Another season of Lent is upon us and that means it’s time for another round of our Lenten Soundtrack. This time, we’re kicking things off with a song by Lissie – a criminally under-recognized and wonderfully talented singer who I recently discovered while watching the new season of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Each episode of the series concludes with a somewhat non-sequitur performance at the show’s Roadhouse bar by a rotating lineup of musicians. As one might expect from an odd bird like Lynch, some of the performances are, er, more than a little outside of what you would call “the mainstream.” But unlike some of the other episode closers, Lissie’s unabashedly anthemic performance of the song “Wild West” had me riveted to my orange and white couch cushion. Do yourself a favor and give it a watch:
Ever since that 14th episode, I’ve pretty much been in love. Now, is Lissie the most original and poetic lyricist? Probably not. Does she construct intricate and sensitive sonic landscapes that make music critics, Brooklynites, and skinny jean-clad college kids collectively swoon? Not exactly. But what she does have is an ear for a soaring pop tune and, even more importantly, the woman can sing. Watching and listening to her perform, regardless of whether it’s one of her own songs or a Lady Gaga, a Lynyrd Skynyrd, or even a Kid Cudi cover, is just plain exhilarating. But for me, what’s even more compelling than her passion and raw vocal talent is the unmistakable vertical orientation running through her work. Lissie writes songs that are directed upwards and outwards, bursting at the seams with vitality and yearning – it’s clear that she is trying to write and sing songs that crack open the depths of human feeling, that give expression to the longings lodged in the deep recesses of our hearts. Perhaps you could call them postmodern hymns to an unknown god.
One of the singles that Lissie has released ahead of her new album Castles (due out March 23) is “Blood and Muscle,” and this is the song to which we now focus our Lenten attentions:
“Blood and Muscle” is a wistful and subdued piano ballad sung in world-weary tone – quite a departure from Lissie’s typical high-energy material. Even her appearance is strikingly different in the music video: the windswept hair, torn blue jeans, and tomboyish charm are gone; in their place is a woman wearing a very un-Lissie-like dress and with a decidedly worn looking expression on her face.1 But despite these differences, the song carries in its heart the same fierce longing that characterizes so much of Lissie’s music. “I want a love that’s made of blood and muscle / I want a love that’s brave, can take my tears,” she sings on the chorus; “I want to laugh at the dark like I’m not scared of nothing / I want a love that’s made of blood and muscle.” The song’s vulnerability perfectly illustrates the power of pop music, one of the only places in our performance driven and image conscious culture where it is still appropriate to voice real human desperation. Sure, popular art is highly commercialized with profitability rather than authentic artistic expression being the real driving force for record companies. But paradoxically, the very fact that money drives the recording industry means that much of the music that goes on to be successful is in some way true to lived human experience – if it doesn’t resonate with listeners it’s not going to sell.
Even though Lissie puts up a determined front (“I won’t give up,” she reassures us before the chorus) it’s hard to avoid thinking that she probably recognizes that what she’s asking for – and what the rest of us are asking for along with her – is totally unrealistic. We all know that no human being, no matter how loving and devoted, can ever bear the weight of such expectations. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from investing untold amounts of energy into finding that person who just maybe will be the vessel into which all of our longing can be poured. On the one hand, it’s a bit of a pitiable situation – we are repeatedly setting ourselves up for crushing disappointment. But on the other hand, to give up on such hopes entirely seems tantamount to succumbing to despair. In his book Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering, Kelly Kapic addresses this painful irony: “Some claim such yearnings are simply wish projections we create,” he writes, “hopes cultivated to keep us sane while we suffer. But such a cynical view of human futility leaves us all open to despair, not just when we suffer but even when things are going well. Is there really no difference between shalom and chaos, between pain and relief?” Indeed, we are left in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation: we are creatures too fragile to bear the weight of our own hopes.
Few writers have wrestled with questions of desire, hope, and despair as extensively and personally as the 4th century Church father and theologian St. Augustine. At the beginning of his semi-autobiographical Confessions, Augustine tells God that what he is writing is intended to be a song of praise to his Creator, asserting that the praise of God is actually the true desire of every human heart because that is the purpose for which we were created. He sums this up with a famous phrase: “You have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” In pages that follow, Augustine details the wanderings of his own restless heart, and the countless false starts and dead ends he endured until at last, the long unknown and unrecognized Object for which he had all along been searching found him:
“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.”
Quite insightfully, Augustine recognizes that “those lovely created things” he pursued for so many years were simultaneously distractions from and windows into his true desire: although in and of themselves they were dead ends, they were the only place he knew where to start. His longing itself was right, even if the containers into which he tried to place his longing were ultimately inadequate. Desire for a love that is “real and warm and alive – and not just in my mind, ” as Lissie sings on the bridge of “Blood and Muscle”, even if the desire is misdirected, is the only place to begin, for to desire at all is to acknowledge that we are in need of a love outside and beyond ourselves to be whole. And this, of course, brings us full circle to what Lent is all about: Love himself, clothed in suffering blood and muscle, coming for us. Coming to take up our dashed longings, fragmented hopes, and lovesick hearts in his bloodied arms, bearing the bitterest extremity of our alienation and forsakenness in our stead. In Jesus Christ, we meet a love that is indeed able to laugh at the dark, undeterred by the darkness of even our most hidden shames and unspeakable betrayals. Here is a love that is not only able to take our tears but delights to do precisely that.
Click here to check out previous installments of the Lenten Soundtrack.
1. A quick movie nerd aside here – maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help thinking that in this video Lissie looks a lot like Claudia Wilson from the film Magnolia. Obviously, whether this is intentional or not is impossible to say, but if you’ve seen the movie you know that there is a whole rabbit hole of possible connections to go down here. But I’ll save that for another time.