Return in Thought

“…Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.”

-Adam Zagajewski, from Try To Praise The Mutilated World

Return of the Frog Queen

“And every time you cry I’ll cry for you
Then all these fields will turn into mud”

This story should be saved for a Christmas post. After all, the story will celebrate its 20th anniversary later this year — but who knows if I’ll still be on a blogging kick come December. Instead, the spring sun is poking out from behind some clouds as I type this, and I’m reminded of a smile amidst an otherwise gloomy winter day. So, I’m writing it now.

To set the stage, I will need to explain aforementioned gloom. The one or two of you who might be reading this will already know about my tumultuous family history, but just in case a hapless stranger has wandered in to to overhear… I have a tumultuous family history. This story takes place not long after my mother’s divorce from her second husband, my enemy (AKA: adopted father). I, with great reluctance, agreed to spend the holidays at his house to bring a modicum of comfort to my younger siblings –it was their first Christmas after the family broke apart.

It was awful. He was awful. I spent as much time sequestered in the spare room as I could, headphones on.

I love presents. I love to give them; I love to receive them. But, there were several years in my life when I hated gifts because they were tied up with my baggage from having this man in my life. His gifts came at a cost, an obligation. They tended to be showy items that he himself would like — items he understood and could easily show off to people. The presents had nothing to do with the recipients, their needs, or their taste. Gifts made me uncomfortable. This Christmas, as was to be expected, I received a cumbersome and useless (and expensive) gift from him.

I do not remember how many days I was there. In fact, other than the overall feeling of revulsion, I remember very little about that time, having shunted most of those memories into some hidden space where I’m sure they will be unearthed by a therapist some day. But, I do remember a small parcel arriving in the mail and landing in my hands. I remember rushing into the spare room,  hands shaking as I opened it. Inside I found a copy of Jeremy Enigk’s Return of the Frog Queen.

Sunny Day Real Estate was a frequent feature in my heavy rotation in those days, particularly their album Diary. I had been wanting to get my hands on Enigk’s solo album for some time, but had never run across it in a local music store (surprise). No, instead, the music of this Seattle artist came to me by way of Arizona, courtesy of a friend.

I recall Craig good-naturedly shrugging off the gift as no big deal. He had simply found a copy in a bin, knew I’d wanted it, and tossed it into the mail for me. There was no great expense, no strings attached, nothing but a friend sending a smile to another friend. Meanwhile, I was in tears. There was jumping of feet and pounding of heart. New CD excitement aside, there is nothing in the world quite like feeling known, understood, and loved.

And then there was the music.  The album title calls tales of the faery-kind to mind, and it’s as magical as that suggests. I’m not talking sparkles and Disney-princess-pop, though. This is a wilder magic: mythical, otherworldly, frayed at the edges, and a bit off-kilter. It’s not safe, and I love it.

If you haven’t, I encourage you to brew a pot of tea (or pour something stronger) and give the album a listen or ten. Let it wash over you in all its peculiar, orchestral glory.

There’s also this video. Last year, Enigk appeared live on KEXP. I mean, I was excited about this… but then I realized what he was playing and, well… I had been expecting new music but instead received a different sort of gift. There were tears.


Pedro The Lion

A friend asked me last week where he should start if he were going to listen to Pedro The Lion. I had no answer for him, as I sat there realizing that I hadn’t listened to any of their back catalog in years. A day or so later found me listening to every one of their releases chronologically over the course of a single day. Maybe not the best journey to take on a work day? Still, it was about time I faced the processing of all this. So… thank you, friend.

(To be honest, I don’t know if you will see this. Probably. I mean, you’re the sort who would. So, hello. I’m sorry in advance. This is going to be a long one…)

Going years without listening to PTL would come as a surprise to anyone who has known me well for a long time (AKA no one who reads this blog): I’ve seen the band live multiple times, and I think I own every CD except the last, and still have 3 t-shirts despite no longer fitting them. Quotes from lyrics have been posted on my walls. I even once named a short prodigal-son-esque play after a Pedro song, pulling story references from the Whole EP. (Yes, I wrote a short play. No, you cannot read it.)

So yeah, Pedro the Lion lives in a particular place of significance for me. David Bazan’s music has been with me in one way or another for the entirety of my adult life. PTL’s first CD was released my first spring on the internet, one month before I turned 20, shortly after I had made those first connections with the online music community who would have an unparalleled impact on who I am as a lover of music. I think my first Pedro song was on a mix tape from one of those friends, or perhaps on that late night weekend show on the Christian radio station I could just barely tune into on one side of my basement bedroom. I don’t recall the day I bought Whole — but I do remember holding it close with excitement.

So what is it about this music that draws me in? It is pensive, vulnerable, trembling with emotion. I remember someone once telling me that David Bazan intentionally recruited inexperienced musicians to maintain that sense of hesitance and simplicity — though, that theory doesn’t exactly fit with the list of talent who have worked with him over the years (e.g., Frank Lenz, Trey Many, Blake Wescott, TW Walsh, members of Fleet Foxes, and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie/The Postal Service).

