weight behind the words. Perhaps this one stood out to me because I’d felt that tug before, that sense that something in a relationship wasn’t right even though I tried to ignore it and stay the course. I didn’t want that to ever happen to this relationship that I was blessed enough to enjoy in the here and now. I wanted to know the secrets to avoiding that sort of numbness, assuming that they were at all knowable.
16) “Golden”, Kevin Max (Between the Fence and the Universe EP, 2004)
Seeing KMax in concert the year before had led Christine to speculate about why he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring that night. Not too long after that, the news broke that Kevin and his first wife Alayna had gotten a divorce. And this song – one of Kevin’s eeriest attempts at channeling the ghost of John Lennon – was by far his most personal in terms of dealing with the divorce. Here, he sort of addresses the hubris that young couples have, assuming love will conquer all and they won’t fall by the wayside like all those old horror stories they’ve heard… and then they leave themselves unprotected and find that exact same disaster slowly befalling them. It plays like a cautionary tale to anyone thinking of taking the same leap of faith, as if to say “Love can last, but its natural state is one of decay, so if your love means that much to you, you have to be proactive about keeping it alive.” The long coda and the eventual fading away of what I like to call the “synthesized ghost” at the end of this song is one of the most beautifully sad moments I’ve ever heard in any song, ever.
Another of the many Evergreen hikes that Mark led had taken us to Devil’s Punchbowl, on the north slope of the San Gabriel Mountains, out past Palmdale, in January of 2004. In October, I decided to take Christine up here, to explore the trail that leads into this deep, rocky gorge with its parallel, layered walls of rock than can look like a really elaborate 2-dimensional painting with viewed from the right angle at the right time of day.
Where in the world is this?
1) “Excuses”, Alanis Morissette (So-Called Chaos, 2004)
A testament to the human mind’s amazing abaility to cop out and make excuses when the ability to try something new presents itself. I’m an expert at this, and much like Alanis’s excuses, mine can start to contradict one another and cease to make any semblance of sense if you pay attention to the string of them that pile up over time. I can’t be simultaneously too dumb and too smart for the same thing, after all. We make excuses because we’re afraid to make mistakes, but the fear of making mistakes often means we never really learn anything. It was motivational to have this here as a reminder that without setting aside the excuses and taking some risks, Christine and I wouldn’t have gotten to this point in our relationship.
2) “Beware! Criminal”, Incubus (A Crow Left of the Murder, 2004)
This one’s sort of the polar opposite of risk taking. I think it’s about a couple who does the same thing day in and day out, and there are some clear signs that things are very wrong in their relationship, but nobody wants to bring it up. Essentially, one of my worst fears – something you once thought was special, gradually growing stagnant. This seems to be the inevitable end of always playing it safe.
3) “Tonight”, Plus One (Exodus, 2003)
Another good example of Plus One’s last-ditch transition from pop to rock, though nothing terribly deep here. It was a bit of a happy accident that it ended up here, because the sudden transition when WinAmp, set to random, switched from the sudden ending of “Beware! Criminal” into this one was too good to not reuse intentionally.
4) “Eye of the Storm”, Blindside (About a Burning Fire, 2004)
This one sounded like an absolute mess of odd melodic bits and screaming at first, but as it grew on me, I realized it was a fittingly desperate prayer, a man screaming his regrets over not being as close to God as he once was “Please come closer, ’cause my heart doesn’t tocuh yours any more.” I tended to kick myself a lot, repeatedly tricking myself into thinking I’d done something bad enough – or perhaps just done the same thing one too many times – that I no longer deserved God’s grace or God’s love. It was silly, the nights I spent lying awake, heart pounding, worrying about stuff like that when that’s not even supposed to be how Christianity works. It’s because I have a hard time forgiving myself that I have a hard time fully accepting that God forgives me.
5) “The Clincher”, Chevelle (This Type of Thinking Could Do Us In, 2004)
Sometimes it was the bands who inspired the most debate about whether they were Christian bands or not that intrigued me the most, even if the music was more extreme than what I might have usually liked. This one had an unrelenting, pummeling rhythm to it, which worked well with Pete Loeffler’s muscular screams to communicate the torment of realizing it’s your fault someone has been executed and buried. It could be taken as a metaphor for our sin causing Jesus’s crucifixion if you were inclined to look for Christian references in the words of a band who openly stated they had no such agenda. Or it could just have been about something really, really creepy.
