This week’s liner notes unpack the second half of the contemporary/secular portion of the playlist, in which many of the songs touch upon themes of journeying, of seeking out light in the midst of darkness, of the hope of transformation. Many people—myself included—begin Lent in a spirit of zeal, energetically embracing practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that have been thoughtfully discerned and chosen. However, by the second or third week, the energy around these practices often begins to lag, and it is not unusual for minor slip-ups or major falls to occur, which, in turn, can lead to a sense of discouragement in the face of one’s own limitations.
When failure occurs, the easy thing to do is to give in to discouragement: to wallow in self-pity or self-loathing, to rationalize, justify, excuse, whatever the case may be. Such is the way of pride, for it curves us inward and keeps the focus on the self, rather than on God, who is the only possible source of healing and strength. Humility provides the only possible remedy, for it is in humility that we learn not only to recognize our creatureliness (and thus our imperfection), but also to embrace it, turning and becoming once again like children of our loving God (see Matthew 18:1–4). Humility impels us to admit our failure, to seek forgiveness (in the Sacrament of Reconciliation if necessary), to trust in the boundless mercy of God, and to try again.
Humility also prevents graver failures. Absent any instances of actual failure in our Lenten practices, we fall into the mistake of believing that we are the source of any spiritual progress we might make this season. Rather, as St. Paul writes to the Philippians, it is God who has begun this good work in us, and it is God who “will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6).
Humility reminds us that Lent is long, that life is long, that temptation never rests and failure lurks around every corner. Humility warns us that we cannot take one step on this journey of faith without clinging tightly to the hand of Christ, lest we fall immediately into oblivion. And yet, humility also reassures us that the One to whom we cling is the One who is our light in the darkness, our guide on the journey, the One who has gone before us, who has faced and withstood every temptation, who knows our weakness and loves us anyway. May this music continue to accompany you on your Lenten journey in times of mundane decision and momentous temptation, and may you continue to “walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8).
Rain Clouds, The Arcadian Wild
This stunner from The Arcadian Wild’s 2015 debut album is a prime example of solemn joy. The melancholic lyrics and subdued musical textures are kept from the edge of despair by the quietly sunny F-major key, the whimsical guitar and mandolin riffs, and the unpretentious vocals. Like Sufjan Stevens in Transfiguration, The Arcadian Wild gradually builds up the musical complexity throughout the song—like the sun gradually emerging from behind the rain clouds—right up through its exultant conclusion. For anyone who has ever struggled to keep up their Lenten practices (so, you know, for everyone), this song offers in one breath an honest cry for light in the midst of darkness, and in the next breath it answers that cry with heartfelt lyrics that one could imagine as coming from Jesus himself: “Listen to my voice. Close your frightened eyes, hide behind my love for you. Fear’s only a choice—one that we must all make someday—so know you’re not alone in this.”
Down By the Water, The Decemberists
With an opening harmonica riff reminiscent of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” Decemberists front man Colin Meloy roots this song firmly in the tradition of folk Americana music. A discontentedness runs throughout the lyrics, a resistance to the current state of things, a sense that all is not well. The solution, Meloy claims, is allowing oneself to be knocked down, torn up, broken apart in order to be put back together and filled with water. Often, by the time Lent arrives, there is often a discontentedness with the way the year has unfolded thus far, and the season offers us an opportunity to break with the current state of things by embracing ascetical practices. By allowing ourselves to be broken down (the natural result of any practice that brings us face to face with our weakness and sinfulness), God can then build us anew, recreate us into who he always meant us to be.
When Will I Be Changed, Josh Ritter, feat. Bob Weir
The search for redemption often figures into Josh Ritter’s songwriting, though it is an experience more often filtered through the iconic characters featured in his story songs like “Harrisburg” or “Annabelle Lee.” In this track from his 2017 album Gathering, though, it’s Ritter himself who is seeking what he himself described as “hope for personal transformation and transcendence.” Featuring guest vocalist Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead, this song sounds like a cover of a nineteenth-century revival hymn, like something old and new and ageless and timeless. Humanity’s search for transformation, transcendence, and redemption, too, is a “tale as old as time,” but for the Christian, it’s a story with a happy ending, for in Christ, “we will all be changed in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor 15:51b–52).
Come On Home, Indigo Girls
Penned by Emily Saliers, daughter of theology professor emeritus Don Saliers (Emory’s Candler School of Theology), this song is filled with explicit biblical imagery, including references to the Last Supper, the betrayal for silver, the Cross and its cosmic significance. Yet, it also contains an implicitly biblical arc as well, the idea of coming home, of exitus and reditus. Listening to this song, I cannot help but be reminded of Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11–32), which might more aptly be called the prodigal father. For indeed, the father’s prodigality in welcoming his wayward son home is an image of God’s immeasurable mercy. Many people find themselves considering a return to the faith during this Lenten season. Viewed through that lens, this song can almost become like a heartfelt prayer offered in the hope that those who have gone “off to war with enemies only [they] can see” might, like the prodigal son, “come to [their] senses” (Lk 15:17)—might “come on home.”
