Listen to the Voice of Experience

u2 songs of experienceU2 has been doing what they do for a long time. Now they’ve finally released their follow-up to 2014’s Songs of Innocence with their 14th studio album Songs of Experience.

To be honest, I previewed it online and thought, “Meh!” In those brief excerpts, my first impression was not very favorable, there was nothing that grabbed me, nothing that stood out and said, “You need to listen to this!” But it’s U2! This is the band that has reinvented itself over and over again and I can’t think of a better name for this latest offering of theirs than Songs of Experience.

I remember the Fall of my freshman year of college when Achtung Baby came out. It was a little hard to take at first. It seemed like such a leap from The Joshua Tree that I wasn’t completely convinced. As much as I can be a change junkie, more often than not, I can be a creature of habit who loves the comfort of those warm and familiar things, like a band who knows how to ride a winning formula.

But I listened to it, then I listened to it again, and I kept listening to it over and over again. In fact, between Achtung Baby and Metallica’s black album, the sonic world of my first semester of college was filled. I could have been complete with just those two albums alone (but there was more).

Songs of Experience, like its predecessor was an album that needed repeat listening for me. I wasn’t fully convinced. As I listened, I was reminded of a scene from Mr. Holland’s Opus. The main character has just been told by his wife that she is pregnant. He is imagining all of his dreams drifting out the window with this sudden change in his life. His wife is upset at his less than enthusiastic response to this news. After a moment, he recounts the story of his introduction to John Coltrane after a recommendation from the guy at the record store. After his initial listening, he hated the album, but he listened to it again. Then he listened to it again and again and again until he couldn’t stop. In that moment he realized that he had fallen in love with the music of John Coltrane. He tells his wife that learning about her pregnancy will be like falling in love with John Coltrane all over again.

I kind of feel like this is a similar experience with U2. Listening to this album, I mean really listening to it and digesting it, picking it apart, spending time with it, wallowing in it, and hearing every word and every note. It is like falling in love with U2 all over again.

Bono was involved in a bicycle accident in 2014. After the accident, he embraced the challenge shared by poet, Brendan Kennelly, that if you really want to get to the heart of writing, you need to write as if you’re dead, writing retrospectively and introspectively. When you factor that in with the political landscape after the election of Donald Trump and the consideration that U2 recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of their album The Joshua Tree, Songs of Experience feels almost like an honest and reflective journal entry.  This album is an intimate and introspective exploration, asking more questions than offering answers. It doesn’t feel preachy, which I think Bono has been accused of in the past, it feels more like advice offered from the experience of mistakes and even regret.

Like the album cover from their last offering, this one offers a more intimate connection to the band. The cover of their last album, Songs of Innocence, showed the band’s drummer, Larry Mullen, Jr., hugging his shirtless son around the waist as if he was pleading with him not to leave his innocence behind. The cover of Songs of Experience depicts Bono’s son and Edge’s daughter (the latter donning the soldier helmet from their Best of 1980-1990 album). They stand there on the cover barefoot, hand in hand, dressed in black. It’s almost a paradox in a picture, the juxtaposition of youth and experience shrouded in black as if they are marking the death of something. Ready for the battle with life that is ahead of them.

The songs:

– “Love Is All We Have Left” – Bono sings, “Love is all we have left” to begin the album. It acts as a Call to Worship of sorts, inviting the listener into the liturgy of the next hour as U2 engages them with their thoughts on the state of things. The double negative that, “this is no time not to be alive.” Defiance against improbable odds, against death itself, love will carry us.

– “Lights of Home” – “I shouldn’t be here ‘cause I should be dead” referring to his bike accident that sidelined him; asking Jesus if he’s still his friend; launches right into this uptown, driving song. “I believe my best days are ahead.” It ends with Bono singing, “Free yourself to be yourself.” A reminder of where we can go to find hope, in the eyes of those we love, there we find the hope to push on. We move forward as we remember where we’ve been.

– “You’re the Best Thing About Me” – Bono makes reference to not only the band’s past album, “Boy,” but also himself as he explains more of the album’s title, saying that he is no longer who he used to be. Paying homage to those around him who have helped him become who he is today, those whom he loves and who have loved him. It’s a humble statement of acknowledgement that we become better by the people with whom we surround ourselves.

