the things that we are made of : the album you didn’t know you needed


And I can’t stop trying to hold in my hands
that moment I could feel my heart expand
with more love than I thought could exist in the world
the hollows were gone, the emptiness filled
a life transformed down to the bone
this map of my heart is all that I own

I don’t like many female singers.

This isn’t fair, I know. But I want more from them. I want them to speak for me, in a way I never expect male singers to do (when they do, it’s a pleasant surprise). The dissonances between female singers and me hit me harder, and turn me off. When they bring sass I cannot; when they excuse things they should not (see: Amanda Palmer), when they don’t let their lyrics sink any deeper than the sheets, I turn them off.

Not so Mary Chapin Carpenter, or her 2016 album The Things That We Are Made Of, which I hadn’t heard till now.

She uses words I use. Careen, cadence, stars. She is more honest than is necessarily safe. She allows for the contemplation of sorrow without either seemingly clinically distant or letting it overwhelm her. Without it defining her. While still allowing for the possibility of warmth.

She sounds exactly like she did in 1992, when my dad was at sea and my mom played her new album on audio cassette, in the kitchen in our rental under a stained-glass lamp that looked like the ones in restaurants. (I am, you see, biased.) At first we were baking figures we molded out of Fimo, but they all burnt, and eventually we laid the clay aside in favor of dinner. Mom stirred the soup as “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” came on, and she sang along. I interrupted her, asking if her liking the song meant she’d leave our dad. Mom was, after all, home with children, and cooking for them, as was the character in the song.

She pressed pause to explain no. She played the song again and said listen, listen to how young she did this, how little else she has in her life before she started a family. I had a life first, she said.

I don’t know what music reviewers say about Mary Chapin Carpenter, and I don’t want to know. Like so many reviewers, they seem given to jadedness, to being snarky for snark’s sake. And this album is anything but that. It’s always a relief to stumble onto someone too worn out by fashionable disdain to employ it, whether by experience or emotional soreness, and she comes to her earnestness through both. Even the rare twangier chordings — from which I flinch more out of reflex; an expectation of cultural remorse that I suppose is a product of the messages country music typically sends than because twangy chords are inherently awful to the ears — cannot detract from her tenderness and what, I suppose, feels like honesty, though I am of course in no position to know one way or the other.

“The Middle Ages,” in particular, is striking:

We used to dread lives rendered ordinary
we always said we’d own a grander story
but the only kind worth telling somehow
is the one about a jolt that makes you listen
that jagged lightning bolt of recognition
that love and kindness are all that matter now

Meanwhile, “Note On a Windshield” manages to be a startlingly gripping narrative song. I can count on one hand the number of narrative songs whose narrative power lives up to their melodic power, let alone songs that are gripping. When I find myself thinking “please no, please please please…” waiting on the next line of a song lyric, of all things, I mean, man. It’s beautiful.

I wish I could write about her the way men have written about Leo Kottke or Bill Fox. I would feel less disloyal, less deserving of critique for my musical preferences. But a little grain of resentment rubs me when I read such paeans: there is a whole constellation of people waiting to speak for you, when you’re a man listening to folk music. Everyone is just sitting around waiting to identify with you on how difficult it is thinking about The One Who Got Away, or how hard it is Working For The Man, or Finding A Girl Who Gets You. Or how what you believed in childhood isn’t what you believe anymore. Or how the gradual decline of your parents makes you empty inside.

I move through the world like an arrow that flies
Slicing the air as I’m mapping the skies
And way deep down the echoes remain
Memories sounding like rattling chains

But lately I think I am coming around
I’m liking the feel of my feet on the ground
And last night I stopped dead in these tracks
Recalling your hand on the small of my back

When I was younger how I took my time
Folly and wisdom form points on a line
From one to another with space in between
For the lessons you learn & the dreams that you dream

But tell me what happens when dreams don’t come true
How you overcome some things until they overtake you
Why you never got chosen, why you never felt claimed
By some passion or person that is never explained

I come on quiet but I’m fierce as a lion
Life will take us apart but we never stop trying
To proceed as if whole and intact
Like I felt with your hand on my back

But we are asked either to be sassy or to be in love. That’s about it. And that’s a really shallow list of ways to approach the world. So to hear someone like Carpenter — whose voice I freely admit to being more willing to believe in, familiar as it is — articulate a broader spectrum of existence is like a hug you thought you’d never get. Maybe it’s just because my mom is gone. Maybe it’s foolish. Maybe it’s dangerous projection — but I’d never go up to her after a concert or write her a letter* or bother her with the tawdry tale of how her music makes me feel. As with Critical Role, or any number of books or video games, I look at how fans interact with with creators — and how creators react to that interaction — and wince at joining their ranks. It seems better to be self-contained, reserved and silent in your fandom, than to be open and risk disgusting someone with the fervency of your gratitude.

