Sunday Night Journal — July 18, 2004
I was not at all prepared for the most recent album by The Innocence Mission, Befriended. The Innocence Mission have been around for some time, their first album having been released in 1989. The only one I’ve heard extensively is the second, Umbrella. It’s a good, well-crafted album, but it didn’t make a strong impression on me, and except for a few tracks from Glow (1995), I had not heard any of their later work. Listening to Umbrella again now, I think it’s better than I gave it credit for being. It has a dense, crowded, sound, and although all the elements are excellent I wonder if some brutal excision might have helped the overall effect. I don’t know much about recording, but I have the sense that certain frequency ranges are crowding each other, and that the guitar and voice parts are competing for my attention more than they should do. The songs are complex and intriguing, both musically and lyrically, although a bit diffuse.
But however good Umbrella is, Befriended seems to be in another class altogether.
Before I say anything else, let me admit that my first impressions don’t always last, and that I have been known to retreat from initial enthusiastic judgments, especially where music is concerned. In six months or so I’ll revisit my opinion of this album and find out whether I still concur.
With that out of the way, I must say that Befriended has gone immediately into a very select group of pop music works which affect me so deeply and engage my attention so completely that I can’t listen to them in the car, which is where I most often listen to music, having a daily thirty-mile (each way) commute. Pop aficionados will get a sense of the company in which this places Befriended if I say that other albums in this very small group are Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Emmy Lou Harris’s Wrecking Ball, and the best of Nick Drake’s work.
These are all very different artists, but what they have in common is the ability to evoke something which I find myself calling “transcendence” without really knowing exactly what I mean. This is a word we abuse, I think, often meaning merely “very very good.” But what I mean here is something different, and “submergence” would do almost as well: it’s a sense that the work puts us in touch with the most essential core of our souls, which is, paradoxically, the point where we are most directly connected to the literally transcendent—i.e., that which is above, beyond , out of reach, but nevertheless what we most want and need. I’ll venture to suggest that the emotional power of these works arises from the fact that they are able to make us aware, equally and simultaneously, of both the object of our desire and its unattainability. They give us almost unbearable joy and almost unbearable sadness: a yearning which is more desirable than most pleasures.
It would of course be impossible for me to explain exactly what it is about Befriended that produces this effect in me. It’s also certain that it will not produce this effect in everyone. But I’ll make some attempt to describe the music. It might be described as light, almost minimalist folk-pop. The basic texture is one voice and a couple of acoustic guitars, only lightly embellished with electric guitar and a touch of strings (or string-like synthesizer) or piano. Some tracks have a very restrained acoustic bass. There’s very little percussion. Terms like “wispy” and “gossamer” come to mind, only to be immediately discarded, because in spite of its delicacy the music seems to have a deep core of strength. “Sparse” is perfectly accurate, though, and all is done with immaculate taste and restraint, leaving the listener with a sense that absolutely nothing is out of place, superfluous, or absent. I can in fact imagine a critic complaining that the music is a little too controlled, though I wouldn’t really agree with him.
The songs are full of gorgeous and affecting melodies. And as is the case with all first-class pop music, the lyrics are indispensable. Karen Peris, the singer and main songwriter, showed, on Umbrella, a level of skill and care with words that is far beyond that of most pop songwriters, and she has only gotten better. There are fewer words here, and simpler, but they somehow cut much deeper. Most of them are firmly rooted in very ordinary things:
When Mac was swimming
I was running late
Walking around New Orleans
Looking for a birthday cake
It was a great surprise to him
So many people came
Some of the lyrics leap from these humble things to mystical heights; some (like the one above) remain very much down to earth but still refer, by implication and gesture, to the heights, sometimes in the simplest possible way, as in a song called Beautiful Change:
The snow is here
The light is bright
The lyrics seem very feminine and somehow domestic. One feels that one is eavesdropping on the inner life of a suburban housewife who also happens to be a mystic.
One reservation: Karen Peris has an odd voice. I have tried a couple of times to describe it and failed. I didn’t entirely like it on Umbrella. Whether that was an effect of the style and production of Umbrella, or her voice has just gotten better with age, I don’t know, but on the more restrained Befriended it’s beautiful, rich and warm in the low registers and almost unbearably poignant in the higher. But it may not be to everyone’s taste. She also has some oddities of pronunciation that sometimes obscure the words.
There is only so much a listener’s praise can convey, so here are some links where you can find samples of the music, as well as a little more information on the band (not as much as I would like, actually). Here is the band’s web site. You can download one song on the Befriended page there.