How the Light Gets In
Soundtracks for Despair and Hope

It’s easy lately to be depressed.

I’m not just talking about myself here, although it’s always easy for me to be depressed. I’m in a constant fight for my own happiness, and most days, I win. But it’s still a fight, even with some of the incredibly positive turns my life has taken lately.

No, I’m speaking even more generally – I can imagine that its tough for a lot of people to stay hopeful lately. This year has been a non-stop churn of death, for starters. Over the past couple weeks we lost Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest (who was only 45, and died from complications related to diabetes), former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (only 46, lymphosarcoma), Patty Duke, Andy “Thunderclap” Newman and the great Garry Shandling, among others.

The news is full of hatred and violence, the world seems on the verge of collapse, and a sizable portion of the population seems to actually want to elect Donald Trump president of the United States. Slipping into despair over all this is not only easy, but totally understandable. And if you want to soundtrack that despair, you’re spoiled for choice. If there’s anything art should be for, it’s the ability to express that which, if it goes unexpressed, might kill us.

Sean Watkins has been watching the news. The darkness that pours out of his fifth solo album, What to Fear, is remarkable, particularly considering how happy and contented Watkins has sounded lately. The Nickel Creek reunion was a blast, and recently he’s been joining his sister Sara and a bevy of uber-talented friends in a jocular collective called the Watkins Family Hour. The most depressing thing on their self-titled album was a cover of “Not in Nottingham,” from Disney’s Robin Hood cartoon. (Yes, the one with the fox and the bears.)

So to hear Watkins take such pointed aim at politicians and the media on the opening title track is jarring at first. The song is a pretty minor-key lament for the non-stop fear machine perpetuated by our cable news cycle: “We told you what to fear, and you listened up, we told you what to fear, you’re sticking to your guns and there’s no one in this dark world you can trust, except for us…” It’s one of the most powerful songs he’s ever written, sharp and on point: “There’s a new disease, don’t go away, how to keep your loved ones safe, the answer’s coming right after this break… we’re gonna sell you what to fear…”

The album never aims that wide again, but it remains that dark. Watkins zeroes in on personal failings and heartbreak, and plays the part of desperate, flawed men again and again. On “Last Time for Everything,” he examines mistakes from his past, particularly those he knew he was making at the time. “I Am What You Want” is a vicious stalker song: “I know you, you don’t like me, I know I’m not your type, but I swear you’ll learn to love me…” “Too Little Too Late” finds him examining the wreckage of a ruined relationship and trying to say he’s sorry, knowing there is no reason he should be heard or believed.

There are glimmers of sunshine here, but they are few. “Everything” is about fighting every urge to hold back secrets and to flee from vulnerability: “I’ve never been this far with anyone, halfway there is where I usually run, but I can’t deny you, I won’t turn away, I would give everything to you…” “Where You Were Living” is a splendid tale of breaking free, and looking back gratefully on the moment you did. And Watkins ends the album with a lovely cover of Glen Phillips’ “Back on My Feet,” a song of blessed regret and hope for rebirth.

But mainly, Watkins speaks from a broken and breaking place here, and it’s devastating. “Keep Your Promises II” is a rewrite of a song from his last solo album, and he’s made it somehow even more hopeless here: “What’s made will break, what lives must die, and you’re gonna change your mind, it’s just a matter of time…” Watkins sings so sweetly, and the folksy music (recorded with the likes of Matt Chamberlain, Benmont Tench, Sebastian Steinberg and his sister Sara) belies the difficult nature of the lyrics.

That said, this record is magnificent, a dive into darker places pulled off with perfect form. Sean Watkins is often overlooked in favor of his bandmates (especially Chris Thile), but he’s quite an extraordinary talent, and when no one was looking, he made one of his very best records here. What to Fear is a striking listen, and a splendid one.

But if you really want to wallow in black despair, the album you need is Ephemera, the surprising sophomore effort from Irish band Little Green Cars.

Three years ago, this upstart quintet from Dublin roared onto the public stage with a killer song called “Harper Lee.” That song kicked off their terrific, loud, memorable debut album Absolute Zero, and marked them as a band to watch. Well, Harper Lee died this year, and Little Green Cars have returned with an album so hopeless, so melancholy that it almost sounds like the work of a different band. Most of these songs are slow and acoustic, with chilly clean electric accents straight out of the Cure, and over and over, the lyrics speak of dissolution, of things falling apart and the center not holding.

