“Jesus come… turn my world around!”
That was singer Karin Bergquist’s soulful appeal in the song “Changes Come,” the fiercest, most emotional moment of Over the Rhine’s 2003 double-album Ohio.
“Changes Come” was written in the aftermath of the attacks on America, during a time of heightening strife in the Middle East. Moreover, it was a time when Bergquist and her husband, Linford Detweiler — the other half of the Over the Rhine partnership — weren’t sure if their marriage would recover from its injuries. The next album, 2005’s Drunkard’s Prayer, gave a much more detailed picture of personal battles, bruises, and blues. The pulse of pain we’d sensed had been the sound of two artists, more than a decade into their collaboration, refusing to tumble over despair’s precipice without a fight.
They were dreaming of, longing for, praying for, a love like Johnny and June’s.
Well, guess what. Changes came.
Karin and Linford found reconciliation and renewed hope. They moved into a new house outside of the city. They composed their fiercest and, some would say, finest run of records yet, with Drunkard’s Prayer, The Trumpet Child, and my favorite… The Long Surrender, in which funding from fans and contributions from producer Joe Henry and a supremely talented backing band carried them to new heights.
Now it’s 2013. And they’re back with a new album called Meet Me at the Edge of the World.
Like Ohio, it’s filled with songs about marriage, longing, the Almighty, and… well… Ohio. And like that epic recording from ten years ago, it’s also a double album.
But beyond that, Meet Me at the Edge of the World is a remarkably different record, from a band that’s older, wiser, and looking around at the world with new perspective. It’s almost as if the cover is meant to illustrate this revolution. On Ohio‘s album cover, we stood at a high point, looking out over Ohio like a troubled Christ looking out over Jerusalem. On Meet Me‘s album cover, we appear to be lying down in the grass on a beautiful morning, looking into heaven. And where the trees grew skyward on Ohio‘s cover, the trees on this album cover seem to descend.
The world according to Over the Rhine — something came and turned it around.
What’s New at the World’s Edge
Several things make Meet Me at the Edge of the World distinct among Over the Rhine albums.
First of all, you’ll hear something new in Karin’s extraordinary voice. I’ve always described her as a force to be reckoned with. She’s never been afraid to unleash the full power of her voice. But here she finds power in restraint, in a quieter, more confident, more inviting presence. We’ve heard hints of this voice on occasion — go back and listen to “Suitcase” on Ohio or Kim Taylor’s “Days Like This” on The Long Surrender. But here, Karin sounds downright dreamy… woozy with daydreams, sunshine, and birdsong.
Linford sounds more confident too. He rarely sits down at the piano here, because he’s up front harmonizing with Karin. He sings on almost every track. Over the Rhine has almost always been an equal partnership, but this is the first time that’s been obvious. Linford actually takes turns with Karin singing lead in the playful dialogue of “All Over Ohio,” where he wears Leonard Cohen’s influence on his sleeve. It works so well, it’s likely to become the album’s most popular song. Karin and Linford’s harmonies are one of the album’s chief pleasures, making it clear that the duets we heard on The Long Surrender were a glimpse of the band’s bright future.
Meet Me at the Edge is also the most cohesive work they’ve made since Good Dog Bad Dog. Nothing sounds tacked on to serve as an obvious radio-ready single. (That’s why I flinched a bit at “Show Me” on Ohio and “Lookin’ Forward” on Drunkard’s Prayer.) All of these songs sound like they were composed and captured in one inspired weekend, even though fans will know that some tracks, like “Earthbound Love Song,” have been on tour for several years. The songs sound lived-in, like they’ve been waiting to emerge for decades. Even the cover of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference” feels like it grew in the very same garden.
If I refrained from mentioning what sound to me like a few rough patches, I might be mistaken for a fanboy of blind devotion.* So yes, I think the album might have been a little stronger if its livelier moments — “Gonna Let My Soul Catch My Body” and “Baby, This is Nowhere” — kicked things into a higher gear. They’re clearly sequenced to change the pace, but Bergquist and Bellerose sound like the only two players really ready for some rough-housing. The songs strain at the leash, and I wish we’d heard all of the dogs bolt into a bounding, howling run on these two. Maybe we’ll hear the band really cut loose during the tour.
Also, while I like the two fleeting instrumentals “Cuyahoga” and “The Birds of Nowhere Farm,” they both leave me wanting more because, well… they’re so promising.
Perhaps I’ll feel differently when I listen to it for the twenty-second time. It’s possible. Many of my favorite songs are songs that have opened up after many months of listening.
And far be it from me to second-guess the intuitions of master producer Joe Henry. After all, the quieter, mellower nature of this record can be deceptive: Turn it up loud, and you’ll find it’s anything but boring and the opposite of lazy. Joe and Company have set loose some surprising birds in these branches, sounds just waiting to be discovered during second, third, and thirteenth listens.
