Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.

It begins quietly, almost absent-mindedly. Imagine a man on a small stage, under a spotlight, sitting on the edge of an unmade bed. His long beard tucked behind his guitar, the man sings sadly to himself. Or, better, to someone out of reach.

I was an Indiana kid
Gettin’ no one in my bed —
I had your sweet tunes to play. . .

I’m listening to Strand of Oaks’ album HEAL. Specifically, a track called “JM.” And the song is working its magic.

I’m a long way from the kid who first learned to pay close attention to songs in order to sing along. As a six-year-old, my personal soundtrack was half hymns and Sunday-School choruses and half Disneyland (“Chim Chimney,” “Whistle While You Work,” and “When You Wish Upon a Star”). Whatever was safe, whatever was pretty, whatever was sweet, whatever hopeful: I let my mind dwell on these things.

But “JM”? A long-haired, long-bearded rocker lamenting about having no one to sleep with? My community disliked, distrusted, even condemned rock music. It seemed dangerous. Rock stars seemed angry and ugly and sex-obsessed and dangerous. Up through high school, I would have felt anxious, nervous about listening to a song like this.

I was starin’ at the mat
Feelin’ fire in my head —
I had your sweet tunes to play. . .

Yeah, it gets worse. Timothy Showalter—the mastermind, singer, and songwriter of the Strand of Oaks “rock project”—testifies here to more than sexual loneliness. He was in trouble of all kinds. And those “sweet tunes” were his bright spot, his lifeline, his consolation.

I was mean to my dad
‘Cuz I was mean to myself —
I had your sweet tunes to play. . .

Those who know Showalter’s incredible story will find that HEAL is largely autobiographical, more than most hard rock records. Heartbreaks. Drugs. Car-crash calamities. Broken ribs. Depression. But the songs speak directly to an important “You”: the one whose music was a constant—perhaps the only constant—during those hard times.

Stealin’ smokes in my car
With the windows way down —
I had your sweet tunes to play. . .

The guitars at this point are heating up, intensifying. And melancholy piano notes meander almost aimlessly between the chords.

Then we arrive at a chorus—a chorus we feel rather than sing: an explosion of power-chord emotions beyond words, testifying to what the singer found with those cathartic tunes. “This,” he seems to say, “is what it felt like for me—busted up by life and my own decisions—to be there, in the music: escape, elevation, transcendence.”

I was sittin’ in my bath,
Cleanin’ off the ash —
But I had your sweet tunes to play. . .

And I hated all my friends,
And wouldn’t let them in —
I had your sweet tunes to play. . .

It’s as much confession as testimony. He admits that the people he shut out were “his friends.” But still, somehow, he let the music keep flowing in, keep ministering to him. And thank God for that: He was about as far out on the ledge as a man can go.

On a long desert train,
And a knife in my bag —
I had your sweet tunes to play.

Under the Market Street Bridge,
Burning one in my hand —
I had your sweet tunes to play.

Perhaps the music kept him going. Perhaps it saved his life.

Each time that theme crashes over the song like a tidal wave, it is stronger, more insistent. It suggests that, for all of his alienation and angst, Showalter felt a human connection in the music, a synergy of agony, a solitary togetherness with a kindred spirit—a relationship both sweet and painful for the fact that it cannot be in-person. He’s learned someone else’s language for loneliness, and he’s putting that vocabulary to work in expressing his own experience.

By the time he’s through the fourth verse, arriving at that sonorous motif, the guitar is now reeling in a healthier, holier kind of intoxication.

And that’s when it happened for me: right there at the 3:11 mark. Like Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey, I’m sucked out of an airlock into open space—tumbling unexpectedly into long lost memories.

It’s the kind of emotional scar that only listeners who have had their hearts badly broken at a young age will understand: The shock of betrayal. A retreat into hiding, humiliated and angry and sick. Upon stumbling onto something I was not supposed to see, I fled from a gathering of friends, got on the first bus that passed, staggered home, pulled down the shades, turned out the lights, and put on my very first CD—Peter Gabriel’s So—for the hundredth time. I fell into the safety net of “In Your Eyes,” crying and praying through the melody and the lyrics.

