Sunday, April 19, 2009

Week 47: "Sheep Go To Heaven" by Cake

It may be surprising that one of my favorite songs is based on one of the least Universalist passages from The Bible (Matthew 25:31-46) where Jesus tells of separating the sheep from the goats.

Oh well, the Bible passage is far from ideal but the song is great nevertheless. “Sheep Go To Heaven” is a single from Cake’s third album, Prolonging the Magic. Previously, Cake had issued a debut album that went largely unnoticed and a breakthrough second album that featured the catchy racecar-themed single “The Distance” (Video) and an arguably cynical cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I will Survive.” (Video)

Although Cake found themselves labeled as an alternative-rock band, they actually defy easy classification. Singer John McCrea’s vocals are delivered in a droll voice that is somewhere between speaking and singing. McCrea also displays a tremendous fondness for the vibraslap which he uses on almost every song. Vince DiFiore accompanies McCrea with the trumpet, synthesizer, and various percussion instruments. Together, the duo is backed up by an interchangeable group consisting of a guitar player, bassist, and drummer whose styles of playing include rock but also pop, funk, and jazz.

If you scour the internet you will find many people offering their own interpretations of “Sheep Go To Heaven.” One of the most common interpretations is that the song is entirely tongue-in-cheek, that it is a comment on the way society rewards conformity and punishes individuality. You can decide for yourself whether you buy this explanation. Although the South Park-esque video for the song arguably supports such an interpretation, I don’t want to go down this road. To me, the lyrics are mostly nonsensical.

Interpretation is not so much fun, because the song is so much fun. How can you deny the attraction of a funk-inspired guitar and bass groove accompanied by a brassy trumpet fanfare? A few years ago I got to see Cake live here in Kansas City at the Uptown Theater. (They’ll be coming through town again to play Crossroads KC on May 2, 2009 if you want to catch them.) “Sheep Go To Heaven,” as this video attests, is also a crowd participation favorite. Troublesome Bible verse. Fantastic song!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Week 46: "That Much Further West" by Lucero

Back in week 27 I reviewed the song “Tears Don’t Matter Much” from Lucero’s album That Much Further West. In that review I mentioned Ben Nichols’ gritty and gravelly vocals and the band’s inconsistent live performances. This week we take a quick listen to the title track of that album, the song that made me a true fan of the band.

The album version of “That Much Further West” is perhaps the most produced of any song that Lucero has recorded. The song starts off slowly and deliberately. As the full sound of electric guitars and keyboards enter, the musicians still present the impression that they are deliberately holding back. With every teasing crescendo the song pulls back. Even during the long instrumental section towards the end of the song, you finally hear the song’s brilliant and terribly catchy guitar hook, though it too is restrained. The produced sound and the restraint in the song give it a sense of spaciousness that evokes a feeling of looking West. The song indicates that there a much larger space that is yet to be filled.

Below I’ve provided links to three live versions of the song. The live versions of this song are quite different. They are performed with an upbeat rock feel that lacks the restraint of the album version. Much less is held back. In fact, when performing live, the band usually opens with this song. They play it in a way that is declarative, that sets the tone for the long night of authentic rock that is ahead.

In the first video, the song kicks in at around the 3 minute mark. The second and third videos provide a sense of what seeing Lucero live is like.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Sermon: "Happiness" (Delivered 4-5-09)

Eight days from today, the day after Easter, I will be traveling to Marin County, just North of San Francisco where I will spend five days at the Green Gulch Zen Center. This won’t be a spiritual retreat. Instead, I’m going there to attend a five day business meeting of the Executive Committee of the professional organization for Unitarian Universalist ministers. This will be my final meeting with them concluding my three years of service.

