I’ve long had this internal discussion concerning Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity, in which I defend it as my favorite album of all-time. (If this sounds like a ridiculous conversation to have with yourself, it is. Would you expect anything different from me?) I was introduced to this album at age 14 - the album debuted in 1999 - when a fascination with the emo/punk sound seemed more than appropriate. And while my musical tastes have changed drastically since then - I’m firmly rooted in the earthy, acoustic folk world - this album remains with me.
I’m not arguing this as the most influential album, nor am I claiming it to be the epitome of great music. And while I’ll defend to my grave the musical genius of the album, the lyrical poignancy, and the brilliance of Adkins’ vocals, it’s a futile argument altogether. The only basis for which I judge music is the extent to which it moves me emotionally. With Clarity, I feel moved to depths I can’t describe while lifted to an existential transcendence I’ve felt no where else.
While there are a few songs that resonate with me in particular, I could never recommend one. This album demands to be listened to fully. In order. In its entirety. Each listen provides a different journey; tells a different story; examines a new thought. Its imperfections, like all things human, reveal its perfection.
For me, Clarity is heaven.
(This is a short rambling, to be sure, and in all honesty feels rather vague and incomplete. That said, I haven’t published anything on here in quite while, and I’m hoping this piece is the beginning of a renewed relationship with my writing. The title and theme are inspired by Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation.)
The true mark of love is found in radical selflessness.
To become love – to be fully enveloped into the freedom that exists in absolute humility and selflessness – is to realize the calling for which humanity beckons. For to give of yourself freely is to be fully human. This state is free of pride, and is removed from the want of material gain – while being saturated with the desire to change the material world.
Love makes no promises to the individual that freely enters into it. Faithfulness to such a transcendence requires the exploration of doubt, of challenging belief as a function of thought – and to realize that belief is embedded in action. This is what we experience in the Kierkegaardian leap of faith: a full immersion into a life of selfless action (not a life of certain belief).
Humanity can always strive for more: we can always hope, always act, and always give. We must take care of our individual selves, certainly. But the function of self-interest is not to enable personal gain; its purpose is realized in the extent it allows us to give of ourselves. To find this balance, to experience love holistically, allows the individual to make that leap of faith – to be fully human.
My first week in Chicago has demonstrated a number of new realities for me. Yes, I’m still adjusting, and yes, I’m currently living out of boxes (and random items strewn about in my car)… while crashing at a friend’s until early next week. But, already, I’m sensing the possibility for the change I’ve long sought after. Regardless of the limitations I’m throwing myself into, and despite the many challenges I’m about to face, I’m happy. I know this is precisely what I’m supposed to be doing.
I feel a distinct connection with my career change. My move was relatively sudden, and it certainly maintains a sense of randomness. But, more than that, it was a necessary change; one that, above all, I have demanded of myself. Committing to a year of service has provided an evolved outlook. I finally feel able to actively participate with my philosophy - to tangibly demonstrate empathy and love. Perhaps this sounds a bit self-righteous, but that is not my intent. I don’t feel called to serve others at a food bank because I’ll receive some sense of personal accomplishment or gratification; I am devoted to this mission because I’m no longer allowing myself to recognize the great injustices of our society while consciously removing myself from action. I am attacking the systemic hypocrisy that has long-been embedded within me in order to live out the philosophy I so freely espouse as my reality.
Change used to frighten me. Growing up, I had formulated this unwavering mindset; one that, regardless of circumstance, held tightly to a specific plan, belief, and course of action. I knew what I wanted, and nothing was going to change me. In many ways, this was a foundational mindset that permeated throughout everything I believed. Certainly, there were some positives to this, as it developed a commitment to perseverance and dedication. But it also closed me off to realities that I didn’t recognize, and often left me unaware of my own pretentious nature.
