All the Times We Had, Ivan & Alyosha, Dualtone Records, 2013
Having seeing Ivan & Alyosha live in concert for the first time this past weekend in Boston, it’s a fitting time to review their debut album. All the Times We Had is the first full-length album of the Seattle indie band Ivan & Alyosha, whose name comes from the characters of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The band’s name is particularly appropriate because, in the book, Ivan Karamazov is a rationalist who rejects God on account of the suffering in the world, while Alyosha Karamazov, his younger brother, is a novice in the Russian Orthodox monastery whose faith and hope are contrasted with the sullen atheism of Ivan.
These conflicting worldviews are most directly addressed in the song “God or Man,” which probes into the issue of divine sovereignty and human free will, “Is it God or man / who’s plotting out my plan?” But ultimately, the song leaves the question in open tension. At one point, it says, “I don’t believe in chance / You know we’re all here for some reason,” at another point, “I know that it’s me and not you… / Everybody’s telling me which way that I should go.” Humans are fully responsible for their actions, but God is nevertheless sovereignly in control of all things.
Like the band’s namesake novel, the album portrays the tension between the fallen, broken condition of humanity and the hope of a redeemed, glorious future. “Song” as the metaphor of hope, “journey” as the metaphor of life, “home” as the metaphor of salvation/glorification, and “love” as the bridge between the present and eternity are major themes that weave the entire album together.
“Fathers Be Kind” laments “the mediocre lives that have gone ahead / paving the way for the innocent to crumble,” and calls for greater kindness and care in our relationships. The concept of song as the metaphor of hope is introduced in this second track: “Hope is coming soon / Take a pen and a paper and write that tune.”
This theme is continued in “Don’t Wanna Die Anymore,” which is written from the perspective of a formerly suicidal person who “[doesn’t] want to die anymore,” because he’s “got this feeling [that the Lord] ain’t done with [him] yet.” “It’s a hard road / to get back to my home / I don’t know how much farther I can go / but if I hang on / for I know the road is long / I could teach the world to sing my song.”
Though these songs never shrink from the raw realities of pain and suffering, they nevertheless manage to strike an uplifting tone. “The Fold” implores a man full of regrets, “Don’t you fold / when the mountain is high / when the river is wide… / An oasis in the desert / where the waters run clear / and the only way to see it / is to believe that it’s there.”
Similarly, “On My Way” tells the story of a man who has “made peace” “with God” and is nearing the end of his earthly pilgrimage. “The door is almost closed / and we’re staring through the darkness / Well, the war is almost won / can you hear the kingdom come? / As the day begins to fade / and we turn the final page / I’m on my way back home.”
Lead singer Tim Wilson’s vocals, with exceptionally controlled vibrato and falsetto, is the epitome of a soothing tenor voice. It courses lithely through the lush layers of guitar hooks played by guitarists Ryan Carbary and Tim Kim. Even on gritty songs like “Who Are You” and “On My Way,” where they crank up the overdrive and distortion, their pace is measured and graceful.
Their melodies are of a Beatlesque, folk-pop variety that is instantly memorable, but with a melancholic twist. Their soaring four-part harmonies have an irresistible pull, and their lyrics are introspective and emotionally compelling.
Speaking of lyrics, I can’t rave enough about the lyrics. Ivan & Alyosha are better songwriters than most in the saturated indie scene. If the above examples aren’t enough, check out “Running for Cover,” one of my favorites on the album.
“Running for Cover” is about the entrenched depravity of humanity and how we have been “running for cover, running to hide” ever since the Fall (Gen. 3:6-13). “If I could be a wiser man / to rest my head and trust the plan / I’m fighting like a child to get my way.” This is a vivid description of humanity that is in rebellion against God.
Yet no one is to blame except ourselves. “If I could see the Garden place / before the Fall, would things have changed? / I wasn’t there and neither were you / but I’ll take the blame as you should too, my friend.” This song poignantly conveys the profound theological ideas of original and indwelling sin (Rom. 5:12-13; 7:15-24).
Of course, what is a pop/rock album without love? “Easy to Love” is perhaps the most elegantly understated love song I have ever heard. Its disarming simplicity belies its depth. “When the sky turns black / and we know it will from time to time / We’ve been through that and we came out on top / because you’re really easy to love.”
This is not a shallow song about fleeting romance or a hollow one about dysfunctional relationships; it is a tribute to the steadfast devotion, enduring patience, and persevering love of a partner, who, through thick and thin, has been “easy to love.”
“Be Your Man” is about a lover’s desire to be both a man who cares for his woman and a boy who is cared for by her–a man who is both served by her and a boy who serves her. It’s a delightful musical expression of the loving mutuality described in Ephesians 5:22-33.
“Falling” associates falling for love with finding the truth. As the Scottish Evangelist Oswald Chambers once said, “Love is difficult to define, although simple to know.” “Falling” articulates this sentiment perfectly.
The last track on the song, “Who Are You,” is perceptive and penetrating, “Couldn’t love anyone else / ‘til you get over yourself / You’re burning every bridge / you’re taking more than you give / You wear your mask / can’t forget the past / Well, who are you when no one is around?” Though it’s a great song, it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the album.
Notwithstanding my nitpicking, All the Times We Had is more than the sum of its parts. Ivan & Alyosha knows both how to tell a story and how to show it. In this album, they have captured the wonder of humanity’s earthly journey with poetic vision and mesmerizing beauty.
Buy All the Times We Had HERE.