by Brett McCracken
I’ve always loved the section of George Steiner’s Real Presences where he describes the role of art as helping us get through the metaphoric “Saturday” space between the “suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste” of (Good) Friday and the “dream of liberation” and rebirth that is (Easter) Sunday. Steiner writes of this “Sabbatarian” aesthetic space:
The apprehensions and figurations in the play of metaphysical imagining, in the poem and the music, which tell of pain and hope, of the flesh which is said to taste of ash and of the spirit which is said to have the savour of fire, are always Sabbatarian. They have risen out of an immensity of waiting which is that of man. Without them, how could we be patient?
Over the Rhine’s gorgeous new double album, Meet Me at the Edge of the World (stream it here), is precisely this sort of art. It helps us to be patient amidst the burden and immensity of waiting. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an album so eloquently and tenderly express the Christian truism of “now and not yet,” mostly by painting pictures of cottonwood and tupelo trees, goldenrod in the autumn, wedding dresses and porch swings.
The two discs that comprise Meet Me (released Sept. 3)–entitled “Sacred Ground” and “Blue Jean Sky”–represent the sacredness of both life’s “now” and “not yet.” Perhaps fittingly, the nine songs that make up the “Sacred Ground” side (the more earth-bound half, complete with blood, teeth marks and scars) were recorded on March 28-30, 2013 (Maundy Thursday-Holy Saturday). That disc ends with the song “Wait,” in which Karin Bergquist sings, Life is a beauty that’s mocking you / She’s a river to drown in while singing the blues.
The 10 songs of “Blue Jean Sky,” on the other hand, are more mindful of death, resurrection and the eschatological. They are songs of love, dreams, hope, healing and blackbirds in the once and future farms of Ohio. In my favorite song on this disc, “Wildflower Bouquet,” Bergquist sings about the types of flowers she desires when she is “called home”: If I die in the winter send roses / In the spring, magnolias / If I’m called in the summer or in the fall / Best of all – bring me a wildflower bouquet. … Your tears will not be necessary / Build a blazing fire, drink something merry / When the sparks fly off into the wind / That will be me blowing away.
These songs were recorded on April 1-3, 2013, in the days following Easter.
The sacred and mundane, the mortal and immortal, the horizons of earth and sky merge on both halves of Meet Me, a collection of love songs inspired by Over the Rhine’s home on a farm in Highland County, Ohio.
Over the Rhine is the duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, a married couple who have made music together for a quarter century. Meet Me, their 15th studio release, is not their first double album. In 2003 they released the exquisite Ohio. It seems the duo reserve their magnum opuses for music where the muse is their home state.
“Home” is indeed the central idea of Meet Me. Home as in: a place of settledness; or more specifically for Berguist and Detweiler: the Old pre-Civil War brick house / Standin tall and straight somehow / Called home (“Called Home”). As Detweiler recently noted in an interview with NPR, “I think this is a record about finding a place, finding a home. I think we’re still aware that loved ones are moving on, and there’s joy and sorrow on the record. But there is a sense of, ‘We’re gonna be okay.’”
These songs all grew loosely out of the soil we live on. We had always dreamed of having a piece of unpaved earth which would serve as our home base, just like many other American artists or writers that are immediately associated with a specific geographical place. We call our place Nowhere Farm: nowhere, or now here, depending on how you look at it.
The “now here” way of looking at home’s temporality is especially present on Meet Me, which riffs on the Christian understanding of home in both the earthly and heavenly senses. Note the meaning of “home” in the first stanza of “Called Home” (Just shy of Breakin’ Down / There’s a bend in the road that I have found / Called home) versus the last stanza: Our bodies’ motion comes to rest / When we are at last / Called home.
