How blessed we are for crying now...
In particular, I return to it around this time of year. It's late, and I haven't been to bed yet, so it still feels like December 23 as I type this, but technically, it's Christmas Eve. It was only a few days before Christmas several years ago when I first really got "End Serenading" and came to love it as much as I'd loved earlier work by Mineral. At that time, my parents lived in Roanoke, which is a 3-hour drive from Richmond even at times when there's no traffic. I dread the annual holiday-related home visit; have ever since I first moved away. I'm sure a lot of you relate to this--there's nothing great about becoming a child again, even for a few short days. There's nothing enjoyable about getting lectured for every mistake you've made over the past year, or having your parents start in on you about whatever fashion choices you're currently making. And I'm sure no one else likes being told in no uncertain terms just in what ways you've failed to measure up to the expectations and goals your parents set for you back when you were a child. But we all feel varying degrees of loyalty to the people who raised us from infancy, and most of us, me included, make that holiday trip home no matter how much we dread it.
Christmas has little real significance for me these days, now that I'm not a kid anymore. I usually get some money and a few nice presents, but that's not really all that important to me. As a child, people told me it was the thought that counted, and as an adult, I see what they meant. Christmas used to be such a significant thing for me as a kid; it held a mystique, in that it seemed different than every other time of the year. The whole world seemed to be a little bit happier, seemed to be holding its breath in preparation for something wonderful that was just around the corner. I thought it was about the toys that I'd get under the tree, and maybe that's what formed the biggest part of my childhood anticipation, but that anticipation and that mystique was an entirely separate thing from presents--I see that now. As an adult, I don't really feel that mystique anymore. In fact, I feel like I see through it now, see it for the buildup a capitalist society places on a purchasing-oriented holiday in order to encourage spending and make more money for businesspeople. That's probably what it always was. But not only was it something more, something magical, for me as a kid, there's a part of me that clings desperately to that feeling, even now. Driving home to see my family for Christmas, I couldn't help but be touched in the same deep place that remembers those childhood feelings by the sight of brightly colored lights, and displays at the center of small towns.
There's a song on "End Serenading" that addresses this exact feeling. It's called "Waking To Winter", and I don't remember if it was what really made the album finally jump out at me. But it is definitely what causes me to associate it with this time of year. "In winter, when the air gets cold," sings Christopher Simpson, "they light up the city with Christmas trees, and strings that hang across the street from telephone pole to telephone pole." He draws his words out slowly, so that this sentence turns into the first minute of the song, a common technique in both later Mineral songs and Simpson's post-Mineral project, The Gloria Record. After this comes a long instrumental section of the song, which starts out quiet and builds up a bit, but eventually comes to a stop. This is a false ending, though, and the band comes back in louder on the last verse. And this is where the song really kills me.
I don't know much of anything about Chris Simpson as a person. However, I've spent years listening to his bands and analyzing his lyrics, and I've read a few interviews, and through all this I've come to some conclusions that I feel pretty sure of. The most important one is that Chris Simpson is a sweet young guy with a lot of love in his heart, who was raised with a very close connection to his family. This is pretty obvious from his lyrics; I'm personally not aware of any other songwriter in any era or subgenre of modern rock music who wrote anywhere near as many songs about his family as Chris Simpson does on the two Mineral albums. I think a lot of this might come from a particular heartland version of Protestant Christianity, since he sings almost as frequently about God as he does his family. There are a few love songs, too, scattered here and there, but not nearly as many as the casual listener might think. In fact, I once read an interview with Chris where he said, obviously amused, that most of the songs his fans thought were about girls were about something else entirely. I would guess that he was referring to God and his family, though that probably wasn't something he felt comfortable saying in a hardcore fanzine.
The thing that kills me about the final verse of "Waking To Winter" is precisely this obvious bond Chris feels with his family, his friends, his loved ones, his God. I can't relate to that as anything other than an antithesis. As far back as I can remember, I've wished to feel love from my family that has never been there. In recent years, I've come to believe that in their own dysfunctional manner they are trying, but I still don't feel it on any real level. The desire for this love has infected friendships and relationships throughout the course of my life, encouraging me on a subconscious level to push everyone I care about away from me so that they can't hurt me the way my family has. I feel pretty bad about coming out and saying this in a public forum like this, but I don't know how to make the point I'm trying to make without telling the truth. It has everything to do with the way I receive Christopher Simpson's lyrics.
"When I'm driving home at night," he says, "Tired, frustrated, and pinned down by spite, I'm reminded of your love. Unlike these things, it will never change or fade or pass away." If I let myself, I will start to cry every time I hear this verse. For me, what was almost certainly a wholeheartedly loving sentiment becomes bittersweet, as I realize just how far removed from it I am.
