Music Matters: Sweetly Singing over the Pain in Iron & Wine’s ‘Ghost on Ghost’

Each Tuesday in Music Matters, Matthew Linder explores the intersections of music, culture, and faith.

Iron & Wine’s new album explores pain and vulnerability within the context of a relationship’s many stages. Listen to the entire album on Spotify here.

Listening to Iron & Wine is like wrapping yourself in a warm, soft, and cuddly blanket and drinking espresso while a poet recites stories of love from a coffee-shop stage. Reminiscent of the lush and intricately crafted soft rock of bands like The Carpenters and Air Supply, Iron & Wine’s Ghost on Ghost follows the story of a couple. According to Sam Beam: “I had a lot of songs that had this central character—this couple. They weren’t necessarily the same couple. It was this couple against the world in a certain way or against one another. They were working something out.”

This narrative thread flows through each of the tracks on Ghost on Ghost but each individual song is treated as a poetic realization of a particular moment in a couple’s journey through life together. Beam begins the story in a place of vulnerability as “the couple” enters into a relationship as broken people in “Caught In the Briars.” She is “fragile as china” and he is falling “hard in the doorway” as one of “the sinners here” who “have crosses for Sunday.” But as Beam notes in an interview with NPR, the following lines reveal the pain of vulnerability as “the couple” begins their love story:

That all of the naked boys
That laid down beside her
Sing her the saddest song
All caught in the briars

http://youtu.be/3tbleNn7eXs

It is that intermix of vulnerability and pain which is a consistent theme throughout the album. However, Beam sets these painful relational moments against a backdrop of sweet honey-dripping music without the whine and cry of something like Dashboard Confessional’s “The Bitter Pill.”

The ensuing vignette of  “The Desert Babbler” shows a man and woman spiraling out of control with a loss of faith in themselves and in faith itself. Brian Wilson-esque fluffy vocal harmonies hold back the excruciating pain of defeat: “Who knew what you could learn to live without/ Mother Mary’s lying in your mouth, now” and “Back home the hammer always has to fall/ Cross is barely hanging on the wall.”

But then out of this comes “Joy” but an incomplete joy one that is messy and full of holes. The soft flowing echoes of Beam’s voice lift that joy higher as if slowly being raised on a cloud into the deep blue sky. This is a subdued, realistic joy missing the exuberance of a Pollyanna excitement over the newness of the relationship:

Deep inside the heart of this crazy mess,
I’m only calm when I get lost within your wilderness.
Born crooked as a creek, didn’t come to contest that you’ve been bringing me joy.
When I’m alive I’m living for you,
When I’m a bluebird dying, but their singing the blues,
And it’s a heartfelt silly sort of bumbling tune about how you’re bringing me joy.

In “Grace for Saints and Ramblers” the realization comes that they must rely on each other. “The couple” is now fully engaged in their relationship abandoning the little faith they had in a Greater Being for sexual relations. Beam incants the mouthful of lines with a monotone melody under a driving yet laid-back drum, guitar, and organ combo:

Side by side with the birds and bees
And we never sang grace and never ever took a knee
With the saints and ramblers, movie star handlers
High above the aviary, underneath the cemetery

Pain returns in “Singers and the Endless Song” as the couple goes back “into the briars.” The simple drum and bass groove gently eases them through this pain; even though it should be an “endless song” over the pain, “the music never last too long.” You can hear the cry for freedom with lyrics seemingly pulled straight from a spiritual:

Gonna tell them about the seed and the shovel
About the prison and the promised land
Gonna tell them about the dream of the devil
About the hurting and the healing hand, that hand

Cause the music never lasts too long for the singers and the endless song…

Gonna tell them about the sins of the father
About the junkie and the jubilee
Gonna tell them about the roots in the water
About the killing in the quiet line of trees

It all ends with new life in “Baby Center Stage” with a slow two-step country tune as Beam yodels a chorus where all the suffering they have gone through has led to “falling into the light.” “The couple’s” life together was a “hurricane” but it let up and through the killing of each other and digging their own graves they came to life. Suffering and adversity birthed out something new, wonderful and joyful:

In your restless days,
I got lost, I got saved
In your restless nights
I swam blind,
Somehow falling into the light

Doesn’t anybody see how scared you are?
There was a time I was running you down
But the world kept spinning round
Doesn’t anybody see how scared you are?
There was a time you were running to me
But the hurricane had mercy

In your restless days
All that wind, all those waves
In your restless nights
We closed our eyes,
Killed each other and came to life

In your restless days
I made my bed, I dug my grave
In your restless nights
We both swam blind,
Somehow falling into the light

http://youtu.be/hKVlm0rxFiM

Sometimes we need someone to come along and be with us in grieving through the pain and at other times we need them to sweetly sing over us as Beam has done with “this couple.” I have done that with my daughter when she is particularly upset and even with my wife as I play my guitar, singing to her quiet, loving melodies. God even sings over us as detailed in Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord my God is in my midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over me with gladness; he will quiet me by his love; he will exult over me with loud singing.” That sweet singing of God over a person can be lead to healing, as Pastor Sam Storms recounts in a Resurgence post, “The Singing God”, of a counseling session with a woman named Sarah:

“That’s how God feels about you, Sarah!” I told her. “He looks at you, he thinks of you—and he sings for joy!”

She was stunned. “God sings? God sings? Over me?”

After a few moments of shocked silence, tears began to well up in her eyes and eventually streamed down her cheeks. “Sam, are you sure?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

“But I’m so pathetic,” she protested. “I really am…”

Sarah is right, we are all pathetic, all sinners deserving the judgement of a righteous God but grace is God sweetly singing an endless song over us. Gently loving those who are broken, those most in need of hearing the sweet honey-dripping songs of a God who loves them.

About Matthew Linder

Matthew Linder is a music professor at National University, married and father of a 2-year-old daughter. He loves Jesus, the Church, biblical theology, and of course, music but despises ketchup. While he appreciates a wide variety of musical styles, he prefers hip-hop, metal, and classical but could live without 90s Christian music. Follow Matthew on Twitter @TheRetuned.


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