Shadows in the Night

Shadows in the Night, Bob Dylan, Columbia, 2015

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Shadows in the Night is Bob Dylan’s 36th studio album, and consists of ten covers of Tin Pan Alley standards that were popularized by Frank Sinatra.

The emotive orchestra and Sinatra’s silky crooning are gone, but the weeping pedal steel and Dylan’s sandpaper vocals embody the haunting loneliness of this rueful reminiscence.

The first track, “I’m A Fool To Want You,” is a lament of a foolish lover who loves someone who will not remain faithful. The mournful modulation of the pedal steel guitars, the gentle caresses on the acoustic, and the softly bowed string bass convey the despondency of the song.

Similarly, “The Night We Called It A Day” and “Autumn Leaves” are melancholic odes to the lover who has left. Heartbreak and loss are overarching themes of this album.

My favorite number on the album, “Stay With Me,” is a heartfelt prayer, sung with confessional solemnity. The wistful tone of Dylan’s voice, infused with his trademark rasp, blend perfectly to express the regretful yearning of an old man who has both softened and hardened with age.

Should my heart not be humble, should my eyes fail to see | Should my feet sometimes stumble on the way, stay with me | Like the lamb that in springtime wanders far from the fold | Comes the darkness and the frost, I get lost, I grow cold | I grow cold, I grow weary, and I know I have sinned | And I go seeking shelter and I cry in the wind | Though I grope and I blunder and I’m weak and I’m wrong | Though the road buckles under where I walk, walk along | Till I find to my wonder every path leads to Thee | All that I can do is pray, stay with me | Stay with me.

It recalls one of my favorite hymns, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come | And I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home | Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God | He, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood | O to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be | Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.

Like a child trying to pronounce all her syllables, Dylan’s intonation and rhythm are measured and deliberate, even as he strains to rein in his faltering vibratos and wandering pitch. His vulnerable vocals is a picture of the wandering sheep in the song, groping in the dark and stumbling along to God. I have never heard a more poignant song from this wearied bard, an embattled soul, who knows that he has not stayed with God, but desperately hopes that God has stayed with him.

“Some Enchanted Evening” and “Full Moon and Empty Arms” feature an electric guitar with strolling blues licks, which intertwines beautifully with the seesawing string bass to strike a slightly more hopeful tune.

But the album returns to its doleful trajectory with the following tracks, “Where Are You?” and “What’ll I Do”: “What’ll I do with just a photograph to tell my troubles to? When I’m alone with only dreams of you that won’t come true, what’ll I do?”

The final track, “That Lucky Old Sun,” is about the toil and trouble of life, and a labor-worn man’s desire to do nothing but “roll around heaven all day [like that lucky old sun].” The pace slows on the last line, and Dylan bellows it out at a higher octave with elongated syllables, soaring together with the swelling horns as if to lift himself up to heaven.

As songs like “Stay With Me,” “Why Try to Change Me Now,” and “That Lucky Old Sun” show, the heartsick lover in this album is a metaphor for brokenness of life itself. In a culture where love is treated like a commodity for exchange rather than a binding covenant, Dylan bemoans humanity’s unfulfilled longing for true love. This covenantal love, as Ephesians 5 reveals, is a glimpse into eternity itself, and points to Christ’s love for his people.

Shadows in the Night is thus a deeply spiritual album that correctly diagnoses the human plight. It ought to leave us weeping for God, always true and faithful, who loves an adulterous people who have forsaken their Creator and turned to other gods (Hosea 3:1).

Buy Shadows in the Night HERE.

Random Access Memories

Random Access Memories, Daft Punk, Daft Life/Columbia, 2013.

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After a 7-year hiatus from releasing a studio album, the French duo, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, released their fourth studio album, Random Access Memories, today.

In an interview about the album on NPR’s program “All Things Considered,” Bangalter lamented that electronic music nowadays, produced primarily from laptops, is forgetting the craft of the previous generation of electronic music producers who had to build their own “creative ecosystem” using hardware components of guitar pedals, synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines.

In order to recapture this lost art and restore the soul of the musician to electronic music, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo refrained from using computers as musical instruments, and instead used them merely “to handle assets and pieces of audio…to edit the music and put it together.” Without relying on samples and sound banks, they opted for real guitars, analog synthesizers, pianos, trombones, clarinets, basses, a live drum kit, an orchestra, and a choir, etc. to capture the magic of human performance and expression.

Right from the first track, the layers of funky rhythm guitar and jazzy electric riffs played by the Chic frontman Nile Rodgers and Paul Jackson Jr. signal a deviation from the electronic dance music (EDM) that Daft Punk has come to be identified with. As the name of the song indicates, the whole album is this attempt to recover humanity in EDM and “Give Life Back to Music.”

Fittingly, then, Daft Punk returns to the past to pay tribute to “Giorgio by Moroder,” the legendary Italian producer, songwriter, and composer, to whom they are indebted for the “life” in their music. The song starts with Moroder’s autobiographical monologue about how he wanted to find the “sound of the future.” He soon realized that the synthesizer was the sound of the future, and then “put a click on the 24 track which was then synced to the Moog modular.”

