Prisoner to the Chains of Time – The Music of Common Children
I write full time; all kinds of things, books, articles for magazines, humorous columns etc. When I write, I usually select something out of my record collection to put on, and sometimes I go with a theme, or “band of the week.” A few weeks ago, Common Children, an important band to me during a critical time in my life, was the choice, and hearing such poignant music made me think some big thoughts as I wrote about silly things, like the groundhog who is now living under my porch, and whether or not to contact my daughter’s teacher to ask if the spelling words she is sending home are far too advanced and difficult for my 2nd grader. (“Opinionated” is a great word, but tough on the psyche of a seven-year-old at test time.)
I first ran across the music of Common Children as a senior in High School. I picked up their first album Skywire in the spring of that year and in those days of confusion and anxiety about my future and who I was in Christ. Hearing a band address the “deeper issues of life” from a perspective of faith meant the world to me. Later in college, after my first (and thankfully last) broken heart, the music of their second album Delicate Fade reminded me that all of life is under God’s control, and that He is always with us. Their third and last album, The Inbetween Time, helped me to see that there are two sides to every story and that life is wonderfully complex. The lead singer and primary lyricist, Marc Byrd, remains a busy man. In the last decade, he has co-written the popular worship song “God of Wonders,” released a worship album with his wife under the name “Glassbyrd,” and recorded a few fantastic instrumental albums under the band name “Hammock.” All three Common Children albums can be found in various places online, and should be required listening for every young person of faith.
The following thoughts are related to my favorite song on each of Common Children’s fantastic three albums, Skywire, Delicate Fade and The Inbetween Time.
“Absence of Light” – The Inbetween Time (2001)
This week my pastor said that “church needs to be a living shelter for lost and hurting people.” To emphasize this point, he read the story of the prodigal son and stated this one line over and over again “love, not logic”. The point that I easily miss in this story is that the prodigal son brought his misery on himself. His selfishness and impulsiveness led to his wretched state, not any other factor that can be seen in the story. It would have been logical for the father to run the prodigal son off his property, or to take the son up on his offer to be a slave in his father’s household. But it is the illogical choice that is made. The father celebrates the return of the son and restores him to his former position. The first song on The Inbetween Time, which addresses this issue so well, opens with haunting Pink Floyd-like atmospherics that bring to mind the coldness of space, then drenched in reverb, a ghostly voice rings out seemingly from above the music…
For maybe just a second, the sun was in your eyes
It flickers like a spark from the fire that burns inside.
You were broken by the darkness by the silence of the night,
Searching for a shelter from the cold absence of light
This song stopped me cold when I first heard it. The atmospherics bring to mind a very cold day and the lyrics suggest to me that whoever the narrator is talking about brought on his own suffering. The lines “For maybe just a second, the sun was in your eyes” suggest a momentary lapse of judgment. But the narrator does not pass judgment on the main character. Instead, he points out that he was “broken by the darkness, by the silence of the night”. To me this was a refreshing perspective. Suffering in any form must be met with true Christ-like compassion. Christ had a true love for those whose poor decisions had produced suffering in their own lives. It has been said time and again, but it is worth repeating. Christ hung out with some pretty unsavory people; tax collectors, prostitutes and various other “fallen people.” He did not shun these people, but rather showed “illogical love” in a real way. These people had been “broken by the darkness” and were responding to the light that Christ offered. This song helped to change my perspective on those who have had a “moral failure.” Who among us has not ever had a lapse of judgment; let him cast the first stone. Thanks be to Jesus for loving us illogically.
“Broken Smile” – Skywire (1996)
A prevailing stereotype of Christians is that they are all happy go lucky, out of touch with reality, “Ned Flanders”-like people. Somewhere in his past, Ned was told to “count it all joy” when misfortune finds him. (James 1:2, a powerful scripture, but woefully out of context here) He says “well, praise the Lord” when his house is demolished by a tornado or “she’s in a much better place now” when his wife passes away suddenly. Fair or not, this stereotype exists and it is vital to try to figure out where it comes from. I would like to suggest that it comes, in part, from the art that we produce. From cliché ridden “positive” music that anyone can find on their car radio, to schmaltzy visual art, so much of what we produce suggests that that everything in the Christian life is hunky dory. I like to call it the “I once was lost, but now I’m found” phenomenon. This phrase from “Amazing Grace,” (possibly the most profound song ever written) when taken out of context from the rest of the hymn, leads to some mistaken notions. Notions that say “Now that I have been born again, all of a sudden my problems are over and the rest of life will be a cakewalk.” But as we all know, this in no way matches the reality of daily life. Those who are “found” still suffer gut wrenching tragedy, crippling depression and doubt. (See Job, King David. The Apostle Paul)
Why does the music we create not adequately reflect the experiences we all go through? Music has been called “the healing art form” and brings comfort to so many in times of trial. After September 11th, radio stations played selected songs with “healing aspects” to them nonstop and Rolling Stone even published a list of top songs people named that helped them through those tragic events. Why do Christians, who have the ultimate hope to offer, someone to walk beside us through this dark world, and hope of a better world to come, write such pithy music to express this wonderful truth?