For example, turning up “All Of It Was Music,” I hear little musical raindrops chiming on the song’s windowsill. I love the textured simmer of the slide guitar on “Against the Grain,” Jay Bellerose’s subtle cymbal in “Blue Jean Sky,” and the way the pedal steel impersonates a musical saw in the title track. And that harmony on “Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down”? That’s none other than Aimee Mann… who has written many a wise and world-weary song about bastards. (Watch for Mann in an upcoming independent film called Pleased to Meet Me, in which Karin Bergquist has a supporting role.)
This “Band of Sweethearts” backing up the dynamic duo sound like they’ve been playing together for years. (Some of them have.) It’s been suggested — by the guys on NPR’s All Songs Considered, to be specific — that Jay Bellerose is the greatest percussionist ever. I wouldn’t argue. Eric Heywood on pedal steel, electric, and acoustic guitars sets fire to the edges of the songs. Jennifer Condos’ bass work provides solid stepping stones over which the notes of Patrick Warren’s piano, harmonium, chamberlin, and accordion playfully progress. And Mark Goldenberg’s acoustic support preserves a holy hush in songs like “Blue Jean Sky” and “Favorite Time of Light.”
What’s more, these lyrics reveal something better than a “happy ending” to a difficult chapter. Look closer a few songs, and you’ll see what I mean.
“Meet Me At The Edge Of The World”
In the opening anthem, a song that doesn’t sound like anything they’ve ever sung before, Karin and Linford invite each other — and us, God bless them — to leave the busyness, the demands, the hard work of their everyday endeavors and escape to a faraway place. They’re not ungrateful for the cheering crowds. But they know something new, and it’s calling to them: a mysterious and rejuvenating refuge.
Here we stand on cold concrete ground
‘Cause someone said they liked the sound
I’m thankful that they’ve hung around
But I’m craving the edge of the world…
It’s a risky thing to do: To start out an album by expressing your desire to escape the stage, to wrap up the tour, and to just go home. But that’s exactly how this album starts. And for listeners who have walked alongside Karin and Linford through their hard times, it’s a very joyful noise.
When you’ve spent decades striving as strenuously as Linford and Karin have, it can be difficult to slow down and appreciate… say… that lone tupelo standing against the ironweed. But these lyrics give evidence that they have heeded the call of their own song “The Laugh of Recognition.” They’ve settled down. They’re enjoying the blessings that have come from grace and from tenacity.It takes a lot of quiet observation before your vision settles on that solitary tupelo. But when you start seeing what’s right in front of you — really seeing it — you’re likely to have to stop, sit down, and write about it. Then, if you take the time to read those words out loud, you might discover that this scene tastes good when you talk about it, and that it tastes even better when you sing it:
One lone tupelo stood against the ironweed
The golden rod that tamed our need
For something other than fear and greed…
Meet me at the edge of the world.
The second track — “Called Home” — moves us from the front yard to the front porch, to the address at which they “grow songs” (as Linford recently said in an interview). They call it “Nowhere Farm.” It’s the property outside of Cincinnati mentioned in the second track.
Listen carefully, and you’ll see the place. You’ll hear the birds of Nowhere Farm. You’ll smell the weather and the wisdom of “leaving the edges wild.”
Just shy of Breakin’ Down
There’s a bend in the road that I have found
Take a left at loneliness
There’s a place to find forgiveness
Our pre-Civil War brick house
Standin’ tall and straight somehow
And while they’re growing familiar with the particulars of this specific time and place, the residents of Nowhere Farm also know that these details are just the visible edges of their true home. The Kingdom is at hand, glimmering, abundant with grace, waiting to be glimpsed between the lines.
With clouds adrift across the sky
Like heaven’s laundry hung to dry
You slowly feel it all will be revealed
Where evening shadows come to fall
On the awful and the beautiful
Every wound you feel that needs to heal
And silence yearns to hear herself
Some long lost memory rings a bell
With its easygoing guitars and languorous vibe, “Called Home” may not be the most arresting, exciting noise that Over the Rhine’s ever made. But listen closely. These are some of the most beautiful lyrics that Bergquist and Detweiler have ever composed.
To steal a line from Tina Fey: I want to go to there.
The third song is a gem they’ve polished over a few years of live performances.
Love me like a memory held too long
Like the need to feel some forgotten song…
It’s an appeal for love, for an imminent and mystical consummation, but it’s a love that deals in physical particularities. It’s about an intimacy so fierce that it’s painful, that suffers stumbles and forgives failings. It’s a love that claims the loftiest ideals while never neglecting the carnal, the body, the ground, the earth, and all that they imply.
At one time, Linford told the live audience he would take suggestions for a title on this one. I suggested that he call it “Over the Rhine.” He laughed, shook his head, and said, “Whoa. I don’t know.”
But I meant it. It sounds like the song you find when you finally X-ray the heart of this band — the longing to be free from the forces that are burning down all that is beautiful; the furious insistence on love, no matter what comes.
“All Of It Was Music”
Every Over the Rhine album has its monster track, the one that goes on opening and opening, year after year, one that taps into something new. Occasionally, as on The Long Surrender, there’s more than one.