Opener “The Song They Play Every Night” does a good job of setting the tone: “And every load I took to fill the hole that caved inside just made it deeper, darker, wider than before, don’t make me say it out loud anymore…” “You vs. Me” is the prettiest song about a war between two people I have heard in some time. Those two songs are sung by Stevie Appleby in his soft-spoken tenor. But it’s Faye O’Rourke and her deeply felt wail who truly brings the emotions to the fore. Her first song here is called “Easier Day,” and it’s a stunner, all about the consequences of her mental instability on others. “I’ve been this way for a long time…”

“Brother” is a short film set to music, a family portrait that is burning at the edges. The last verse leaves me empty: “Then last night, I had a dream but it seemed like real life, I awoke with a scream into lamplight, and all was quiet.” Dreams figure heavily in the paranoid “Clair de Lune,” its protagonists constantly asking each other if they’re happy. “OK OK OK” is so dark and powerful that I can barely listen to it – it’s O’Rourke and a piano, dealing with the aftermath of something horrible and finding no support.

And then there are five more songs of heartbreak and pain after that, songs that find O’Rourke admitting she doesn’t know who she’s singing about, and being unable to decide “if it’s you I hate or something inside.” Appleby’s finale, “The Factory,” brings one note of hope: “Jesus Mary mother of God I’m alive again,” he repeats, and I am hopeful that whatever happened to this band in the three years since their debut, this is the start of putting it all behind them. Because while the music on this album is wonderful – it’s one of the prettiest, saddest albums I’ve heard this year – I end it worrying about these people I don’t know, and hoping they will be all right.

Because there is hope. It often grows from small things – lending a helping hand to a neighbor, or paying for a stranger’s cup of coffee – and it blossoms into huge acts. Countering hate with love. Forgiving. Showing grace. These are all powerful things, what Bruce Cockburn described as kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight. And sometimes the strongest acts of hope can grow from the deepest tragedies.

If there’s a band that knows all about that, it’s Cloud Cult. This Minnesota tribe is led by Craig Minowa, and 14 years ago, he unexpectedly lost his two-year-old son Kaidin. After writing several cathartic records about the loss, Minowa dedicated his band to basically being the most powerful engine of hope he could create. Cloud Cult albums are sweeping statements of hard-won joy, and none have been more sweeping than their latest, The Seeker. The record is paired with a feature film, which I haven’t seen, but it doesn’t need one – it’s cinematic enough on its own.

Minowa’s songs are sometimes threadbare things, but his band builds them up into monoliths. The two-part opener, “Living in Awe” and “To the Great Unknown,” live up to their titles, the former a massive crescendo (“There will be joy and grief, but live it all in awe”) and the latter a true anthem (“Sometimes this life’s a lonely road, but you gotta find it on your own, so build a happy ship ‘cause this living is a trip, sing the kind of song that you love singing to the great unknown…”). The album follows a man who builds such a ship and heads off in search of the answers to everything, and he learns that the journey itself is the answer.

If all of this sounds hokey, believe me when I say that Cloud Cult makes it work beautifully. You haven’t heard a song of loss and loneliness that will pierce you like “Come Home” will, and it segues perfectly into “No Hell,” a masterpiece mantra about the world: “Someone tell the devil we don’t need no hell, we’re all pretty good at beating up ourselves,” he concludes, and it’s hard to argue. “No Hell” is the darkest this record gets, as the journey picks up from here – “Everything You Thought You Had” is a stunner, a song of love that dances to the infinite. “Everything I wish I’d done, and everything that I’d undo, everything that broke my heart can’t keep me from loving you…”

And I’m full up. The Seeker is an emotional ride, and it ends with beauty and grace. The mostly instrumental “Three Storms Before You Learn to Float” is gorgeous, and it leads into “You Never Were Alone,” a wonderful acoustic piece about seeking faith in the unknown, in the unknowable, in the unpredictable. “When I’ve screamed all my screamings, given up all my grievings, I’ll still love you with all of my being…” The denouement, “Through the Ages,” is so lovely I can’t even stand it. Here is the kicker line: “If ever I can’t see the magic around me, please take my hands off my eyes.”

That says so much. Despair and depression is failing to see the magic around us. I often need someone to take my hands off my eyes, and when they do, when I see all the wonder and beauty everywhere, I can’t imagine why I ever missed it. There is hope all around. There is darkness, yes, but there is more light. There is more light.

There is more light.

Next week, louder things. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.