This entire record is that way for me. As I said before, almost every song is about members of Chris's family. "GJS" appears to refer to the same person "Gloria", from "The Power of Failing", referenced--whom I believe is his mother. The song begins with Chris talking about how this person is a positive influence on him, always supports him when he doubts himself or worries about the outcome of his decisions. In the end of the song, he says, "I only hope that someday I might resemble you in even the smallest way. I only hope that you can be proud of me." It's a beautiful moment, heartbreaking in its sincerity, as is the song "For Ivadell", apparently about a now-deceased ancestor who was a painter. The song is a tribute, making explicit reference to Ivadell's death, and it's obvious that Chris misses her, though he consoles himself with his belief that she is in a better place now. A lot of the songs that refer to Chris's family have this mourning quality to them, even those that don't specifically mention whether the person being discussed has passed away. It seems like a lot of these people that he loves and cares about are far from him, and he longs to see them again. But the existence of the bonds of love between himself and those people are never in the slightest doubt.
The only places in which doubt appears are songs that deal with God. The last few tracks on the album turn away from discussions of loved ones and toward spirituality. "Sounds Like Sunday" is hopeful in tone, with its refrain "How blessed we are for crying now. We will laugh someday, and how." But it's followed by "And Serenading", the closest the album has to a title track. This song discusses a loss of confidence and security that was felt as a child. "When I was a boy I saw things that no one else could see, so why am I so deaf at 22?" In the end, Chris knows where all of this is headed, and he ends the song by repeating, "The driving snow that drives me home to you." Contrary to this conclusion, though, the album closes with "The Last Word Is Rejoice", in which Chris repeatedly asks, "How will I lay down in green-grass fields when my soul is so afraid?" It's an acknowledgement of humanity, and of the inherent inability to stay constantly focused on love and grace when life is so goddamn hard.
I suppose it's this overt acknowledgement of the weakness of humanity that makes "End Serenading" hit so close to home for me. Despite the fact that many of the songs on this album are in praise of a love that I myself never experience, despite the fact that what seems intended to be sweet just feels bitter to me, I feel like Chris Simpson and I have more in common than we have differences. I understand what motivates him to write these slow, mournful songs about love and fear, to reach for beauty and eternal grace even as he's surrounded by loss. I always wanted to believe in all of those things too, no matter how hard they are to attain.
When I started this blog a year ago, I was at a rough point in my life. I was only days away from journeying to England to meet up with my then-girlfriend, whom I hadn't seen in three months. It was supposed to be a happy reunion--we were very much in love, and were starting to make long-term plans involving being together for the foreseeable future. There was nothing I wanted more out of life at that point. However, I was terrified about the trip, though I was doing everything in my power not to admit it. There are signs of this fear in that first entry I wrote for this blog, if you look hard enough. And I was right to be afraid--things went drastically wrong during the visit, and though we didn't break up while I was there, our relationship ended less than a month later.
I'd made her a whole bunch of mix CDs during the time we'd been apart, and I put one of the songs from "End Serenading" on one of them. The song I chose was "Unfinished", a song I'd always seen as the perfect song for a wedding dance. Chris Simpson, of all people, was certainly not afraid to make overt references to people spending the rest of their lives together. "Unfinished" ends with the lines, "I still dream of December, dancing together with rings on our fingers. And the two shall become..." That's where it stops. Perhaps that's why the song is called "Unfinished." Anyway, things went horribly awry, and I've been single ever since. These days I'm not sure I can ever imagine getting into a serious, long-term relationship again, despite the fact that it's something I'd really love to have in my life. I just don't know if I'll ever be able to make one work.
I figured "Unfinished" would be impossible for me to listen to now, considering the context in which I last heard it. But when I pulled this album out earlier tonight, I let it play through anyway. Sure enough, I got choked up on that last verse, but something occurred to me. I think maybe Christopher intended this song to be about lost love, rather than found love. "I wish you could put your ear up to my heart and hear how much I love you," he sings, but is he singing to someone he's with? In context of the album, it actually seems more likely that he's talking to someone far away from him. I still think a lot about my former girlfriend, and it's pretty safe to say that I still love her. I wish I could have done a better job of showing her that, back when it really mattered. Maybe Chris's dream of dancing together is really no more likely to come true than mine. Is that why the last line of the song trails off, instead of speaking the conclusion that everyone will jump to? What will the two become?
Merry Christmas to all of you. I hope you have love in your life.