The year was 2012, and I was at my third Hutchmoot, my first as photographer. In the three years the event had existed, a tradition had emerged called the “Lagniappe” — a mysterious, secret event that followed the keynote but was on the quirkier side (think Shakespearean Star Wars). That year at the Church of the Redeemer, the schedule gave a little clue: 8:30 pm – Reveille.
The sanctuary had cleared quickly after Phil Vischer’s engaging keynote because everyone wanted to get him to sign their Veggie Tales VHS tapes. I took photos of the crowded vestibule, but my curiosity drew me back in through the double doors, where I beheld Redeemer’s handsome terracotta-colored chancel becoming festooned with the whitewashed plywood walls of a homemade spaceship named the HTV Reveille. I felt I was intruding on privileged preparations, and quickly stepped back out into the lobby’s chaos of animated tomatoes and cucumbers.
Soon, with spaceship-building mission accomplished, the sanctuary doors were flung open, the curious Mooters took their pews, and Andrew Osenga emerged in the three-walled spaceship wearing a complete astronaut flight suit and an electric guitar.
In that same spaceship (temporarily constructed behind the Baja Burrito in Nashville) Osenga had just recorded a concept album called Leonard the Lonely Astronaut. If you’re not familiar with the, um, concept, the concept album became popular in rock and prog music in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The songs are all tied together by a backstory that affects lyrics, characters, melodies, and even the artwork. The albums were often gimmicky but usually fun. The idea has become a bit lost in the modern era that favors singles over albums.
In Leonard, we are completely immersed in the world of Leonard Belle, volunteer space explorer. There’s a detailed backstory, but you don’t really need it. I did not know the story when Astronaut Andrew fretted the guitar and sang, “Today would be the perfect day to tell you goodbye, but I’ve already said it.” It all clicked into place in one line. This was not going to be an album about lasers and space pirates (that’s a B-side, actually). It was going to be an album about being lonely.
That same opening song, “Brushstroke,” closes with one of the finest lyrics I’ve ever heard:
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 a canvas
Of a perfect blue sky
In a single verse, Osenga gets us inside Leonard’s head and his heart. A specific memory reminds us of just how much time a solo astronaut on a long mission must have with his own thoughts. An extended metaphor shows us just how small one might feel in the expanse of space. No exposition is needed. And over the course of 14 songs, we know Leonard well, and we know ourselves even better.
The songs are chronological, charting Leonard’s grief, nostalgia, lament, and healing over a span that could be a day or years in Einstein’s relativity. It doesn’t matter. What does is the way this extraordinary album rests on a universal lamentation, mines it for truth, and resonates with the hurting. “Oh, how I loved you. But I never told you. Always thought there was time.” For an interstellar album, Leonard is deeply grounded in the human experience.
For an interstellar album, Leonard is deeply grounded in the human experience.Mark Geil
Osenga is a versatile songwriter and musician, to the point that he created a series of four EPs spanning four unique musical genres. That versatility is so valuable in this album. Leonard’s angry tantrums lash out with power chords. His gazes through a porthole become ethereal instrumentals. And his smile at a memory is captured in what I believe is Osenga’s finest love song, “Ever and Always.” It’s a ballad about a girl who got a boy to finally lift up his head and look at the stars. It’s just that now he’s among them, and he’s alone.
Back in the sanctuary, I was so captivated that I forgot I was supposed to be taking pictures. I got a few, and afterward managed to capture the moment when Andrew got to meet Kim Fisher, who created his space suit. Later that night, I found myself loading audio equipment and spaceship parts into my car and winding through the Tennessee darkness to unload them quietly in a stranger’s detached garage, which was so full of eclectic ephemera it was not unlike another planet. It was a fitting end to an otherworldly evening.
I’m part of a couple of dozen Facebook Groups at present—mostly neighborhood and church stuff, the Chinwag, Bracket of Champions, that sort of thing. Only one of them is entirely dedicated to a single album: Leonard the Lonely Astronaut. In the decade since its release, legions of fans have fumbled through explaining it, either trying to describe the whole spaceship thing or telling Leonard’s story as if they know him. Because they do. The lonely astronaut has become a trusted companion for fellow travelers navigating the space of loss and isolation and finding their way to re-entry. The spaceship might be gone (or maybe it’s still in that garage?) but the album remains, a North Star for so many dark nights.