Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Secular Soundtrack For Lent: 7 Songs on the (Surprising) Beauty of Penance

A recent study revealed that people who confess wrong-doing whole-heartedly are far more psychologically at peace than those who only make a partial confession. As for those who confess nothing at all and feel no guilt at all for their crimes, well, we have a special name for them: sociopaths.  At any rate, this study seems (in large part) to militate against the popular idea that regret is a bad thing (as Sinatra once suggested), and that guilt is primarily for those who are too weak to rise above their religious upbringing. I do not deny that there have been those who have used it as a weapon to control, or as an excuse to do nothing. Yet when it is seen in its full glory and beauty, and when it is exercised in all its sincerity, it is one of the most beautiful things on the face of the earth, which is one of the reasons (I would argue) that movies like A Christmas Carol and Groundhog's Day are so beloved in our culture. We hunger to see a stony heart weep with compassion, and for this reason even when men are on death row, or public figures who fall from grace, we not only want to see justice done, we also ask a very simple question: did they express any remorse? Thus, during Lent (in particular), Christians of many stripes search their own hearts and lives for that sweet sense of guilt, not the kind that further imprisons us, but the kind that reminds us that we are not dead inside, the kind that aches for that grace that comes with forgiveness. All the same, this healthy hunger to cry out in sorrow for our sins is not merely consigned to Catholics alone, or even just Christians in general, but rather includes individuals who are anything but religious in their leanings. Hence, below I present to you a kind of secular soundtrack for Lent, a list of songs from musicians who- may or may not have been inspired by the metaphysical- but who nevertheless feel the need to express solemn regret in the hope that one day their sorrow may be turned into Easter gladness.

1. R.E.M - So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)

This R.E.M. song was written when the band was out on the road touring and trying to get in touch with family and friends back in Georgia. Apparently they were prevented from doing so by a torrential downpour. Many have had frustrating experiences like this, especially when attempting to navigate a long distance relationship; "Did you never call? I waited for your call. These rivers of suggestion are driving me away." Yet within the song there is not only the frustration of a relationship that is falling apart, but a profound sense of regret and sorrow that seems to go with the feeling that the "conversation" has grown "dim". Thus, with a full-throated pathos he cries out in the chorus; "I'm sorry... I'm sorry... I'm sorry!" Were Michael Stipe to mumble everything else in the song (which he essentially does), it would still communicate the same frustration that it is so successful in doing. Indeed, the aching chorus tells you everything you need to know. 'I feel helpless, and frustrated and mad about this situation, but more than anything, I'm sorry, for whatever part I have in this, and I'm sorry that we're drifting apart and that there's nothing I can do about it.' As mentioned in the intro, genuine repentance is far more satisfying than a half-hearted one. Imagine if the chorus were instead; "I'm mostly sorry! I'm mostly sorry! I'm really sorry for my part in this, but you know you're to blame too!". Such an approach is neither lyrically satisfying, nor psychologically so. Of course the other person shares some blame for the relationship, but all we can do is take responsibility for our own part.

2. Audioslave - Like a Stone

A lot can be said about this song, and like any good rocker who writes a song about something implicitly religious, (Chris) Cornell has been somewhat vague as to its exact meaning (which incidentally, I think is for the better). At any rate, what he has said about the song is that it is about a dying man, who is alone and bereft of all worldly comforts- with the exception of a book "full of death"- which also promises eternal life if he's good (I will let you draw your own conclusion about which book he is referring to). The song is in essence a prayer, an S.OS. to "anyone who will take him to heaven", whether it be "the gods or the angels", he simply wants to go to the Father's house. But as interesting as all of this is, what I find most original and fascinating are the lyrics at the very end of the song; "And on I read until the day was gone, and I sat in regret for all the things I've done. For all that I've blessed, and all that I've wronged. In dreams until my death, I will wander on… In your house, I long to be…" I can certainly understand one having regrets over some form of bad behavior in the past, but why would he regret the things that he has "blessed"? The only thing that would make sense here is if he is experiencing guilt over blessing things/behavior that he should never have blessed in the first place. If this is the case, what a beautiful and insightful sentiment. First of all, he recognizes that in order to be completely reconciled to the Father (or at least be able to enter his house), one must make a full and honest account of one's faults. Secondly, not only should one grieve the wrongs that one has committed in malice, but likewise the wrongs that may not have been malicious at all, but were nevertheless (in retrospect) injurious. Considering the power and influence a musician has, both personally and artistically, such a reflection, whomever it is imputed to, seems highly understandable. There may not be much in this song that is particularly uplifting on the surface, but to be able to sing your sorrow and express your longing offers a solace and hope that would harden into despair were it not able to be directed upward.      