Love — I get so lost sometimes.
Days pass, and this emptiness fills my heart.
When I want to run away, I drive off in my car,
But whichever way I go, I come back to the place you are.

It will become a story that, 26 years later, I can almost laugh about. I was immature. I was naïve. I was insecure. But at the time, for that inexperienced and love-struck kid, it was an atomic blast of shock and despair.

Without a noise, without my pride,
I reach out from the inside.

In your eyes, the light the heat,
In your eyes, I am complete. . .

There would be more heartbreaks, greater betrayals, deeper wounds. But every time, I turned to music. To Bob Dylan, to U2, to R.E.M, to Emmylou Harris, to The Innocence Mission, Arcade Fire, Sam Phillips, Sufjan Stevens, Over the Rhine. To “Amazing Grace,” “It Is Well With My Soul,” and yes, “In Your Eyes”—again and again. When I hear this song, I am reminded that I am seen by the only gaze that really matters: the gaze of an all-seeing God who knows the sting of betrayal and rejection. And I am loved. I am united through a work of art with the heart of another who knows. And where two or more are gathered in such a spirit, God is in their midst. Such a sweet tune to play.

It has happened to you, hasn’t it?

Somehow, a work of art catches your attention and suddenly draws you in, like the Pevensies through the painting and onto the deck of the Dawn Treader. An emotional truth blows the gates of your memory open, and you fall through time and space

Now it’s hard to hear you sing,
The crow has lost his wings —
I got your sweet tunes to play.

This “crow” who “lost his wings” is Jason Molina, the “JM” of the song title. Showalter was a great admirer, as were many musicians and music-lovers of his generation. They looked up to Molina as one of the defining talents of their crowd, and when he died “of alcohol abuse-related organ failure,” they lost something of themselves. As Molina’s music and lyrics were irrevocably entangled in their heads and hearts, the abrupt uprooting of his life from their common ground tore out pieces of their hearts.

I am not familiar with Molina’s music. He is a country I have not yet visited, but art can lead us to those paths, into spiritual communion with total strangers. It can lead us to discoveries and resources from which the music was born. Within it, we can trace a genealogy of ideas, a network of inspiration, a history of generosity.

I do not relate to many— perhaps most—of Showalter’s wounds. But I can relate to the feeling that experience has surgically removed a vital organ. Maybe all those childhood warnings were right. Rock music can be raw, angry, sad, and even dangerous. Or maybe it just invites us to acknowledge, and give expression to, those raw emotions that would otherwise remain trapped inside. Showalter’s musical language of lament applies to my history too. He’s helping me move through them.

Poet Jane Hirschfield, in her book Nine Gates: Opening the Minds of Poetry, writes,

Saying a poem aloud, or reading it silently. . . we breathe as the author breathed, we move our own tongue and teeth and throat in the ways they moved in the poem’s first making. There is a startling intimacy to this. Some echo of the writer’s physical experience comes into us. . .

As I sing his specifics, as I recite Showalter’s liturgy, as I pound my Toyota’s steering wheel to the beat of that soaring instrumental chorus, I am getting to know him. I declare solidarity with him in his suffering. I second the motion. And I feel tremendous gratitude for how he reconnected me with my 18-year-old’s unresolved anger. The music is forgiving. The music is faithful. The music does not judge me. It welcomes me like grace.

Either get out or stay in,
I won’t let these dark times win,
We got your sweet tunes to play. . .

Notice how he opens up in that last line. It’s not just about him. “We” are united by Showalter’s song, and thus by Jason Molina’s music. Showalter may be recounting his scars, but he’s no narcissist. He’s let his friends back in. He’s learned something. And he’s fighting back in the name of a kindred spirit lost: Jason Molina is dead. Long live Jason Molina.

So, get out or stay in. But we—we who want to take these dives, take these risks, make ourselves vulnerable to these songs in the wild hopes of escape, connection, transcendence—we know that we need what music can do. We need the Spirit that moves in mysterious ways. We need the illumination that it can bring through the most unlikely of people, here in a darkening world. We won’t let the dark times win.

Stick with me. For a while, Lord willing, I’m going to listen closer to one song every week here at Christ and Pop Culture.

I’ve got some sweet tunes to play.