When my fundamental understanding of this world began to evolve - namely, when I realized I was not in fact a Christian - my entire life shifted with it. It’s amazing how central one’s spirituality can be to the totality of their life, and it was not until I recognized and engaged with that change that I truly began to understand myself. I’m not, of course, claiming that Christianity in itself is inherently immoral - nor would I claim this about any religion. What I am saying, however, is that I discovered claiming a faith that I wasn’t really living - and one I was inevitably going to reject, anyway - was at the core of my hypocritical being. Faith, particularly in my early 20’s, was a facade; it was a fake reality that I used to mask myself from experiencing life more fully. I knew then that I had questions, doubts, and a growing desire to explore life outside the parameters of a Christian belief system. What I didn’t realize, however, was that suppressing my doubt out of an odd sense of loyalty (Christianity was all I ever knew) was incalculably more crippling than the initial pain - and lasting struggle - that leaving the faith exacted on me.
I still feel pains from this change. But I also sense a freedom, and an even stronger commitment to spirituality, than I had felt previously. I don’t claim to have all the answers, and I certainly don’t conclude that my beliefs regarding faith have to be perceived as ‘right’. Instead, I’m attempting to build a belief system that allows me to be consciously selfless, intentionally humble, and eternally loving. I’m far from this reality, but I’ll keep seeking the necessary change in order to fulfill this mission.
Too often, I get caught up in idealized beliefs… to the point that they become impractical. I view a new, beautiful potential, but I do so entirely in a ‘big picture’ mindset, leaving my ability to enact it impossible. Given my desire to realize this ambitious disposition, but unable to do so out of confusion as to how to begin, I feel debilitated. Then I become self-critical. Then defeated.
The remedy for this is evinced in my move to Chicago: I need to stop thinking, and start acting on my convictions. When I see an injustice, I need to address it, rather than allow my vocalized sense of discontent serve as active participation. I’m here because I am directly combating food insecurity - I am giving to others because I believe in the absolute equality of each individual. Love transcends any sense of self-gratification. My new reality is not to improve myself, but to improve the world in which I live.
"Letter to My Countrymen", the opening of Brother Ali’s new album, Mourning In America and Dreaming in Color, expresses (via the voice of Cornell West) a beautiful thought that dovetails with the theme of my rambling, and is a perfect conclusion to what I’m speaking of:
I think you know deep down in your soul that something, something just ain’t right. You don’t want to be just well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference. You want to be a person with integrity who leaves a mark on the world. People can say when you go that you left the world just a little better than you found it. I understand. I want to be like that too.
“On the occasions when we are directly confronted with what we know, we have three options: change our behavior, offer embarrassing excuses and caveats that make it obvious we don’t really care, or simply admit our lack of concern (which is at least to be respected more than pretending we do care).”
This reflection is inspired by the initial confrontation between my self[i] and a truth that I can no longer deny. This truth is multifaceted, as its very nature has an unlimited scope, maintaining a pervasive presence in both my articulated beliefs, and more importantly, in the manner that my current lifestyle belies the articulated.
The gap between theory and practice, ideal and reality, remains inexplicable – despite my sincere and persistent examination. The past few years[ii] have witnessed a distinct theological and philosophical shift, which has forced me to honestly examine my reality at a demanding rate. And while this foundational shake-up has provided a rare space to question, learn, and grow, it has also provided a space ripe for the insidious nature of apathy. Quite sadly, apathy has, for too long, demonstrated its power and influence in my life. It is precisely this apathetic selfishness that I
wish to must confront – particularly in light of my hypocrisy.
My theological shift is constantly evolving, and is at the very heart of my existence. In giving up organized religion (in the Kierkegaardian sense), in giving up the notion of an absolute, literal, inerrant faith, I have opened my head to what my heart demanded I realize: That love, not belief, is the essence of humanity.
In the same manner that my understanding of life progressed, so did my comprehension of love. To freely examine my heart, without fear of a religious reproach, is undoubtedly the most significant existential transformation I’ve experienced. It was not until I left the shelter of faith that I realized I was even sheltered. I was protected from doubt, from questioning, from confronting my hypocrisy – constant prayer and a fervently vocalized testament to Jesus as Savior was all that I needed to be ‘right’. In my enlightened state of love, however, I was broken. I not only realized that my tightly-held beliefs were misguided, but that my unquenchable thirst for maintaining the right beliefs[iii] was an impossible and irrational endeavor. I had no idea of where to turn, so I devoted myself to studying this postmodern, deconstructive theology, with a feverish – and borderline obsessive – spirit.
