Thursday, January 08, 2009

The List Returns From a Ridiculously Long and Unnecessary Hibernation: 4

4. The Innocence Mission -- Glow (1995)

You don’t always (or even often) choose the location where beautiful things happen to you, and thus unlikely places can be imbued with lasting affection. In 1995 or 1996, I was leaving the parking lot of a run-of-the-mill (read: pretty ugly) mall in the Dallas suburbs when the local NPR station played “That Was Another Country,” off Glow. It was early evening in the fall, and the sky was as visually striking as the mall was stultifying. The song begins with a few seconds of rumbling, almost tribal drums, unaccompanied. A distant, echoey voice makes cooing sounds in the background, not words. A chiming, crisp guitar enters the mix, and then a few lonely notes of stray piano. Then Karen Peris clearly sings, “Rowing out into the air.”

If you have a certain set of ears (e.g., mine), this opening is enough to hook you. But the song went on, with Peris singing enigmatic lyrics (like that opener) as well as more direct, emotional lines, like “he was fine / and what is more he was around / that was another country.” By the time she finished with, “are you all right? / you were my friend / are you all right? / you are still my friend / you didn’t go out of my life,” I was deeply in love.

Peris’ voice is fragile and childlike, but I don’t often find it precious. It’s a powerful instrument that can sound vulnerable, consternated, and soothed in turn, always with a common tone of undeniable spirituality.

The Innocence Mission is technically a “Christian band,” but don’t go thinking of Jars of Clay or, worse, Stryper. It took a while for me to catch on, but eventually I noticed lyrics like, “You go outside / You see the Holy Spirit burning in your trees / and walk on, glowing with the same glow.”

But the next line in that progression is, “Still you tremble out and in,” and the band is constantly mining this duality of recognizing and appreciating grace while admitting the difficulty and anxiety of life. In “Brave,” Peris sings:
Even if I'm shining, even if I'm shining here inside.
Even if I'm shouting do you see that I'm wanting,
And I always go to pieces.
And I have it in my mind
that the sky is tall and heavy,
when I could be brave

Oh I know it, I know it, here is God beside.
I meant it. I meant I'm sure of that.
But the sky is tall and heavy,
when I could be brave.
The band might or might not believe this, but I do think its explicit religious concerns are secondary to a kind of remystification of everyday life and domesticity. Glow is colored with moments of hearing talk “coming up over the stairs,” laying under the sky, “taking blankets to the bay,” sitting on a bridge, “crossing over to the tree side,” singing in the car, running across yards, walking home evenings over “a pale blue mile.” It’s also populated with people -- Junie, Aunt Ruthie, Mary (twice), Harry (twice), and Georgia.

I don’t listen to as much sad, gauzy music as I used to (this still leaves time to listen to it plenty). A lot of it -- even songs and bands I enjoy -- can be vague to the point of soporific. By contrast, Glow sounds like it was written about, and possibly recorded in, the house you grew up in. It pays attention to things.

It’s possible that Glow will always stand as the band’s peak. Their earlier records (despite some good material) are hampered by a certain, severely dated style of ’80s production. The two follow-ups -- Birds of My Neighborhood and Befriended -- are strong (the latter was No. 83 on this list) but increasingly quiet. The band’s drummer left after Glow, and its most recent work can verge on lifeless, with Peris whispering through songs that lack any rhythm. The warmly ringing guitars and mostly persistent beats of Glow, recorded in a tasteful way that accentuated Peris’ singular voice, represent a sound I’d love to hear them explore again.

I think of Glow as a collection of secular-inflected hymns, full of observance and consolation, typified in this line from “Go”: “you would think now hope would be tired, but it’s all right.”

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Blogger Laura-Marie said...

Yes, one of my favorite albums ever.

7:07 PM  

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