Wednesday, November 22, 2006

One-Syllable Words

To listen to us talk you'd think
Twenty-dollar words are cheap
But answers can't be bought for any tender

Constantly we complicate
Pointlessly pontificate
'Til things are getting worse instead of better

Look at how far we've come
Maybe we could learn some

One-syllable words
Faith, hope, and love
Truth, peace, and trust
One-syllable words
That's what we need
That's what we need
(Carolyn Arends, "One-Syllable Words," from This Much I Understand, Reunion Records 1999)

It's really quite fun to come across a Carolyn Arends inspiration in my day-to-day reading. Finding the ideas behind my favorite song, "Do We Dare?" in Madeleine L'Engle's book, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art was a delightful surprise. Of course, recognizing the influence of C.S. Lewis on such songs as "Surprised By Joy" and "Not a Tame Lion" is rather a no-brainer, but it still brings that smile of a shared reference to the lips of the listener.

Now, I cannot say with certainty that one of my husband's all-time favorite Carolyn Arends songs, "One-Syllable Words," was definitely inspired by G.K. Chesterton, but I do believe that she was most likely reading or re-reading Orthodoxy sometime in the late 1990's. In Chapter VIII, "The Romance of Orthodoxy," when reading his assertion that what is considered the bustle and strenuousness of the modern age is really a profound laziness and fatigue that disguises as busy-ness a dearth of real activity and productivity (1908 sounds -- in this regard and in many others discussed throughout Orthodoxy -- quite a bit like 2006) I found these surprisingly familiar ideas:

And this which is true of the apparent physical bustle is true also of the apparent bustle of the intellect. Most of the machinery of modern language is labour-saving machinery; and it saves mental labour very much more than it ought. Scientific phrases are used like scientific wheels and piston-rods to make swifter and smoother yet the path of the comfortable. Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. . . . The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word "damn" than in the word "degeneration." (Image Books Edition, 2001; p. 129-130) (Emphasis mine)

I'll never forget Jason's reaction when he first heard, "One-Syllable Words." He was at UCLA at the time, and he was taking a particularly annoying English course. He heard Carolyn sing, "Psycho-babble, legal-ese/People earning Ph.D.s in/Post-modern paranoid confusion/Self-indulgent rhetoric/Talk and talk until we're sick/Our arguments end with no conclusion/Can't we make the point clear/Maybe what we need here/Are one-syllable words . . ." I think a lot of his frustration with certain classes and professors at school came into clear focus then. My husband is a plain-spoken man. His degree is in Economics. He hates verbal gobblety-gook. That was the day, I think, that he really gave Carolyn a chance and stopped laughing at the "lie-dee-die-dee-dies" in "Seize the Day." And as I type the lyrics out, I am again astounded and humbled by Carolyn's magnificent wordplay. She is indeed a master craftsman of words, whether multi-syllabic or not.

This is almost entirely unrelated, but "One-Syllable Words" always reminds me of an incident in the Amy Grant video, Building the House of Love. One of her smarmy producers is complimenting her excessively after a recording take, while at the same time trying to weasel in that he needed another take with a few changes made. Amy Grant kind of cut through his crap when she sighed and said, "Just tell me what you want me to sing." I always liked that moment of non-diva-ness from Ms. Grant. "Just tell me what you want me to sing." Just say what you want to say. Let's get it out there and not dance around in an elaborate deception of trying to manipulate with words.

I think the ending of Carolyn's song is the best philosophy of living ever written. And it is all in one-syllable words:

Faith and hope and love
Truth and peace and trust
Dream and play and watch and pray
Learn and live and laugh and give
Reach and fly and seek and try
With all your heart and soul and mind
Oh yeah.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Christmas: An Irrational Season

Christmas: An Irrational Season by Carolyn Arends, 2004

2004 was a stellar year to be a Carolyn Arends fan. Not only did we get an all-new-material regular album, Under the Gaze, we also got the long-awaited, eagerly-anticipated Christmas release, Christmas: An Irrational Season. Sometimes, when you wait a long time for something and it finally comes, your expectations have overwhelmed the possibilities of the awaited thing, and bitter disappointment ensues. Well, I am happy to report that this album bucks that trend. Christmas: An Irrational Season is a glorious tribute, as only Carolyn Arends could create, to that miraculous moment when eternity crashed headlong into time and produced such an awe-inspiring symphonic note that it has reverberated for more than two thousand years through the minds and souls of men. How fortunate we are that Carolyn does not hide her light under a bushel!

