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I’m writing from Princeton’s Pyne Rotunda, a stained-glass sanctuary for students who haven’t finished their readings but are, consciously or not, setting themselves up for defeat. One of the problems is the furniture: this corner has a sunken armchair with a cushioned footrest, inviting you to lounge on the pretense of “focus.” I’ve fallen asleep in this same chair several times before, usually after ten minutes of head-bobbing and the realization that I’d just re-read the same passage twice without understanding any of it.
Excusing a lazy subconsciousness and some plush furniture, the real culprit is the lighting. The windows along the walls are thin and clear, framing the changing leaves outside. The cathedral-esque panes stretch up to semicircle mosaics of purple, turquoise, and mustard fragments, one in each panel of the octagonal dome. The mosaics, in turn, point to the matching centerpiece overhead, a beautiful octagram that distills pale sunlight into a warm glow. Filling the wooden frame of the rotunda, the glow changes this fall morning into a late winter fire.
I couldn’t think of a better listening environment for Drew Miller’s latest EPs, Desolation and Consolation. Every song on each record is so rich and loaded that I feel like a student again, annotating lyrics and cross-referencing allusions. I find myself re-reading, but not because I feel lost; I don’t want to miss anything. And if there is any head-bobbing, it’s not out of exhaustion.
As Drew explains in the projects’ backstory, the narrator invites us to navigate two compelling concepts that are often overlooked. Desolation denotes loss, a sense that something important was here but is now missing. Conversely, Consolation involves a sense of recovery or completion; a void has been filled, although what now fills that space might look very different from what occupied it in the past. Consolation requires desolation, and vice versa.
“Into the Darkness” sets the tone of Desolation, and starkly at that:
Go ahead and exhaust your distractions—”Into the Darkness”
Drink deep from the dying well
Cash in your hope for resignation
Go make your heaven of hell
The narrator could be speaking to anyone disillusioned by their latest attempt at a cure for pain. Whatever their source of purpose has been, it’s losing its potency. The sparse instrumentation is as intentional as the lyrics, and Desolation invites us in.
Each verse of the song puts another remedy to the test, exposing the lived limitations of our most trusted prescriptions: self-improvement and moral development; creative projects and exciting metanarratives; YouTube philosophies and ivory theologies. “Into the darkness you’ll go…” Sooner or later, as the refrain reminds us, the darkness becomes unavoidable.
The narrator walks this fine line between hope and despair throughout the record. “Hospice” reads like a psalm, lamenting the apparent absence of God or purpose:
You say there’s room for me at your table—”Hospice”
But your chair remains empty at mine
Faith is not recast but instead remembered as the great wrestling match, not between good and evil, but between the single individual and God:
I won’t let you go until you bless me—”Hospice”
Until I hear you speak my new name
The allusions continue in “Death of a Dream,” where the narrator wonders whether it might not have been better if we had never tasted any promised land in the first place. If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, as C. S. Lewis famously muses, then wouldn’t I be better off without those desires? Our source of hope is suspected as a source of anxiety:
Fairest dreams—”Death of a Dream”
Fall so far from finding
The source of hope
That wounds with each reminding
In “How Small,” the narrator presses in further, encouraging us to navigate a space of rawness that is usually avoided—and maybe for good reason:
You’re too good to be true—”How Small”
There’s too much true that isn’t good
The sting of Epicurus’ trilemma surfaces, not in lofty philosophical terms, but in an honest petition. Loosening our semantics, we are allowed to admit that not all truth is beautiful; the narrator encourages us to recognize our tragedies as exactly that: tragic. The fine line of despair, though, is never crossed:
I am no stranger to your silence—”How Small”
Though I would rather know your voice
All my faith is in defiance
My only hope is to rejoice
You’re too good not to be true
Whether out of loyalty, defiance, or desperation, faith and hope are never fully abandoned, and we continue groping our way through this darkness. Desolation permeates the record from start to finish and sets the scene for a response.
With “Grace,” the first song of Consolation, the response begins, “Love, don’t bury your hope too deep.”
We are reminded that faith presents itself as paradox, an overnight wrestling match that leaves us with an unexpected hymn.J Lind
I recently saw Drew perform, and he shared that the song’s narrative actually started with a dream: workers came to his home, boxed everything up while cautioning that there was “no cause for concern,” and drove away. As the deconstruction of faith seems increasingly systematic and inevitable, it becomes easier to watch it objectively, without conviction, and from a distance. It is here, the narrator hints, that we are able to more fully press into the archetypal currents of grief and grace that exist outside of us:
There’s a grief older than you are—”Grace”
That you’re not the first one to feel
If the precious things need our defending,
It’s ‘cause we gave ourselves permission to steal
But there’s a grace older than you are
And you cry its tears on your face
Says, “If you’re looking for something more lasting,
Well, be prepared to come in last place
Be prepared to come in last place”
Just as the joy of recovery requires the pain of loss, so too a lasting foundation requires an excavation that hits bedrock. “Psalm 126” keeps pace, drawing on these currents of grief and grace as they echo off the ancient psalmist:
Those who sow with tears reap songs of joy—”Psalm 126″
You have done great things
You came to us a child
We can’t help but sing
Of your glory, meek and wild
This ancient refrain becomes personal and particular in “Caught Inside A Promise,” an ode to marriage that speaks to the meaning found in vulnerability and commitment. In line with the record’s rawness, the narrator doesn’t parade this commitment as mere marital bliss:
So many well-worn paths we travel—”Caught Inside A Promise”
With aimless feet on dead-end days
Blind to every grace unraveled
Underneath our winding ways
Throughout Consolation, the narrator interprets our world as one in which grace is latent just beneath the surface, catching our attention in surprising ways. This theme comes most fully into view through the closing benediction, “A Child Will Lead Us All:”
The kingdom’s coming as a seed—”A Child Will Lead Us All”
Smaller than the eye can see
From wanting eyes to set us free
The final song of Consolation addresses the question raised at the end of Desolation: “How small are the seeds that you sow?” We are not left with a concise answer or cold calculus. Instead, we are reminded that faith presents itself as paradox, an overnight wrestling match that leaves us with an unexpected hymn:
The kingdom’s coming as a song—”A Child Will Lead Us All”
Mournful dirge and anthem strong
To cheer the ones who sing it wrong
Neither does the narrator send us home with eager cliches. For all its celebratory sounds, Consolation ends on a sobering note:
The kingdom’s coming slow and true—”A Child Will Lead Us All”
Till every inch has been made new
And it will ask your life of you
From an Ignatian perspective, we spend our lives oscillating between seasons of desolation and consolation. “We don’t need to be consoled unless we have met grief, unless we have met loss,” Drew explains in the song’s backstory. Recovery requires loss, and the unique joy of the former owes its potency to the sting of the latter. Cue Desolation.
Sitting here, I’m moved again by Drew’s stories and songs. This warm rotunda, like his latest project, serves as a reminder of some great perennial wisdom, one which has to be reinterpreted again and again for our own good. Heaven knows we need it.
To celebrate the full release of his album, Drew Miller will be performing it in its entirety this Friday night at The Well Coffeehouse (same venue as the Local Show). Click here for tickets.