– “Get Out of Your Own Way” – Listening to the interview that Bono and The Edge did with Howard Stern, Bono talks about how he wrote this song for his daughter. It’s a love letter from a father who is offering words of wisdom as much to himself as he is to his daughter. He is offering to her from his own experience. The end transitions into “American Soul” with words that play on the Beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the arrogant, the superstars, the filthy rich. Tongue firmly planted in cheek.

– “American Soul” – “Blessed are the bullies for one day they’ll have to stand up to themselves. Blessed are the liars for the truth can be awkward.” This song continues where the previous one left off with the alternative Beatitudes. Appropriate considering who this song is to: America. This could easily have come from All That You Can’t Leave Behind or How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. Bono says this is a love letter to America who is. “still inventing and reinventing itself.” It feels like he is lamenting what America has become, painting a picture of what it was, at least in his mind. It’s a sound of drum and bass, a though that offers grace, a dream the whole world owns, it’s not a fantasy but a call to action. America is rock and roll. Having lived through the political turmoil in Ireland, this is not just facsimile, this is personal.

– “Summer of Love” – With the subtle nod to the 60s and even The Beach Boys, it seems that Bono is using slight of hand even as he sings, “I’ve been thinking ‘bout the west coast, not the one that everyone knows.” It’s a nod to the Syrian refugees who were leaving everything behind and believing, hoping, that their best days were ahead of them, something Bono wishes for himself elsewhere on this album. “When all is lost we find out what remains.” It feels a little like a sequel to “Walk On” when he sang of all that you can’t leave behind and then proceeded to encourage his listener to leave it behind.

– “Red Flag Day” – This one feels a little like early U2, like Boy and October, especially on the chorus with the backing vocals repeating “Red flag day.” The Edge’s guitar has that post-punk feel to it just like their early stuff. It speaks of the turbulence and uncertainty of where we are going. Meeting where the waves are breaking, that place that feels at one moment calm and safe and the next it knocks you off your feet. But we’re doing it together, we aren’t alone, and we step into it doing our best to not let fear drive us, or our fear of fear hold us back. Inspiring and encouraging himself as much as he is the one to whom he is writing.

– “The Showman (Little More Better)” – What’s it like to get up in front of thousands upon thousands of people and bear your soul? A love letter to anyone who falls for a performer, Bono and U2 included. He admits that you probably shouldn’t listen to performers when they aren’t singing. After all, “I lie for a living, I love to let on but you make it true when you sing along.” It’s cheeky but it’s the audience that makes him look a little more better rather than just a pompous and egotistic artist.

– “The Little Things That Give You Away” – “It’s the little things that give you away, your big mouth in the way.” A confession of sorts, that sometimes I’m full of anger, grieving, far from believing and realizing that the end us not near, it’s here. But he never stays there, it’s only sometimes, it’s temporary, but it happens nonetheless.

– “Landlady” – A love letter to his wife, Ali, Bono writes of how he is better with her. In his effort to avoid too much sentimentality, his terminology may be lost. I’m not sure what wife would like to be called a landlady considering that most people’s experience with landladies (or lords) have probably not been the most favorable. I get what he’s saying though, she’s kept him stable and sheltered, especially in those moments of instability.

– “The Blackout” – As soon as the bass kicks in with the drums in the beginning of this song, it feels almost like you’ve stepped back in time. This one feels like it could have come straight from Pop or Zooropa. It’s a political statement about where we are. With lines like, “Democracy is flat on its back” and, “A big mouth says the people they don’t want to be free” Bono is calling his listeners to adjust their eyes to the darkness, to begin to see. In that adjustment, things become clearer. As Bono writes, “It’s in the dark is where we really see ourselves, where we find out who we are, when we’re left with nothing.”

– “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” – It’s safe to say that love seems to be not only one of the biggest topics on this album but in U2’s entire catalogue. Again sharing his own experience with the next generation, assuring them that, “If I could I would come too, but the path is made by you.” These songs are letters to sons and daughters, as Bono admits, telling them to lean into love. Love will propel you, even acting as a bulldozer, strongly moving everything and anything that gets in its way. Idealistic? Yes. Hopeful? Even more so!