For the past ten years, Carolyn's church has asked her to write a song for their Christmas service. As Carolyn wryly notes, this sounded like a great idea the first couple of years. But if Carolyn's tongue-in-cheek observation speaks of a weariness of culling the ancient story for new inspiration, you would never know it by listening to the original songs she includes on this album. The album's unusual title was taken from a Madeleine L'Engle poem, "After Anunciation," and both the prelude and postlude tracks echo its beautiful refrain: This is the irrational season/When love blooms bright and wild/For if Mary had been filled with reason/There'd have been no room for the Child/There'd have been no room for the Child. Carolyn's sotto voice suits so well this poem turned lyric, and Spencer Capier comes in with a haunting violin solo of "What Child is This." And the mood is set for a truly unique Christmas experience.

The first of the original offerings follows the prelude. "Come and See" (Christmas 2003) is a spirited song that conveys the excitement of shepherds who have been heralded by angels and are now abuzz -- passing the glorious news onto friends and family as they make their way to the stable: Have you heard, have you heard/All the rumors are true/Spread the word, spread the word/This is such good news/The dream is not a dream anymore/Nothing is the same as before/Come and see, come and see/He is lying in the straw/He's a new baby boy who's the hope of us all/Come and hear, come and hear/It's a sound both sweet and strange/It's the great love of God in the cry of babe/It's the great love of God in the cry of a babe.

Next in line is another original, "Do Not Be Afraid" (Christmas 1995). While reminding the listener of the exhortation every angel who appears to man begins with -- Do not be afraid! -- Carolyn ties that idea into our modern celebration of the Incarnation: Half believing, half afraid/We celebrate the story/Our lives seem about a world away/From angels and their glory/Open our eyes to see what Mary saw somehow/Open our hearts to hear those angels even now/They're singing: Do not be afraid/Oh do not be afraid/Love has found its way to you/So do not be afraid.

Next comes the first cover of a classic on the album, "Angels We Have Heard on High." This rollicking rendition is the best I've ever heard of this song -- lots of jamming drums and guitars. It's always fun when Carolyn jumps into rock star mode and goes crazy. Sweet.

The next track is another cover, this time of a more modern song, "Christmas Must Be Tonight," by Robbie Robertson. This is probably my least favorite track on the album. Carolyn's smooth soft voice seems suited to this subdued, folksy carol, but I find the lyrics particularly unlikable. First of all, I have very little patience with songs that pretend that Jesus was born in the winter. Yes, I know that we celebrate His birth in the winter (or the summer in Australia and other lands south of the Equator), but most Biblical scholars agree that the Birth most likely occured in the spring. I love Christmas carols that have a wintry theme, so long as they do not intimate that the actual Event was in winter. But that is a small quarrel. My great disagreement is with the complete want of sense that the lyrics make when put together in the song. Individual lines may be good, but they are very disjointed when put next to each other. What do you think? Saw it with my own eyes/Written up in the sky/But why a lowly herdsman such as I/But then it came to pass/He was born at last/Right below the star that shines on high/How a little baby boy/Could bring the people so much joy/Son of a carpenter/Mary carried the light/This must be Christmas, must be tonight. Yeah, whatever.

The next song on the list, "Is Bethlehem Too Far Away" (Christmas 2002), brings us back to the superior song-writing of Carolyn Arends. A lovely, quiet song, asking whether we can Find our way to the baby King/Can we worship Him now in the hay/And can we believe He can change everything/Or is Bethlehem too far away?