Normally, a monologue in the beginning of any album would have been too heavy-handed, but Daft Punk intuitively knows when to shift gears on a track to keep it interesting. Right when one begins to wonder how much longer the talking would last (0:34), a relaxed, loping bass, groovy electric, and light drums enter to create a wonderfully understated backing track.

Just as Moroder starts talking about syncing the “click” to the Moog modular, the music fades out, leaving only the clicks of the modular synthesizer (1:33). Then, the end of Moroder’s monologue (1:54) ushers in a throbbing beat with perhaps the most compelling synth line in the whole album, as if to say, “See where we have gone with the sound of the future that you discovered!” At the end, the splendid synchronization of the drums with the successive bass (7:01-7:37) and electric (8:10-8:47) solos top off the epic track until it all dials back down to the “click” that started it all.

The album resumes the motif of robots longing to be human in the song “Touch.” The tender vulnerability of Paul Williams’s vocals, the trilling ondes martenot, the soaring orchestra, and the ethereal children’s choir weave together to convey this robotic longing for the human “Touch / Sweet touch / You’ve given me too much to feel… / You’ve almost convinced me I’m real. … / If love is the answer you’re home / Hold on.” In fact, the robot seems to perk up with life as the sprightly, jazzy piano sequence begins at 3:24.

Similarly, in the instrumental “Motherboard,” there seems to be an alien giving birth from 3:07 to 4:10 with the life-blood flowing and the heart pulsating. Continuing the theme of robots seeking humanity, the motherboard actually becomes a mother of sorts.

So what does it mean for a robot to become “human?” What does it mean to “give life back to music?” For Daft Punk, it’s all about love. The melancholic “The Game of Love” deals with the heartbreak of rejection, and “Get Lucky,” the anthemic single off the album, depicts a couple who stay “up all night ‘til the sun” to share their love.

The verse of the song adds that “What keeps the planet spinning / The force from the beginning [is] (love).” Once again, the most powerful and fundamental force in the world is love. “We’ve come too far to give up who we are.” Love is what makes us truly human.

“Get Lucky” features syncopated electric guitar sequences by Paul Jackson Jr. and Nile Rodgers that add polish to the luxuriant synth, and includes an arousing vocal performance by the N.E.R.D. frontman and The Neptunes producer Pharrell Williams. It is the most melodic track on the whole album and will likely continue to be played on repeat on many iPods throughout the summer.

The theme of dancing, playing music, making love into the night until the dawning of light are all recurring themes. “Doin’ It Right,” a collaborative output with Noah Lennox, aka. Panda Bear of Animal Collective, is a hypnotic song about dancing into the night, “If you do it right / Let it go all night / Shadows on you break / Out into the light… / If you lose your way tonight / That’s how you know the magic’s right.” “Lose Yourself to Dance” gets at the same idea.

The reason for Daft Punk’s preoccupation with losing oneself to dance, music, or love until night becomes day is that all these things push one to the edge of one’s existence and touch upon something transcendent. They remind us that our everyday mundane existence is not all there is. As the first line of “Get Lucky” says, “Like the legend of the Phoenix / All ends with beginnings.”

However, the transience of it all is not lost on Daft Punk. They understand that it’s not possible to linger in these moments of glory or hold onto the glimpses of eternity. The song “Fragments of Time” encapsulates this sense of futility, “Driving this road down to paradise / Letting the sunlight into my eyes… / Keep holding these random memories / Turning our days into melodies / But since I can’t stay… / I’ll just keep playing back / These fragments of time / Everywhere I go, this moment’ll shine.”

This is why the theme of memory is so significant. The album title, Random Access Memories, compares the computer RAM (Random Access Memory) to the human brain, but by changing the singular “memory,” which is technical and impersonal, to the plural “memories,” which has a distinctly human, sentimental feel, Daft Punk evokes a completely different emotional response.

In other words, Random Access Memories is about sehnsucht, a German word that connotes the universal “longing” for a “home” elsewhere, an ideal “far-off country.” It captures the unexplainable sense that this world is not all there is and that things are not the way they ought to be. It is not a chimera, however, it is more real than the reality we know. Walt Whitman articulates it well in the closing lines of his poem “Song to the Universal:”

Is it a dream?
Nay but the lack of it the dream,
And failing it life’s lore and wealth a dream
And all the world a dream.

This nostalgia, however, can never be fulfilled on earth. Human memories of love, beauty, and glory are ever elusive. They awaken a “spiritual homesickness,” which cannot be satisfied in this life. Even if we could travel back in time to these happy moments of the past, we would not find the thing itself, but only memories of it. As C.S. Lewis writes:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things–the beauty, the memory of our own past–are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. … [O]ur life-long nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. (Weight of Glory, p. 3-8)

That’s why the track “Beyond,” amidst the spacey orchestral backdrop, exhorts us to “Dream / Beyond dream / Beyond life / You will find / Your / Song / Before sound / To be found / Close your eyes / And / Rise / Higher still / Endless thrill / To the land of / Love / Beyond love / Come alive / Angel eye / Forever watching you and I… / To find our way we lose control / Remember love’s our only mission / This is a journey of the soul / The perfect song is framed with silence / It speaks of places never seen / Your home’s a promise long forgotten / It is the birthplace of your dreams.”

