Leonard The Lonely Astronaut Blasts Off

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From the beginning of time the night sky has fueled our dreams of traversing the stars, pioneering the final frontier. Deep calls unto deep as we lie on our backs looking into the vast ocean of space above us and feel the vast ocean of space inside us rise and swell. Like a transmission from the furthest reaches of the universe, or perhaps from somewhere further still within our hearts, the questions find us: “Who am I? Who is God? What does it mean to be human? Why am I lonely?” On a clear night we can see beyond the edges of our galaxy, and we are at once belittled and enlarged.

Is our longing to touch the stars a wonder-filled embrace of the great mystery of existence? Or is it perhaps a kind of escapism, a desire to break free of the bonds of gravity and the Fall and the falling that goes along with it. Is it part of our romantic hope that the grass may be greener somewhere over the rainbow, beyond Alpha Centauri?

Whatever it is, the night sky excites our imagination, confronts us with our humanity, and stirs within us the big questions.

And so it was that on Stardate 65176.3 (or September 16th, 2011) Andrew Osenga, aided by a group of friends, built a spaceship in a storage unit behind Baja Burrito in Nashville, Tennessee, with the mission of writing and recording Leonard The Lonely Astronaut: a cosmic, musical journey through the human heart to make contact with alien life–or, at the very least, our own lives that can leave us feeling alienated.

Leonard is a wonder of a record that only Andrew Osenga could bring us: a concept album about love, loneliness, and forgiveness that is the unlikely melding of Osenga’s literate songcraft, his idiosyncratic artistry, and his affinity for old sci-fi novels. It’s weird. It’s awesome. It’s fun! It’s full of heart and wisdom and it might help save your marriage, heal your past, or lead you to rediscover your own heart.

And did I mention that he wrote and recorded it in a spaceship!?

Osenga introduces us to Leonard Belle, whose story we enter in the wake of the unexpected death of his wife—a beginning made all the more tragic by the fact that they were in the midst of settling their divorce. With so much left unresolved, Leonard’s grief takes the form of his accepting a job as the lone pilot of a space freighter delivering cargo to the far reaches of outer space. Because of the laws of relativity, all of Leonard’s friends will have grown old and died by the time he returns to earth. Leonard wants out of his own life. In fact, he’s probably been absent from it for quite some time already.

It sounds like heavy subject material, and, well, I suppose it is. But Osenga manages to makes it fun. Wearing his geekiness on the sleeve of his spacesuit (yes he had an actual spacesuit made), his enthusiasm for capturing the zeitgeist of classic science fiction is irresistible. In the hands of a lesser artist this all might feel like a gimmick, but with Osenga I think it’s more accurate to think of it as a master magician’s diversion–wowing us with the novelty of it all on the one hand while the real trick is happening in the other.

Osenga is perhaps the bravest songwriter I know, generously singing his wounds for the healing of others. (Consider a lyric like this: I don’t believe forgiveness, or even repentance now – “Hold The Light”, from Caedmon Call’s Overdressed). But the magic of what he accomplishes here is that he can say things with Leonard’s voice that he might not say with his own. Thus, one of the bravest songwriters I know just got bolder, able to go where no man has gone before (I couldn’t resist).

The deeper Leonard ventures into outer space, the deeper we are led through the subterranean layers of our own inner space–the dark, cold, lifeless regions of regret, loneliness, and shame–in order to reach the light on the other side. This is the kind of journey that scares the best of us away, but maybe because Osenga is holding a guitar while wearing a spacesuit, we’re willing to let our curiosity get the better of us and go along for the ride.

Whimsical and poignant, the story begins with Leonard saying goodbye to everyone he knows: “…but I’ll make some new friends, maybe with their grandkids…” And then we are gently sent into the stratosphere with this beautiful image as Leonard addresses the memory of his wife.

I keep thinking of that painting
of the sisters at the piano
that brought a tear to your eye
babe, today, I was a brushstroke
on the canvas of a perfect blue sky
–“Brushstroke”

(Can I gush for a moment and say that this kind of lyric is what I love about Andy’s writing? Wow.)

