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.
You’ve probably heard this before: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
Ah, but do you know who said it? Sleuthing the source of this aphorism isn’t easy—as this link shows.
That someone put so much enthusiastic effort into this stunning document fills me with inexplicable joy. I love when human beings maintain a healthy sense of curiosity, when they let questions lead them to unexpected discoveries.
Curiosity is the engine that drives “Listening Closer.” It started back when I learned to diagram sentences and—elementary school weirdo that I was—I loved it. I loved taking a complicated sentence and chalking its various parts on the blackboard until it looked like a tree branch stripped by winter. Unlike the dissected frogs in my science class, diagrammed sentences seemed even more alive when we were finished with them.
In a way, I’m still pursuing that strange exercise, for there are profound mysteries living within great songs, just begging for investigation.
Take, for instance, the first song of Joe Henry’s album Invisible Hour (my favorite album of 2014).
“Sparrow” gives us much to consider: Music. Lyrics. Vocals. Musicianship. Recording dynamics. I could wax rhapsodic about this band—their playfulness, their restraint, their inventiveness, the way they fill the room like candlelight filling a luminaria. Thrills run up the vertebrae of Jennifer Condos’ bass notes. Drummer Jay Bellerose provides whispers, rain, and rolls of thunder. Joe’s acoustic chords are breezy enough to fill each song’s sails, carry it along, and ease it gently ashore. He sings like he’s lounging in a fireside chair at the end of a long hard day, with a tone that sounds to me like gratitude.
But let’s leave the sound of the song there, or else I’ll end up writing a book.
For our purposes, I’d like to do a quick “sentence diagram” of the lyrics, to pry it open and discover its still beating heart. Something’s happening here:
It wasn’t peace I wanted
So it wasn’t peace I found,
I wouldn’t stand for reason
And it never would sit down.
These lines grabbed my attention at once. Their clever wordplay would probably have pleased G. K. Chesterton. (He’s the guy who said, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”)
I initially assumed that the singer was confessing foolishness, error, and regret. He didn’t want peace, didn’t get it. He was unreasonable.
I was totally wrong. Hang in there—you’ll see why.
Then comes this:
The bird upon my shoulder
Has not one kind thing to say —
My eye is on the sparrow,
But she looks the other way
Who is this bird upon his shoulder? Is it a mean-spirited cousin to the shoulder-bird of “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah”? Is it a voice of conscience, like Jiminy Cricket?
She seems upset, upset with him. This fellow sounds like he’s in the doghouse, not only with “the sparrow,” but with himself. (Some listeners, by the way, see two separate birds in this verse: One a “shoulder angel” or a “shoulder devil” while the other is a family member or loved one who is distracted or upset. What do you think?)
The Bible tells us that “God’s eye is on the sparrow,” but these lyrics don’t sound like the Almighty’s point of view. Still, there’s something worrisome about this scriptural reference. After all, remember the context? “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” Keep that in mind.
Then comes the refrain:
Carry on, and me away,
Hey, look alive — the end of days
I initially heard “Carry on, Hand me away.” Thank God for lyric sheets. “Carry on” seems to be an exhortation to keep striving, for the signs are saying that “The End is Near!” “And me away” picks up on “Carry,” suggesting that the singer is longing for some kind of surrender (being “carried away”)—perhaps in passion, or perhaps in “Swing lo, sweet chariot” fashion.
The suggestion of an encroaching end is amplified by the reference to the “end of days.” The singer seems not afraid of the end, but rather compelled by it to really live in the time he has left.
And our very blood
Taste like honey now
I initially heard “And our very blood / Tastes like honey now.” I figured it meant, “Since the end is nigh, savor your life!” But no, I hear it more clearly now: “And our very blood / Taste like honey now.” See the difference? If “blood” is plural, then it might be about family, perhaps—very specifically—children. In this apprehension of mortality, our time with “our very blood” is precious.
See why I was confused? I had to work through first impressions and misunderstood vocabulary before the mouth of my open mind got a bite of something solid.
Live version of “Sparrow” with Joe Henry’s son Levon playing with him
The next verse deepens the intrigue:
There upon the mountain
Is the shadow of a hand
Tugging at the stubborn mule
Now standing like a man
And twitching like the phantom limb
Of this whole countryside —
Disappearing at the knee
And breaking up our stride
This takes time. I’m still pondering it. I love that mysterious hand pulling at this “stubborn mule” (that stands “like a man”). Might the singer see himself in this obstinate ass? Might he want to surrender to whatever shadowy force is urging him to depart? Note that the world is darkening, night’s tide is rising up.
“It’s not dark yet / But it’s getting there,” sings Bob Dylan, one of Joe Henry’s guiding lights. Darkness is a recurring, important theme in Henry’s work. He is careful not to portray it as evil. On Blood from Stars, he sings, “Light no lamp when the sun comes down / The dark will speak, has things to say. . .”
After revisiting the refrain, we reach the third verse
I want time and bread and wine,
Sugar and a spoon,
I want for the hungry years
To be swallowed by this room.
Bread and wine: The singer wants a sacramental experience. What we have, let it overcome our concerns about those things we don’t have. Let this present holy communion redeem the burden of past hardships.
Finally, this verse:
I wait out your memory
Now singing in the trees —
I wait for one grave angel
And I know she waits for me
“Grave angels” reappears later in this album. What does that phrase suggest to you? To me, “grave angel” suggests a somber cemetery statue. Seems the singer is longing for a lost loved one, waiting for reunion on the other side. Might she be the winged figure in the song’s opening lines? That sparrow was also a “she.”
If that is the case—if the sparrow is, or reminds him of, a lost beloved—that changes everything.
I raised a question about these lyrics with some friends. A particularly attentive Joe Henry listener, music reviewer Josh Hurst, responded that he thinks the song is “epic in scope.” He said,
I don’t think it’s about a single moment in time, but rather I think the narrator is looking back over a long relationship—a marriage or a committed partnership that spanned years, even decades. And it sounds as though at least some of those years—the “hungry years”—were less than perfectly pleasant. The last verse suggests, of course, that one of the partners is gone.
Hurst’s take resonates with—and improves—my developing interpretation. What if this whole song is a sort of prayer, a love letter to the beloved’s memory and their difficult, wonderful years together?
Suddenly I see the first verse in a whole new light. This is not a confession of errors. The singer wasn’t a fool. He was courageous. Marriage is rarely a reasonable gamble—and it’s not touted as a path to peace. But it’s precious nonetheless.
I doubt I’ve fully uncovered the song’s mystery, and what I have said may be way off base. I know from experience that Joe’s songs tend to open up slowly—sometimes years after I hear them for the first time. Sometimes, I need different lenses to see one clearly. Sometimes, I need to grow and change. Some think it’s crazy to work so hard at a poem. But I love the experience. I find that it trains me to look closer at my life.
So now I stand back and look at this—a long crooked line, a tree branch, a diagrammed sentence. It is no longer a problem. The song has drawn me in. It’s as if birds have come to rest in its branches, singing. And I want to fill two glasses of wine: one for me, one for my wife.
Note: Thanks to Josh Hurst and Marybeth Baggett for contributing to this investigation.