Tuesday, September 20, 2005

GodBlog Con '05

The first ever GodBlog 2005 Conference is coming up in just a few weeks. It's a conference for Christian bloggers to meet, network and learn more about the possibilities and potential of blogging. An recent article by Ted Bolsinger provides some interesting thoughts on the upcoming conference.

I plan on being there myself... hope to see you there.

87th Christian Carnival

The Carnival's up again, and I have a post there. Check it out to find some recent posts of some interesting Christian bloggers.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Review of Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, by Paul McCartney. A Grownup Work from a Genius of Pop

Before I begin my review, I would like to retire a false legend about the Beatles, one that has circulated for a long while. Please bear with me as I address this issue briefly; it will be relevant to the album review.

The myth is this: that John Lennon was the true artist of the Beatles; their leader, and the driving force behind their magic. This legend of course misses the obvious fact that the music of the Beatles was produced by the alchemy of four unique talents, each of whom made an important and significant contribution to the mix. It was the combination of their voices, inspired songwriting, their cohesiveness as a band, and their winning personalities that made the Beatles so special-- even the Beatles themselves often claimed that they felt like four parts of the same person. So their success is not owing to any one of them alone.

Lennon certainly was a natural leader within the group and had an originality that was critical to the Beatle's sound. But his songwriting partner, McCartney, was no less an original, and it's almost certain that Paul took the lead in Beatle creative sessions on songs for which he was the primary originator (and this was probably more than half of their recordings).

Especially in their earlier work, Paul and John's songwriting was a true collaboration. But as time went on, they wrote more as individuals, and would bring in their ideas for the rest of the group to work on. One began to see the contrast in their musical personalities.

It's when we examine their output as solo artists we more readily see the differences (and similarities) in the style and temperament of Lennon vs. McCartney. Paul was clearly the sunnier personality, reflected both in his lyrics and in his more upbeat tunes. The darker Lennon exposed the pain and even neurosis of his psyche, usually with good results musically. One way that they were similar, however, is that both were Romantics [definition of Romanticism: An artistic and intellectual movement originating in Europe in the late 18th century and characterized by a heightened interest in nature, emphasis on the individual's expression of emotion and imagination, departure from the attitudes and forms of classicism, and rebellion against established social rules and conventions].

Perhaps one of the best examples of this Romanticism is that each of them wrote tender, sensitive odes to love/lover (Paul: My Love, Warm and Beautiful and countless others, John: Oh My Love, Woman, and lots more).

Paul was more of a craftsman in his approach to writing and producing, polishing final productions to a sheen; whereas it seems John generally preferred a more raw sound, one he viewed as more spontaneous and authentic. Of the two, Paul was almost certainly the more versatile musician, with a wider scope of styles in his writing and playing. But again, these generalizations are limited, for Paul could be rough and raw-sounding, and John's music shows he was quite able to create smooth, polished pop songs when he chose to.

Paul was much more prolific in his post-Beatles output, even before Lennon died in 1980. It's hard to imagine him taking off five years from releasing any music, as Lennon did in the mid-70's. His ability to generate so many ideas is a mark of Paul's genius-- yet it has at times resulted in his putting out material that is just not up to his own high standards, nor up to the high quality of the Beatles catalog. Whether writing together or separately, these two great writers sparked one another's creativity and raised each other's game, if not through collaboration, then often by competition. So we must retire all the nonsense about Paul being a no-talent, and John the true genius.

With his overflow of musical ideas, McCartney has quite often recorded what sound like "snippets" or even drafts of songs. Sometimes he molds these into great songs, but often he has just released such material "as is", with not great results. I think this is one reason why critics have not always been kind to Paul's solo work. But another, as mentioned above, is the myth that Paul was not as inspired or as edgy a talent as John. Thus Paul's solo career has been underrated by many critics, but I believe that in due time his work will garner the respect and appreciation it deserves as outstanding pop music.

Nevertheless, especially from a lyrical standpoint, it does seems that Paul has always had need of a strong editor; one that he could respect and who would unflinchingly provide honest appraisal of his ideas along with constructive advice. One imagines that John was that kind of writing partner for Paul. But writing without a partner, Paul has sometimes given in to his worst tendency-- sentimentality-- and produced mawkish lyrics or cornball songs. Every artist has idiosyncrasies that contribute to their strength as an artist, but the same strength at extremes turn into weakness. Lennon, for example, had a gift for being bluntly truthful in his lyrics, in a way that seemed to connect with many. Yet songs like "Mother", or more so, "I Found Out", are probably too revealing of the dark side to be "listener-friendly".

Likewise McCartney's gift of generating lots of musical ideas, his seeming perfectionism in the studio, his wonderful gift of melody and his optimistic nature often have combined to produce works of pure pop genius. Yet those same strengths can be liabilities. He has had a tendency either towards overproduction, or the seeming opposite tendency to release half-finished tunes. His tendency to put on his "brave face" has perhaps caused him to be a little too glib and superficial in his lyrics.