It’s not long before Leonard discovers that the ghosts from the past he’d hoped to leave behind have actually stowed away on his little ship. With no place left to hide from his history or himself, a conversation begins. It starts with an important part of the healing: anger.

 

I loved once
I gave who I was and ended up bloody,
all that it showed me
was that I’d always be lonely
–“The Only Man In The World”

And then:

Fine
tell your father he was right
I wasn’t worth your time
I guess I just didn’t try
I was scared, I don’t know why
–“Out Of Time”


We’re all born with a wound–whether it’s loneliness, restlessness, or some unnamed sadness. But the wound becomes deadly when we blame others for it, as though our own pain is someone else’s fault. As long as we do this, there is little chance of finding healing for it.

With his anger spent and nobody around to blame, Leonard faces his own pain, looks into his heart, and begins to see things that he was blind to before. The focus turns inward as clarity and conviction comes.

I don’t know a lot but that never stopped my mouth
a soapbox full of injured pride
she had the confidence and grace to hear me out…
–“Ever And Always”

If I had to work late
I tried to take you out
it didn’t make it better
suddenly it hit me
like when we said “I need you”
it didn’t sound right
we were hurt and confused
fragile as the breath of a candle
staring in silence at the tower of Babel
–“Tower of Babel”

Forgiveness is a gift that we are graced to participate in. When we forgive others and the fist of our heart releases and finally opens, it’s easier to see the brokenness we were holding onto so tightly. We heal as we forgive and find we are also set free to seek forgiveness.

I was a madman, drunk with desire
you were a lifeboat, I was on fire
now that it’s over
the damage is seen
all I can say is
would you forgive me?

if ever you find it again, boy
give her room to learn to love you
and maybe she’ll stay
–“Hold On Boy”

Leonard’s transformation continues as his pain leads him deeper into his own story where he faces crippling wounds inflicted by family, misguided religious idealism, and even his own self-reliance. It all rises to the surface to be named and healed.

I was the firstborn son of a firstborn son
in the wake of family tragedy

We prayed each night to the risen God
for our loved ones health and safety
then we locked the doors and windows up
so there was no danger and we were not free

God, help the man who helps himself
he needs no other devil
give us courage now to say farewell
to this fear and watch it crumble
— “Firstborn Son”

As Leonard’s heart is being prepared to re-enter the human community, he’s led deeper into his loneliness until he arrives at the very beginning. The first light of the first day breaks upon my favorite moment of the record (and this stunning lyric):

Monday, there was light and dark
Wednesday, trees began to reach toward the sky
the stars and moon were new above
the birds that framed the blue that found the Friday night
Saturday, a man wiped dust off of his face
and opened up his eyes
after the weekend
he was standing at the corner
with his hands itching for pockets
he was looking for another just like him
and the heart of God broke for his creation
it was not good for man to be alone
–“It Was Not Good For Man To Be Alone”

Pain has muscle memory, and as the heart comes back to life, old wounds are felt again:

We had a thousand choices every day
to stay closed or give ourselves away
and love just kept losing
–“Never Said Goodbye”


But Leonard is more whole and better equipped to give himself to the continued process of healing, layer after layer:

It suddenly struck me, dear

sitting bored on the last frontier
it was you, it was always, only you

but when everything got so rough
I was a coward and just shut off
only God can hold what’s dead and make it new

(here in the silence)
I hear a whisper
(here in the darkness)
I glimpsed a light
(here in the emptiness)
I feel the beat of my heart again
–“Beat of My Heart”


Leonard Belle is learning to dream again and be led by his desire. But he’s also wiser as he returns to planet earth and prepares to re-enter his life both figuratively and literally. He understands that the root of our deepest grief (and the destroyer of every relationship) is always idolatry.

She was a goddess, a beautiful Athena
I bowed and I vowed nothing would come between us
but she fell off my pedestal
she was human after all
so I got angry and silent
that’s why she left I know
–“Shooting Star”

The album closes with the anthem of a new man who has found the gift of his heart again, though he’s aware that his newfound peace will be tested. Will he hold onto his healing or will gravity pull him down into his old wounds again? He is sober-minded, and yet free to hope.