3. Hoobastank - The Reason

I would regard the words to this song to be an act of contrition… though admittedly an imperfect one; "I'm not a perfect person/There's many things I wish I didn't do. But I continue learning/ I never meant to do those things to you…" I say "imperfect" because when one admits a wrongdoing, one should never begin by saying in essence "I'm only human, I'm bound to fail, you know." This may be the case, but it just sounds like you're trying to make excuses for yourself, and when you're trying to come clean, that's just about the last note that you want to strike. You also want to avoid the implication that breaking someone's heart is part of your learning curve. For no one, especially someone you care about, should be regarded as a kind of scrimmage for your life. That said, what the artist does express beautifully here is a desire not only to undo the wickedness he has inflicted upon the aggrieved party, but even more importantly, to express his desire to change; "I'm sorry that I hurt you/ It's something I must live with everyday/ And all the pain I put you through/ I wish that I could take it all away/ And be the one that catches all your tears. That's why I need you to hear… I found out a reason for me/ To change who I used to be/ A reason to start over new… And the reason is you." Being sorry for your crimes is not enough, and regret alone by itself really gets you no where- but genuine repentance, coupled with an intense desire to make amends? Now that is quite literally the recipe for a beautiful drama!

4. Bruno Mars - When I Was Your Man

If the former song offered somewhat of an imperfect act of contrition, this one is an example of how to lay it all out there. There is not one lyric in this ballad that even suggests that the accuser is doing anything but accusing himself. It might sound strange to say, but in keeping with the psychological study that was mentioned in the beginning, the more one blames one's self, not in a whining sense, but with full recognition of the good that he has sacrificed because of his failings, the more satisfying the apology is for the one confessing and the one hearing the confession. Why? In part because so few people in this world ever go out of their way to accuse themselves, that it borders on remarkable, not to mention romantic. Nine times out of ten we are blaming someone else. So to hear a man make no excuses for his himself, and better still, expect nothing in return for his admission of guilt, is something rare indeed; "My pride, my ego, my needs, and my selfish ways/ Caused a good strong woman like you to walk out of my life. Now I'll never, never get to clean up the mess I made/ And it haunts me every time I close my eyes… And though it hurts, I'll be the first to say I was wrong…." He concludes the song by declaring that he hopes that the man she does end up with "buys her flowers and holds her hand", and essentially does everything that he should have done "when I was your man". Now whether or not this is a ploy to get her back it is difficult to say, but if it is, it is the right ploy, because the man who admits his guilt unreservedly is difficult to fault. Yet what is more impressive to me is not simply that he recognizes that he was wrong, or even that he didn't realize what he had until it was gone, but that in expressing his sorrow for his failure, there is a genuine sense of purity and innocence in his regret. According to this "confession", what he will miss more than anything else is the opportunity to hold her hand, buy her flowers, and take her out dancing- because that was something that she genuinely loved to do. Consequently, by being brought low, he has learned the most important lesson about love and romance. When one loses someone precious, one is not generally inclined to cry out because of the loss of some sort of sexual gratification, but rather at the loss of those little things which in some mysterious way are far more glorious.

5. Linkin Park - What I've Done        

Sometimes referred to as "Nu Metal", this band reminds me of a heavier and more somber version of Blink 182. Fortunately, in spite of the whiny vocal stylings, this song is very effective in communicating its central message. In essence, the song, with one minor exception, sounds like a kind of secular Penitential Rite, complete with a Kyrie; "In this farewell there's no blood, no alibi, 'cause I've drawn regret… from a thousand lies. So let mercy come and wash away… What I've done. I'll face myself, to cross out what I've become… Erase myself, and let go of what I've become… For all I've done, I'll start again, and whatever pain may come, today this ends". Though the lyrics are uneven in places (and at one point he even sounds like he's trying to absolve himself), there is enough here to suggest that the artist recognizes his need for absolution. Giving greater force to this admission of guilt, the music video provides flashes of certain historical horrors perpetrated by mankind as a whole. Thus, the video broadens the scope of sin from the individual, to the collective, from the sin of one, to the "sin of the world". But mercy and forgiveness can only enter in after one admits their guilt. And so it is that the "penitential rite" begins with the act of facing our most "grievous" faults, and ends with a Kyrie and a "clean slate".