But on Chaos and Creation, working with a fresh producer, Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck) Paul reins in some of these negative tendencies. The lyrics are more mature and reflective. The spare, tasteful musical arrangements complement the thoughtful quality of the words perfectly. The complex essence of Paul's musical personality emerges: optimism (Fine Line) is juxtaposed with melancholy (Jenny Wren, At the Mercy); nostalgia (English Tea) contrasted with anticipation (Promise To You Girl). Apparently Godwin persuaded Paul to leave out his band and record almost all the parts himself (something Paul has done before but not since McCartney I and II). The result is an album that feels "organic": all the parts relating to one another well. And best of all, McCartney's voice sounds incredible (it's hard to believe he's 63!)-- it's strong and confident on the uptempo tracks, and vulnerable, wise, and, for lack of a better word, beautiful, on the more mellow numbers.

Chaos and Creation in the Backyard opens strongly, with Fine Line (also the first single), an up-tempo number that may not grab you on the first listen but hooks you if you listen more than once. It has a good lyric, of more depth than usual for a McCartney pop single. This is followed by "How Kind of You", a moody, mellow piece that reflects on the kindness of a friend (lover?) who was there in a time of need. Like many of the songs on this album, it grows on you with repeated listening.

The beautiful, haunting Jenny Wren is next and features lovely acoustic guitar by Paul, in the tradition of some of his great guitar work on songs such as Blackbird, or Calico Skies. Its minor key and lovely chorus are well-matched to the simple, evocative lyrics. The plaintive solo (by Pedro Eustache, on an instrument called the duduc) is one of the high points of the album. I think this song may join the McCartney canon of greats.

At the Mercy
, to my ears, has classical music elements; there are many interesting twists and turns to follow in this complex tune. The complexity of the tune perhaps makes it less easy to remember, but this is one of the best songs on the album.

McCartney has said that on the next number, Friends to Go, he felt inspired by George Harrison-- and the song does have a "“Travelling Wilburys"” kind of feel. In fact, it is the kind of tune George might have written, in his later career. It's a very likable tune and good tribute to George, if that is what it is meant to be.

English Tea changes the mood again with its opening, which sounds like a passage imported from one of Paul's classical pieces. The song itself seems to be a mild parody of aristocratic life. It reminds me a bit of "Piggies" from the White Album, except where Piggies was an attack on the aristocracy, English Tea shows affection for the old English ways.

Too Much Rain opens with chords that sound familiar (they remind me of the song Lonely People by America). But it turns into another beautiful melody from Paul, and the song has a lovely piano/guitar arrangement. The lyrics may sound trite at times, but the song works anyway. A great pop piece.

On A Certain Softness, McCartney creates a Latin-flavored piece which really works well, due to another well-conceived and executed arrangement. The song adds yet another bit of variety in texture to the overall album. The melody is excellent, if not quite as instantly memorable as some of McCartney's best work along these lines (And I Love Her, for example). Being a fan a Latin-flavored music, this is one of my favorites on the album. Paul'’s harmonies on the middle section are gorgeous.

Riding to Vanity Fair marks perhaps a first for McCartney, in that he reveals bitter feelings, the result of betrayal in friendship. The song's slow, atmospheric quality heightens the feeling of dazed confusion expressed by the words. The orchestration is excellent, recalling the song "Distractions", but is more understated here. I think McCartney should keep writing in this vein, because the lyrics in this song feel more real and more honest than the perfect ideal described in the very next song, Follow Me. One wonders, to what human being could these words be expressed ("I can rely on you to guide me through any situation"? Interestingly, since I write from a Christian point of view, this song, which seems to be about God, should probably appeal to me. But its melody isn't quite as inspired as other songs on this album, and one isn't so sure if there is heartfelt conviction in the song. For these reasons, Follow Me was probably my least favorite track.

Promise to You Girl is another great pop song from McCartney, inserting a needed burst of energy into this mostly mellow album. Paul, "looking through the “backyard of my life"”, realizes it's "“time to sweep the fallen leaves away"”. The song expresses the idea of taking stock and looking to the future with a determination to leave behind a positive mark on this world. And it does so with a catchy, fun tune that is typical Paul. This would be a good choice for the next single.

On This Never Happened Before Paul has crafted yet another gorgeous love song, with chord changes reminiscent of Burt Bacharach. In an interview, Paul relates how he lent out the song, prior to its official release, to a couple getting married (very sweet).