And here, I guess, the applicable word is more gratitude than fandom, really. But it is still something that goes best unexpressed. For what I am grateful for is for her blurring of lines she has no reason to know have been drawn. Between laughter and silence, between a desk lit by fluorescent lights and a stained-glass lamp over a stove. Between having a mom and not having one. If my love for this album stems from the shock and pleasure of hearing thoughts I’ve felt expressed by someone else, it is…offensive, maybe, to assume that such thoughts were believed to have been sent into a void. You write, after all, intending to connect to people. What for a listener (or reader, or player) is a shock and a pleasure was surely never meant to be. They intended someone to connect with them. The fact that it was you is immaterial.

And I remember feeling I’m alive and in no need of saviors
If the past’s another country I’m at the border with my papers
Where is your heart if not inside you

where is home or are you lost
where is love if not beside you

I had no answers but they let me cross

*Not technically true; writing letters is the easiest — but the world is small, and the threat of meeting a stranger after you’ve bared your heart to them is somewhat unnerving.


random music fridays : playlist edition

Sometimes I try to listen to something other than soundtracks! Especially on Fridays when I’m the only one in the office. So then, for your listening pleasure:

Only the loss of this song from Amazon Prime’s licensing agreement could cause me to return to Spotify, whose persistent ads irk me to no end.

Holy shit, Gnarls Barkley was CeeLo Green and Danger Mouse. I had no idea. Also, the juxtaposition of the passive-aggressive “bless your soul” plus the the seeming earnestness of the next question gets me every time.


Come for the hymn humming, stay for the rockabilly. Also the line “I’m gonna cover myself with the ashes of youth.”

I felt like a dog chasing my tail with the familiarity of the chorus until I remembered the intro song to the thoroughly bizarre 1990 kids movie Mother Goose Rock n’ Rhyme. Have you ever wanted to see a bunch of famous musicians roleplay nursery rhymes in a world without straight lines or, seemingly, long-lensed cameras? Then this is the movie for you.

The best to sing along to. Similar in sentiment to Nick Drake’s “From the Morning,” the first-person chorus makes it, I don’t know, more satisfying to sing. More of a promise, less of a story you’re telling about someone else.

I’m such a sap for strings brought out of their quartets and into the world. The SNL-esque saxophones bug me a little, but the strings and even the lyrics are worth it.

i’m your lionheart

I know there’s no real need to defend romance or its presence in stories. As a standalone genre, it makes plenty of money (~1/5 of the market share as of 2013), and people like the folks over at Felicia Day’s amazingly-and-somewhat-nsfw-titled-book-club discuss and I suppose inadvertently defend the stuff with more more humor and good nature than I can.

But a run-of-the-mill, practical reason not to scoff and roll your eyes at the presence of romance in fiction, or music, or art, is that it reminds us to be romantic creatures. It doesn’t come easily to all of us, you know. Blessed with parents who never screamed or threw things at each other, this meant also that my parents weren’t given to random acts of affection, either — at least not where we kids could see anyway — and whether it was that observational learning or an innate uneasiness with making bare that which could then be mocked, picked apart, or turned into discourse (often an unfortunate blend of the previous two options), I’m not the most romantic individual. I have to be reminded.

Hence, King and Lionheart, by Of Monsters and Men.

Music is the easiest reminder, for me, to be romantic. It moves us the swiftest. Books come next, though it’s a long slow wave and sometimes too complicated to explain why, after closing the final page, we quietly walk over to our loved one and fling their arms around them.  A muffled “just a book” into someone’s neck is sometimes easier than explaining why the whole arc of the thing demanded human contact upon its completion.

But movies and shows don’t do it for me, as a general rule. I don’t know why. They’re always…people who exist in this world, these people on the screens. Actors. People with lives beyond those they are portraying, about which we know too much. I know that’s unfair. I know, especially as someone who writes, that there is a person and a process behind the prose on the page. But I am spared the disconnect of having to stare at them, or the people they picked to be stand-ins for their visions. Of having to be corrected, every second, from the specific way in which I imagine a character to be moving through the world, with what a director, makeup crew, focus groups and a whole organization of people serve up instead. Again, I know this is unfair. I’ve never been as avid a watcher of movies or shows as I am a reader, it’s true. This is, perhaps, part of the reason why. Our predilections are rarely fair.

