All marriages are broken.
We’re broken people, and when we commit to each other, for better or worse, we are guaranteed that there will be difficult — sometimes severely painful — times. How we respond to those trials will depend largely on our priorities and our beliefs. Am I in this for my own personal satisfaction? Or am I in this to give myself to the other person as a living sacrifice? When I made those sacred vows, did I believe them to be sacred — a promise before God as well as my spouse, my family, my friends, my community? Or was the wedding ceremony just a traditional ritual, and I can still break it off if the going gets really tough?
These things are on my mind as I listen again to Over the Rhine’s new album Drunkard’s Prayer, which is an intimate, personal, and piercing work about “for better, for worse” … especially about finding better in the face of worse.
Songwriter Linford Detweiler and singer/songwriter Karin Bergquist, who married a couple of albums into their recording career and have covered impressive distance artistically since then, offer an astonishing, somewhat unsettling, invitation here. They invite us into their living room (where the album was recorded in its entirety), into their personal dialogue, into their fears, questions, and dreams. The album cover gives us glimpses of their furniture, their dogs and cats, the beautiful house where they’ve composed so much wonderful music. The music itself captures echoes of late night conversations where they share glasses of wine and “talk deep into the night.”
What is more, they allow us access to the painful hours of heartache and spiritual exhaustion after their marriage was, by the grace of God, dragged back from the precipice of divorce. Consisting primarily of Linford’s piano playing (more passionate and articulate than ever) and Bergquist’s one-of-a-kind vocals, pristine acoustic guitars, and a cello radiant and resonant in the hardwood floors of the living room, the album documents a Herculean act of love. Bergquist and Detweiler recommit themselves to each other, as if staging a second wedding, without glossing over the disappointment, disillusionment, and despair they have felt in these dark days. Focused this time more on autobiography than poetry, the couple craft the most straightforward lyrics of their career—songs of raw emotion, frank confession, and bloody reconciliation.
SONGS FROM THE (RECENTLY BROKEN) HEART
The album’s deceptively simple and profound opener, “I Want You to Be My Love,” is an elemental declaration of love, bound to make appearances in weddings for decades to come. Its simplicity is deliberate. No fancy words. No abstractions. No messing with the metaphors. Just a promise, a declaration, and courage. Bergquist sings, “I want you to know me now,” and that last word is the key. A relationship cannot be built upon nostalgia or sentiment. It must be a daily investment, a process of repeating and reaffirming the vows over and over again. Detweiler puts it this way in a New York Daily News interview: “A long-term commitment is coin-operated, it’s lots of little connections on an ongoing basis.”
The album’s lyrics, attributed to husband and wife throughout, are rich with the language of faith: vows, covenants, rituals, wine, elements that unite, strengthen, and sustain. “There’s nowhere I’d rather be,” Bergquist sings in “Born,” asserting that she will find laughter through her tears, rather than by running away from them. “Thank God for this new laughter,” she sighs. “We’ve seen the junkyard of love / Baby, it’s no place for you and me.”
The title song cuts like a razor in its eloquence about intense love. And yet, while its exhibition of naked longing reminds this listener of Lucinda Williams’ “Essence,” “Drunkard’s Prayer” is the more powerful song. It’s so much richer, for it is not focused on raw lust, but rather on the yearning for complete union — sexual, spiritual, and intellectual, all at once. Once again, Bergquist demonstrates she’s among the best, and most versatile, soul singers singing anywhere. The singer lays her heart bare, declaring that her beloved is water, wine, and whiskey … something that quenches thirst, sanctifies, and intoxicates.
Along those lines, “Hush Now” is a song about the “whiskey” of love. Karin’s never sounded so drunk in love with her “sweet little lazy boy,” and Linford’s piano playing is as dizzily jovial as a happy inebriate stumbling his way home under street lights.
During “Bluer,” a song that would not have sounded out of place on Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Sessions, there’s a unique and exquisite moment. Karin and Linford’s voices join together to express an immeasurable sadness at the possibility of separation: “Bluer than all of my troubles / Are we gonna leave here strangers?”
“Little Did I Know” is the album’s centerpiece, and it’s as timelessly beautiful as anything the band has ever produced. (I’d have to include it in my five Desert Island Over the Rhine Songs, alongside “Changes Come,” “Latter Days,” “The World Can Wait,” and “Faithfully Dangerous.”) It’s a confession, and it’s a heartbreaker. Perhaps the only appropriate response is to pause the song when it is over and pray for them. If a saxophone could pray for healing, it would sound a lot like the solo that closes this song.
Each song is intensely focused on time—on mining our memories, even the most painful, so that they enrich the present and lead us into the future wiser and stronger. “I remember what you said / lying in this bed … / the past is dead…” Karin sings in “Hush Now.” In “Firefly,” she ventures into the album’s most abstract imagery, a vivid poem about longing, lack, temptation, failure, and a fiery resolution to rejuvenate a failing love. There’s a riveting ferocity in the way she declares “My memory will not fail me now.” This relationship’s salvation will not come by forgetting the hard times, but by learning from them.