One Lonely Light, Amos Lee
Not only does this song prove that the addition of a back-up Gospel choir always takes soulful, prayerful music to the next level, but (more importantly) it also provides an apt follow-up to the Indigo Girls. Here, the speaker seems to be trying to reassure himself that, even when confronted with the worst parts of himself, there will always be a light to guide him back home. In the practice of almsgiving, particularly, we can become that Christ-light for other people, serving as a gentle beacon to guide them back to God, back to themselves, through acts of generosity, kindness, and forgiveness. As Shakespeare’s Portia proclaims in The Merchant of Venice, “How far that little candle throws his beams! / So shines a good deed in a naughty world” (V.1.88–89).
Dark Road, Sarah Jarosz
Featured on singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz’s third album, Build Me Up From Bones (released in 2013 when Jarosz was just 22), this song has an old-world earthiness. The drop-D tuning of the guitar sonically roots the piece, for that low D just stays put, even as the chords above it change. This gives the music an insistent quality that only gives way when we arrive at the chorus and the bass note finally changes, as Jarosz acknowledges that “the darkness covers me sometimes.” By the end of the chorus, though, we are back to our roots, having been assured that “if you take your time you will make it fine.” The slow, deliberate harmonic shifts in the song embody that taking of time, and they invite the listener to take her time, to keep walking the dark road, for slow steps are still steady ones, and any movement is better than none at all. After all, the road will eventually unwind, and the darkness will give way to the light.
Jesus Was an Only Son, Bruce Springsteen
To hear Springsteen himself describe his approach to writing this song as he is in the act of singing it, it is worthwhile to check out the excerpt from the VH-1 special Storytellers (remember Storytellers and Behind the Music and Unplugged and actual music playing on VH-1 and MTV?). This heart-rending song focuses on the relationship between Jesus and Mary during its most definitive moment—at the Cross. Springsteen meditates on Mary’s anguish at losing her only Son, Jesus’s sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane for “the life he’d never live,” but ultimately, he ends the song on a note of hope, as Jesus reminds Mary (and us), “Remember the soul of the universe willed a world and it appeared”—a distinctively Springsteen-ian spin on Jesus’s words from the Gospel of Matthew: “for God all things are possible” (19:26; see also: Lk 1:37). Songwriters like The Boss, Josh Ritter, Bob Dylan, and so many others are aptly described as “God-haunted”: in the religious imagery they explore through their song-writing, they work intently through their relationship with God, whatever that might look like, and in so doing, they help the rest of us through that process as well, making them a strange and vulnerable, yet powerful sort of evangelist indeed.
Light On, Maggie Rogers
By far the youngest song on the list, the unabashed, straight-up pop sound might cause listeners to dismiss or even skip over this track, but to do so would be to miss out on surprisingly rich lyrics, sung with confident nuance beyond the years of its young songwriter. The steadiness in the beat of songs like this always brings an image of walking to my mind, but not just any walking—the strong, confident walking of one who knows that they do not walk alone. Rogers herself is not always so confident of herself in the song, expressing feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty, but she finds her stability in the hope that the one who grounds her will leave the light on for her to find her way home, an act which in turn will give her the courage to let her own light shine forth. A few Lents ago, the Archdiocese of Washington created a campaign called “The Light is On for You” to encourage people to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation (a nod to the light above the confessional door), which has been taken up by many dioceses throughout the country. The campaign continues today, and if those in charge of it were ever in search of a theme song, I would say Maggie Rogers has the answer for them here.
The House of God, Forever, Jon Foreman
Since he departed the band Switchfoot in 2005, former front man Jon Foreman has pursued a musical career that encompasses both acoustic folk, bluegrass, and rock. Here, he offers an indie folk acoustic arrangement of his own paraphrase of Psalm 23. The relaxed yet upbeat textures created by the instruments, coupled with the lyricism of the background vocals and the simplicity of the lead vocals all combine to create an idyllic sonic scene reflective of the text itself, in which one almost watches the song float past on a gentle current of the psalm’s quiet streams. This psalm has brought comfort and peace to troubled hearts and anxious minds for millennia, and in the midst of the emotional and spiritual turmoil that can often crop up as a result of ascetical practices, it is important to remember that God is always with us, a loving shepherd who guides us, his beloved sheep, gently beckoning us to follow him to green pastures and to the abundant feast he has prepared for us.
I Shall Not Walk Alone, Ben Harper
Melodically, this song—particularly in the way Harper delivers the vocals—comes across as an amalgamation of traditional hymn tune, spiritual, and folk song. In its instrumentation and harmonic structure, which utilize a solo violin and drop-tuned guitar playing only a few chords, the sparseness of this song is like the sparseness of Lent itself: spare and thoughtful for the purposes of deeper introspection and a more profound contemplation of faith’s greatest mysteries. Lyrically, this song is a feast for the Catholic imagination. Its Marian focus serves as a poignant reminder that Jesus’s words and actions are always followed and pondered by his Mother. For those of us who daily struggle on our own Way of the Cross, this means that Mary, too, is our companion on the journey of Lent and of life. She will never suffer us to walk alone, and she will remain with us as she remained with Jesus, faithful even after he breathed his last, even as she held his lifeless body in her arms. We can always rely on the presence and prayer of Mary, and reaching for her is the surest way of being led to her Son.
You can access the complete 40 song playlist below or at this link or by searching for the phrase “Lent: 40 Songs for 40 Days” in Spotify.
Editorial Note: The posts from this series will be collected here throughout Lent.
Featured Image: Stanisław Wyspiański, Planty at Dawn, 1894; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.