Last year the Executive Committee of the UU Ministers Association held our spring meeting in New Mexico and I spent a couple of days before the business meeting taking a short vacation with a couple of old friends. In those two short days we explored Santa Fe and Albuquerque. We feasted on chili verde and sopapillas. By chance I had the opportunity to meet Arthur “LowLow” Medina, an artist whose paintings appear not on canvas but on classic low-rider automobiles; Medina was profiled in the New York Times travel section in 2004. I valorously defended my friend from a pack of wild dogs on the dusty streets of Chimayo, which is a story for another time. And, finally, I attended morning worship at the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, where, exactly 364 days ago I heard my colleague, Christine Robinson, preach on the subject of “Happiness.”

Truthfully I don’t recall much of that sermon but I do remember sitting in the Albuquerque congregation and making a mental note that I should preach on this subject. As I told my Preaching Practicum class this past month, some of the best sermons are actually ones that we preach to ourselves. There are areas of my life right now where my own blessings are just too many to count. I am fulfilled, delighted, and happy. How could life be any better? And, at the same time there are other parts of my life that I face with disappointment and frustration. I suspect that your lives include a bit of both as well.

At first, happiness would seem to be something obvious and elemental, but, in fact, happiness is a more complex topic than we think. Consider this: I was talking to a member of the church and telling her about my approaching trip to the Zen community at Green Gulch. I mentioned that Green Gulch is a strictly vegetarian community and that it was a community practice to spend the first fifteen minutes of each meal in silence. The member turned up her nose and confided in me that she thought this sounded just plain awful. I imagine that some of you would enjoy these practices and others would hate them.

Or consider that 2004 New York Times profile of Arthur “LowLow” Medina. The journalist who profiled him mentioned an incident in which a young punk in a flashy red sports car pulled up next to Medina at a red light in Espanola, gunned his engine as if to challenge Medina to a drag race, and then sped off down the street. Medina rolled forward until he reached his desired cruising speed of ten miles per hour. To quote Medina, “For us lowriders, it is all about doing it slow and low.”

Or, to offer just one more example, I might mention that today is Palm Sunday and this next week is the Christian Holy Week. This coming week as many as 50,000 Catholic pilgrims will walk ten, twenty, fifty, or one hundred miles or more along a pilgrimage path leading to the sanctuary in Chimayo, New Mexico, that town where my friend and I were accosted by wild dogs. They will make this pilgrimage walking across the desert, under the hot southwestern sun. Some will make a portion of the journey barefoot. Others will crawl on their knees. Still others will repetitively stand and fall prostrate on the hard ground below. For these pilgrims it will be a deeply spiritual experience. I suspect that few of us would find the experience as enjoyable.

So, it turns out that I have been belaboring a terribly obvious point: that different people take pleasure from different activities. And yes, this point is extremely obvious, and yet it is something that it is important to keep in mind.

So, allow me to belabor this point even more. The incredibly obvious point that different people enjoy different things is larger than a matter of some saying “po-tay-to” and others saying “po-tah-to.” On the surface, differences in what brings us enjoyment may seem superficial. But, I would imagine that there is a hymn that we sing regularly here in this church that some of you love passionately and others of you detest and abhor. Community, with its sharing and closeness, entails being with others who desire different things than you desire. And this is often not as small of a thing as it seems. More on this later.

In speaking about happiness, I should point out that happiness is different than pleasure. Pleasure refers to all sorts of activities—many of them good for us, many of them benign, some harmful—that make us feel good in the short term. Pleasure is experienced as the result of an action that provides us with a fleeting sense of feeling good.

Happiness is something different than pleasure. Or rather, happiness is something more than a long sequence or series of pleasurable activities. Happiness is not about actions but about being. It is an emotional state. Not everybody who engages in pleasurable activities is happy, but happy people have cultivated a perspective of gratitude, of thankfulness, for the things in their lives that bring them pleasure.

I do want to introduce one more word: joy. Pleasure is a sensation derived from an action that makes us feel good. Happiness is an emotion. Joy, then, is happiness that is felt in a way that is particularly ecstatic or intense. Joy, I would also contend, often has a quasi-religious quality to it. Joy involves something like the elevation of one’s own spirit.