The eschatological hopes of our heavenly home–long a trope of the Appalachian hymnody, blues and folk of which Over the Rhine is descendant–is everywhere on the record, in songs like “Gonna Let My Soul Catch My Body” (I’m gonna lay out fine linen / Gonna make up my dyin’ bed / If you call me sweet Jesus / I’m ready to lay down my head). But this “I’ll fly away” escapist sensibility is challenged at times too, such as in the standout “Earthbound Lovesong”: They left the jukebox loaded / Our world exploded / Did the preacher have it all wrong? / Is heaven a place you fly off to / When the day is done? / Or do you work right here / On an earthbound love song?
In the end, Over the Rhine presents a world where all reality is sacramental. The thesis can perhaps be summed up in the song “All of It Was Music,” where Bergquist sings of the miraculous melodies that come from even the most mundane: The night was bending in a grin / As streetlight shadows tattooed skin / Whatever we were tangled in / All of it was music. … The humming of the window unit / The street noise often sang right through it / A drunken song somehow we knew that / Even it was music.
The “edge” of the world Over the Rhine dwells within is the horizon-line space between ground and sky, the flesh and spirit, mortality and immortality. But in contrast to the hard-line that “edge” implies, it’s actually a far blurrier space, where the Holy Spirit mingles with rivers, trees, leaves, skinned knees and broken hearts. In this world, “sacred ground” isn’t an oxymoron, and “blue jean” isn’t a demeaning adjective to describe the heavenlies. Rather, it’s the language that best fits our experience of the quotidian mysteries that buzz around a Christ-haunted world where, as OTR declares, All the ghosts are in the trees.
The album makes me think of Heidegger’s concept of the “fourfold” manner in which humans dwell on earth: “to save the earth, to receive the sky, to await the divinities, to escort mortals.” Earth, sky, the divine, and the mortal. It’s all there in Over the Rhine’s music. And it’s all there in any of our lives.
Heidegger said, “To be a human being means to be on the earth as a mortal. It means to dwell.” (“Building Dwelling Thinking”). In our brief time on this planet, we dwell. We find a bend in the road to call home.
Home is a place of healing, forgiveness, growth, stability and protection in a world that can be frightfully hostile. Whether it be a few years, a few decades or a lifetime, the continuity of home is a heavenly gift: armor against the relentless barrage of change. But home is about more than just biding one’s mortal time before before being “called home” in the final sense. To find and make an earthly home is to continue the task of Adam, spreading Eden’s order and flourishing outward in the chaos, making the world a more graceful place. Writing about America’s western frontier and the concept of a homestead in her glorious essay, “When I Was a Child,” Marilynne Robinson (who has written books with titles like Home and Housekeeping), reflects:
I must say how beautiful human society seems to me, especially in those attenuated forms so characteristic of the West — isolated towns and single houses which sometimes offer only the merest, barest amenities: light, warmth, supper, familiarity. We have colonised a hostile planet, and we must staunch every opening where cold and dark might pour through and destroy the false climates we make, the tiny simulations of forgotten seasons beside the Euphrates, or in Eden. At a certain level housekeeping is a regime of small kindnesses, which, taken together, make the world salubrious, savory, and warm. I think of the acts of comfort offered and received within a household as precisely sacramental.
Over the Rhine has always been a band with a knack for capturing the sacramental beauties of home and place. Meet Me At the Edge of the World is their latest–and perhaps most masterful–addition to a body of work that, taken as a whole, is among the most impressive faith-oriented catalogue of songs you’ll find anywhere.
It’s the best kind of rainy day, homebound music: dusty and bedraggled, weary yet wonder-filled, dazzling in its ability to simultaneously convey contentment and restlessness. It’s the happy longing, the divine discontent, of sitting on a porch swing with a loved one, at rest but restless for what lies beyond the fields of our vision. The final lines of the album’s closer, “Favorite Time of Light,” express it perfectly: Leave the dishes in the sink don’t overthink it / Close up the brokenhearted piano / Join me on the porch if you can swing it / Let’s dream an ocean in Ohio.
Brett McCracken is managing editor of Biola Magazine and author of Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty and Hipster Christianity: When Church & Cool Collide. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, CNN.com, the Princeton Theological Review, Christianity Today andRelevant. Follow him on his blog or on Twitter.