He Takes the Weight of Hell: Chris Slaten on “The Hurricanes”

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Perhaps the most epic, enigmatic song on Son of Laughter’s new album is “The Hurricanes.” When Chris Slaten and I discussed his record, we took quite a bit of time to dig into the writing of this song.

What follows is an in-depth conversation walking step-by-step through the narrative of “The Hurricanes,” augmented at various points by clips of the song itself.

Drew: So you were saying earlier that each song has an occasion almost, that you’ll write when there’s an occasion for it. That made a lot of sense to me because when I listened to No Story Is Over—it’s such a unique and uniquely crafted collection of songs in the sense that there are eight of them; so it is an album, maybe somewhere between EP and album, but it’s the perfect eight songs to put together. It feels like a very intentionally honed selection. I can feel in listening to them that they each had an occasion to be birthed, they each have their place.

“The Hurricanes,” for instance, is such a magnum opus of a song. It really takes you on a journey. So let’s start there, if you’d like to narrate—if there was a version of this CD that had “Commentary from Chris” on each song as it was playing, like with movies, what would you say as this song is beginning, from beginning to end? How would you narrate it?

Chris: Wow. The chorus . . . I wrote the chorus first. When I wrote it, I thought it could be a hymn and I was wondering how to develop it. But using the imagery of the hurricanes in there—that phrase, “the hurricanes,” was evoking very specific imagery to me, so what I became more concerned with is that line, “he takes the weight of hell.” So instead of figuring out, “what’s the purpose of this song?” I started thinking, “how can I make people feel how I feel when I say the line, ‘he takes the weight of hell’?”

And so the more I played around with that, the more I felt like I was going to need to tell a very specific story because there are so many different ways in which I feel that line when I say it.

(Song excerpt)
Oh my soul, oh my soul,
Do not flee as a bird to the mountains;
Do not hide in a hard hollow shell.
Find your strength in the shadow of your Shelter,
Who does not break as the Hurricanes compel.
He does not break—
He takes the weight of hell.

Chris: So I had the imagery of the hurricanes and I started developing this narration where the character experiences that line on a very literal level—an actual hurricane—confronting the fears I have of the destruction of my property. I am a homeowner and I am trying to take care of my family and keep them safe, so I do have very basic fears of physically being destroyed, just like any human does. We’re protecting ourselves from that.

Something funny that paralleled about the time I was writing this is that my riding mower—we have a big yard and I have a riding mower—it caught on fire and burned to the ground.

Drew: Wow! All right!

(laughter)

Chris: It was really traumatizing for my kids at the time. There was nothing we could do. By the time the fire department got there the forces of nature were completely indifferent. And I think that’s the thing about the first verse: it’s the fear of the indifference of the universe. It’s expressing that kind of fear and then taking solace in that God takes the weight of that hell.

(Song excerpt)
My first mistake was staying when the city fled.
My second came in falling fast asleep.
For when the storm came roaring right up to my bed,
I was knocked into a cold, indifferent sea,
And as fast as my eyes opened
My legs were trapped and broken
In the fingers of a fallen tree,
Who would not loose her grip on me.
I wound around her mercy and pulled in tight.
The rain flashed in the dark.
It was early in the night.
Oh my soul…

Chris: So then the next act is the fear of others:

“As the storm moved on a new one blew in
This one raged in human form in footsteps at my broken door”

What’s actually happening in the story is that you have a character who is trapped in the wreckage of their home. It’s in the dark of night and they’re hoping for rescue, but now their worst fears are being realized, which is that there are people coming in to take advantage of the fact that they are vulnerable and crushed.

It’s this fear of what if the worst happens in relationships? Or with strangers? You know, like…

(laughter)

This isn’t what inspired it, but again another parallel: I had a push mower that was stolen out of my garage.

Drew: What is it with these lawn mowers? Have you made an idol of your lawn mowers or something?

