I recently saw The Swell Season—better known as “those people from the movie Once”—in concert, and while the experience was well worth it, one moment gave me pause for thought about whether it’s best sometimes to remain ignorant about the inspiration for the music we listen to.
I loved Once because of its admirable and surprising resistance to resolve its protagonists’ relationship through romance. Real-life musicians Glen Hansard (of Irish rock band The Frames) and Marketa Irglova (a classically trained Czech pianist) were apparently less able to resist romance in their own lives and were briefly a couple (coinciding nicely with their winning of the Best Song Oscar for “Falling Slowly” from Once). This relationship struck me as slightly creepy, since he was 38 and she was 20 at the time, but, thankfully, they were still able to continue making music together even after they broke up: The Swell Season released another full album, Strict Joy, last fall. In their on-stage demeanor, Hansard and Irglova retain a respectful but affectionate vibe with each other. When an audience member asked if there would ever be a sequel to Once, Hansard, without losing a beat, replied, “We’re living it.”
Most of The Swell Season’s songs do seem to be about various stages of romantic relationships—as a result, the lyrics have never been what draws me in to their music. Instead, it’s the harmony and the pleasing contrast between Hansard’s raspy vocals and Irglova’s smooth, pitch-perfect notes. Hearing the duo playing live with their backup band made their violin player, Colm Mac Con Iomaire (yep, he’s Irish), more prominent. He even performed a solo number, a sampler-assisted rendering of folk tune “The Court of New Town,” and I think it was my favorite number of the evening. He has a solo album called The Hare’s Corner that’s going on my wish list.
In any case, even though I’m usually a lyrics-oriented person (when lyrics are present, that is), I’ve never paid a lot of attention to The Swell Season’s lyrics. Nor have I delved into any stories-behind-the-songs. However, in a concert, musicians often share them, whether you want them or not. Such was the case with a song called “Drown Out,” from The Swell Season’s first, pre-Once album. Hansard gave a lengthy introduction to the song, explaining how a “very spiritual” friend back in Ireland had an experience in which she summoned spirits from “the in-between” who called out to her, saying, “We come from the dark.” According to Hansard, the woman discovered through talking with these spirits that they were young, physically deformed boys who had been burned at the stake in the 14th century. Hansard said that the woman explained that “the Church isn’t that different today, actually, but they don’t burn people at the stake anymore.” The woman “forgave” the boys, guided them to “the light,” and sent them on their way.
The audience didn’t quite seem to know what to make of the story; there were none of the approving, “that’s beautiful” types of murmurs that might be expected from a sentimental crowd. I was distinctly uncomfortable, since I doubt that those spirits were little boys and I’m inclined to believe that they did indeed come from the dark. Hansard, seeming to sense lack of acceptance, for whatever reason, on the audience’s part, backed off and said that the song wasn’t really about the story—it was simply about feeling guilty for something you have—or haven’t—done.
There’s little in the song lyrics that need relate exclusively to Hansard’s backstory, but I still can’t listen to the song now without thinking of the experience that inspired it, an experience involving what seem to me to be demonic powers. As a literature scholar, I’m accustomed to acknowledging that an author’s interpretation of his or her work is not the only valid one—and, as Hansard nimbly demonstrated, a single author can even hold multiple views of his own work at the same time.
However, I think I would have a hard time choosing to listen to “Drown Out” now. I’ve been thinking about the song in the context of 1 Corinthians 8 and Paul’s advice regarding meat sacrificed to idols. The situation isn’t exactly parallel, because I’m thinking more of my own spiritual health here and not the effect that my decisions would have on other believers, but I do think that listening to the song, even knowing its origin story, isn’t inherently harmful. As Christians, we do have that freedom. Were I inclined to, I think I could even listen to the song in a way that would be spiritually beneficial, helping me develop compassion for those who muck about in spiritism without really knowing what they’re getting into.
I don’t think I will, though: for one thing, the song doesn’t appeal to me musically as much as many of The Swell Season’s other songs (if I had learned that a similarly troubling experience had inspired, say, “Falling Slowly,” this article would probably be a lot longer and more agonized). For another, knowing what I do about it gives me an “icky” feeling, and I don’t see any reason to subject myself to that unless someone else was struggling with the song and asked for my input. If I had never heard Hansard’s story, and if I actually enjoyed listening to the song, I don’t believe that I would be endangering myself spiritually by doing so—as with meat sacrificed to idols, the danger isn’t in the substance itself, but rather in the response to the proddings of conscience (again, the parallel would be better if I were contemplating playing “Drown Out” in a public setting among other Christians, but that would just be silly).
Does this experience change my impression of The Swell Season? Not really. Hansard clearly believed that this medium was in contact with 14th-century boys and not with anything demonic. He was merely deceived. I’m actually less disturbed by the backstory to “Drown Out” than I was by hearing the backstory to David Crowder’s worship song “Here Is Our King.” I’ve never met a Crowder song that I liked, so, again, in this case, it’s not as if hearing the backstory changed my opinion of a song that I loved. But the moment I heard that the musically peppy, rather nonsensical-sounding lyrics “The ocean is growing/The tide is coming in/Here it is/Here is our king/Here is our love” were actually inspired by the 2004 Asian tsunami literally felt like a punch to the gut. Crowder’s intent was to celebrate God’s power, even in horrible circumstances, and all that, but the execution of the idea is so horribly insensitive to massive death, suffering, and pain that I now feel sick every time I hear the song. I’m more inclined to let Hansard and his story off the hook because my expectations are lower—not that my expectations of Crowder’s facility with the English language are high, but I do at least expect that a worship song will not sound devoid of compassion for people whom God created.
I mention this example because, in general, Christians seem to be more concerned with the effect of “secular” music on our spiritual health—and I think it’s fair to at least consider the possibility that some worship music could be spiritually harmful, too. We’re often far too uncritical of music that has the safe, “Christian” stamp. On the other hand, God is gracious and forgiving of our poor attempts to worship with human words, and I believe that even songs that disgust me can be pleasing to God if offered with sincere adoration. I also recognize that, in the case of “Here Is Our King,” others may find that the benefits of the song outweigh its weaknesses; I disagree, but I need to be able to respond with charity and respect to the song’s defenders.
It heartens me to see Christians honing our critical faculties in our response to secular pop culture; however, I think that the church often needs to apply this same carefulness to music and art produced “within the fold.” Nothing should receive carte blanche approval simply because it comes from a trusted or popular name—or simply because it’s sincere. Glen Hansard was sincere, too—but he was still wrong.