– “13 “There Is A Light)” – This is where the regular version of the album ends and it acts as a Benediction, closing the album in a very similar way that it was opened. It completes the liturgy with the admission that it is a song for someone like him. There is hope, you might not see it, but it is there. Things may not turn out the way that you thought they would, but you don’t let the light go out just because you encounter the darkness. Keep pressing on with love because love makes the difference.

The Deluxe Edition:

– “Ordinary Love (Extraordinary Mix)” – This is from the film Mandela: Walk of Freedom. It was a film about a man who showed his ability to endure, to fight, to walk in the ordinary of the day. Mandela showed his ability to walk in this ordinary love, especially having been imprisoned for 27 years. Can you handle the day in and day out of love, the common ordinary occurrences that happen after the honeymoon? Bono asks the question of himself, of those he loves. Are we tough enough? As an extra track, this fits well.

– “Book of Your Heart” – The experience of marriage, moving beyond just the vows and the contract. “There is a cost to the pledges made in young love but in the end the cost is never high enough, is it?” Bono asks. In an age and era where commitment means little, where marriage seems to be as expendable as a commitment to brand loyalty, this offers hope that in the mundane of life, things can still be sustained even if it’s not easy.

– “Lights of Home (St. Peter’s String Version)” – The addition of strings.

– “You’re The Best Thing About Me (U2 VS KYGO)” – Nice remix.

Bono writes towards the end of the liner notes, “I wanted to take my skin off. Performing is always a striptease but in writing you uncover stuff you didn’t know you were wearing.” He continues, “At the far end of experience, through wisdom, we hope to recover innocence.” Here is a man who is self-aware. Listening to the interview with Howard Stern, Bono expresses his dissatisfaction with his singing in some of the best music U2 has had to offer. While some may be sick of the swag with which Bono carries himself, he never seems to come across as self-righteous, at least to me, and these songs reveal a man who has come to a midway point in his life. He is looking behind and looking ahead and sharing his humble gleanings.

After my countless listening of Songs of Experience, I feel more connected to these recordings than I did with my initial listening. Isn’t that the way of relationship, though? We dig intimately deeper into another human being, we expose ourselves, revealing the good with the bad, the beautiful with the raw, and we connect.

In a world where connection seems to be confused with something that we can do digitally, I’m glad that U2 has embraced the idea of pulling songs together with cohesion and intentionality rather than simply seeking out a hit. This is a record that invites multiple listening. As someone who doesn’t always impress or astound in my initial meetings and encounters with people, I’m grateful for the grace of those 2nd and 3rd meetings and encounters. That same grace should be extended to these songs. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

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How Are You?

how-are-youIt’s a question that we may speak as often as we hear it, but how often do we ask it with sincerity, sincerely wanting to know what’s going on with the person whom we’re asking? When someone asks it of us, how likely are we to give an honest answer or do legitimately think that, if we gave an honest answer, the person who was asking us really gave a rip?

As I get older and the lens of what’s really important in life seems to become clearer, I continue to see that there are certain themes and principles that seem to apply across the board. No matter who you ask, no matter where you are, these things seem to be true.

One of these things that I have come to appreciate and understand more and more over the past few years is the fact that you can never assume that what’s on the outside of the box matches what’s on the inside. In other words, when it comes to people, just because someone seems to be doing okay on the outside doesn’t mean that they aren’t hiding something….or, more accurately, not divulging what’s really going on for any one of a number of fears.

For me, as a pastor, Sunday mornings can be among the busiest hours of my week. I am trying to make sure that everything is set. Whether I am preaching or leading the music team or whatever I might be doing, it can be an incredibly stressful hour. That’s not to say that I am not focused on the goal of that time or the importance of it, it just means that there are other things that I need to maneuver through to get focused on just why I am there. But it can be easy for me to casually cast off a “How are you?” here and there without really thinking through what I’m really asking or, worse yet, without really wanting to know or hear the answer.

Like I said, though, one thing that I am coming to realize more and more every day is that there can be far more going on beneath the surface than the casual “How are you?” with the obligatory “Good” or “Fine” retort actually shows. And I wonder just how many people answer the question honestly and really feel that they can answer the question honestly. If I answer honestly, will the person asking even care? If they care and I’m honest, will they tell the world about what’s going on in my life? If they find out what’s really going on in my life, will they shun me and make me feel as isolated as I already feel?

