In life, there are the poets and the prophets. The prophets tell us what is happening, and what will happen, to humankind, often in no uncertain terms. The dour Jordan Petersons, the wizened Harold Blooms, the feisty Camille Paglias of this world—these are the prophets. The poets, on the other hand, don’t tell us anything; the poet gives voice to all the sensations of being human. The absurdity, the transcendence, the despair and delight.
Eric Krewson of The Chairman Dances belongs to the poets. Anyone who names his band after a John Adams composition has a taste for the esoteric. And while Krewson’s arrangements are rooted in the sort of musical rigor one would expect of a songwriter and composer with an inclination toward the academic, what emerges from his disciplined sound is, more than anything, a sense of emotion.Child of My Sorrow is a cathartic sort of sadness.
The band’s new album, Child of My Sorrow, is an exercise in sadness. (Maybe the “sorrow” in the title is a giveaway.) But it’s a cathartic sort of sadness, continually undercut by the music itself. With lush arrangements featuring everything from piano to saxophone to perfectly paced percussion, the sonic experience is, well, fun. The sound also provides a contrast to the lyrics, such as the ones from the album’s opener, “Acme”:
Trouble getting up in the morning / Trouble staying asleep / I dream of sleep
In the supermarket, reading to distract myself / Endcap special: Three for four!
Anyone who has ever been in this sort of trouble recognizes himself in the song immediately. The music itself is a march, echoing the act of putting one foot in front of the other, of being in such a state that walking through a supermarket feels practically heroic.
Child of My Sorrow (September 2018, Black Rd Records) is the follow-up release to Time Without Measure, the 2016 album which garnered acclaim from critics such as Tom Robinson of the BBC, who called the band’s work “lyrically adventurous, harmonically intricate.” The same could be said of Child of My Sorrow. The difference is that, where Time Without Measure features the work and voices of a roster of heroes (Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer) suffering for macro human causes, Child of My Sorrow features suffering in the micro sense. The intimate sort of suffering that you carry with you everywhere, whether into your relationships, within your own head, or into the supermarket.
For all its pop influences, with the sound and instrumentation of ’70s and ’80s radio-friendly fare, the music of The Chairman Dances refuses to be pop. You won’t find the verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus structure in a single song. Lyrically, each one evokes a story, only Krewson’s stories lack tidy conclusions. More imagery than narrative, the songs on the new album set the scene with just a few lines, with the band returning in a sort of loop to the same line, the same image, which serves to increase its power exponentially, as opposed to feeling repetitive.
First to Leave” is quite nearly a country tune, with a pitch-perfect use of the dobro (a crying instrument if there ever was one), ideal for a song about a declaration of something — love?— even as one person is two weeks away from leaving home, and definitely leaving her interlocutor, probably forever.The final song, “Child of My Sorrow,” brings the album to a quiet close. Krewson, reaching down into his lower register, sings much of it like a prayer, an appropriate coda to a series of songs about suffering. Fittingly, “Child of My Sorrow” brings Jesus into the picture, though it does so without ever referring to the cross, to Jesus’ own suffering. It opens with the line Jesus be near me. In this song, Jesus is the rescuer, the one who offers hope of something better, however flickering this hope may be. And when Krewson is joined by female backup singers, the moment is sublime, reminiscent of church on those rare occasions it provides a glimpse of the eternal. Then the song’s tempo quickens before crescendoing, as Krewson sings,
When Jesus finally comes for us, I will gladly go.
I’d be glad to know there’s more to life than pain.
I, too, would be glad to know there’s more to life than pain. And so would everyone listening to the music of The Chairman Dances. It is deeply human to desire to find solace in our pain, hope in our suffering. And it is why the music of a poet like Eric Krewson resonates with those of us who pay close attention.