When I fist heard “Broken Smile” from Common Children’s Skywire I was stopped in my tracks because I had never heard such a profound song about loss and alienation come from out of the CCM world. Here was a song that in both its lyric and music captured the emotion of sadness and loss. Songs like this were being written by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but I had never heard one from a “Christian” artist. The simple nature of the track, with its barebones acoustic guitar playing dark minor chords and assorted minimalist instrumentation of violins and cellos, is reminiscent of the unplugged era of MTV. The harmony vocal provided by Christina Glass (later to be Marc Byrd’s wife) adds the final haunting touch.
What makes this song unique in Christian music is that the writer did not feel the need to wrap up the song with a “Jesus is the answer” final verse. The song is simply a meditation on sadness, how it can stay with you for a long time, how it can creep into every aspect of your life, how it seems never ending.
Can the truth refine and free the soul?
When the hurt you have is all you know?
Through endless searching and nights of wondering
Someone said, “Just let it go”.
We all know that we all have felt the pain
For a little while.
With lines such as “can the truth refine and free the soul when the hurt you have is all you know?” the writer dares to question God. He says “I believe that you are true, but what does that mean to me during this time? Can your truth lead me to freedom from this sadness, this darkness in my soul”? This kind of hard questioning is rare in Christian music, but it is, ironically, common in scripture. David asked “How long will you hide your face from me O Lord.” (Psalm 88:14) This might seem blasphemous to many, but to David “a man after God’s own heart” it was a very natural comment. In an article in Seven Ball magazine, I read how a couple had written to Marc Byrd and told him that the song had helped them get through the loss of a child to miscarriage. This floored me. A couple found, in Christian music, a song that spoke to them during a time of profound loss. Such an accomplishment should be celebrated and not easily be forgotten.
The Eyes of God – Delicate Fade (1997)
Perhaps responding to criticism that their music was too dark, Common Children released “Eyes of God” as the first single off their second album Delicate Fade. The song did pretty well on Christian radio, no doubt due to its more positive outlook. The track kicks off with a chiming guitar that is decidedly more radio friendly than the harder edge of the previous album, and when the chorus kicks in, it finds Marc Byrd singing…
All the while the Eyes of God shine on us
The Broken smile and the eyes
God shine on us
Feel the pain
You need to show
Take the time
Now let it go
Embrace this day of healing
What I find so interesting, is that this song makes a reference both lyrically and thematically back to the aforementioned song “Broken Smile” on Common Children’s previous album, Skywire. It’s as if Marc Bryd didn’t want to leave the listener where he left them after hearing that song. “There’s more to life than this” he says, “you can be free”. “Eyes of God” serves as a sort of alternative music instruction manual for how to deal with the tragedy that “Broken Smile” described so well. Marc Byrd first instructs the listener to “feel the pain/you need to show”. Honesty is crucial when dealing with suffering of any kind. Being like Ned Flanders and saying “everything is fine” is to be dishonest with yourself. Everything is not all right. It’s ok to say that, to assess your situation honestly. This type of honesty is very difficult for many believers who think that somehow they have done something to bring on this tragedy on themselves. Many Christians think “This is not the abundant life I have heard so much about, I need to keep this problem undercover until I can figure out where it all went wrong.” Fundamental honesty is the critical starting point for weathering any crisis. Christ never promised an easy life, but he did promise that he would be with us through the tough times. This is a critical distinction.
Next, we are told to “take the time”. The healing of a physical injury cannot be rushed. If you sprain your ankle, there is an approximate amount of time that it takes to heal. You can help the injury to heal quicker with treatment and medications, but there is no such thing as an “instant fix” to a physical injury. Why should injured souls heal any differently? It takes time. This is a tough sell to “instant gratification America.” Fast food, fast internet connections, eight minute dating, same day service, we speed all of life up. People who suffer tragedy are often told by well meaning people to “get over it,” “keep a stiff upper lip,” “pull yourself together,” etc. This is terrible advice. Grief needs time to work itself out. This brings us to the last instruction “now let it go/embrace this day of healing”. In the movie Chocolat, an old man is interested in a woman in his 1960’s era French village known as the “Widow Odell”. When asked why he does not pursue her, he responds “the Widow Odell is mourning her late husband who died in the war.” Another character says “well, the war was 15 years ago”. “Oh, no,” the man says, “Her husband died in the First World War. It was quite a shock to the Widow Odell.” There comes a time to let go of your grief, to move on. Holding on to something too long comes with its own price tag. Like the Widow Odell, opportunities may be missed, life may go by unlived. To quote Ecclesiastes, “there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under Heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) Sometimes, it has to be a conscious action to “embrace this day of healing”.
Marc Byrd, like me, probably does not have a degree in counseling, but he writes with his heart and eyes wide open to the world around him. He seems to know loss and heartache very well, and I’m thankful to God that I happened upon the music of Common Children during a formative period of my life. It has helped to shape my thinking in regards to the nature and shape of suffering, and has helped me to be more sensitive to those who Jesus called “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). I thank God that He gave me the ears to hear His truth in the songs of Common Children.
– Alex “Tin Can” Caldwell