And, why have I been avoiding this for so long? It’s complicated. Explaining it requires a highlight (lowlight?) reel of the past 21 years of my life. Well, here goes nothing:

Bazan’s haunting lyrics resonated with my own doubts. I clung so tightly to the expressions of comfort he shared. The songs on the Whole EP walk a path of foolish rebellion, denial, addiction, desperation, followed by a hopeful cry for help. Then comes Lullaby — a struggle between guilt and peace, with the embrace of God’s promise to be “all the strength that you need”.

When this song started playing, I found myself shaking with emotion. I spent the majority of my Christian life feeling like a failure — someone who would never measure up. This sweet little song sustained me through some dark times of self-hatred. Ooof. There are so many feelings that run twisted through me when I hear this now. Nostalgia and love, but also rage and grief. Listening to it, I end up shaking my fist at the religion which drove these impossible standards into my head. I’m still pulling out splinters and shards.

The first full-length (It’s Hard to Find a Friend) was released in the fall of 1998. The time leading up to it had been one of the most tumultuous years of my life: I had been physically abused, experienced the explosive breakup of my mom and adopted father’s marriage, watched most of my close local friendships fall apart, moved to two different cities in Washington, observed my mother’s whirlwind romance with her third husband, and moved to Canada. Somewhere in that mess, I had started tentatively going back to church after years away from it.

“Could someone please tell me the story
Of sinners ransomed from the fall
I still have never seen You
And some days I don’t love You at all”

I was bitter, jaded, twitchy, and skeptical. But I was also lonely. I connected, again, with Bazan’s struggles and angst. The album meanders through desires to escape, personal failures, betrayal, depression, frustrations with church politics, and doubts that riddle his faith. The title of the track I’ve shared, Secret of the Easy Yoke, references Christ’s admonishment to carry (instead of our own baggage) the burden he offers, claiming it would be light. The lyrics find him struggling under this supposed easy burden. It eventually turns upwards as Christ replies to him, “Peace, be still.” And there is was again: that glimmer of light I also sought in the darkness.

Spring of 1999 brought along a five-song EP: The Only Reason I Feel Secure (Is That I’m Validated By My Peers). Released about a month after I was invited to join the seemingly vibrant youth leadership at the step-dad’s church, the first track would be one that resounded through my mind over and over through the course of the next 15.5 years of my evolving work with those pastors.

“It makes me feel so good
To always tell you when you’re wrong”

The words of this song helped form part of the shield that protected me from becoming the monster my pastoral mentors aimed to make me…

The next three releases were quite a bit different Pedro experiences for me: Winners Never Quit (2000, a concept/story album about the tumultuous lives of two brothers), Progress (2000, a short EP with two new songs, and two new recordings of old ones), and Control (2002, a concept album about a businessmen, his affair, and death). These I enjoyed at a sort of arms-length — more as art pieces than something I was intimately connected to.

Then came Achilles Heel in 2004. I had fallen in love with my partner. We were getting married. Life was full-tilt busy. Meanwhile, here was Bazan with his difficult questions and sardonic takes on life. I had no time to process this and did not buy the album (not that I could afford to, anyway).

“You were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord
To hear the voice of the Spirit, begging you to shut the fuck up
You thought it must be the devil trying to make you go astray
Besides, it couldn’t have been the Lord because you don’t believe
He talks that way” (Foregone Conclusions)

Pedro the Lion left the stage in 2005. Bazan then left Christianity. Someone whose words had helped me hold on to grace despite my doubts had succumbed to his dark questions. I could claim being busy for my disconnection from Bazan’s work (aside from the old stuff) at this point — I mean, I really was busy. But it came down to cognitive dissonance. His angry diatribes and accusations against his former beliefs (and himself) were too much for me to take in whilst still holding on to my ever-tenuous faith.

I didn’t start listening to his solo releases until I, too, had left religion behind. I’ve barely touched them, though, feeling like I really needed to go back to the beginning and work my way to the present — to follow the whole story of Bazan’s path out of the faith and into his current life. But, that would require me facing those old songs again, and all the weight they bring with them. There are many songs by other artists I used to enjoy that repulse me now, and I think part of me was afraid to lose my love for these if I confronted them as an apostate.

I think it’s helped knowing this has been a journey for Bazan, as well. It has been an interesting exercise, to say the least. There have been tears and white-knuckle grips on chairs as I have listened to these songs. I could see myself again in my farmhouse bedroom listening to this band. And then in the 15 subsequent residences I’ve lived in the years since. More than one song transported me just to the side of a particular stage, the sound of the music filling the lofty space around me, the scritchy concrete floor beneath my feet, summer breeze off the lake wafting in from the open doors behind the band, the oh-so-familiar annual smell/taste/feel of that festival. Friends close at hand. All of us transfixed.

I will close with this song, off It’s Hard to Find a Friend. Now that I’ve escaped my own church town, leaving lying abusers behind me, the lyrics have taken on a whole new meaning for me. It’s a bit unsettling how fitting it is, really.

Suspect Fled the Scene
Old friend, your horse is ready to ride when morning comes
From this church town
Where damning rumours drip from holy tongues

And it won’t go away
It won’t go away
It won’t go away

The fever to find the scapegoat fast and fix the blame
I know you never meant to leave the way you came

But it won’t go away
It won’t go away
It won’t go away

Looking down from their stained glass steeples
They’ll never know why you had to run

Ride as fast as you can
They’re shooting to kill