I want to give you an example. I am trying to think of something that is stereotypically considered to be pleasurable but lacks the capacity to bring a person joy. But, at the same time, I don’t to be too titillating. Well, let’s use an example that is very safe. Filling out March Madness brackets and following your picks to see how they do is an activity that millions of people find pleasurable, yet we would not describe it as an activity that brings a person joy. Joy is not only an experience filled with intensity and ecstasy; it is a pleasure that is both transcendent and also linked to the addition of a kind of moral value to one’s life. Joy is holding your new daughter or your new grandson in your arms. Joy is also often linked to art and nature and by extension to the romantic notion of the ability of artistic and natural beauty to uplift us morally. Listen to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy or Handel’s Alleluia chorus; stand on the mountaintop; watch the deer graze at the edge of a dewy field at sunrise. These things evoke in us joy.

Happiness, I think, resides in that large gap between pleasure and joy. Before we consider how it is that one finds happiness, we might muddy the waters by asking if happiness is something that is even worth attempting to cultivate. The argument could certainly be made that happiness is morally questionable. Look out at the world, the argument goes: look out at the world and really dare to see all of the despair, suffering and pain; dare to see the senseless acts of violence; dare to see the oppression and the persecution; dare to see the environmental destruction. How dare we care about our own happiness?

However, I don’t find this way of approaching life to be commendable. Being miserable, critical, and angry does not mean that you are living a saintly life. There are plenty of miserable, critical and angry people who are just plain miserable, critical, and angry just as there are people who are genuinely happy who give selflessly to make the world a bit more decent and kind and humane. Ignorance is bliss except when it isn’t; bliss does not correlate to ignorance.

Since today is Palm Sunday and this next week is Holy Week, I might suggest that the events of the passion narrative are instructive to us in helping us to think about the question of happiness. When you examine the passion narrative from the perspective of the disciples, the story becomes one of how a community preserves itself in the face of enormous loss, disappointment, and uncertainty. It is about the summoning of joy despite trauma and loss and fear.

Earlier I compared pleasure to happiness and said that happiness is more than the engagement in pleasurable activities over a long duration of time. Happiness is something else. It is an emotional state that combines several attitudes. Happiness includes gratitude, the ability to be thankful for the things in our life that do make us feel good and whole. Happiness also includes contentment, or a sense of being at peace with life and with other people. Such being at peace does not mean resignation. It has to do with a quality of self-differentiation. While we may work for a good cause about which we are passionate, at the same time we should recognize our own limitations. Namely, we should not take it personally when we are not victorious in that high and noble cause for which we have sacrificed. Happiness isn’t the same as not caring; it isn’t indifference. To the contrary, happiness often is linked with a high capacity for resilience, the ability to push onward without losing hope. Gratitude and thankfulness, peace and contentment, equanimity and resilience: these are the elements of happiness.

There is so much more I could say about happiness. But I want to end by considering happiness from two other angles. Happiness is, I believe, all the things I’ve just said, but it also is something more. Happiness is finding that place where you belong, that thing for which you were meant. Some might call it a calling or a vocation or your purpose or your destiny. My colleague Vanessa Southern tells a story about this in her book of collected meditations.

In that book she tells the story of growing up with an Australian Shepherd named Lady. She grew up in an urban environment and Lady was just not meant to be a city dog. So, the family brought Lady out to the family farm where her grandparents lived where lady would spend her later years in a place a dog would love. On the second day on the farm the family woke up and Lady was nowhere to be found. The horses on the farm were missing as well. The family went out as a search party. Finally, they found the horses clustered in the corner of the field, where the fence formed a right angle. And there, running back and forth and nipping at the horses’ hooves was Lady, happier than she had ever been. She was doing what she was meant to do.

I want to end not by bringing my thoughts to any sort of firm resolution, but by adding a wrinkle of complexity. As individual beings happiness can be elusive. But every so often everything just comes together and we do find, just like the dog in the story, that place where everything we are meant to be is perfectly aligned.

