Hey, so guess what? I’m an uncle.
At 2:33 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday, my sister Emily and her husband Bill had their first child, a healthy 8-pound, 10-ounce boy. (Well, I say Emily and Bill, but I’m fairly certain Emily did all the work.) They’ve chosen the name Luke, and I’m pretty sure Bill came up with it, so he can make Darth Vader jokes. (“Luke! I am your father!”) Which I totally support.
It was a bit of an odyssey getting Luke here – he was two weeks overdue, and Emily spent more time in the hospital lately than any of us would have liked. But she’s home, the baby is healthy, and all is well. And I can’t wait to come out there and meet him. And show him Star Wars. And play him his first Beatles album. And basically be his cool-ass uncle.
Congrats, guys. And welcome to the world, Luke.
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You all know me, and you know what I like. So the idea that I’m anxiously anticipating the new Linkin Park album is probably surprising. Believe me, I’m surprised too.
But the band’s last album, 2010’s A Thousand Suns, impressed the hell out of me. It was their Great Leap Forward, a record so far beyond anything they’d done that it often sounded like the work of a different band. Just “Robot Boy” alone was worth the price of admission, but the fact that the band crafted a cohesive, front-to-back statement of the caliber of A Thousand Suns marked them as worth watching.
And so I am. Linkin Park’s fifth album, Living Things, will be released on June 26. The first single, “Burn It Down,” is streaming at their website. They seem to have given their guitar player the year off again, but the song is a catchy, creepy thing, and I like it. Even Mike Shinoda’s rapping. I’ve heard that the band went back to its basics on this album, and I’m hoping that isn’t true. The single could go either way – it’s more of an old-school Linkin Park song, but with much more interesting production.
We’ll see what the album brings. I’m hopeful they didn’t retreat from the artistic leaps of A Thousand Suns entirely. Or if they did, I hope it’s not a permanent condition.
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I can usually tell when I’ve heard the album of the year.
It’ll sometimes take me a listen or two, but I’m pretty good at knowing when I have something special. It’s rarely a foregone conclusion – I expected Quiet Company’s We Are All Where We Belong to be great, but when the album landed, and I worked my way through it a few times, I knew it was the best thing I would hear in 2011. That said, I was open to other albums knocking that one off the top spot, but none did. And I kind of knew that none would.
I’m also pretty good at knowing when I haven’t heard the album of the year yet. I meandered through 10 months of 2006, sure I hadn’t discovered that one masterpiece that would top the list. And then came Joanna Newsom’s Ys, like a bolt from the blue. I second-guessed myself a couple times on that one, but if I’m honest, I knew from the first listen that it was the year’s best.
Every year, I wonder whether the 2006 experience will happen again – whether I’ll get to the end of the year without a clear front-runner, an album that gives me that special sense of awe and joy. Well, I’m thrilled beyond measure to be able to tell you that 2012 is not that kind of year. I have what I am pretty sure will be the best album I hear this year in my hands right now. It’s possible something will come along and dethrone this record at some point over the next eight months. But whatever manages it will have to be astonishingly good.
At the moment, though, the album of 2012 is A Church That Fits Our Needs, by a North Carolina band called Lost in the Trees.
I’m listening to it again now, and I can scarcely believe how much it still affects me, after probably three dozen spins. I first bought it on Ian Tanner’s recommendation (for which I have profusely thanked him), and I was in love from the first two minutes. I’m always saying that artists should strive for greatness, should pour every inch of themselves into their art and create as if they may never have the chance again. It’s surprisingly rare how many of them do, but every note of A Church That Fits Our Needs captures the pain and wonder of frontman Ari Picker, and communicates it with desperate, deeply felt, extraordinary artistry. It’s a finely-crafted work that feels like a flooding of the soul.