(laughter)

Chris: Apparently lawn care is my idol and God is challenging that for me.

But again, this song was already pretty well underway. It was just funny that this thing was happening at the same time.

So the indifference of the universe, the indifference in the evil of others, and he takes the weight of hell again there, that kind of hell.

And I think also, the chorus is meant to be self-talk, the way the psalms do, talking to your own soul and saying, “don’t try to escape and don’t try to live a hollowed out existence in the midst of these things.”

(Song excerpt)
The moon pulled up a curtain on the second act.
The stage revealed a world remade in ruin.
My body in pieces, my hope intact—
Still, as the storm moved on a new one blew in.
This one raged in human form,
In footsteps at my broken door.
Though I prayed they came for me,
Something told me not to speak,
And through my swamp of chandeliers
Their every move confirmed my fears:
Toppling what they couldn’t take,
They stripped all I had left away,
And with their hard and heartless hands
They overturned my love of man.
Till satisfied, they began to leave,
Then the oldest noticed me.
And I pleaded, “Please.”
I pleaded, “Please.”
I pleaded, “Please.”
Oh my soul…

Chris: The third verse was undeveloped for a very long time because what I wanted to do was—for someone to understand how I feel when I say, “he takes the weight of hell,” then they would have to believe the gospel. Which says that we have the blood of God on our hands. At this point I was challenged with, “How is this character going to be confronted with their own inner storm and feel the guilt of the blood of God on their hands?”

I think there is a God-hating part of every person and we don’t understand the gospel until we understand that about ourselves. So this character is someone who has all this religious language they run into to deal with external circumstances, but they still don’t feel the weight of their own hell.

So I basically took all of the doubts from my God-hating self, the old self in me, and gave them voice and put them out in the open. I tried to do it in a way that showed the kind of disgusting role-reversal and religiosity of that position where you’re putting God on trial and judging God.

Drew: Which is a big part of religious language in the Old Testament. Just recently for me, at my parish, that language has come up—we’ve been in Exodus with Moses and that’s been a thing, and I’ve been like, “Wow! That’s a whole way of relating to God that I had no idea was available to me!”

So I’ve been steeping in that, then I listened to this song and felt the connections there.

Chris: Yeah, and it happens to Job, too. And there’s this weird, fine line of what in that is healthy in speaking to God and what in that has crossed a sacred line of some kind.

I feel like this character does cross the line. I wanted him to cross the line because I know that I have crossed the line and I believe everyone has crossed the line. To feel that, the character needed to do it.

So they take all this religious language and twist it over and over again. “God, you are my rock,” but “silent as a stone.”

Drew: I love that.

Chris: “I want to see your face when I say…” and then taking Jesus’ words, “I never knew you” and spouting them back in gross display at him.

So that’s the process of the song, but ultimately I wanted to create something that would help people to feel the chorus the way that I do: you can take refuge in God because he takes the weight of every hell you can imagine, even your own.

(Song excerpt)
Once I felt I could contain my anger, my fear, my dread,
But when they left me there for dead, my levee broke instead
And stores of rage I’d held at bay
And the blood of broken expectations
Flooded my foundations,
And my lips poured forth with a righteous force—
I spit, I burned, I swore, I roared,

“God You are my rock, silent as a stone,
Watching the world burn from Your heavenly throne.
You see the wicked win. You hear the weak cry.
You leave Your sons and daughters in the dark to die.
I’ve given you all my faith, all that You asked me to,
I’ve shown you so much grace; now your debt is due.
I want to see your face when I say
I want to see your face when I say,
‘I never knew You.
I never knew You.’”

Oh my soul,
Do not flee as a bird to the mountains;
Do not hide in a hard hollow shell.
Find your strength in the shadow of your Shelter,
Who does not break as the hurricanes compel.
He does not break
He does not break—
He takes the weight of hell.


No Story Is Over is available in the Rabbit Room Store.


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