Reviews

Hope born of grief

Review of Carolyn Arends' new album 'Recognition'.

All of my dead came flooding back to me. The friends, the suicides, the murders, the babies, family members, the old and the much too young. They all came flooding back as I listened to Carolyn Arends singing “To Cry for You.”

Blessed are the ones who weep / ‘Cause every tear is proof / Of ties that bind so strong and deep / That death cannot undo / So it is my honour to cry for you.

With Recognition, Carolyn Arends has produced a stunningly beautiful album, borne of grief and resonating so richly with the sorrow and anxiety that has such a hold on the world in the midst of this pandemic. If it is true that those who weep are blessed, then we are a blessed people indeed.

This is an album for a healing that begins in tears. So don’t be surprised if you find your eyes welling up as you listen closely. Arends lovingly strips away all superficial veneers, while musically and lyrically guiding us past our denials and distractions in order to face our sorrows, our debilitating pain. In “Pool of Tears,” the artist sings:

Pain is part of the deal / for as long as we’re here / But we’re not all alone in this, that much is clear / All of us sit by our own pool of tears.

I know, this sounds heavy, but in fact it is liberating. The burdens get lifted, they get lighter as you listen closely to this wonderful album.

Even when she is singing about deep pain, you can almost hear the smile on her face. This album is so good for the soul, so cathartic, and so healing. The music is like a loving embrace.

In fact the most joyful song on the album is a bouncy tune about death. “Memento Mori” is a delightfully clever tune that invites us to face death with a smile on our face.

Memento Mori / Remember you will die / So live the story / You want to tell / Memento Mori / You only get one life / So don’t be sorry / Just live it well.

And in “Let love lead you home,” a song that could be an anthem for all hospital, retirement home and hospice chaplains, the artist tenderly sings:

When it’s time for you to leave / Gather all the love you’ve known / the love you gave, the love received / And let it lead you home / Oh, let love lead you home.

If I ever forget these words, I pray that someone will remind me on my deathbed.

With echoes of Leonard Cohen and Bruce Cockburn, and in duet with Amy Grant, Arends sings:

So I guess this is my song for all the ones / Who keep singing as the world comes undone / Like a broken hallelujah, their melodies soar / Till the world’s not quite so broken anymore / Yeah like a rumour of glory, our melodies soar / And the world’s not quite as hopeless anymore.

And isn’t that the calling of evocative, truth-telling and life-giving art? “God knows there’s injustice everywhere/But the music will not go away.” Music for healing. Music in the face of the pain, the injustice. Music that awakens hope anew.

But this is not music as self-medication. This is not a music to numb the pain, or to simply give us a few moments of relief while the the malady persists. On the other side of this pandemic there is no going back to “normal.” You see:

what we call normal’s a disaster / so now I just want to become… / Maladjusted / Maladjusted / ‘Cause everything we trusted has gone bad / This dysfunction / Needs disruption / So let’s all get maladjusted in a world gone mad (Maladjusted).

Recalling a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, Arends knows that being well adjusted and easily accommodated to a broken world of such un-health and dysfunction is itself to make our peace with injustice, violence and oppression. This is an album about grief and death, but the artist refuses to grant the forces of death the first or last word.

Indeed, the last word on the album looks beyond death, beyond the shadow of this pandemic crisis, beyond this long night, to the dawn of resurrection. In the midst of our deep longing for embrace, for gathering together as families, churches, friends, face to face, Carolyn Arends closes Recognition with these words of hope:

‘Cause after this, the sun will be shining / And all we missed, will come to us in a whole new light / And there we will never waste / The sweet gift of a warm embrace / When at last we are face to face / After this

Recognition is a complete album. This is not a mere collection of songs, but a well-curated meditation on our times. Judicious employment of a horn section, a string quartet and gospel back-up singers adds texture and depth to the very fine ensemble of musicians on this album. Buy it. Get a couple of copies as gifts for your minister and chaplain friends. And begin by listening to the whole work in one sitting. It did my soul an immense lot of good. I think it will for you as well.

  • Brian Walsh is a retired campus pastor and the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community in Toronto. His most recent book, with Sylvia Keesmaat, is Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice (Brazos).

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