In 2008, Picker’s mother, stricken with cancer, took her own life, on the same day as his wedding. That’s her on the front cover of A Church That Fits Our Needs, and the 10 agonizing, searching songs within are Picker’s attempt to make sense of the senseless. The lyrics are filled with images of water and ghosts, and songs that lull and restore. The record begins with the sound of a film projector shuddering to life, taking us back through Picker’s memories, and the words he’s chosen are very like memory – hazy, indistinct, shifting perspectives, like snapshots of time, which occasionally sharpen into unsettling focus.
And the music. The music! Picker’s songs are darkly majestic things, with magnificent melodies and full orchestration. Opener “Neither Here Nor There” starts with delicately plucked acoustic guitar, but before it’s over, the sweeping strings and subtle percussion cloud lift the song into the stratosphere. “Red” is haunting from its first moment, Leah Gibson’s da-da-da vocals quickly giving way to violins over a shifting beat. The arrangements, all by Picker himself, are breathtaking.
“Golden Eyelids” is almost inhumanly beautiful. It’s built on a ‘50s doo-wop beat and a soaring melody, adorned with some gorgeous strings and horns – the chromatic string shimmy after each chorus gives me chills. Picker’s high, clear voice drives it home: “But no tears now that your cancer is fed, your soul shielded, your voice sings red…” As lovely as that is, “Icy River” brings me to tears each time. As the orchestra holds him up, Picker sings of pouring out his mother’s ashes. “Don’t you ever dare think she was weak-hearted,” he cries. “Like a ribbon of silver, I poured her body in the river…”
The songs on A Church That Fits Our Needs are clearly meant to go together, and explain one another. Picker references his twin sisters, who died after being born prematurely, in “Red,” and describes them as “born far too early, cut out and laid in a bed of heat” in “Golden Eyelids.” His mother’s artwork mentioned in “Neither Here Nor There” is discarded in “Icy River,” in a quote from her suicide note, and Picker brings that circle to a close on track nine, “An Artist’s Song.” This is an album, intended to be listened to in sequence, and then again, and again.
And it’s an emotionally devastating one. The delicate “This Dead Bird is Beautiful” contains several powerful moments, none more so than the single line “I’ll carry her, because she breathed I breathe.” If you can get through this song without crying, you’re better than me. “A golden armored sky will carry her, but I’ll always have her eyes…” It’s so lovely that when “Garden” explodes in with its pummeling bass line, it’s almost shocking.
The album’s climax is the extraordinary “An Artist’s Song,” a prayer addressed to Picker’s mother, a passionate painter who inspired his own love of art. “You walked through this horrid life, but you got to sing before you closed your eyes… so sing your hymn of faith, ‘cause I have none, your song is my fortress…” The strings and choir are somehow ghostly and heart-stoppingly loud at the same time. The sweeping melody about three and a half minutes in may be my favorite moment on the record.
But it all gives way to “Vines,” the moving, sparse closer. In the album’s final moments, Picker sings, “And my songs can try, but there are things that songs can’t say, so watch me fall away as I cower under your grace.” It’s stunningly beautiful, and I’m reduced to nothing. There are things songs, and words about songs, can’t say.
All I can tell you is that the experience of taking in A Church That Meets Our Needs over the last few weeks has been one of the most emotional of my music-listening life. Picker said he wanted to use this album to find a place for his mother’s soul to rest, a heaven she deserved – a lofty goal to be certain, and I don’t know how close he believes he came to doing it. Some might wonder why Picker thinks he can do such a thing with music. I wonder why more artists don’t believe in their music this much. It’s music. It’s boundless, infinite, beyond our attempts to hold it down and limit it. And this is the most powerful music I’ve heard in some time.
I fully expect to be touting this album’s greatness come December. I fully expect to be listening to it and loving it far beyond that. Ari Picker and Lost in the Trees have distilled oceans of pain and confusion into a remarkable album of unending beauty, one that leaves me speechless and destroyed. It’s an unflinching love letter from a son to his departed mother, and a gift to all of us. I’m grateful I lived to hear it. That’s all I can say. Like Picker at the album’s conclusion, I have no more words.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.