RECENTLY, I TRAVELED UP I-77 from Columbia to Charlotte to catch a plane bound for New Orleans. On this short car ride two opinionated friends accompanied me. One of the widely accepted rules of carpooling dictates that the driver is the final arbitrator of any conflicts regarding the selection of music.
I make my kids listen to real music in my car, not the cheesy, trite, child-friendly songs that make the world appear to be a friendly place where love prevails, balloons are abundant, going to sleep doesn’t require Ambien and hugs are the simple solution to conflict. In 20 years it’s possible that my four- and two- year-olds will blame me for any adverse emotional effects they are left to deal with because their father introduced them to the deep distress, unmanageable angst, and recollections of lost love that are the genesis of good music.
Does this make me a bad parent? Maybe. But have you ever tried to dance to The Itsy-Bitsy Spider? It’s impossible, and since we start almost every day with a family dance party energized by the sounds of San Fermin, Bombino or Raising Appalachia, the balloons will remain deflated as long as I’m the DJ dad.
And so, I determined that Sun Kil Moon’s gorgeous new album, “Benji,” would be the soundtrack for our car ride to Charlotte. If you haven’t listened to it yet, I forgive you, but do hurry up and purchase the full album. However, my recommendation comes with a warning: Mark Kozelek’s lyrics will not make you want to dance, blow up balloons or even sing-along. In the style of prophets from the Hebrew Bible, Sun Kil Moon produced an 11-song collection that is best described as a lament. It’s a sad, profoundly honest and sparse chronicle of life. The first track is an ode to the life and tragic death of Kozelek’s second-cousin Carissa. It’s the most honest album I’ve ever heard. And, it is the most depressing.
Not surprisingly, my friends begged me to turn it off after the first verse. I turned it up instead. Eventually, their pleas for relief from the lament of Sun Kil Moon got old, and I turned off the stereo.
The episode wasn’t significant enough for me to recall until the wife of one of the two friends complained to me that her husband made her listen to the most depressing music on the way to the party we were both attending. She described it as awful and depressing and blamed me for introducing Sun Kil Moon to her husband. For a moment, I was ashamed that the secret was out — people apparently don’t like for their pastor to be listening to lamentations. My shame lasted about as long as it took me to swallow hard before responding, “Didn’t you think it was great?”
The lamentations of Sun Kil Moon are not easy to bear. The album is too honest about death without being angry enough at its injustice. It is as if Kozelek blew the whistle on a sentiment all humanity knows but is afraid to express — that life as we know it is slipping away and there is nothing we can do about it. It is the indescribable sense that our existence is frail, maybe even fleeting, that death is creeping up behind us.
But we don’t have any reason to run. We need more poets to admit what is true, not just what makes us happy. We need more language of lament to inform our conversations, especially in the church. To acknowledge what has passed with an accent of empathy will open and soften our hearts when it is time to receive something new.
AMOS DISASA is organizing pastor of Downtown Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C.