I’ve come to realize that just because someone answers that they’re doing good or fine or whatever, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s an honest answer. And so it’s forcing me to pay attention and to listen. How do people carry themselves? Are their words and answers matching their body language? Are they dropping any subtle hints about what’s lying beneath the surface as I speak with them?

Because I can get so caught up in the goal and the endgame, I can easily forget about the people involved in accomplishing and achieving that goal. When I do that, it cheapens the relationships that I have that are far more important than that would indicate. The last thing that I want is for the people around me to think that they are just cogs in a system of simply getting to the end. I wouldn’t want to feel like that, so why should I think that anyone else would want that either?

No, things aren’t always what they seem. There is usually so much more lurking beneath the surface, but it takes intention, patience, love, empathy, care, and time to really get there. People aren’t going to share it right out of the gate. They need to know that they can trust you, they need to know that you won’t betray their confidence, and they need to know that you really, truly, genuinely care about them and what’s really going on in their lives.

I’m learning, I’m growing, and I’m trying to do better here. I’m working to make sure that if I ask someone “How are you?” that I am ready for whatever kind of answer they might return to me. I might not always like the answer, I might not always feel like I’ve got the time for the answer, but to not listen and care about the answer is to allow someone to float off all alone out there in the world.

We can make a difference when we listen and pay attention. We can make a difference when we legitimately ask the question and want to know the answer. I know that when I’ve done it with genuine concern, it’s made a huge difference to the people to know that someone is paying attention and someone cares. I know that there have been times when the question has been asked of me and I probably gave more of an answer than the person was expecting, but in the end, it made all the difference in the world for me to be heard and to know that someone really cared. 

Why Am I Talking?

don't talkI’ve always considered myself a fairly decent listener and have even been told that in the past, but as I get older and gaze at the list of responsibilities that lie before me, I find myself rushing through things and multi-tasking to get everything done. Sometimes I’ve made cursory reads of emails and missed key and important points in them. Sometimes I’ve read through things with action items and proceeded to forget all about those items. Sometimes I’ve had a conversation with someone and as soon as I hang up the phone or walk away from the table, I’ve left whatever meaningful pieces were to go with me right there on the table or hanging on the telephone line.

Now, this isn’t an every day, all the time thing. It’s happened enough for me to see it as unacceptable. I haven’t found myself in trouble because of my lack of attentiveness to things, but I don’t ever want that to be the case. As I’ve assessed the situation, I’ve realized my own need to be mentally present wherever I am. If I am reading an email, be present. If I am on the phone, be present. If I am talking over a meal, be present.

During my sabbatical, I went through some training to become a Strengths Communicator. If you aren’t familiar with StrengthsFinders, I would highly recommend checking it out. It has been a very helpful tool for me and for others to find out the areas in which strengths lie so as to focus energy on those areas. Like any assessment, it’s not foolproof or perfect, but I have seen its impact on many people, not the least of whom is myself.

One of the principles that we talked about during my training had to do with listening. The instructor said a good acronym to remember is “W.A.I.T.” which stands for “Why Am I Talking?” It’s hard to say just how many times that has popped into my head since the first time I heard it nearly two months ago. Over and over again, as I find myself in conversations, the urge within me is to start talking, to fix a problem, to fill the space, but sometimes, that space doesn’t need to be filled, sometimes that problem doesn’t need to be fixed, at least at that moment. Sometimes, all someone really wants you to do is listen.

It’s too easy for me to be in the midst of a conversation and be thinking about what’s next. I can too easily find myself planning out the rest of my day and slowly tuning out the person sitting across from me. But the act of listening is not just about physical presence, it’s about mental awareness and intuitiveness as well. Listening is an act of the ears and act of the brain, we need to process what we hear, which is virtually impossible when we’re moving on to other things in our minds.

I’m a talker too. One of my strengths is communication and part of the way that I process information is by communicating. But I am finding that there are other ways to communicate than simply speaking. I’ve kept a handwritten journal during my sabbatical and have filled nearly the entire thing in those three months that I was away. It’s proving a training ground for me, a mental gym, if you will, where I can practice my thinking and communicating without having to burden anyone else.