This new approach to life is one that I’m still adjusting to, and perhaps just now am beginning to comprehend. As my understanding of love has progressed, my actions have slowly become more and more exposed, allowing me to become aware of my selfish hypocrisy. Somehow, I managed[iv] to ignore it all, contenting myself with my enlightened theology – and subsequently recreating the wedge between belief and action.
The power of love is impossible to ignore, however, and I am just now becoming aware of this. I feel at odds with myself. My idealistic notion of love implores me to remove the cancerous apathy that has overwhelmed me, but eliminating apathy is a bitch. I’m required to confront all of my faults, without hiding behind a façade I know can’t sustain me. To be truthful, this is a fight that scares me.
For too long I have allowed myself to ignore my reality, and to simply live in denial. I disavowed responsibility, which began with abandoning grad school, and was epitomized with my departure from all professional aspirations in the field of higher education. Certainly, I needed a break from such responsibilities, as my heart was not committed. But I allowed that fact to justify my apathy all the more, as I convinced myself that floating through life[v] was a necessary element if I were to continue my exploration of doubt.
Moving back to La Crosse was at once refreshing and crippling. Last summer was an amazing period of time for me, in both the experiences I shared with others, and the examination of my self that I was finally prepared to begin.
Unfortunately, the more I’ve developed spiritually, the less I’ve acted physically. I’ve allowed apathy to develop its own set of beliefs, permitting semi-depressive, pseudo-suicidal thoughts to creep into every ambitious ideal I commit myself to. For the past several months, I have determined myself to change only to witness the mighty force of that apathy – often relegating my pursuit of love to be fleeting and unfulfilling.
To confront this apathy, I am forcing myself to vocally express my struggles, rather than meekly internalize them:
- I can no longer avoid my financial obligations
- I can’t allow alcohol to be a means of escape (rather than a source of enjoyment)
- I must end the cyclical nature of my current lifestyle
- I need to tangibly participate in the act of love
- I must establish my identity in a community premised upon social justice
None of this will be easy. I have an addictive personality that predicates itself upon habit. Breaking these habits is not something I have been able to accomplish on my own, and to be truthful, I need to be constantly kicked in the ass in order to do so. Responsibly examining my debt, acknowledging the negative inclinations of my vices, and genuinely confronting my selfishness have proved to be the catalyst for a new ambition - one that beckons me with an irresistible force.
I’ve long realized that I needed to experience brokenness in order to undergo substantive change, but I have long suppressed this notion, as I also understood how lonely and debilitating such an experience might entail. If such an experience could be compartmentalized, it might be less daunting. But brokenness is holistic; it challenges your entire being, and if you are fearful, it will consume you.
There is no doubt that many people have recognized my pain over the past year, but it is doubtful that many truly understand the source. While I remain quite open to sharing myself freely with others, I have disguised the root of my pain with vague adjectives and superfluous pontificating. The root of my pain, as stated bluntly, is this: I am ashamed of my self.
It is embarrassing enough for me to realize how irresponsible I’ve allowed myself to become, but what is more troubling is the manner in which this has developed: I have blatantly dismissed my professed theology of love.
I can no longer claim to care about the hopeless without volunteering my time, energy, and heart to them. I can no longer dissent to the cultural machine of America while continuing to pursue material and superficial interests. And I can no longer claim to believe in love without exacting the principles of empathy, humility, and selflessness in all of my endeavors.
The only measure to which I judge myself is the extent to which I love others. My heart demands nothing else of me, and beats for the sole purpose of providing others with whatever means of comfort I can. What I have discovered, though, is that the conventionally derived logic is true: I can’t truly love others until I love myself.
I don’t understand money. The very function it provides is as baffling to me as it is irrelevant to the sustenance of humanity. The basic human element of greed is exponentially increased with the perceived notion of success, so much so that we put our materialistic dreams ahead of the basic needs of others. This greed has caused and maintained homelessness and poverty; greed has created and perpetuated the American war machine; greed allows our culture to dismiss our hypocrisy, and embrace selfishness. It is sad, and my participation in all of this has disgusted me.
