In the mini-series House of Eliott, set in early 20th-century England, one of the characters is a gentlewoman who has left her comfortable middle-class life behind her, spending her time, money, and energy crusading against the living conditions of the lower classes. At a charity event to raise funds for the mission she founded, she stands up, not to deliver a ringing oratory of gratitude for the money all the donors gave, but to deliver an incendiary indictment of all the money they had wasted in buying tickets and fancy clothes for the event itself. She berates the donors for their frivolousness, selfishness, and refusal to acknowledge the degradation of their fellow human beings. Then she sweeps off the stage to the shocked murmurs of the (former) donors.Reducing the giants of do-gooding to our own size can have the effect of making doing good seem possible, even for the those of us who struggle with the basics.
This is the basic experience of listening to Time Without Measure, the new release from the indie rock band The Chairman Dances. Each of the album’s 10 tracks features an activist, or group of activists, in a range of causes across history: people who inveighed against wars, poverty, the excess of the church, the excess of the state—power and abuse of power in concentrated form, wherever it is found. Listeners come away chastened, sobered, and possibly a little irritated for being asked to Think About Things.
Some of the names (and the stories behind them) are well known. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for instance, celebrated for his theology and his muscular expression of it, or Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Other tracks feature more obscure names in activism (at least to the middle-class dabbler in do-gooding), names such as the anti-war Catonsville Nine or the philosopher-scientist Kitty Ferguson, whose work on the meaning of time gives the album its name.
The most surprising thing about an album with such a heavy concept is that it feels intimate, even quiet at times, which gives its disruptive quality even more power. The songs are simple, generally short, and layered with atmospheric electronics and vocals. Six lines of lyrics extend into several minutes of instrumentals, with plenty of brass, a self-conscious oddness which owes no small debt to Sufjan Stevens. Which makes sense, since his producer Daniel Smith, also produced Time Without Measure.
The lyrics are tiny little poems, the text of which seem to come directly from the autobiographies and journals of the subjects. Lead vocalist Eric Krewson is practically whispering into the mic when he speaks as Bonhoeffer himself, not about the evils of the Third Reich, as one might expect, but in lines that evoke a lovely, aching picture of Bonhoeffer’s longing, his desire to see someone he loved:
I was up smoking a cigarette when the curtains were thrown open. The night spilling in.
And I thought about you, I thought I might see you bathed in light.
The music builds, a sonic expression of sadness, and you find yourself hoping that it worked out for Bonhoeffer before you remember that it didn’t.
Writers, thinkers, philosophers, theologians—their lives can seem so much bigger than our own, painted in biographies, documentaries, and across the giant canvas of Wikipedia (with subsections!)—it’s easy to forget that activists are people too. Reducing the giants of do-gooding to our own size can have the effect of making doing good seem possible, even for the those of us who struggle with the basics. Like Jimmy Carter, as it turns out.
As Krewson sings on the song “Jimmy Carter”:
And Tillich was right,
I have found it’s much harder to do right. Doubt, fear and worry — and unbelief.
O what sweet relief I found in Mark 9:23–4. I gave a sigh
The song bears up under the weight of its very short lyrics, as the music extends and the refrain “I believe” is heard, over and over. I believe, I believe, I believe. It is a chant, a meditation, a will to do right. I listen to Time Without Measure and think: I can do this! I can do good in this messed-up world! After all, as it says in the book of Mark (and as Jimmy Carter reminds us): Everything is possible to anyone who believes.
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