Brace for the splashdown
the grip of gravity and age
we’re going to find out
if anything can really change

ready or not, baby, I’m a shooting star
here I come now, baby, I’m a shooting star
–“Shooting Star”

Leonard is as much a musical accomplishment as it is a lyrical and conceptual one. Osenga somehow manages to capture the aesthetic of a garage guitar band that at once sounds like an artifact from the great pop/rock records of the 70’s and 80’s and yet sounds wholly modern, too. It feels like the kind of record that a guy named Leonard would make if left alone on a space ship for a good long time. And that’s a good thing.

I stand in amazement of Osenga’s accomplishment, and I often find myself shaking my head with either a big grin or tears as I listen–sometimes both at once. I would stack the writing of this record against any of my all time favorites, but the greater accomplishment in my mind is the fact that this is a record of healing and will do much in those who will let it in to do it’s work.

Here at the end I think of Henri Nouwen who tells us that the role of the spiritual leader is to go first into the dark to help show the rest of us the way through. In this work, Andrew Osenga is a brave and generous leader who takes us into the darkness of our own sin and loneliness–a consuming black hole that can swallow our whole lives-–to chart a way through to the healing on the other side.

And did I mention that he built a spaceship?!

“Perihelion 2”


33 Comments

  1. Jarred McCauley

    This review dead on! Leonard the Lonely Astronaut is easily the best album I’ve heard in a long time. Great melodies and heartfelt lyrics. Its a journey into the true human condition. Keep up the good work Andy O and thank you Rabbit Room for supporting this beautiful project!

  2. Ron Davis

    I expected the album to be good, and I even figured it would be really good. But I wasn’t sufficiently prepared to be blown away like I was after hearing it for the first time. Truly unbelievable.

  3. Chris

    I was going to write a review, but now anything I say will feel insignificant compared to this galactic explosion of loquaciousness. Thanks a lot Jason!

  4. April Pickle

    Weeping with gratitude just in reading the review!!! (Beautifully done, Mr. Gray) Dare I listen to the album?! I had pre-ordered and downloaded, but had not listened yet, and now I believe Providence had me wait for this review to prepare my heart. I will NOT be listening to this album while doing housework, exercising or driving the minivan. I will NOT welcome any interruptions. This work of art deserves my full attention and I plan to give it just that. “Oooohhhhh, take cover,” everybody! Leonard is “a good thing.”

  5. Jen

    Yes. Exactly.

    Jason, you simultaneously inspire me and make we want to quit writing. (You know I mean that as a sincere compliment! :)) One of my favorite things about this place is watching you praise each other’s art. It’s a beautiful thing.

    Chris, you get bonus points for “galactic explosion of loquaciousness!”

  6. Jen

    April, you’ve got the right idea! I held onto the record for a few hours until I knew I would have a good hour in the car to intentionally listen. It’s worth the wait!

  7. Jenn C

    This is the kind of journey that scares the best of us away, but maybe because Osenga is holding a guitar while wearing a spacesuit, we’re willing to let our curiosity get the better of us and go along for the ride.”

    Yeah, like you said Jason. I heard the first couple of songs and thought, wow, this is hard stuff. But it’s GOOD hard stuff, and I’m so very glad to be along for the reading of the journal Leonard made while he was up there.

    And the fact that it was made in a spaceship while Andy was wearing a spacesuit makes for a very fun ride.

  8. Peter B

    In the hands of a lesser artist this all might feel like a gimmick, but with Osenga I think it’s more accurate to think of it as a master magician’s diversion–wowing us with the novelty of it all on the one hand while the real trick is happening in the other.

    Yes. Aside from the musical genius shining through here, this album makes me ache to love my wife better. Amazing how so much darkness can be used to push us toward the light.

    Also — Perihelion (1 in particular) just sounds so right. I can almost see the lazy solar flares looping through their crazy rise and fall in the dizzying unpredictable magnetic fields — but I would love to know exactly what this signifies in Leonard’s progress. What should we be taking from the differences between 1 and 2? I get the feeling there’s so much depth that I haven’t begun to uncover yet (like the last line of Firstborn Son, which finally broke on me today like a wave of “whoa”).

