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.
I’ve just heard the most joyful song about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
Wow, you’re already putting on your headphones, aren’t you?
Seriously, give this a chance: If I’ve learned anything from investigating the lives of the artists I love, it’s that at the root of a joyous gospel chorus, an inspired stand-up comedy act, or a breathtaking saxophone solo I’m likely to find an acquaintance with suffering. And Belle and Sebastian’s “Nobody’s Empire” is a testimony of suffering and recovery that has the ring of lived experience:
Lying on my bed I was reading French
With the light too bright for my senses
From this hiding place
Life was way too much
It was loud and rough round the edges. . .
You can almost imagine these words being sung with doom and gloom. But “Nobody’s Empire”—the opening track on the irresistibly danceable new record Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance—is bright and sprightly, with spring in its step. It has a contagious energy that reminds me of R.E.M.’s “Man on the Moon.” Every time my iTunes Shuffle brings it up, I crank up the volume and sing along.
“Nobody’s Empire” is particular enough to tell me that I’m hearing a real-world story from a real-world character. Stuart Murdoch is a songwriter and singer with plenty of experience writing from the points of view of disparate characters. (He recently created a feature-film musical, God Help the Girl, which is now available for streaming.)
I relate to the singer of “Nobody’s Empire,” even though I’m not suffering from an actual illness: I’ve had plenty of days where I feel worn down by the noise, the seeming chaos, the demands of the day. I’m drawn in. The lyrics testify to hardships, but the music makes me hopeful.
The story continues:
So I faced the wall
When an old man called
Out of dreams that I would die there
But a sight unseen
You were pulling strings
And you had a different idea. . .
Who is this mysterious helper pulling strings, standing fast against the doom-saying voice of the singer’s dreams?
We’ll find out, but not until we get some more background on how this character landed in this state of languishing and lament. We learn that he was “light as straw” when his father took him in for examination. It may have been a near-death experience: “My soul was floating in thin air.” This led to a season when he “clung to the bed. . . to the past. . . to the welcome darkness.”
And then. . . a girl. Not just any girl. One who “sang / like the chime of a bell / She put out her arm / And she touched me when I was in hell.”
Ah, so there’s good reason for the sense of joy. Our singer will be delivered by one who “spoke to me in whispers,” and who seems to have been designed for reaching out to those who need help. Still, it’s a bittersweet love story—while the singer has recovered, his muse has moved on:
Now I look at you
You’re a mother of two
You’re a quiet revolution
Marching with the crowd
Singing dirty and loud
For the people’s emancipation. . .
There’s no reason that we should judge a song based on whether or not its story is grounded in historical details. Whether it’s fiction or inspired by fact, it taps into struggles, weaknesses, and hopes that almost anybody can understand.
Turns out, though, that Murdoch really has struggled with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME)—or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It was during his first bout with the condition, at age 19, that he began a new journey of faith and began writing songs. “I’d got through my lowest ebb,” he tells The Guardian, “and woke up with a sense of otherness about the wider spiritual world and the ability to string a few notes together.” (Regarding faith: In 2004, Murdoch told The Guardian, “I’m not actually a Christian with a capital C. . . . I’m still asking questions.”)
Then, recently, after wrapping up God Help the Girl, he fell into a relapse—and got right back to work creating something from the conflict. He describes the ordeal in this interview at The Quietus:
“I’ve been struggling in the last year and the stress of overwork has actually put my health back quite a bit,” he admits. “It was a particularly busy time in my life. I got a virus in Spain; it took me almost a year to get over that and get my strength back. It was a mentally trying time: I was back in ME land again and, almost to comfort myself, I wrote about the first time I was really sick. I’ve never encapsulated it like that before. Every word of ‘Nobody’s Empire’ means something to me, and it’s something real, not just made up. Although it’s couched in a metaphor, that song is absolutely the most personal I’ve ever written.”
Not only that, but it culminates in rush of harmonies that sounds like a hallelujah chorus. (The Quietus calls it “gospel-drenched.”)
* * *
I know a photographer named Fritz Liedtke who was, when we were high school classmates, bursting with creativity and ambition. Soon after graduation, I found out he had become very ill. And over the next decade, he would struggle with a variety of physical challenges, including Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I remember visiting him at a quiet home in Carlton, Oregon, where he struggled with frailty and frustration.
But Liedtke is a photographer, and throughout his struggles he kept on searching, kept on making things, kept on sending me postcards of images that found beauty in contexts of decay. “Even if you don’t think you’re doing great work,” he says, “working regularly and constantly, it’ll build up technical skills, your confidence in yourself, your confidence in relating to your subjects. It will refine your vision.”
Refining his vision, Liedtke found his way along a thread of hope and back out into the light. After what seemed like a season of endless, tedious suffering, he now travels the world with his wife and daughter, sharing new images with awestruck audiences. And his photos are often portraits that reveal the beauty in the faces of those who have suffered, or who are suffering.
In 2013, I spent a few days with Liedtke at his home, in his classroom, and in his studio, interviewing him for Image, Issue 78 (available here). After one of several in-depth conversations about his experiences and his art, I wrote:
Most of us are drawn to the people we have been conditioned to notice. We see those who have made it—the strong, the sure of themselves. Liedtke is different. He is more interested in the halfway-there, the stranded-in-between, the stumblers and the striving. To browse through his portfolios is to step into various twilight hours, where people are at play to see who they might become, or wrestling with what binds them.
Liedtke has a particular affinity for adolescents as they try on new identities in search of themselves, fumbling their way into adulthood. But he is also attuned to those who struggle in silence with disordered appetites, disrupted by their own or others’ skewed expectations. And he sees anomalies of the flesh as a challenge to our customary perceptions of beauty — a face too freckled for fashion is, to his eyes, a sky full of stars.
Sometimes his subjects are finding their feet, endearing in their self-assurance and whimsy. Sometimes they telegraph doubt and insecurity, caught in the act of sinking and calling out for help. But where other artists labor to find the right composition according to their preconceived notions, Liedtke is on the lookout for surprises. His camera is his satellite dish as he sweeps the scene for secrets.
Liedtke’s close attention to his subjects, his faith that he will find beauty in places many of us would be too uncomfortable to look, comes from being acquainted with suffering himself. It gave him new lenses, so to speak, to see those bearing burdens—often silently—all around him. And it’s what makes his work rewarding to those paying attention.
* * *
For Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian, the story has been similar—he’s found, in testifying of his struggles, the inspiration for art that meets people in the suffering and gives them confidence, joy, and reason to hope.
I’ve experience some of this myself: My own fiction-writing endeavor—a four-volume fantasy epic—was an immersive experience of inspiration and exploration. I was focused on my characters, following them around. But looking back, I see how they were leading me through questions that were too painful for me to approach directly. They were tending to my wounds. They were enabling me to reach for some kind of understanding and healing.
Maybe that’s the thing about creative work done in hard times—maybe we just can’t know how our experiences are informing the work, or what will be revealed that speaks back into our struggles. Back to Murdoch’s first verse: “With the light too bright for my senses. . . ..” Was his fatigue making him light sensitive? Or was he just not yet capable of apprehending the magnitude of what, in God’s mercy, was happening to. . . and through. . . him?
What hardships, what disappointments, what setbacks are you enduring right now? What would it mean for you to make something in the midst of it? Who knows what might emerge, what blessing you might give the world?