The album closes with a pair of love songs. Like Too Much Rain, Anyway also opens with a familiar-sounding chord progression (remember "People Get Ready" by Curtis Mayfield?). Still, Paul's song veers into much different musical territory after that. The song is a plea for lovers to re-unite (it feels perhaps as if they have been parted by a quarrel). But the narrator believes that their love is "strong enough to take it on the chin" and to "cure each others sorrow". He waits for her to "make that call", "anyway" she can. Both This Never Happened Before and Anyway could be criticized for their simplistic lyrics, but the music expresses emotional nuances that fills in what the words do not. Perhaps if the words were more complex, they might clash with the musical expression of emotion.

Finally, there is a instrumental jam that follows the last song, Anyway, that has points of interest, although it is not very cohesive. It sounds like three different musical passages strung together, but the best of these passages is the piano section.

If you're planning on purchasing the album, I'd strongly recommend buying the Special Edition version, which includes along with the CD an entertaining and informative 50 minute DVD, in which Paul talks about the making of Chaos and Creation.

Chaos and Creation is a grownup work from an artist who obviously still has lots of creative juices flowing. Some fans and critics may lament the lack of "rockers" on this album, but it seems Paul's latest batch of inspiration just didn't include those types of songs. Working with a strong producer was definitely a good move for Paul: this is a thoughtful, well-crafted album with no "clunkers", as have appeared on previous albums. Paul no longer needs to stake his reputation on the body of work he created with the Beatles, as wonderful as that body of work was. His body of work as a solo artist, and with Wings, is equally impressive. It remains to be seen whether or not this album contains songs that will live up to very high standards set by all of Paul's past work, to become his new classics. Still, McCartney is a true genius of pop, and he can (and should) hold his head up high with this album.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Was Katrina Intelligent Design?

John Piper has written what I think is the best word I've yet read about the implications of Katrina. Clink on the title link above to read his excellent article.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Christian Carnival 86

My post Mysterious Ways appears in the latest Christian Carnival, hosted by Technogyspy.

Some very interesting ruminations on Katrina appeared in this past week's Carnival, which prompted me to think about the issue and write my own take on it.

As always, the Carnival is an excellent way to read thought-provoking Christian blogging and discover new blogs/bloggers. I am hoping to become a host for the Carnival soon (I've put in my request).

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Katrina: Was It A Judgment of God?

I've been looking around the blogosphere recently and finding many posts that reflect on whether or not Katrina might have been a judgment on the city of New Orleans. First of all, I want to express my profound sympathy for those hurt in this tragic event. The hurt continues and as many in the blogosphere have pointed out, as Christians it is our primary responsibility, in the wake of this horror, to reach out and help. This shows forth the love of Christ.

Nevertheless, at the risk of being politically incorrect, I do want to examine a little further the idea of whether or not Katrina could be a judgment of God. Of course, it sounds callous, presumptuous and even vengeful for Christians to make public pronouncements that Katrina definitely is a judgment of God. Especially if they do so in a way that seems to say that New Orleans or the other people affected by Katrina somehow are more deserving of such a retributive act of God than others. Of course they are not. In arguing against this idea of Katrina as judgment, a number of blogs quote the biblical passage that also comes to my mind when such terrible events occur:

Luke 13: 1-5
"There were some present at that very time who told him (Jesus) about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."

The blogs I have encountered use this passage to argue that it is not right for Christians to presume that Katrina was a judgment specifically intended for the people of New Orleans, since what Jesus seems to be saying in this passage is that we are all equally sinful before God. Although I agree that Jesus does imply that we are all equally sinful before God, it seems to me that many who have quoted at this passage neglect another important part of it, that is, the conclusion Jesus makes: "repent,(or) you will all likewise perish".

I agree with many that it is presumptuous to definitively label Katrina a judgment of God; but could it not be equally presumptuous to claim that it is not? The way I interpret Jesus' response to his questioners is this: since we are no less sinners than those who have been visited with such tragic events, we too may be in danger of such acts of God happening to us. Is that not clearly what Jesus is saying? How do we avoid such a calamity, according to our Lord? Only by repenting.

Another relevant passage is the one where the disciples ask Jesus: "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"

"Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world." (John 9: 2-5)

In the above passage, I believe Jesus is showing that there is not always a direct causal relationship between personal sins and bad things happening to us. Taken together with the Luke passage, I believe Jesus is showing that the effects of sin are with us, whether we have sinned personally or not. He is not however, negating the idea that our sins might put us in danger of the wrath of God (in fact, quite the opposite, it seems to me).

Then also some blogs I read pointed to the story of Job, and/or verses from Ecclesiastes, to make the argument that the just may suffer while the unrighteous prosper but that in his inscrutable wisdom, "all things work together for good", "for those who love God" (Romans 8:28).

I agree that the story of Job shows us that Job's friends were completely wrong in their notion that Job's suffering was caused by some specific sin(s) in his life and therefore, Job merited what had happened to him. Likewise, Ecclesiastes also shows us that life is a mysterious thing; we can't know our future, and we certainly do not understand the ways of God. Part of this mystery is that, at times, the wicked seem to prosper, while the righteous are punished.