On this album, for this listener, this is the one that has demanded the most attention, that has served up the most rewards.
“All of It Was Music” isn’t just a song. It’s a way of life. It’s an affirmation that everything we experience can — through attention, through art — be remedial and revelatory.
When Linford and Karin taught a songwriting course a few years ago at Image’s art conference The Glen Workshop, they had a student with a keen ear for details. His name was Pete Horner. Pete loves Over the Rhine’s music, loves its particularity and beauty.
I was there teaching a film seminar, and I met Pete during a lunch break. I knew he was taking the songwriting workshop, so I was surprised to discover that he works as a sound designer at Skywalker Ranch. Our conversation led to an interview (Part One, Part Two), in which Pete told me about how he’s learning to use sound effects in a poetic fashion. While at work on HBO’s Hemingway and Gellhorn — for which he would eventually win an Emmy — he had an epiphany. “Suddenly I got it. Film sound was music, and not just the score. All of it was music. And it was a music I wanted to explore.”
Many months later, when Over the Rhine invited their fans to come on up to the house for a two-night celebration of live music — right there on Nowhere Farm — they played a new song called “All of It Was Music.” When they did, they revealed that the title had come from something Pete had said in an interview. And yes, Pete was there in the audience.
Thus, a blessing came full circle — the music that had inspired another artist brought him to a place where, summing up what wisdom he’d been given, he spoke words that blessed the very artists who had inspired him.
And so, all of it — the details, the poems in which they land, the music in which they are sung, the way in which they are heard, the epiphanies that they set off — all of it is music. The clear-eyed heart is the heart that reconciles and redeems what it receives.
And what is the result of that vision? Listen to the chorus: It’s an appeal for forgiveness for all of our wrongs, and an affirmation that all things are working together for good.
A Wild Frontier
I’m tempted to go on about the knockout song that begins the second disc; about that verse — that verse — that hits like a sledgehammer, confronting those who distort and exploit the Gospel. I’m tempted to tell you about their smiling nod to Anne Lamott; about Van Dyke Parks showing up on the album’s last track; about how the line “all the ghosts are in the trees” sends shivers down my spine.
But I’ll leave the rest of the album for you to discover on your own. Let’s leave part of this property wild, for you to explore.
Suffice it to say that while some fans may find this record just too relaxed, too comfortable, those who listen closely will discover that these songs represent some of the hardest work, the most revelatory observations, and the most exquisitely crafted writing of Over the Rhine’s 24-year run.
And I think that may be happening because they’re learning to cease striving, to be still, and to put down their roots in a place — a specific place on the map of Ohio — where they can look and listen closely and expectantly.
U2 (the only other band I can name that has wrestled its angels with such conviction for a longer period of time) made their defining album, The Joshua Tree, by sanctifying a state of restlessness. They wanted to run, wanted to hide, wanted to “tear down the walls” that held them inside. And they all but boasted that they still hadn’t found what they were looking for, that they were going to go on running and searching.
Over the Rhine, in stark contrast, begin this new chapter with a defiant affirmation that they have found what they’re looking for. I don’t mean to imply that they’re done struggling, that their longing for healing and wholeness is over. No, these two discs are still supercharged with the dangerous gamble of faith — “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It’s the thrilling question at the center of the band’s ongoing work. It’s the tension we feel when we see an acrobat let go of a trapeze and soar through the air, without any certainty that she will catch the next swing.
But what we hear on Meet Me At the Edge of the World is a rebel yell of restfulness. (A rebel “sigh”? Try that one on, Billy Idol.) It’s a sense that they can, at last, take leaps without fear.
Give it a try. Stop striving. What do you think you’ll gain from all this running around? Pay close attention to the beauty that surrounds you, and if you don’t see it, be still and look closer. Learn to be generous with forgiveness and quick with confession. Have faith. You might just taste the exhilaration of contentment. The available reality, the experiences you’ve lived, the person standing next to you, the sights and sounds around you — these things are full of Gospel. These heavens declare the glory of God, and the ground beneath our feet is eager to show us some glorious handiwork.
All of it is music.
By listening to, and translating, the language of our place in the world, we become something like gardeners, something like what we were meant to be in the first place, somewhere a little closer to Eden.
That sense of rightness that abounds in this music, springing from such a specific point in Highland County… it may suggest that Karin and Linford have been meditating on Wendell Berry, who, in his essay “Poetry and Place,” wrote,
If we understand this concept of place carefully and fully enough, we can say simply that to be in place is good and to be out of place is evil, for where we are with respect to our place both in the order of things and on earth is the definition of our whereabouts with respect to God and our fellow creatures.
So accept Over the Rhine’s invitation. Come spend some hours at Nowhere Farm. You’ll hear the language you’ve longed to hear, if you’ll only slow down to listen.
They murmur a message rarely ever heard in American music. They whisper, “Grace and peace to you. And welcome home.”
[Many thanks to photographer Bill Ivester for permission to use his excellent photos from Nowhere Farm. Find Bill at bivester.com.]