6. Pearl Jam - Sirens

Some may not like the musical direction that these former "grunge-gods" have taken, but it is nevertheless interesting how different the message is these days. Once upon a time Eddie Vedder could rarely go a minute without raging over some political or social issue. Now, it seems, he has grown more reflective and introspective. This is not a slight, but merely an observation. Whereas before he seemed relatively content with pointing the finger at various political figures and/or Ticketmaster, now he seems to be pointing it at himself. Like some modern day For Whom the Bell Tolls, Sirens, is a song about the virtue of Memento Mori (i.e. facing our imminent death). However, if we were to leave the story there on Ash Wednesday, this would indeed be somewhat of a hopeless grunge sort of ending. For example, Alice in Chains once had an album called "Dirt", and on that album there was a song called Them Bones; "Some say we're born into the grave… I feel so alone, gonna end up a big old pile of them bones." Yet what's profoundly different about the song Sirens, is that Vedder's reflection does not end in the grave, but rather inspires a kind of Easter hope, in spite of the "approaching sirens"; "Hear the sirens covering the distance in the night/ The sound echoing closer will they come for me next time. For every choice mistake I made, it's not my plan, to send you in the arms of another man. And if you choose to stay, I'll wait, I'll understand… Oh, it's a fragile thing, this life we lead. If I think too much, I can get overwhelmed by the grace, by which we live our lives with death over our shoulders. Want you to know that should I go, I always loved you.. held you high above too. I studied your face, and the fear goes away…" Notice that as he reflects on death his thoughts do not remain "in the dirt", but quickly shift to regret, repentance, and then most importantly, gratitude. The secret joy of penance is that once we repent we actually begin to see things as they actually are, that is, we see how truly lucky we have been all along, and are thus prompted by this to recognize how much "we have come up short of the glory of God." Vedder expresses almost an identical sentiment in the also recent song Just Breathe; "Did I say that I need you… Did I say that I love you… Oh, if I didn't I'm a fool you see, no one knows this more than me… As I come clean..." Indeed, when one takes the proper posture of repentance, one can even call one's own self a fool with a certain pleasure, for in spite of the sorrow that goes along with failure, there's also the joy of recognizing that we have been saved from our blindness and stupidity. And so both songs appropriately end with a kind of beatific vision; "I studied your face and the fear goes away… the fear goes away"; and "Hold me 'till I die… Meet you on the other side…"

 7. Fallen - Sarah McLachlan

If the story of the Prodigal Son/Daughter were turned into a pop song, there hardly could be a better match than this one; "Heaven bent to take my hand and lead me through the fire. Be the long awaited answer to a long and painful fight. Truth be told I tried my best, but somewhere along the way, I got caught up in all there was to offer, and it cost me so much more than I could bear." Like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, we believe that we can manage the magic, we can dabble in sin, we can dip our toes into the waters of the abyss, and not be pulled down by the riptide of concupiscence; "We all begin with good intent (the road to hell…) when love was raw and young. We believe that we can change ourselves, the past can be undone. Though we carry on our backs the burden time always reveals. In the lonely light of morning, in the wound that would not heal, it's the bitter taste of losing everything that I'd held so dear. I've fallen, I have sunk so low. I messed up… Better I should know. So don't come round here and tell me I told you so." Who knows what Ms. McLachlan is specifically talking about here. Truth is, it really doesn't matter, for the story is the same regardless. Man takes God's gifts, re appropriates them for his own purposes, squanders them in such a way so as to heap misery upon himself (in spite of the initial pleasure that may have gone with the sin), and thus finds himself slopping around with the pigs in dire need of redemption; "Heaven bent to take my hand, no where left to turn, lost to those I thought were friends, to everyone I know. Oh, they turned their heads embarrassed, pretend that they don't see, that it's one misstep, one slip before you know it. And there doesn't seem a way to be redeemed…" God in his patience and love is so merciful that he actually still waits for us in spite of the fact that we, like Ms. McLachlan, exhaust all of our options, and then, and only then, turn to him for help. And what symbol of Lent could be a better example of that patience and mercy than the sign of the Cross? Indeed, the joy of penance is not merely that we can receive forgiveness for our sins and failings (which is impressive enough), but that in spite of the fact that we have rejected and spurned our Savior and God, he awaits us with an Easter embrace. Yet in order to truly partake in this Easter celebration, there is one prescription that cannot be omitted, one remedy that incidentally coincides with the logic of every one of the aforementioned songs. In order to reach the true hope of the resurrection, one must first travel along the Via Dolorosa of repentance.                        

A few more to consider: Man in the Mirror (Michael Jackson) and "Sorry" Seems to be the Hardest Word (Elton John)