I’m not there, I haven’t arrived, this is still an area of growth for me, but I’m conscious of it and I’m working on it. I need to do a better job of listening, to my friends, to my wife, to my children, to the people in my church, to all of those with whom I connect. I’m a work in progress, but I’m grateful for this insight to set my eyes on and move forward.

Open Your Eyes

I sat on my couch, hearing the ticking of the clock behind me and trying to focus. Even in the quiet of the morning with nothing but that ticking clock to distract me, I can still somehow find ways to lose my focus.

As my eyes opened and closed, I wondered to myself, who said that the proper stance for prayer was head bowed and eyes closed? I get it, but it’s a hard thing for me to do. So, after assuming the position multiple times, I finally gave in and left my eyes open.

I turned my body to face the back of my house and the windows that looked out onto the screened porch. Beyond the porch was the horizon and I could see the sun rising in the distance. As its warm glow slowly made its way into the morning sky, I wondered how many times I had actually seen it there.

Of course, I know that every day the sun rises and the sun sets whether or not I notice it, but I wondered whether or not I had actually realized that I had the view that I had. How had I missed it? What was I doing that kept me so distracted from seeing this event unfold before my eyes?

It seems a constant theme in our world, the need to slow down and smell the roses. We can easily fall into the trap of stepping into time with the rest of our culture and becoming overwhelmed with busyness. We find ourselves running in the rat race that we didn’t even realize we had entered. We wonder how we got there when we had told ourselves that we wouldn’t fall victim to the trap, we wouldn’t get suckered in.

How many times have I said that I wouldn’t only to find that I really would?

Slow down.

Take a breath.

Breathe easy.

As I watched through the trees to see that glowing orb light up the morning sky, it was a gentle reminder to me that my eyes need to constantly be opened. If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there, it still falls. If a sun rises with beauty and grace and no one notices, it still happens.

Chances are, when I wake up tomorrow morning that I will miss this sunrise again. I will go through my day and pass by a thousand little things that will astound me should I notice them. But what things will I notice? What things will call my attention and steal my focus?

I’m watching. I’m listening. Lord, let me be attentive.

Wake Up

Sometimes when you’re sleeping, it takes a lot to wake you up. Sometimes it doesn’t take much at all. How about when you are sleepwalking through life? Maybe not even sleepwalking, maybe it’s just a matter of going through the motions and not really considering what you’re doing, not asking the hard questions to make sure that you’re moving in the right direction, not paying attention to warning signs that might be going off.

I drove a Toyota and if I don’t or the passenger doesn’t buckle the seatbelt, a very annoying beeping begins. Since I mostly abide by seatbelt laws, it doesn’t happen very often. But occasionally, if I am in a hurry, I don’t buckle and it doesn’t take much time before that beeping commences. Sometimes I will suffer through it Sometimes I will buckle up. Other times I will simply turn up the music louder to drown out the annoying beeping that’s began grating on my nerves the moment it began.

If we take a look around, there are warning signs all over in life, they tell us to pay attention, to stop, to check things out. Sometimes we choose to pay attention and heed the warnings, other times, we choose to ignore them. Just because we choose to ignore the warning signs doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. Just because we choose to ignore the warning signs doesn’t mean the problem goes away. In fact, it usually gets worse.

I’ve been operating at an unsustainable pace for the last four years. I knew it. Others knew it. There were warning signs going off. When my mom was diagnosed with cancer. When we found out we were having a third child. When I was finishing seminary. When my mom died. When my dad got sicker. When my church went through a major transition. When I changed denominations. There were warning signs going off. I knew that they were there, but I think I just turned the music up to drown out the annoying beeping that I was hearing in my ears.

I finally got around to scheduling a physical. They didn’t like an abnormal EKG which sent me to the cardiologist where another abnormal EKG was found. A stress test was run which led to the scheduling of a heart catheterization, all the while my anxiety and stress levels rising and rising, the warning signs raging in the background. Finally, after 41 years, I finally spent the night in the hospital. Tests were run. Results were found. Medicines were given. Changes needed to be made.