I do wonder though about how community complicates things. Lady may have found her bliss, but the horses may have a different take on this particular story. As human beings we are fundamentally social creatures. We do not live in isolation and when we do things like come into this church we become a part of community. It is my hope that here you will be able to be and become your true self, that you will find an outlet for your driving passions, that you will be as true to your nature as the dog in Vanessa Southern’s story.

I hope that you will come to understand and value your participation in this community as more than just a string of pleasurable moments. I hope that this religious community helps you to find joy, and, if not joy, than at least some combination of gratitude and thankfulness, peace and contentment, equanimity and resilience.

And, at the same time, if you really invest yourself you will find—you cannot help but find—that your happiness, your calling, your meaning will bump up against others in community. There will be that hymn that makes you groan with irritation that makes the person next to you ecstatic with happiness. There will be a time when you are living your passion and others tell you, “Hold on just a second, you’re making me feel like an old horse cornered by a dog.” In community, happiness is realizing that it is not all about you or about me and pursuing happiness will mean that you will inevitably bump up against others’. That is the way it works. But it is not an excuse not to give it a go.

I want to conclude with the words of Mary Oliver. They are words that came to me in thinking of those tens of thousands of Catholics who will be making a pilgrimage through the desert on their way to Chimayo later this week. Mary Oliver wrote,
You do not have to be good .
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.
Whoever, you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
May you hear that announcement and discover that place in the family of things. And may that place lead you to immense and wondrous happiness.

Week 45: "Light Pollution" by Bright Eyes

Way back in week one I wrote about the Bright Eyes’ song “Road to Joy.” That song came from their album I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, which was released in early 2005 concurrently with a second album entitled Digital Ash in Digital Urn.

The two albums could not be more different. I’m Wide Awake… is an album of acoustic folk-rock songs whereas Digital Ash… is a studio album that is highly digitized, synthesized, and electronic. By releasing these two albums simultaneously, Bright Eyes showcased their musical versatility. My favorite track on Digital Ash… is the song “Light Pollution.” While this song is perhaps the least “digital” song on the album, I find it compelling for a several reasons.

Lyrically, “Light Pollution” is a narrative song, in which the singer tells us the story of the death of his friend. Connor Oberst does not give us the actual name of his friend. Instead he dubs him, “John A. Hobson” after an obscure Marxist intellectual. Oberst’s friend, the story tell us, has a deep influence on Oberst, exposing him to both social and economic criticism as well as to music and literature that contain the spirit of resistance. The song also describes Hobson’s struggles to live with authenticity and integrity in a social context to which he is ideologically opposed.

After explaining their relationship the song switches and gives an account of Hobson’s final moments. Hobson jumps in his car and begins driving. (It is at this point that the tempo begins to accelerate as the music develops in intensity and tension.) First, Hobson passes a baseball game where there are anthems, flags, and billboards. He continues to drive, “Out past that center mall / Out past that sickening sprawl / Out past that fenced in gold.”

It is at this point that he loses control of his car, crashes it, and dies. The final lyrics of the song are, “But I bet the stars seemed so close at the end.”

First, the song is clearly idealistic and ideological and angst-ridden, just as any great rock song should be. But, more than this, the song poses a number of interpretive possibilities. First of all, there isn’t the insinuation that Hobson’s death is tragic. Rather, it is presented as liberating. If we interpret the line about “fenced in gold” to refer to the cornfields outside of Omaha, we come to understand Hobson as an escaping refugee, perhaps even a martyr driven to his own oblivion.

The title of the song, “Light Pollution” also adds a bit of meaning to the song. Within this understanding of the song, Hobson is one who sees things clearly. The light pollution of the lights of the baseball field, the mall, and the sprawl obscure the ability to see. It is only as he heads out of town that his vision is enlarged. As he escapes the light pollution the stars seem so close.

Unfortunately, there is not a good version of this song on YouTube, only a version of the song with pictures of the band. However, here is a link to the music video for the second best song on the album, “Lucky / Easy / Free.” If you watch this video, let me know what you think: Is Connor Oberst actually writing backwards or has the music video been flipped so that we are given the impression that he is?