Sunday, June 24, 2007

Music of the Week — June 24, 2007

The Innocence Mission: We Walked in Song

Never in the history of pop music has there been a more aptly-named band. Let me emphasize that I do not suggest that any member of the group was immaculately conceived or that they do not all need to go to confession with the rest of us. But there is something in their art, especially their more recent work, that seems to give some hint of something that we can’t easily imagine: a human consciousness unstained by sin.

There is a persistent and pernicious idea, one to which we all probably incline, that evil is somehow more alive and engaging than good. This is not so, but for most of us—for me at any rate—that’s often more an intellectual conviction than an immediate perception. Simone Weil remarks somewhere that fictional evil is generally more attractive than fictional good, whereas real good is more attractive than real evil. Substitute “imaginative” for “fictional” and I think you have a good description of the way most of our minds work. Moreover, there’s a tendency to see and portray the good person as somehow insipid, evasive of reality and possibly hypocritical, as in the phrase “goody two-shoes.”

The music of The Innocence Mission is a rare instance of success in the conflict described by Weil. When I listen to it I have the sense that I’m looking at the world through eyes which are enchanted by what is good and simply do not perceive “the glamour of evil.” It’s innocence, but an innocence of virtue and wisdom, not mere ignorance of evil. I have the feeling that it would recognize evil, in fact recognize it more quickly and fully than I, but perhaps fail to understand it, because unable to enter into the state of mind that would commit it or be drawn to it.

Some such explanation is required in order for me to understand what there is about this music that transcends any external description of it, which would be something along the lines of “gentle mostly acoustic folk-rock.” I’ve heard it described that way, somewhat dismissively, but I find much, much more here. A great deal of it is in the voice and lyrics of Karen Peris, the voice simultaneously womanly-warm and little-girlish, the lyrics simple but full of devastatingly effective moments where certain words are repeated and take on a resonance that never seems to end. And it’s in the melodies on which the lyrics float, and the simple but oddly moving arrangements, full of deeply evocative touches like the background vocals of “Into Brooklyn, Early in the Morning” (a song which I might wish to have played at my funeral, though the Brooklyn reference would be puzzling).

In my opinion this album is at least as good as the Mission’s last, Befriended. And in my opinion that makes it great. Most pop music is evanescent stuff, but I think I’ll still want to hear this twenty years from now, if I’m still around.

Here is the album’s page at the band’s web site. It contains links to eMusic and iTunes, where you can hear samples.

Here is my review of Befriended, most of which applies equally to We Walk in Song. I have not, obviously, changed my mind about Befriended.

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