6) “Wishing Wells”, Ron Sexsmith (Retriever, 2004)
Another one of my baffling transitions, where I can’t remember why on Earth I did it that way, short of figuring there was no reliable method of easing from the heavy stuff back into the lighter/poppier mood that would take over from here until the end. Ron Sexsmith is decidedly more upbeat and melodic than Chevelle, though in this case, his cynicism was in full swing, denouncing fairy tales and happy-go-lucky cliches and asking how people can throw around empty sentiments like “have a nice day” when the world’s so jacked up. I can sort of see both sides. You can be willfully ignorant and pretend the world’s problems don’t exist, or you can mix you optimism with a bit of realism and acknowledge them but still believe there’s value in staying positive and expressing that attitude to others. I tend to get really annoyed with meaningless greeting-card sentiments that I don’t feel will actually improve the quality of someone’s day just by telling them to have a nice one. But then I’ve seen them accompanied with acts of service that actually say, “Here, I want to actively make your day nicer.” That’s when it’s more believable.
7) “Blind”, Third Day feat. Boyd Tinsley (Wire, 2004)
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a musician as talented as Boyd Tinsley, who plays violin for the Dave Matthews Band, would agree to appear on a track by such an openly Christian band as Third Day. (Not that I know the beliefs of any of DMB’s members, but you know how listeners on both sides of that fence can tend to compartmentalize things, wanting to know who’s in and who’s out.) What was a bit disappointing was that they didn’t really let Boyd tear it up here – his solo is pretty enough by Christian rock standards, but nowhere near his best work. The song itself was halfway decent as post-Offerings Third Day songs go – a simple lyric that compares God to an obvious beacon of light that the singer doesn’t believe could be so blind that he missed it before. I’ve wondered at times what that experience is like – to have a time in my life when I didn’t believe, and to now look back and see the obvious contrast. I think the experience must be very different for someone who converted later, rather than growing up in the church.
8) “They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For the Homeless in Muskegon)”, Sufjan Stevens (Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State, 2003)
Busy, busy, busy. A weird time signature and tons of weird instruments kept this song in constant motion, making it my favorite on Michigan for a while. It beeped and buzzed like an urgent news report, talking of politics and legislation and well-meaning committees formed with the intent of effecting social change. How well it works, and what Sufjan’s attitude is about the motivations behind all of these machinations, is probably more open to interpretation. I took it to mean that you could have the best of intentions for solving a problem such as homelessness, but still fail because you don’t know where to start or what parts of the broken system need to be addressed and fixed first.
9) “Mother India”, Caedmon’s Call (Share the Well, 2004)
The release of Share the Well was a huge game-changer for me. Not just in terms of my Caedmon’s fandom, which I was all but ready to give up on if they released another bad album (instead, they released the best album of their career, and for my money, the best album anyone released in the year 2004), but also in terms of asking myself how deeply I actually cared about the message of social justice that I claimed to admire certain Christian musicians for promoting. A lot of Christian music is didactic; it just tells you what to believe. Caedmon’s Call took a different approach, writing songs about the day-to-day lives of the people they visited on mission trips to India, Ecuador, and Brazil, and how they were struck by the faith these people had despite living under extreme poverty and, in some cases, brutal oppression. So this, the most beautiful and heartstring-tugging song on the project, plays less as a plea for charity and more as a plea for forgiveness from someone who caught herself not caring. It was difficult to listen to this music and to not care, and I say that as a person who typically shies away from images of human suffering, acknowledging that it’s terrible, but freezing up before I can think about any practical methods of doing anything about it.
10) “Finding You”, Bebo Norman (Try, 2004)
It was so unusual to hear Bebo attempt anything approaching upbeat and poppy that I was taken aback with this new approach when Essential Records sent me a copy of his latest album to review. For the most part, I still found his music to be lackluster, though I could see why others related to his down-to-earth style. I appreciated the more whimsical take here – almost like something Jars of Clay might have come up with on a lark. It was the anti-“Wishing Wells”, in a sense – a song of relentless optimism, fascinated with the notion that God could be found anywhere and in anything, including things that, from a ground-level perspective, seemed broken and hopeless.
11) “Starspin”, downhere (So Much for Substitutes, 2003)
This bouncy worship song was a bit unusual given downhere’s generally more cerebral approach to songwriting, but as I’m sure I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for songs that talk about God’s glory being reflected in the beauty of creation. It might sound like an insipid cheerleading song at first, but I think the band pulls it off well enough to communicate that sense of wonder and vastness, particularly at the end when it melts into a long, slow instrumental interlude. This song seemed to be on a permanent loop in my brain on that all-important day as the Catalina Express slowly made its way across the channel from Long Beach, and the familiar sight of the Avalon skyline loomed on the horizon. On this day, Christine would get to see my island, and our visit to this place that held so much history to me would bring with it a life-changing question.