Taking these various truths together, it is right to be very humble before God when an event like Katrina happens. Life is mysterious. God's ways are hard to understand. We can't always look at events and easily interpret their meaning. Therefore we should be careful of making ignorant pronouncements, such as those made by Job's friends. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. And sometimes, as Jesus talks about, bad things happen to sinful people, and that should be taken as a warning to us. We are probably no less sinners than anyone impacted by Katrina. We should thank God for His mercies to us, and heed the warning of Jesus in the face of such events: to repent.

Part of this repentance means to reach out, with His love, to help those who have suffered, in whatever capacity we can. In this way, we do the work of the Father and become good representatives of the light of Jesus.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Mysterious Ways

The Word of God ought to feed our spirits daily. But sometimes, if we neglect it, the Spirit may resort to speaking to our hearts directly, trying to convict us. In such cases, he may use unlikely means or tools to speak through. As far as I know, Paul McCartney is not an evangelical Christian, but he is one of those rare rock stars who managed to have a long and faithful marriage and to be an apparently good family man. I would surmise that this is the influence of the Spirit in his life.

Anyway, two new tunes from Paul McCartney's upcoming album, "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard", really speak to me. One is a haunting, beautiful tune in which the main character is young Jenny Wren, an innocent whose "song" has been stolen through the ugliness of the "world's foolish ways". Still, she somehow holds on to her pure, childlike faith in the beauty and goodness of life, seeing past the world's foolishness. By the end of the song she has become a kind of savior figure to all who know her.

Jenny Wren

Like so many girls
Jenny Wren could sing
But a broken heart
Took her song away

Like the other girls
Jenny Wren took wing
She could see the world
And its foolish ways

How we spend our days
Casting love aside
Losing sight of life
Day by day

She saw poverty
Breaking up her home
Wounded warriors
Took her song away

But the day will come
Jenny Wren will sing
When this broken world
Mends its foolish ways

Then we'll spend our days
Catching up on life
All because of you
Jenny Wren

You saw who we are
Jenny Wren.

I was convicted by the phrase "losing sight of life". Whenever I allow the world's broken perspective to darken my vision, certainly I lose sight of the life that is truly worthy of being called life.

The song doesn't explain much about Jenny Wren, who she is, or why she becomes such an important figure. As a Christian, she reminds me of the Holy Spirit. The Bible says He is gentle, pure and holy; He is grieved by poverty-- both material and spiritual. And yet, He remains ever hopeful, always seeing the good in us and also the wonder and goodness of life.

"You saw who we are", the song says about Jenny Wren. Does not the Spirit also see us for who we really are? Not just our lies and hypocrisy, all the ways in which we fail to be Christian, but also the beauty in our souls, the desire within us to be pure and loving, as we ought to be. How beautiful that through His grace expressed to us through the Cross God sees our deepest identity not as the flawed, sinful creatures we experience ourselves to be, but as the saints we were created to be.

The second McCartney song that God used to speak to me is "Promise to You Girl":

Looking through the backyard of my life
Time to sweep the fallen leaves away
Like the sun that rises everyday
We can chase the dark clouds from the sky

I gave my promise to you girl
I don't want to take it back
You and me, side by side,
We know how to change the world
That is why
I gave my promise to you girl

Hey why wait another day
That won't get us anywhere
All the time
That it takes
To repair this brave old world
Will be ours
I gave my promise to you girl

Every single second of our lives
We can use to chase the clouds away

Well there's no more barking up a tree
No more howling at the moon
They won't see you and I
Diving for the deepest pearl

That is why I gave my promise to you girl

Looking through the backyard of my life
Time to sweep the fallen leaves away

Where as Jenny Wren is melancholy, Promise to You Girl is a lively, happy number. The song reminds me of my promise to love and cherish my wife. I know how far short I fall on this. And it reminds me that the partnership we have isn't primarily about making each other happy, but about being a team as we take on the challenge to "repair this brave old world". From a Christian perspective, this means to pray and work together so that the kingdom purposes, as expressed by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount, will be accomplished here on Earth.

I relate to the sense of urgency expressed in the song, and I love the lines that open and close the song:

Looking through the backyard of my life
Time to sweep the fallen leaves away

Thank you Spirit, for using these songs to speak to my heart.

You can listen to these songs by going to Paul McCartney's website and becoming a member (free).

Monday, September 05, 2005

John Roberts: Dues Paying Member of Columbia House Records?

This might disqualify Mr. Roberts from appointment to the Supreme Court (funny).

Christian Carnival 85 (I'm there)

My most recent post was included as part of Christian Carnival 85, hosted by Crossroads. There's always some good writing to be found in these Carnivals, which present "hot-off-the-keyboard" blog posts submitted by various Christian bloggers.

I'd highly recommend a visit.