Warning signs will make themselves known, whether we heed them early or not. If we decide not to heed them, they will just get louder and louder and usually take the shape and form of something far more serious. We can ignore them for so long before they force us to pay attention. If we ignore them, we can only hope that by the time they force themselves to be heard that the damage is no irreparable.

It’s nice to be loved. I have enough friends around me who hear this news and embrace me, not in a “it’s going to be all right, I’m praying for you” kind of way but in a “get off your @$$ and get moving and get healthy with me” kind of way. Friends are offering to start exercising with me, walking, running, whatever it takes. It’s nice to be loved.

I’ve learned a lot over the past few years. A lot of what I have learned has to do with advocacy, for myself and for others. Generally speaking, you’re going to have to advocate for yourself and the ones that you love, you’re not going to get a whole lot of help and support from certain places. That’s why warning signs are so important, you might be the only one who hears them for yourself. Even if other people do see them or hear them in you, they’re not always likely to address them. When it comes down to it, we can all get pretty selfish and when we’re getting what we want, we might not address warning signs in other people because it will impact what we have to do and whether we get what we want.

So, I’m heeding the warning signs and it didn’t even take me until January 1st to adopt some kind of a resolution. I’m sure that I’ll be blogging on my progress, after all, this is where I go for my confessions!

Warning Signs

warning signsI’ve never liked sirens. For as long as I can remember, the sound of a siren sends shivers down my spine and sends me running for cover. I remember times as a child when I would be playing in the neighborhood and I would hear a siren. I would run home crying to my mom. For whatever reason, the sound of the siren would get my ever active brain moving into high gear, thinking about the reason for the siren, who might be hurt or injured, what might have happened.

41 years into this thing called life, it doesn’t evoke the same response that it once did, but I’m still not a fan of sirens. That same feeling that I used to get as a kid when I would hear sirens in the distance still creeps up my spine when I hear sirens to this day.

The other day, after the school bus had come for my children, I was taking a walk in our neighborhood. Even with headphones on, I heard sirens in the distance (I guess that’s reassurance that my music wasn’t too loud). I nearly stopped in my tracks as I thought about what was wrong. Who was hurt? Was everything okay with my kids? I learned a long time ago to pray when I heard sirens, so that’s what I did. Then I went on my way and continued my walk, eventually arriving home and realizing that things were okay there.

The thing about sirens is that they are kind of like warning signs. When you hear them, you instantly know that something is not right in the world. The world of the 1950s is behind us, fire engines aren’t generally sent out into neighborhoods to retrieve cats and kittens from trees, at least I don’t think that they are. When there is a siren in the distance, it is generally an indication that there is an emergency somewhere. Something is wrong and the responders are doing what they do best: responding to it.

I wonder how many times in our lives we hear or see warning signs and we look the other way. We know that they’re there for a reason, yet we still turn our backs on them and look the other way. Maybe we think that the situation will fix itself. Maybe we think that the situation is not as grave as it really is. Maybe we just don’t want to be bothered or inconvenienced by a potential emergency in our lives.

Regardless of why we might avoid or ignore warning signs, the end result will never be anything beneficial. Eventually, those warning signs will creep up again and it we have done nothing to address the warning that was signaled to us in the first place, the chances are pretty good that the situation that was once grave will be downright catastrophic by the time we finally respond.

I will fully admit that there are some times when warning signs will pop up and they seem to sound the alarm to make it seem like things are worse than they really are. For instance, the “Check Engine” light in your car might come on just because you didn’t screw your gas cap on tightly enough. There are other cases when warning signs come off as false indicators, causing alarm when they really shouldn’t be going off at all. But let’s face it, these situations are not as common as we might think or as we might convince ourselves that they are.

As I get older, I’m doing my best to look for and listen to the warning signs that go off around me. Sometimes, I might get alarmed myself by them, escalating what the real problem is in my mind before I even have a real analysis. But if I am heeding those warning signs and following up with them, the chances are slim that whatever they are warning me about will get worse by addressing it as soon as the warning signs go off.

The end results of listening to those warning signs may be scary. They may cause us to address things that make us uncomfortable. They may lead to changes that we don’t want to face or even have to address. But what’s the alternative? What will happen if we leave those warning signs unaddressed? That’s just a chance that I’m not sure I’m willing to take.

