As I listened to Sara Groves’s new album on repeat, my mind grasped for the best way to describe what makes her songwriting so special. And as I grasped away, a moment from one of my favorite movies kept stubbornly arising in my head. It’s a scene from towards the end of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a special moment of understanding that unfolds between the story’s eponymous protagonist and his elusive, enigmatic idol, Sean O’Connell.
Spoiler alert (but seriously, this movie came out in 2013, so if you haven’t seen it yet, then that’s on you):
Walter Mitty has finally found Sean O’Connell in the Himalayas after spending a large portion of the story chasing him around the world. The moment Sean is spotted, he raises his finger to his lips to hush Walter and invites him to look through his camera lens. He’s found a snow leopard, or what he calls a “ghost cat,” and he wants Walter to see it before he snaps a picture. But even after Walter has taken a look, Sean does nothing. Walter urges him and asks, “When are you gonna take it?” Sean responds, “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment…I don’t want to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.” And sure enough, after a few seconds, the ghost cat recedes into the shadows, un-captured.
I always get a bit teary-eyed at this point of the scene, and I think it’s because of the altogether different posture that Sean demonstrates by resisting the urge to immortalize that moment in film and instead inviting Walter simply to see. The first posture of “capturing the moment” would do the work of seeing for us in exchange for the ability to see it again anytime we like. But that second posture of “staying in it” gladly sacrifices the accessibility of a photograph for the profoundly fleeting experience of an intimate, irreplicable encounter.
(Disclaimer: I’m not trying to make some absolute, moral claim that it’s always better to live “in the moment” and resist the urge to capture life with cameras and microphones. Far from it—if we did that, we wouldn’t have this amazing album from Sara Groves! Just using this scene as an illustration.)
In resisting the urge to capture what she sees, Sara Groves leaves open the possibility that we as listeners might see what we need to see for ourselves.Drew Miller
I’m reminded here of Malcolm Guite’s distinction between comprehension and apprehension (which he and Mark Meynell discuss—among many other things—here). By freezing their subject in one frame, photographs tend to convey a sense of having fully comprehended that subject. But the act of seeing is one of apprehension—looking through the frame of our eyes at a world that vastly exceeds what we could ever see of it. In the quest to comprehend, we seek to reduce reality to its lowest common denominator and say “mine.” But in the stillness of apprehension, we simply bear witness to reality. We ask for true testimony, aware that we will only ever know or be known in part. And why do we only ever know in part? Because humility demands that we acknowledge we are not finally in control of what makes it through.
If you’ve spent some time with What Makes It Through, then those last few phrases will ring some bells in your mind. Imperfect though the analogy is, Sara Groves writes songs with something of Sean O’Connell’s love of bearing witness. She respects you, listener, far too much to take the picture for you. Because who’s to say that we’re seeing the same picture in the first place? Instead, ten times out of ten, Sara Groves will choose to write a song that models the act of seeing with unflinching faithfulness. As a result, you won’t be able to help but feel the irresistible invitation to see as well.
How does she do it? Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? There’s no telling how she does it (I’ve been asking myself for years), although I have a feeling it has something to do with attentiveness, persistence, and definitely the Holy Spirit. Since I have no chance of comprehending for you what makes these songs tick, I can at least share with you what I’ve apprehended of this album, whose lyrics elude capture as surely as the ghost cat of which they sing.
Speaking of which, What Makes It Through brings us face-to-face with the ghost cat from the very beginning with track 1, “Soul of Things:”
How is it a stranger—Sara Groves, “Soul of Things”
Can know you for a moment
And call out pretty closely
What it takes years to name?
Why is it so hard
To tell yourself the truth
To see into the soul of things?
What a mystery
Your very heart
Held inside you
And known in part
What Makes It Through begins with a song that models the path of all the songs to come: present an indecipherable conundrum, a tightly-wound knot; sit with it for a couple verses, examining it from different angles and wondering how it came to be tied so tight; then put a finger on the thread which, with the gentlest tug, may not unravel the whole dilemma but will at least loosen the tension, pointing to the possibility of wonder instead of vexation, liberation instead of constriction:
Somewhere in the vast—Sara Groves, “Soul of Things”
Waters of my mind
A memory resurfaced
And I’m looking in your eyes
You are trying to tell me
A better way to see
Into the soul of things
It is this quality in Sara Groves’s songwriting that brings me to tears as I listen. These are not “eureka” tears. Even less are they the tears of emotional manipulation. These tears are the subtle beginnings of a relief in tension from having watched the knot loosen. Many of my favorite songs from Sara are “slow burns,” working their magic with a disciplined steadiness, phrase after phrase, melody after melody, until the marvelous wonder of the ghost cat could not be more plain to see. The following quote from Alan Jones on the three imperatives of the Christian desert tradition perfectly describes this sort of contemplation that Sara’s songs invite me into:
Look! Weep! Live! These three great imperatives from the desert tradition open up for us a way of believing that is life-bearing… In this process we are born again and again and again…—Alan Jones, Soul Making, p. 22
The first imperative is, Look! Looking means a contemplative willingness to see what is there in front of us without prematurely interpreting what we see. The desert tradition claims that if we look long and accurately enough, the tears will begin to flow. Thus the second imperative is, Weep! The fruit of honest contemplation is “the gift of tears”; and the sure sign that our attentiveness has been focused and honest and the tears cleansing is joy. Joy is the fruit of desert patience. Thus the third imperative, Live!
Another song that had me looking and weeping was “Deal Breaker,” which soberly narrates the distance that has emerged within a precious relationship. Again, Sara honors and bears witness to the complex tensions of the situation, yet manages to pull at the thread that will loosen that tension before the song is over:
And there’s grief like a black bird—Sara Groves, “Deal Breaker”
Ever present in the sky
And I can feel all our distance
And the hidden reasons why
But some days I can see us
And we’re soft and reconciled
Last night we walked the riverbed
Listened closely for what’s not been said
Last night I dreamt of jubilee
New beginnings as far as the eye can see
As I write this, I realize that this album is like a beloved book whose every word has been highlighted, rendering the highlights themselves useless—my own urge to “capture” this record for you and show you everything I love about it would have me quote the entirety of it right here in this review. Needless to say, that would be counter-productive. So for the remainder of this review, I’ll move on from lyrics and share a few closing thoughts on how this record sounds. (“But you haven’t even talked about ‘Reach Inside’! Or ‘Nothing’!” my betrayed inner voice says. I heartlessly ignore it).
This album sounds like the desert, like the wilderness. It’s Sara’s first foray into self-production, and she’s taken these songs into a fittingly sparse direction, matching lyrical cues with finesse. Unsolvable mysteries are presented with parched sonic landscapes, dry and spacious with questioning. Moments of relief and epiphany bring with them swells of energy, riding on the backs of effortless drum-and-bass feels, string arrangements like underground wells springing up from below, and careful vocal layering (ex. the loosening of tension towards the end of “Nothing”). The amount of empty space that occupies the mix throughout much the album serves to make those breakthrough moments all the more compelling and satisfying.
Sara Groves has made a life’s work out of paying attention, bearing witness, and telling the truth in her songwriting, and she’s been rewarded for that work with countless ghost cat sightings. In resisting the urge to capture what she sees, Sara Groves leaves open the possibility that we as listeners might see what we need to see for ourselves. I believe that this invitational posture has much to do with why her work has managed to reach inside the hearts of so many listeners—true testimony has a way of getting through to us just when we most desperately need to hear it.