It should not go without mention that “Spark,” another song that stands with the best Detweiler and Bergquist have offered, places this personal story in its larger context. “What you think you’ll solve with violence / will only spread like a disease until it all comes round again.” It’s impossible to ignore that this is a song written in wartime, as a nation is severely divided, deeply wounded. As such, this sounds like Part Two of the song “Changes Come,” the high point of Ohio. There is anger, grief, and a glorious hope in the refrain: “Sleep with one ear close to the ground / and wake up screaming / When we lay our cold weapons down / we’ll wake up dreaming.” It’s a brilliant chorus that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the center of a U2 album. And it’s a clarion call to individuals and nations. In this time of trouble and terror, approaching others with suspicion, fear, and aggression only contributes to the world’s decline into chaos and violence. To absorb wrongdoing peaceably, to turn the other cheek, to respond with grace and hope… that is a brave and redemptive act. “Only love can turn this around.” And that’s true on a national level as well as in terms of a marriage.
I would write more of a critique of this album if I could. But I confess — I cannot do so effectively, because I’m too close to the essence of the material.
I’ll say only this: It’s one of the strongest, but not the strongest, record they’ve made in that it breaks very little new ground. (“Looking Forward Looking Back” is a dynamite lyric, but the arrangement seems stamped with a label that says “Here’s the single!”)
That’s a minor nit-pick. When a band offers more of what they do best, that’s reason to celebrate. And why bother comparing this to other Over the Rhine works when this album is intended as something quite different than their previous explorations?
Good Dog Bad Dog was a journal of soul-searching spiritual poetry—it painted our relationship with the Divine as an intimacy of almost erotic qualities, and it turned our eyes heavenward. Ohio was an outward-looking epic, examining brokenness on both the individual and the global scale, haunted by the Holy Ghost. Drunkard’s Prayer is inward-looking, an act of generosity, confession, and a testimony of resurrection. Thus, to say one is “better” than the other seems ridiculous. They are all landmark recordings in the band’s career, and they are all essential, as far as I’m concerned.
But I cannot discuss this album without relating why it has such power for me. If this seems indulgent, forgive me. But I share this because Drunkard’s Prayer is playing an important part in my life, picking up where Sam Phillips’ A Boot and a Shoe left off last year, and I must place it in context in order to praise it appropriately.
I am blessed with parents whose marriage is rooted in love for Christ. He is a source of strength and hope for them, and their faith in Christ has developed in them a strong sense of patience, grace, and forgiveness, so that divorce has never been an option. Today, almost forty years later, they are still deeply in love, despite all of the hardships they’ve endured over the years. They modeled marriage for me, as did my uncle and aunt and my grandparents. .
My own marriage of 1992 lasted only two years. Some hearts get broken, some get burned alive slowly, and I experienced the latter, as I did all that I could to save the relationship, like a man who wakes up to find his house going up in flames around him, and he runs outside to try and fight it with the garden hose. By God’s immeasurable grace, a few years after that devastating defeat, I found myself richly blessed. I will soon celebrate my ninth anniversary with a stronger, wiser, more beautiful woman. Like Job, I can only praise God for how he has restored my spirit and poured blessings into my life since that painful loss. While my own story is a very different one, it draws similar conclusions–that those who turn to God for grace and healing are not disappointed, whatever they lose along the way. The healing continues.
That is why Drunkard’s Prayer is so encouraging to me. Like last year’s best American film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Over the Rhine’s album gives us hope that, when all seems lost, love can be salvaged through confession, forgiveness, and grace. While the music returns me to some familiar emotional territory of loss, grief, and regret, it is a joy to hear these two artists, a man and a woman that I dearly love for all they have given me, committing themselves to the excruciating, daily work of repairing broken hearts and strengthening the things that remain. As Josh Hurst observed in his review, the release date was well-chosen: this is Easter music. Christ could have given up on all of us ages ago, weary from the ways in which we betray him every day. But his love is not conditional; it continues in spite of our failures. You can hear him at work in these lyrics, tending to the damage in these two artists as they involve him in their dialogue.
Believe it or not, I come away from Drunkard’s Prayer thinking about last year’s documentary from the Gobi Desert, The Story of the Weeping Camel. In that film, two creatures were separated by some deep pain, a wound that their human caretakers seemed incapable of addressing. But then, a musician arrived on the farm. He put his bow to strings, and he plays simple but incredibly beautiful music. As the animals listened, it was as if their own dissonant hearts were brought into tune. Exposed to beauty, they found things broken within them being mysteriously repaired. The dispute wa dissolved. The two were reunited in right relationship, living at last in the way they were designed to live. Of course, there aren’t many correlations between camels and human beings … but the point here is not the animals, but the role of beauty played in influencing those who encountered it. When creation works the way God intended, we realize how much more we have to learn.
It would be easy to spin Over the Rhine’s story into a feel-good anecdote. The truth is that the story isn’t over — it’s just beginning. Marriage is never a battle won — it is treasure that requires daily struggle. These songs aren’t about restoration so much as they are, in themselves, the discipline of intimacy… the very tools by which restoration becomes possible. In singing these songs together, Detweiler and Bergquist forge again the bond nearly broken, right before our ears. What a gift, that they would share this with us. The healing agents of cello, guitar, piano, voice, and poetry do not discriminate — they’re fixing what’s broken in attentive listeners as well.
Five words or less: A beautiful piece of heartache.