At my age, I am not auditioning new best friends. I have the friends I have, and I don't need any more. On the other hand, if a really fantastic human being walked into my life, I would be a fool to lose the chance of being transformed.
Likewise, while I have always loved discovering new music, I'm not out there actively looking. I have almost a month's worth of music from the past eight decades stored on my iTunes, and I can't listen to even a fraction of what I have now.
On the other hand, if a really fantastic band walks into your living room, only an idiot would refuse to listen to them.
And like virtually everyone who was listening-like anyone, I'm sure, who has ever heard him speak of it-I was transfixed and shattered by the band's back story. A decade back, Craig and his wife Connie unexpectedly lost their two-year-old son Kaidin, and Craig has sought to grapple with that grief and loss through his music ever since.
Like many of those on the NPR's story page who heard the story and wrote in to comment after being strongly affected, I have been broken by loss, and sometimes I haven't known how to go on. But, as with many of those listeners, in those hard times, it was often music and story, shared by artists with compassion and with the courage to tell the truth, that helped me take one step, and then another.
I downloaded Cloud Cult's new album Love, and I listened to it for four days around the clock as I was finishing the new novel I've been writing with spiritual writer Brennan Manning, The Prodigal. As the title suggests, our book is about fathers and sons, about loss and grief and unexpected grace, and I could not have chosen a better musical companion for the hard final stretch than Cloud Cult.
Some of you have been Cloud Cult fans for a while; they've been around since the '90s. If you've never heard their music, they are a big band in every musical sense of that description: a lot of members, a lot of different instruments, a panoply of musical styles, and the willingness to write songs about big emotions and big ideas. At one moment they might remind you of Arcade Fire or Polyphonic Spree; at another you might hear echoes of The Edge. But in all of their songs, Minowa is writing about navigating this difficult journey we call life, and offering light in the darkness that comes from his own hard-earned wisdom.
Reviewers have cited songs from previous Cloud Cult albums that dealt directly with the loss of Kaidin-and encouraged you maybe not to listen to the album in public if you have half a heart. You may end up weeping on this album, too. But you'll also clap your hands and laugh out loud and give thanks. Over and over again, Minowa tells us that despite it all, it's going to be okay, gives us words of affirmation, and encourages us to lean forward into life trusting each other.
I know there's only a minute distance between aphorism and cliché, and the truth is that some of what the band sings here is not new, although distinctive and wise lines are sprinkled throughout. But whether you find the affirmations trite or true depends on one of the central themes of the album: Do you want to live in cynicism or in hope?
I want to think of the friendly affirmations of hope on Love not as sappy slogans, but as being like Kathleen Norris's story about the Greek Orthodox priest advising the doubting seminarian to keep saying the Creeds: The more you say them, the more true they will become for you. And while sometimes the words are familiar, it's also true that in the same song you may find a mixture of the familiar and the jarringly beautiful. So in an upbeat song like "Good Friend," whose rollicking chorus is "All I need is a good good friend, To get me through this," we also find
We are not broken ones,
Just shattered pieces of the same bright sun
Trying to figure out which way to run
And we can't do this alone
Life is a playground, but it takes a lot of work
So you better learn to love, or it will tear you apart
Cause in the end we are measured by the size of our heart.
The Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" may in fact be a sentimental slogan. But it is also a song that could save your life, or change it. And that's what I found over and over again in listening to this album: Well-constructed songs of grief, confusion, and joy, blending over the course of a well-constructed album to call me to do more, to do better, to live large or go home.
There's real wisdom here, some of it from every spiritual tradition:
If you're asking for directions,
don't you moan about the distance.
Must you lose it, lose it all . . . .
To find your appreciation? ("Complicated Creation")
and some of it, perhaps, from Pascal, to whom is attributed the idea of the "God-shaped hole" we all try to fill:
If you keep trying to fill your holes with the next best thing
The next best thing will give you more and more holes. ("1X1X1")
There is real wisdom here, and encouragement aplenty, but this medicine, if medicine it is, comes dipped in honey, all of it delivered in interesting arrangements, a crazy mix of styles ranging from guitar-driven rock to trance to folk. It is no exaggeration to say that I have come to love Cloud Cult's music, love it as I love Death Cab for Cutie, or Arcade Fire, or Mumford and Sons, and for many of the same reasons.
In my thirty-plus years of writing about music, there have been only a handful of times I have felt myself banging up against the limits of language. While I have tried to write about Love and about its effect on a willing listener, I must also fall back on a plea that I have made only a handful of times in my career: Try as I might, I cannot communicate to you how much you need to hear this album.
On the way back from finishing my novel, driving through the trees and valleys of the Texas Hill Country as I listened to the album one last time, I found myself with tears in my eyes.
And, I noticed, more than once, that I was performing that action which in my tradition we use when we feel blessed by the very touch of God: crossing myself.
There is also, in my tradition, a strong sense of benediction, the idea that whatever holiness might have happened during our time together, it is secondary to the holiness we are called to participate in outside in the big, hard, beautiful world. I found that benediction in place on Love as well, in the final song, "The Show Starts Now":
They say we're made of chaos
I say we're made of love
That means our show starts now
And so it does.
And so it does.