I am content to begin living a life of simplicity, but I can’t accomplish this without giving up material wealth. In subtle ways[vi] I will accomplish this immediately. These steps will both provide a proper perspective given my spirituality, and will also create a new understanding of the ways I can actively live out a life of love.
In order to combat my cyclical lifestyle, I must begin utilizing my time more effectively. I can no longer dismiss responsibility for the sake of my interests and entertainment. Instead, I must find the proper balance, limiting my free time and expanding my devotion to community, volunteering, and finding a 2nd job for supplemental income until I discover the work that my heart is compelled to participate in. My pursuit of materialism and short-term entertainment must be curtailed, in order that my idealistic philosophy becomes a loving reality.
All of this can be accomplished, and it must start now. I recognize, by way of Peter Rollins, that in being confronted with what I know, I have only pretended to care about love. It’s time that I change my behavior, and make love my reality.
I passionately, recklessly even, immerse myself into the world of idealized thought, where the abstract meets the concrete; where joy is experienced through pain; where love is discovered amidst the brokenness. And while these thoughts challenge, impress, and embolden me, they remain just that: thoughts that are, quite literally, lost in my mind. Is there a tangible yet accurate, expressive but sincere, way to exact these thoughts? Or are my musings strictly imaginative, only to bemuse myself in order to superficially balance the tension between devoted belief and hypocritical lifestyle?
What to make of love, I’ve yet to discover. But my heart refuses to believe in anything else.
Perhaps I’m just falling in line with a few of my music-loving friends, but given the reality of music’s impact in my life - particularly over the past few years - it seems rather appropriate (and fun?) to create my own list of 2011’s best albums.
There will be some noticeable albums not included below, not necessarily because I don’t like them; rather, I was not exposed to the albums enough to have had a lasting impression on me (I’m speaking of artists such as: Fleet Foxes, The Roots, The War On Drugs, The Black Keys, Gillian Welch, Dessa, Iron & Wine, Talib Kweli, etc.)
Of course, this list is entirely subjective, and is solely influenced by my own interpretation of what is great music. I don’t expect anyone to agree with my choices, which is perhaps what makes this such an intriguing endeavor. At any rate, here are my favorite albums from the past year:
Top 10 Albums of 2011:
10. Bon Iver, Bon Iver
I’m sure folks are incredulous with my placing this album at #10, as it is widely considered to be the best album of the year. And while I appreciate the genius of Wisconsin-native Justin Vernon, the self-titled Bon Iver fails to inspire and embolden me to the extent that other albums from this past year have. Don’t get me wrong: Vernon is an amazing talent, and this is an incredible album. In my estimation, however, it barely makes the cut at #10.
The one song I think you should listen to: ‘Holocene’
9. The People’s Key, Bright Eyes
Conor Oberst’s musical prowess is as spontaneous as it is brilliant. The People’s Key further displays this, infusing a variety of genres and sounds that I’m not prepared to describe. While I doubt Oberst will ever create an album as amazing as I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, his newest effort provides a uniquely crafted sound with spiritually provocative lyrics, and is an album that certainly belongs in my top 10 list.
The one song I think you should listen to: ‘Ladder Song’
8. No Kings, Doomtree
Before this summer, my experience with hip-hop was, at best, passive. Over the past several months, however, I have found hip-hop (particularly underground artists from The Cities) to be a refreshing and powerful inclusion to my musical palate. No Kings is a rich blend of alternative beats, provocative lyrics, and a uniquely genuine sound that few artists can truly create. The eclectic bunch known as Doomtree outdid themselves with this album, and they are largely responsible for my fledgling foray into hip-hop.
The one song I think you should listen to: ‘String Theory’
7. Modern Love, Matt Nathanson
Nathanson’s sound has evolved considerably over his 20 year career, and while he still maintains shades of the acoustic driven, earthy folk sound that I fell in love with, Modern Love evinces a lucid pop feel that makes him much more accessible to mainstream radio. What hasn’t changed, though, is the genuine passion for his craft, and the ability to make the simplistic sound ornate. One of the best live performers you will ever see, Matty Nate shines with his newest release.
