Present Concerns and the band Joseph

In an interview with Noisetrade, Natalie Closner Schepman, who together with her sisters Allison and Meegan Closner compose the band Joseph, remarked on how our culture tries to motivate us through fear. “We live in a culture that makes money by scaring us. We are constantly being reminded of what peril lies ahead if we don’t buy this thing or move to this place or choose this particular news source as our primary doomsayer.” “White Flag,” Joseph’s first single off their sophomore album “I’m Alone, No You’re Not,” is a song about optimistic defiance to this kind of fear:

I’ll be an army, no you’re
Not gonna stop me gettin’
Through
I’ll sing a marching song and
Stomp through the halls louder than
You

I could surrender but I’d
Just be pretending, no I’d
Rather be dead than live a lie
Burn the white flag

Elaborating on the theme of the song, Schepman offered an excerpt from On Living in an Atomic Age — CS Lewis’ essay about how to deal with the sudden, ever-present threat that nuclear war could at any moment wipe all life from the earth. “This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”

In writing On Living in an Atomic Age, Lewis might as well have had Donald Trump in mind. Like the atomic bomb, the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the office of the president has fomented a collective existential crisis in both the body politic and the public at large. Donald Trump is “a unique threat to American democracy,” according to the Washington Post. “(Trump’s) contempt for constitutional norms might reveal the nation’s two-century-old experiment in checks and balances to be more fragile than we knew.” Even conservatives like Andrew Sullivan have described President Trump as, “In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order … an extinction-level event.”

Whether such analysis is reasonable or exaggerated remains to be seen, but the paralyzing enticements of fear and despair are in no way new. “In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb,” Lewis argued. “‘How are we to live in an atomic age?'” I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might have cut your throat any night.” That death put on an unfamiliar mask did not give it new power; instead, it shattered our cherished illusion that we are immortal. Lewis continued, “Do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. …you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways.”

By echoing the sage wisdom Lewis offered in the face of that more immediate threat, Joseph position themselves as the perfect salve for the persistent chafing of our current cultural moment. “There is plenty to be concerned about!” Schepman adds. “We are a polarized country and there is more division than ever right now, so I have marveled at how much I need ‘White Flag’ more and more.” Joseph meets us in our division and discouragement and offers a joyful antidote.

I’m Alone, No You’re Not” has been well-received since its release last August. While critics have waxed on — rightly — about Joseph’s transcendent harmonies and sharp melodic instincts, I find myself equally captivated by their consistently positive message, an unfolding ideological landscape at least as beautiful as their voices. Take “I Don’t Mind,”* for example, a song about internalizing the belief that you are worthy of love. “I was saying for a while,” recalled Meegan during Joseph’s Tiny Desk Concert, “that it was what I wanted someone to say to me about my own sadness, and it just hit me that I would have to say it to myself first before I could receive it from anyone else.”

I will love you anyway
With all your demons in the way
Nothing can keep us apart
I walk through walls into your heart

*(A simple diagnostic test: if the harmonies at 2:13 don’t give you chills, there is likely something wrong with your central nervous system — consult a doctor immediately. Let’s not kid ourselves: the Closners can sing).

Whirlwind” may be the only musical meditation on the book of Job ever written that isn’t absolutely ridiculous. I don’t know if the members of Joseph identify as Christians — Schepman attended Seattle Pacific University, a Christian school — but they find themselves in excellent company with great musicians like Sufjan Stevens and mewithoutYou as they give fresh life to Christian themes without presenting themselves as Christian musicians per se.

Have you held the mallets drumming thunder
Or filled the clouds with rain?
Have you opened up the skies above you
And seen a desert wake?
Have you given orders to the morning
Or shown the dawn its place?
Can you grab hold of the earth’s four corners
And shake shake shake out the darkness

In “Planets,” Joseph conjures Eisley at their fanciful best without flirting with the adolescent imagery that made Eisley feel, at times, unapproachable. “Planets” is also the best example of free form poetry on “I’m Alone, No You’re Not,” the line “The stars are a blanket, I’ll wrap them round these shoulders/Arms spread out wide, turn falling into flight” calling to mind Beryl Smeeton’s autobiography “The Stars My Blanket.”

Themes of care, intimacy, and the resolve to embrace life and love over fear and despair make “I’m Alone, No You’re Not” at once timeless and timely. On Living in an Atomic Age ends with Lewis’ observation that “Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation than a determination to survive at all costs. Those who care for something else more than civilization are the only people by whom civilization is at all likely to be preserved. Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best. Those who love Man less than God do most for Man.” By setting their minds on higher things, Joseph created a poetic experience that will take on new meaning and persistent relevance as our present concerns shift. “I’m Alone, No You’re Not” is a great record to enjoy with a glass of whiskey and my favorite album of 2016.

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Who are you, O man?

“The heart knows the immensity it wants to achieve, but it is limited.”
― Nadia Scrieva

Once upon a time, I was foolish enough to complain to willing ears that I was too talented: I felt my gifts were so abundant it was hurting my prospects. I can’t even blame this insolence on the shortsighted sincerity of youth. But I cannot make my own dreams come true, much less make a tree. Where was I when You laid the foundation of the earth? I was less than an apparition orbiting a speck of dust.

And yet I was infinitely more, since I was held in Your mind. I cannot begin to will myself to obey and You still knew me before the creation of the world. You uphold Your glory by abasing the proud. Who am I? But one of a trillion trillion grains of sand propping up a mountain that pales next to Your majesty.

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