12) “Over My Head”, Starfield (Starfield, 2004)
It made perfect sense to put worship songs by downhere and Starfield together – both are Canadian bands, both reference stars, and both came up with larger-than-life worship songs that I found inredibly moving. This one tackles the notion that God’s grace and glory are too vast for our puny minds to grasp. Its looping “Hallelujahs” create a beautiful atmosphere behind a long, rambling coda that for me, rivals Jars of Clay’s classic “Worlds Apart” with its rush of words from a man completely swept away by the incomprehensible sovereignty of God’s love. It’s still one of my favorite worship songs, because it acknowledges the mystery and finds that mystery fascinating, rather than erroneously trying to dissect and explain it. It’s a reminder that I cannot ever put God in a box and think I’ve figured out the pattern to His actions or the limit to His creativity.
13) “Divine Invitation”, Something Like Silas (Divine Invitation, 2004)
Continuing with that general aura of wonder that left me at a loss for words was the beautiful, wintry wash of this song, which tried the best it could to echo the grandeur of a spiritual home that God was quietly calling each of us back to – a place of rest for the soul. There are other bands that make bigger, bolder sounds, and other writers whose words are more verbose and flowery, but I have yet to find a songwriter who can awaken such a sense of grandeur within me, while using a comparatively small amount of carefully chosen words.
14) “Fever Dream”, Iron & Wine (Our Endless Numbered Days, 2004)
Jim Beam set aside his usual tales of Southern blight and sketchy spirituality for this one, crafting a simple, fragile lullaby that I still love just as much, perhaps even more, than some of the fascinatingly intricate stuff he’d come up with in later years. There was something divine about those gentle guitar chords, something supernatural in this simple tale of watching a loved one’s body language and mannerisms, trying to grasp the intangible feelings she can’t quite express, or the abstract ideas that she dreams about. It might just be his most romantic song. It expressed so much of the longing that I had, now being an engaged man looking forward to married life. For all of my adult life, and a good chunk of my teenage years, I had longed to find out what it was like to know someone so deeply that you can stay up late talking about whatever little things come to mind, exploring each other’s hopes and fears and dreams, even observing what that person is like when they lie down to sleep and when they wake up in the morning. When two people love each other enough that they really want to know each other that deeply, it’s a gorgeous thing.
15) “Last Day on Earth”, Steven Curtis Chapman (All Things New, 2004)
While my interest in SCC had really started to wane at this point (with this track being the only one on his newest that really kept my attention), I still think he’s written a lot of the better songs about looking heavenward that I’ve heard from any contemporary Christian songwriter. Here he ponders the sobering reality that any day could be our last, that loved ones could have to say goodbye without warning – and if that’s so, how does it affect the way we live our lives in the day-to-day? We do so much out of the assumption that we’ll have that “assurance tomorrow will come” that Iron & Wine longed for in the previous song. The hard truth is, we don’t. So have I spent my time simply working toward my own goals (noble as they may sometimes seem to be), simply caring for the people who seem to love me back? Or have I spent it keeping God’s commands? Caring for the outcasts, doing my part to provide for the needy, helping to bring those who feel unloved into the places they were previously taught they didn’t belong?
16) “Hard Times”, Eastmountainsouth (Eastmountainsouth, 2003)
This final song – written literally over a century and a half ago by Stephen Foster and beautifully resurrected by Pete and Kat’s two-part harmony – finishes things off by tying together the threads of harsh realism and hopeful stargazing, into a sensible hymn of perseverance. We pray so often, when falling on hard times, that they will somehow end. And it’s true that certain phases of our lives are easier than others, but if you really think about it, we’re never fully free from having to face challenges that are difficult to deal with, or to even comprehend. Waiting for things to get easy again, for an era of total freedom from stress, in order to really get the next chapter of our lives started, will probably leave us waiting forever. I wanted things to be perfect before setting my sights on marriage as the definite next phase of my life, but I realized that this was never going to happen. So we talked things through, we figured out a plan that would work well enough to build a lasting relationship out of our limited skills and resources. And we prepared ourselves mentally and spiritually to make that promise – wisely phrased as “for better or for worse” – knowing full well that a time would come when things would probably get really hard. It’s good to remember that. It puts the present in perspective.