The one song I think you should listen to: ‘Kept’
6. Mine Is Yours, Cold War Kids
CWK will never exact the perfection of 2006’s Robbers & Cowards, and while this appears to be quite critical, the reality is much different. Mine Is Yours flirts with mainstream rock while maintaining the uniquely indie sound fans have come to expect, providing existential lyrics with a constantly engaging sound. Seeing them twice in 2011 certainly helped to influence my love for this album, which rests solidly at #6.
The one song I think you should listen to: ‘Skip the Charades’
5. Nothing Is Wrong, Dawes
Dawes emerged in 2009 with their debut album, North Hills. Appropriately dubbed by Rolling Stone as “authentically vintage”, Dawes builds upon their resume with Nothing Is Wrong. Blending a distinct southern/country rock feel with a rootsy folk sound, Dawes perfectly represents what I consider to be the epitome of music. Lyrically poignant while stripped of all pretense, this album is growing more and more impressive with each listen.
The one song I think you should listen to: ‘A Little Bit of Everything’
4. No One Listens to the Band Anymore, The Damnwells
I began listening to The Damnwells in December, and I already feel indebted to their music. No One Listens to the Band Anymore comes across as an homage to 90’s pop-rock, coalescing with an indie/folk sound that leaves the listener emotionally engaged from beginning to end. I can only imagine how much of an impact this band will have on me for years to come, and if I had listened to this album earlier than December, it may even be higher on my list.
The one song I think you should listen to: ‘The Monster’
3. The Spade, Butch Walker & The Black Widows
If you know anything of my taste for music, you know that I have an unabashed devotion to Butch Walker. My first live experience with Butch was in May of 2010 - a night that forever changed my relationship with music. No other artist provides the unfiltered, introspective, genuine approach to his craft like Butch, and no other artist can span several genres with such effortless grace. The Spade is the perfect follow-up to 2010’s introspective masterpiece, I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart, providing a raucous and raw sound that he previously had not explored. Absolute Punk’s review sums it up perfectly:
The Spade is catchy enough that other pop artists should almost be frightened. Walker seemingly writes ridiculously soaring pop hooks as easily as you or I drink water. This record puts to shame many of the highly advertised pop albums this year, and it does so with resounding force. While The Spade certainly isn’t Walker’s best effort and may not have as much lasting value as some of his past releases, it makes a statement of a songwriter completely owning what he wanted to create.
The one song I think you should listen to: ‘Closest Thing To You I’m Gonna Find’
2. The Head and the Heart, The Head and the Heart
The Head and the Heart’s self-titled effort might be my favorite debut of all-time. Armed with a distinct passion and emotion that is unrivaled in such an earthy, folk-driven sound, you can’t help but engage yourself with every song, every chorus, and every lyric. Perhaps I’m cheesy, but their music does exactly what you’d expect: it fearlessly engages both your head and your heart.
The one song I think you should listen to: ‘Rivers and Roads’
1. Wasting Light, Foo Fighters
The Foo Fighters newest effort, Wasting Light, was my most anticipated album of 2011. The result was not only a masterpiece, but could arguably be considered the greatest album Grohl & Co. have ever created. After a four year absence from new music, the Foo Fighters abandoned the brilliantly polished sound of Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, returning to the raw, powerful rock sound that made the band famous. Dave Grohl is in the upper-echelon of rock’s great lead singers, something quite prevalent through the entirety of Wasting Light. Produced on analogue tape in Grohl’s garage, we are left with a genuinely vintage sound that is impossible to replicate. I’m not sure where they can go from here, but one thing is certain: the Foo Fighters are the quintessential rock band of this generation.
The one song I think you should listen to: ‘Walk’
[These are in no particular order.]
a. Vice Verses, Switchfoot
b. This Is Our Science, Astronautalis
c. Loverboy, Brett Dennen
d. Circuital, My Morning Jacket