    Great review. Great album. Thanks, guys.

  9. Jud

    Can I just say here I wish more Rabbit Room artists made concept albums? Because I love them in general, and this one in particular.

  10. Andy

    Jason, the review itself is a piece of art, wonderfully crafted and written. Thanks for helping me better track and grasp many of the subtleties and nuances of Leonard that I was missing in my first couple of listens. I’m eager to re-launch with these coordinates you’ve charted to guide me on my journey of discovery with the album and love it more than I do.

  11. SD Smith

    Jason, my friend, you are a wonder. It’s a wonder how an artist of your abilities can so empty himself to receive so fully and express so beautifully, your appreciation for another artist’s work. That Andy’s accomplishment merits your affection and attention is without doubt, but I’m amazed at the humility and tenderness this review reveals. But, it’s not entirely surprising, because in many ways only you could write a review like this. You show us the way.

    And what a record! In your spectacular review, I found myself experiencing the journey again, with new eyes, along with you. That was a magnificent guided tour of Leonard’s journey. My family toured the USS Wisconsin last week in Nofolk, Va. Wandering around the decks in wonder, I found myself longing for the inside scoop of her history from the men who served on her. I feel like, in this review, that’s what I got. An experienced guide with a tenderness toward Leonard, and so Andy, that made the tour like experiencing the real thing anew.

    Bravo, both you guys.

  12. Loren Warnemuende

    Jason, it’s great to see you pop into the Rabbit Room again and the result, as always, has been terrific. What an amazing review! I think you’ve put me over the edge of my teetering question of whether to buy Leonard. Ever since this concept was introduced, I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around it, but I’m loving the bits of the results I’ve been able to glimpse. Thank you to Andy O for being brave and taking us along for the adventure!

  13. Goodgame

    Jason, well done. To extend the metaphor, Andy has stepped out untethered into the deep abyss with “Leonard,” and this review is like the mother ship circling to retrieve him. I’m so impressed and inspired by this adventure wrapped in melody. Thank you, Andy – for dreaming big and digging deep. “Leonard” is wise and honest and sad and full of hope. Revelations abound.

    And I really want to know what happens with Leonard… could there be a follow-up in a decade? “Leonard the old wise sage?”

  14. Bobes

    The choice is really simple: you can be blown away today or you can be blown away in the fall. I would recommend the former, but it’s your call to make. If yet purchase this amazing record now, you can be the person who gets the privilege of playing it for your friends.

    Wonderful record Andy! Congrats! I will enjoy continuing to peel back the layers of this record for some time to come.

    Jason, your review is spot on. Well done.

    Let me just say that personally, I have one problem with the Leonard mythology; namely that the listener is expected to believe that these songs were written and recorded during a single solitary year in space. In order to craft these kinds of songs over that span, Mr. Belle must be some kind of futuristic Bob Dylan with a sixth sense for recording and musical production.

  15. Ina

    SOOOOO sad that I am reading this today and not 2 days ago. Alas, alack. Well, guess I’ll just have to round up more music lovers for the fall release. Thanks for making my day everyone.

  16. Kiki

    Thanks for this! Did you listen to the Normals at all? “Coming to Life” kills me. It’s one of my favorite repeat songs of all time, and made me an Osenga fan for life. If I were in a teen movie, I would say 4eva.

  17. Nicole

    Gorgeous writing! I’m so thankful I got to hear you perform recently, but it’s two little Rabbit Room posts of yours that have astounded me! That and one especially kind email. Anyhoo, I have another album to check out now! Wow! Thank you!

  18. Peter B

    Oh, and Solar Winds is a blast. The first song (“Be With You”) comes across as so intimate that I feel like a voyeur — but oh, to be that open with the one you love.

    The next two vocal tracks are just full of amusement, and of course “Shoeshine” makes me chuckle even as I enjoy the serious, driving nature of the song.

    Spacewalk gives me that free-floating-while-tethered vibe.

    Antihelion feels like Pluto, gazing alternately at the far-off speck of sun and off into the endless frigid abyss.

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