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.
My love, how beautiful you are. . .
My love is everywhere you are. . .
You are a sight for aching eyes
A river for my thirst. . .
I’m listening to these lyrics as I drive with my friend Bryan north from Seattle to Vancouver to see U2 open their Innocence + Experience tour. And, frankly, I’m restless.
I can’t wait for the U2 show, where we’ll hear their new songs, which are full of lyrics that tell real stories and contain concrete details, full of intriguing wordplay, cultural and autobiographical references, literary allusions, and clever interweavings of pop culture lingo and passages from the scriptures—lyrics to chew on.
In the meantime, we have many thousands of songs accessible to us for our road-trip soundtrack, so we’re taking turns sharing the music that’s been capturing our attention recently. I’m going to play tracks from the recent Inside Llewyn Davis concert: the double-album called Another Day, Another Time.
But Bryan. . . he chose this?
It’s a song called “Of Crowns and Crows” by Dustin Kensrue. And the lyrics sound, at first, like they could be any love song from any commercial pop artist, in any musical genre, over the last several decades. Or if these lines are taken as praise verses, they could have been on any contemporary Christian music album as well.
All words seem beggarly and poor
When set to sing your grace.
What could I have known of love before
My eyes had seen your face?
Ah, now it sounds more. . . Christian. “Grace” has come into it. This could be Michael W. Smith. It could be a Hillsong chorus. It’s almost a fill-in-the-blank praise formula.
But wait—“beggarly and poor”? That’s an interesting choice of words. . . something almost literary. (Later, a quick Google search will show me that this phrase is found in the soul-searching writings of St. John of Chrysostom, he of “the dark night of the soul.”)
“The first verse is really interesting,” says Bryan.
“Yeah,” he says, and he’s already laughing. “It’s got this evangelical, Hillsong United, youth-groupy, Jesus-is-My-Boyfriend kind of thing.”
Okay, then. We’re on the same page. This is a cookie-cutter Christian praise chorus. So what’s the big deal?
“How it’s produced—it’s like a well-crafted rock progression. You can hear Christian youth-group kids listening to it and jumping up and down and saying, ‘Great! Another one for the team!’”
It certainly sounds commercial, I think to myself. Like music from a movie trailer. . . from a commercial. This is exactly why I burned out on Christian praise songs for so long. I couldn’t even listen to the good ones. Once-meaningful poetry had become cheapened by formulaic, polished, shiny, easy music. Profound verses had been sung so redundantly, so lightly, so excessively, outside of the context of the turmoil that forged them, that they had gone from feeling like expressions of real weight to floating insubstantially, like feathers plucked from pillows.
“But then you get to the second and third verses,” says Bryan, “and they’re very time-bound.”
What? I listen.
I know you feel the wounds of time,
The wandering feet of crows. . .
I pray that I will live to see
You wear a crown of gray. . .
“Feet of crows?” “A crown of gray?” This no longer sounds like one of those generic, all-purpose love choruses sung to God.
Oh, when you kiss me I am lost,
Or is it that I’m found?
My feet send roots beneath the rocks
To fix me to the ground,
Never to float away again,
A captive to the tide
No more to wander in the wind,
Without you by my side.
“Hear that?” says Bryan. “There’s gray hair. There’s walking together while you’re old.” This isn’t just another sentimental praise song, nor is it a frivolous love song. “This,” says Bryan, “is very much a love song to his wife.”
I have to agree. “Of Crowns and Crows” may not reach the heights of artistry, but it’s real. It’s human. And most unusual of all, it’s a testimony of fidelity and constancy.
“Kensrue is showing us that a relationship isn’t just an okay thing to write about—it’s a very beautiful thing to write about,” says Bryan. “It’s one of the highest things you can write about! There’s something sacred in writing about ordinary things.”
And then he says something that stays with me for the rest of our trip: “Singing about love doesn’t have to be a disembodied, agenda-driven experience.”
I will think about this when Bono, during the concert we’re headed to, sings deeply personal lines of love for his mother Iris, who died when he was young. They aren’t generalizations—he paints vividly specific images. I’ll think of it again when he sings of the cost of faithfulness to a difficult lover and of the hardship of doubts and uncertainty in “With or Without You.”
“These embodied lyrics,” I tell Bryan, “the particularity in them—they make this song a lot more interesting. They make me pay attention. It’s more than just a swoony chorus—it’s a human story.”
Bryan agrees. “I don’t know if Kensrue intended this or not, but it’s like a bait and switch—like he’s saying, ‘I’m going to hook you with this thing you think you want, but that’s really just candy. I intend to pull you in much deeper, and we’re going to have a meal together. I’m going to give you more than you thought you wanted.’”