 

There’s Just Something About It

baby listeningListen……I get we’re in the digital age. Everything comes in a hard copy form or in a digital form. Sometimes you can buy one and get the other for free. When you have limited space, the digital form is really beneficial. But, hey, there’s just something about going to the store to buy a brand new book or a brand new CD. If you’re a real purist, you can’t wait to open up the latest 180 gram LP. There’s something about the real thing that you just don’t get from digital.

I’ve been a Coldplay fan since well before Mylo Xyloto, going back to the days of Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head. I was excited to get Ghost Stories when it came out this week and I contemplated going digital with this one. After all, I had just done a major purge (which means getting rid of anything, for me) of my music collection and am always looking at ways that I can keep from bringing the clutter back into the house.

But, alas, Target had a special release with 3 extra songs which always seems to grab the fans, at least it grabs me. So, it was off to Target that I went to pick up Ghost Stories. After standing in line, I walked quickly to my car. I should tell you that I have become an expert at opening CDs, Blu Rays, and DVDs. It’s become its own art form to me, slicing through the plastic wrap, negotiating the sticky label off without leaving its traces remaining on the case. I quickly unwrapped it and pulled the CD from its clear case. The CD player stood there before me, awaiting the silver goodness that I was ready to put in its mouth. It almost anticipated the beats and rhythms that it would soon be spewing out once I fed it.

Anticipation. What will it sound like? Will I like it? Will it meet my expectations? How will they start? How will they end? What will be in between? These questions and many more are the questions that run through my mind as I spend these seconds which seem like an eternity anticipating what will come out once I have fed the monster.

Sure, I could have bought the digital download and put it on my MP3 player, blasted it equally as loud in my car, and enjoyed every minute of it, but it just wouldn’t be the same. There’s something about opening up the CD and pulling out the CD insert for the first time. It has that smell, not quite like a new car, but almost like a new book. You turn the pages, you read the notes and words, and the smell creates for you an experience. Music should be more than listened to…..it should be experienced.

So I listen, I ingest, I process. I put aside my preconceived notions of what I would hear and do my best to listen with an open mind, to listen with an open spirit. As I listen, I like some of what I hear and dislike some of it as well. But after I listen, I listen some more. The CD spins around and around as the monster in my dashboard continues to spew out beats, rhythms, and melodies. One listen……two listens……three listens…..and it’s happening, it’s beginning to grow on me. All of the things that I expected and didn’t find are replaced by the newness of what is and what’s playing all around me.

Yes, music needs to be experienced, and though I’m doing it less often than I did before, part of that experience is the purchase of a CD or an LP. If you haven’t tried it in a while, you might want to give it a whirl. Choose wisely though, one false step or disappointment could not only ruin this experience but any future experiences that you might consider as well.

Happy listening!

Lady In Satin

lady in satin holidayGone are the days when people sit down and listen to an album from beginning to end.  Of course, gone are the days when most people refer to albums, at least in popular culture.  We have become an iTunes culture where we are satisfied to buy one song at a time, rarely listening to complete albums.  I would venture to guess that few popular artists go through the same thought process in putting together music that artists once did.

The other day, I was browsing the cheap CDs at Barnes and Noble.  It’s a new year, but I am always seeking out new music and new stories.  To be honest, I’m not sure why the CDs that are there are there, they would hardly be categorized as “cheap” CDs.  This isn’t so much because of price but because of quality.  Artists such as James Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Harry Nilsson, and others can be found in this section.  It was my good fortune to find an album by Billie Holiday there called “Lady In Satin.”

Columbia Records was a powerhouse back in the day and much thought was given to the liner notes on albums.  Over the years, as albums have been re-released, Columbia has reproduced the original liner notes from albums.  This album was one who had new liner notes on the back of the CD for the reissue.  I read them and was intrigued, leading me to pull out my smartphone and do a search for some reviews.

“Lady In Satin” was recorded about 17 months before Billie Holiday would finally succumb to the hard life she lived, at the young age of 44.  Her life of addiction and abuse had caught up to her but she wasn’t going out without a fight.  She had desperately wanted to make this album with Ray Ellis and his orchestra.  For what can retrospectively be called a “swan song,” this album is eerily close to what Holiday might have actually chosen had she known what the not too distant future would hold.  Maybe she was prophetic in some strange sense.