Music, though, grants us even more freedom to embroider a song’s story with our specifics — what we need it to be about. Music is convenient like that. It’s probably why I always shy away from interviews with musicians, or even live shows — I don’t want to know what gave rise to this song; what inspired you. I don’t care. A song is what I need in the moment I need to hear it — because I seek out music prescriptively, I suppose — and frequently, what I need to hear, to be reminded of, is that yes, one can be romantic. In a way that doesn’t need to be softened with staged sighs followed by overhead shots of heart-shaped beds during the chorus; you can be romantic in a way that gets carried over and through again and again on the sturdy back of a drum set. You can drop off so quiet that you think the song is going to fade out, that frustrating modern convention, only to come running back banging not only drums but your feet, your hands; even a goddamn accordion. Bright and fierce and triumphant.

And yes, I really, really like Of Monsters and Men.

random music fridays : morning nightcap

I didn’t know that this was the sort of thing you should defensively hide from people until Stephen Colbert made a flippant aside a few years ago — “How am I even supposed to tell if it’s good?” — and then a quick google and I had everyone from historical instrument builders to pagan tumblr making it abundantly clear that it was wrong in so many ways to like, well, this. This Definitively Not Authentic (why are we still worshiping authenticity as an a.) concrete or b.) attainable characteristic?) New Age-y Celtic Crap. And I could go on and on carefully extricating myself from any trumped-up claims of blood kinship to the music, or “fake Irish”-ness, couching my enjoyment of these sounds within the safe, narrow confines of childhood familiarity or a happenstance Riverdance ticket gifted by a school friend in the 90s.

But I don’t have to do any of that, and I’m not going to. That warm tone A Morning Nightcap opens with is fantastic. It’s like the perfect part of your run where you have endorphins but also air in your lungs, when the road is clear of people and you could go on forever. It sounds the way smiling feels on your face. I don’t care if people 200 years ago weren’t playing this — because the instruments were different or the arrangement was or whatever. I don’t care if my ancestors ever listened to this. It’s great. Haters gonna hate, but it’s great.

Enjoy it.

random music fridays : seve

This song samples from “O Sifuni Mungu,” by African Children’s Choir. It’s upbeat, and it’s in Swahili, which my mom knew. She learned it as part of her job, rehabilitating people’s hands in Kenya after they were shredded or crushed, usually by construction or farming equipment.

I’m an upbeat person. I don’t walk around staring at my feet. I wish strangers good days and good weekends and mean it. For months after Mom died, though, I wasn’t. And now I am again.

It’s hard to recognize the clouds that hang over your head when you’re under them.

random music fridays : i’m not calling you a liar

Ahem, one moment please.

*cough*HOW DID I MISS THIS OMGWTFBBQQQQQQ!!!11otherearlyaughtsexpressionsofshock*cough*

Yes, now. Where were we?

Florence and the Machine’s I’m Not Calling You a Liar, reworked with the zithers(?) that work their way through Inon Zur’s soundtrack for Dragon Age II, plays during the end credits. A fact I learned by accident five minutes ago, when YouTube’s auto-play moved me right on through the DA2 soundtrack to this last song which completely escaped my notice until now:

If I am honest with myself I know why I missed it, despite being a fan of Florence + the Machine and Dragon Age. The year DA2 came out, I was trying to do too much, and there are frighteningly huge gaps in my memories. Juggling a new job, a resumed relationship, and finishing a two-year degree program double-time in one year, there were days I worked from 5AM to 11PM, day after day after day, and while somehow in there I managed to play DA2, the fact that I missed out on, or blanked out on, the credits sequence does not surprise me. I burnt out that year.

But still! Oh my god, listen! I love this version even more than the original. The meandering piano and bouncy claps are too much at odds, too cutely endearing, with how I want to be cut up by a song. And this version does that. Is part of that due to the context it gains from playing at the end of DA2? Sure, maybe. But I’ll take it!

random music fridays : angela

At work, I’m one of the first people in, and I head to the gym before actually clocking in. I’m already tired from the four mile bike ride in, and I’ve had no coffee yet, and I’m bowed under the huge sack that clips onto the back of my bike. I’m bleary and slow-moving across a silent courtyard, is what I’m saying. But the radio connected to the coffeeshops clicks on at about the time I arrive, and when this belted out across the dark, muggy morning earlier this week a smile split my face.