The next track is one of my very favorites, and proof, if proof were needed, that Carolyn has not worn out the theme of Christmas when it comes to songwriting. "Now in Flesh Appearing" (Christmas 2004) never fails to bring tears to my eyes. Fast forward the Christmas Story 2000 years, and you find the stories of those who do not find Bethlehem far away at all. We learn of Joshua, who volunteers at the Union Gospel Mission, sharing soup and conversation with some strangers/And all his friends just can't believe/How he spends his Christmas Eve/He says it brings him closer to the manger. Next, we learn of Lisa who is a missionary abroad, working with orphans, hugging all those kids/Teaching them what Christmas is/And though her family misses her they know/That this is Christmas/A hand upon a shoulder/Christmas/...a little peace on earth/This is Christmas/The sweet love of Jesus/Now in flesh appearing, yeah. This is, I believe I can state with confidence, the only Christmas song in the world to include a rhyming line with "Kazakhstan." My favorite lines from the song: We celebrate the Baby King/And everything He came to bring/Every time we give goodwill to men/So on December 25/Or in the middle of July/Any time we do what pleases Him/Then it's Christmas/Merry Christmas/This is Christmas/Now in flesh appearing ... Amen.

Another tear-jerker follows on the heels of the above. "My First Christmas" (Christmas 2000) is the story of a woman's life, and all of the first Christmases she experiences. She is a baby in 1923, whose parents snap a photo and write on the back, "This is my first Christmas." Next she is a young woman who experiences a holy transformation on Christmas Eve in 1944, her first Christmas as a believer. Lastly, this "November past," she slips into the next world, and though The great-grandchildren miss her so/But if she could she would let them know/This is my first Christmas ... I first heard this song a couple years after I had lost my mother (in November) and this ministered to my hurting heart. I like to think of my mother's 1998 Christmas: First time to hear the angels sing/Glory, hallelujah to the Risen King/And a holy night is what this is/For this is [her] first Christmas.

Next up is that soulful perennial, "Go Tell It On the Mountain." You have not heard anything until you've heard a bunch of white Canadians getting funky on an African-American classic. It works, because they are having a lot of fun, and they are working it. Aw yeah!

The next track is one dear to my heart. Too often, Joseph's role in the Christmas story is diminished. Take, for instance, the modern classic "Breath of Heaven: Mary's Song" written by Amy Grant and Chris Eaton. It is a beautiful song, but it has one annoying line: In a world as cold as stone/Must I walk this path alone? Well, Mary was not alone, the Lord gave her a wonderful husband, a faithful man whose obedience is as important as Mary's in the Story, for if she had not had Joseph to stand by her and protect her, she would have been an outcast indeed. Carolyn's song, "The Lord's Servant" (Christmas 2001), gives the often-overlooked Joseph's part of the story due consideration. We must not forget that he, too, was the Lord's servant. And, with the way she has, Carolyn draws out the Story's relevance for today: It's been 2000 years/And yet you play a part/The Messiah still comes/If there's room in your heart/And if you are willing/Then our God is able/He sent His salvation/Down to a stable/So love can be born/And peace can be yours/If you'll be the Lord's servant/Oh will you be the Lord's servant?

The next song is a cover of a classic Christmas hymn. "Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus," written by Charles Wesley and Rowland H. Prichard, is given the most simple of arrangements by Carolyn, which emphasizes the gorgeous structure of language in the lyrics, the perfect balance of the melody, and Carolyn's own gentle voice. Israel's strength and consolation/Hope of all the earth Thou art/Dear desire of every nation/Joy of ev'ry longing heart. Pure lovliness -- you would want this sung as a solo at midnight service on Christmas Eve.

The last full-length song on the album is also an original Arends tune. "A Christmas Blessing" (Christmas 1999) is Carolyn's benediction to her listeners across the miles and the years. May the One who has come guide you and keep you/May you seek His face as all wise men still do/And may Bethlehem's road rise up to meet you/'Til you find Him and see that God is with you/May you find Him and see that God is with you. Words to ring throughout the Christmas season and in your heart the whole year through.

The delicate yet rich strains that echo out of the strings of Spencer Capier's violin begin the last track in a reprise of "What Child is This," and Carolyn repeats the lines with which she began this amazing album: This is the irrational season/When love blooms bright and wild/For if Mary had been filled with reason/There'd have been no room for the Child/There'd have been no room for the Child. What a journey this recording invites you to join! My no-holds-barred, absolute favorite Christmas album -- there is nothing else like it in all the CD bins at any music store anywhere.

**The bulk of this review appeared in The Musings of Justine, last December.**