The album may be painful for some Billie Holiday fans to listen to, her voice is a far cry from what it had been 20 years before and in the prime of her career.  Going back and listening to an album like “Lady Sings the Blues” is a stark contrast from the listening experience of “Lady In Satin.”  This album shows a weary and worn Holiday.  She struggles to sustain notes and present them as melodically as she once did.  The years of heroin, alcohol, and other abuses are more than evident in her ragged voice.

The re-release gives a clearer picture to what was happening during the recording.  The track entitled “The End Of A Love Affair: The Audio Story” has Holiday struggling to hear the band, struggling to learn the tune and melody, and just sounding downright rundown.

Others have written about this album and I read snippets here and there before I decided to dive right in and give it a listen myself.  While there are plenty of other highlights that people mention, to me, the most haunting piece is a song called “For All We Know.”  Listening to it is enough to cause a person to weep as they think about the words and just what was in store for Holiday in a little more than a year.

I am always drawn to stories like this.  They fascinate me.  This plays out like a car wreck where you can’t look away but there is horror in observing.  I almost feel like a voyeur, catching an intimate glimpse of real “soul music” sung by someone who has experienced tragedy, heartache, and who has the scars and addictions to prove it.

“Lady In Satin” isn’t for those who like to download the latest Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga song, it’s an album that takes commitment to listen, I mean really listen, beginning to end.  It tells a story, the story of a life that was cut short, the story of a life that took a turn for the worse.  There is a strange beauty that is seen in this last glimpse of Holiday and it’s a glimpse that’s worth looking at.  The look might not last long and you might not even want to look often, but when you do, there will be poignancy in that look.

Are You Listening?

woman listening to gossipRecently, I preached a sermon on Deuteronomy 6:4-9, a passage that has come to be known as “The Shema” by Jewish people (there are additional verses that add to these to make up the total Shema).  The word “shema” is Hebrew for “hear” or “listen.”  Listening is not something that I always do well.  But I’m not alone.

It seems that most of us, when we listen, are distracted or forgetful 75% of the time we should have been listening.  Human beings listen at a rate of about 125-130 words per minute and think at about 1000-3000 words per minute.  After “listening” to someone, we only recall about 50% of what they said to us.  We, as a society and human beings in general, are distracted.  We are bombarded with information.

Depending on the sport, I am a big fan.  It’s mostly baseball, but if a New England team is playing on a TV close by, my eyes will wander to check in on scores.  It can be detrimental for dates with my wife if there are TV’s close by, especially during the World Series when the Red Sox are playing.  She’s important to me, but that could easily be questioned with my distractions with sports TV.  That’s not a good thing.  I shouldn’t be so distracted.

So, how much do we listen?  How much do we pay attention?  When we’re “listening” to someone else, are we really thinking about other things?  Are we catching even 50% of what the person speaking is telling us?

Over time, I’m not sure if I have gotten better at this or not.  I was in a one on one meeting with someone recently and I took notes so that I was sure to capture everything that was said.  It was too important for me to miss anything.  If that’s what needs to happen, it might seem strange at first, but I would be surprised if someone objected to note-taking if they know that it results in them being heard more effectively and efficiently.

How do we eliminate distractions?  One at a time.  It’s better for me to be seated away from TV’s in a restaurant if I want to give my wife the 100% attention that she deserves.  If that’s what I need to do, she is more than worth the sacrifice.  In order to eliminate distractions, we need to be aware of what they are, identify them.  If we don’t know what they are, how are we supposed to eliminate them.

I know how frustrating it is when I speak with someone and I feel that they are distracted or disengaged.  I just need to remember that feeling when someone else is talking with me.  I can’t be distracted from listening to others and think that they will actually pay attention to me when it’s their turn to listen.

Information is coming at us in waves all through our days, I don’t think it’s ever going to slow down.  But, we have the opportunity to slow it down ourselves.  We can eliminate distractions and honor the voices that are most important to us.  This is a lesson that I am learning one day at a time, one step at a time.