He squints at his phone as we drive into sunlight, skips ahead to another Kensrue track: “Back to Back.”
The catchy refrain for this one could have come from anything. Seriously. . . anything.
Let me be the one
That’s walking with you through the night
But Kensrue, placing this appeal within a personal context, makes it substantial rather than sentimental. It’s not an impulsive promise born of infatuation, but a reaffirmation of faithfulness that already has a history of holding fast through ordinary routines and extraordinary hardship.
When you haven’t got no sleep,
Let me fix you a cup of Joe.
Let me soak your shirt in tears
When the tumor starts to grow.
Let me rub your back when the children whine.
Let me push your cart through the five and dime.
Help you hobble down the hall with your IV line in tow. . .
Whoa. Somehow I doubt that with references as specific and sobering as those this song will leap up the Top Downloads of the week. Who’s ready to sing along to lyrics of this magnitude?
Perhaps those lines don’t fit perfectly with your own relationship. They don’t apply exactly to mine. But the details of this picture have me thinking about my marriage, about the moments that test my own love’s quality.
The thing is, says Bryan, these may be songs about a marriage, but they speak to the demands of love in all areas of our life. They have implications for parenthood, for friendship, for community, and even for our commitments to the church.
“Kensrue was a worship leader in a church in Bellevue, Washington,” says Bryan, “a church that I was a part of for many years. A church called Mars Hill. Many of us at Mars Hill had trouble with a lot of the things that were going on there in the upper levels of leadership—particularly with one of the senior pastors. And Dustin, after working internally for change for a long time, finally made a stand: He wrote an open letter explaining where he was on things last year. This album that he’s released is one of the first pieces of art by an artist to grow out of all that happened at Mars Hill.”
He plays a song called “Gallows” for me.
“If you know anything about the story of Mars Hill,” says Bryan, “if you know the story of the downfall and disintegration of Mars Hill Church, the story of [the pastor’s] resignation, and the relationship between him and Dustin, then you’ll know what Dustin is singing about when you listen to ‘Gallows.’”
We listen. And, frankly, even if I hadn’t heard testimonies of hurt and betrayal and loss from so many who experienced Mars Hill’s disintegration, I would sense that this is not a generic, all-purpose song about pride. It’s a song written with a real human being in mind.
You work like every nail sunk,
Every floorboard laid,
Is another deed erased,
Another debt that’s paid.
Like every story you’ve erected’s gonna raise you up,
So you keep slaving but it never seems to be enough.
And now you’re scared that it’s all gonna crash to the ground,
So you tied a knot and started climbing your way down.
When you find that you’ve come to the end of your rope
Take a look and see where you were putting all your hope.
Because you built these gallows you’ve been hanging from,
You’ve been holding to a noose, so just let go. . .
Bryan shakes his head. I can tell that the music is reminding him of years full of hurt. “It’s impossible for me to listen to this and not hear Dustin addressing [the pastor] in this situation. This song is about what we do in life when we build the things that end up becoming our own undoing. It’s really interesting to hear an artist process their experience.
“This idea of building the gallows that will be your undoing—that really is what happened at Mars Hill, where many of us like Dustin and myself who were involved in the community, cultural engagement, and mentoring. . . many of us were the ones to say to the leadership team, ‘Hey, we love you guys—but this is not okay. Your unkind, uncharitable ways are not compatible with the gospel.’ And the community that I believe God built up became, in a very corporate-machine kind of way, the undoing of [our pastor] and these few people at the top.
“This song is a particularly artful examination of how you begin to work through that. It’s almost like he’s speaking to the pastor and saying, ‘You can’t just walk away from this experience. You’re not quite done with it yet. I still want to talk with you about it.’”
And the more I think about it, the more I see how right it is that “Gallows” appears after “Back to Back” on Kensrue’s album Carry the Fire. That album title is a phrase drawn from Cormac McCarthy’s books The Road and No Country for Old Men. Both of those books are bleak visions of a world that is crumbling all around its characters, catastrophes that bring out the worst in most and the best in a few. Both of them give us flickers of hope in mystical images of love and innocence.
In the context of his own marriage, Kensrue affirms that love is the only thing holding together and strengthening the things that remain in this sin-wrecked world. And then, in a song sung in the midst of a community’s wreckage, Kensrue addresses a man whose pride doomed a house that was, at first, built with good intentions.
Personally, I find myself wishing that Kensrue’s musical compositions had qualities as personal and specific as his lyrics. The music on Carry the Fire doesn’t feel particularly imaginative. But the lyrics stand out from almost all mainstream pop songs. They tell human stories, and share hard-won insights, drawn from roots in real-world experience. And that’s why I’m still listening.