I like to think that when Philip and I got married our wedding presents to each other were music. Like all true lovers we were extravagant with our gifts. He gave me The Sundays and REM, Tchaikovsky and The Beautiful South and Catbird Seat. I presented him with the total pageantry of Italian opera and the English choral tradition, Palestrina and the masses of Mozart and all the elegance of classic jazz. Beatles and bossa nova, Gillian Welch and Gilbert and Sullivan, we exchanged with the abandon of those who have no thought for the cost.
But among the most priceless of all the gifts presented was one that Philip gave to me. It was the innocence mission.
I can hardly believe there was a time that Karen Peris’ lyrics were not woven into the very soundtrack of my life; that there were days before “july”—and before the time I needed to hear it. That we were able to articulate thoughts too-deep-for-tears without phrases like ‘small planes’ and ‘ticket halves’ and ‘the birds of all my yellow teacups’ and ‘snow sliding off the roof’ being called upon to serve where other words could not reach. Their songs have gone after me into my darkest places and they have given wings and a tongue to my sweetest joys.
They have granted me, like the best stabbing beauties of Lewis and the singing prose of Tolkien, glimpses of heaven, and of the love of God brooding over my life.
I’m certainly not the groupie type, and from what I know of the members of the innocence mission, they’d turn their faces with a modest shaking of the head from such adulation. But we do treat our IM with a sort of friendly veneration around here. So much so that several little rituals have sprung up surrounding the release of a new album. One is that we are nowise permitted to give it a first listen without the other present. Another is that it has to be memorable. When Befriended came out I greeted the shipment at the store and drove immediately to Philip’s office where we listened to it at his desk, the day being too long to wait for his homecoming at its close. We Walked in Song coincided with a trip to England we’d been dreaming of since the summer of Befriended and we managed to discipline ourselves to save it till we were there; I opened it on a morning in May on a green Surrey lane fringed with bluebells and fool’s parsley and slid it into the CD player of a little manual transmission coupe. Tears instantly filled both of our eyes at the first tender swell of sound. And I think that they always will.
We both tried (and failed) to surprise each other for Valentine’s last year with the EP Street Map. But we were literally ticking days off the calendar for this summer’s release of My Room in the Trees. Teasers and free downloads on the band’s site had tempted us, but we held out. Once it arrived, we dangled it like a treat at the end of an intense but happily-occupied Saturday. I had two favorite English ales on hand for the occasion and glasses on ice in the freezer, and at the appointed time we settled into our chairs in the den with a cat on each of our laps and the volume turned up high. And when Karen’s trusting, ingenuous voice filled the room and embraced us with the affection of a true friend, I knew that no treatment could have been more fitting.
My Room in the Trees seems, in many ways, the fruit of other albums. If Birds of My Neighborhood touched on the nerve of infertility and the yearning for a child with the gentlest vulnerability and precision, then Room celebrates the longed-for children with an answering grace. All beloved IM symbols are here, the daily figures illumined with the divine light of sacramental living: birds, green and growing things, water and car trips and rain. But there’s a markedly new perspective, an eye-level observance of wonders even more artless, like imaginary dogs and leaf boats coursing down rain channels in the street and children glittering off into the night sky like shooting stars. All this mingled inexorably—almost unbearably at times—with the theme of the very adult necessity of letting go. Releasing these young flares to their destiny; releasing oneself to the relentless love of God.
If Karen’s candor is disarming, her humility is absolutely devastating. It’s impossible to listen to that deceptively fragile voice winging over unexpected cadences and lilts without being startled out of a sense of self-complacency. Handling the objects of the everyday, savoring concrete words for the joy of the life they image, she manages to lift the veil on the holiness shimmering just out of sight of our earth-bound eyes: splendors shed abroad and rained down upon the head of every child of God. Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to thy name give glory, might well be the theme of their music as a whole. To truly engage with it is to bow one’s head in like acknowledgement.
Here also is the throbbing warmth of sound and musical intimacy that lovers of the innocence mission know to expect. The opening track, “rain”, is a mesmerizing weave of Don and Karen’s guitars, Mike’s signature bass and the surprising texture of a violin that seems to set the poignant tone for the whole album, though it does not appear again. And throughout, with the unobtrusiveness of a true compliment, the instrumentation bears and sustains the sense of quiet celebration: a walk home from school is buoyed along by artful plucking in “the happy mondays”; “all the weather” literally pulses with the joy of returning spring; the merry rhythm of “mile marker” might well be skipping over the water in a sailboat as traversing the highway in a car. Pump organ, melodica, whispering drums and a wistfully tinny piano all vary and conspire among the tracks to create a sound that is at once nostalgia and hope for things to come.
But if there’s one thing that characterizes the innocence mission, music and lyrics together, it’s a certain faith-borne melancholy. A sorrow for the pain and losses and lettings-go that this life exacts, and a rain-washed face lifted smiling to the love of God that recalls all the ‘bright sadness’ of the best art in the Christian tradition. In this respect, “God is love” might be one of the best tracks on the album with its gentle staring down of fear in a minor key.
But it was the last song that overwhelmed us with all the sweet paradox of life bound in time and Life that is everlasting. It’s another tradition of ours that the we don’t read the lyrics on a first listen—we soak in the songs as a whole before dissecting them into poetry and sounds, and it’s often weeks or months later that we’ll be surprised by some hint or glimmer we hadn’t noticed before. And so we sat in silence and let the beauty wash over us, throats burning, tears close at hand.
As it turned out there was no need for liner notes—or time—to receive the full wealth and richness of this one: Karen’s voice rang out, pure and true and full of something she couldn’t quite seem to contain:
All we can do, in this deep summer hour,
with the rain, the taxis and the flowers,
walking between the dear ones holding on,
is shout, shout for joy.
Everything that has been broken you’ll mend,
throughout the morning of one day,
sleeves fluttering in the air, in the air,
and we’ll shout, shout for joy.
lyrics © 2010 the innocence mission
The tears in my own eyes felt like a healing rain. And the wordless smile on my lips was a shout of joy.