The hauntingly beautiful ballad, “Within”–courtesy of Chilly Gonzales’s solo piano, the shimmering keyboard and percussive work, and the lush, mournful vocoder–expresses this nostalgia perfectly: “There are so many things / That I don’t understand / There’s a world within me / That I cannot explain / Many rooms to explore / But the doors look the same / I am lost I can’t even remember my name / I’ve been for sometime / Looking for someone / I need to know now / Please tell me who I am.”

The final track on the album, “Contact” (6:21), is about making contact with “something out there.” The whole song is a crecendo, driven by racing synth loops and charged drums rolls. At 3:18, a low static hum begins to grows like a radio signal reaching for contact with the alien entity. The pitch elevates higher and higher until it comes to a feverish clash at 4:51, when the static changes to a low-pitch hum again with only the bass and the bass drum maintaining the base rhythm. The contact seems ever closer, but of course, when one seems to be on the verge of establishing communication with the alien party, the contact breaks off and the song ends. It’s a fitting end to this album about soul-searching and sehnsucht.

Apart from the couple songs that plod (“The Game of Love” and “Doin’ It Right”), every track on Random Access Memories contains indelible hooks and irresistible grooves. All in all, it is superbly mixed, with literally hundreds of musical units arranged seamlessly in a series of progressions and regressions and crescendos and decrescendoes that beckon again and again.

Daft Punk has brilliantly captured our human yearning for eternity. They are right that “to find a way we [must] lose control” (“Beyond”), but losing control in dance or music is not the goal. As Bach once said, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”

The truth is that we are alienated from God, our creator. We are exiles from our heavenly home. We were made for glory and immortality, yet we live in the squalor of sin and are subject to the tyranny of death. But on the cross, at the end of his life, Jesus Christ offers us new, eternal life. In Mark 8:35, Jesus teaches that “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” We must let go and take hold of his hand in faith.

In Random Access Memories, the robots of Daft Punk have found their souls. Here’s to hoping that their souls will find a home in God, the only place where we can find true rest.

Buy Random Access Memories HERE.

All the Times We Had

All the Times We Had, Ivan & Alyosha, Dualtone Records, 2013

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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. 

Lights of Distant Cities

Lights of Distant Cities, Bebo Norman, BEC Recordings, 2012.

One of my favorite Christian artists, Bebo Norman, announced his upcoming retirement earlier this month. As a tribute, I have decided to review his latest album, Lights of Distant Cities. In interviews, Bebo has said that he began writing the songs on this album in the middle of what felt like an emotion-less, spiritual wasteland.

In an ironic twist, however, he shares that despair and loneliness gave way to hope and renewal during the final months of the song-writing process. This journey is reflected beautifully in the title track “Lights of Distant Cities,” where Bebo likens our earthly dwelling to a foreign land of shadows, but declares that lights from distant cities are calling us out.

The songs on Lights of Distant Cities are beautifully interwoven musically and lyrically. The thumping toms in “Lights of Distant Cities” sound like a march of the lights, breaking in closer and closer to our present existence, the bass resounds like an anthem, and the chorus, which says, “You come alive like a melody” soars with atmospheric electric riffs.

The second song on the album, “The Broken,” is probably the one with most mainstream appeal. The premise is simple but heartfelt, “God of the Universe, do you hear the cries that pour out from all the earth? Can your hands of glory reach down and heal the hurt of the broken … the poverty of the soul?” The hammered dulcimer shimmers between lines like beams of light shining through cracks in a wooden door, and its hope-filled melody is a sufficient answer to this question: the “weight of glory can still rise above” and “capture the captives on the wings of love and carry us to our home.”

Hope in a fallen world is the common thread that runs through this entire album–a message that is encapsulated by the heavily-synthesized “Outside Her Window Was the World,” which recounts the spiritual redemption of a depressed young woman who used to cut herself.

My personal favorite on this album is “Collide.” The ethereal acoustic guitar loops create a sense of swirling in space and colliding from one wall to another, musically representing the “altars [we] keep building to the sky” to no avail and our “failed attempts to fly away.” The poignant question of the bridge hangs unanswered, “How long must we hold on before grace and gravity collide?” All who have struggled between fallen depravity and sanctifying grace know this longing.

Lights of Distant Cities shows that Bebo has grown much more comfortable within the pop/rock genre that he began experimenting with in his album Big Blue Sky, but more so than any of his previous albums, Lights of Distant Cities showcases rich, atmospheric sonic layers reminiscent of U2 and Coldplay. Nevertheless, one can catch glimpses of Bebo’s folk roots in songs like “Daylight Breaking” and “Go With You.”

The signature elements of Bebo’s music, melodic pop hooks, lyrical intimacy, and passionate, vulnerable, yet warm vocals, are all here. This is a worthy capstone to Bebo’s 20-year career.

Buy Lights of Distant Cities HERE.