This might be the oddest review you’ve ever read. It has a long backstory and too much exposition. It’s about a song – not even a whole album – that was released a year ago, a song you don’t know by an artist you don’t know. It’s a Journalism School recipe for how not to write a review. That’s okay, though. I never went to J-School. And I just can’t get over the nagging feeling that this song, dated and obscure as it is, must be celebrated.
My family and I live near train tracks. On these lovely Spring nights, we often have the windows open and I can hear the long and loud peal of the train whistle. Every time – every single time – I think of this song. I sing it in my head. My heart is strained by its strings and my senses are awakened by its message: Listen!
That’s the name of the song, and it leads off an album called “The Cymbal Crashing Clouds” by Ben Shive. You should understand a few things about Shive. He’s a noted Nashville session player who has worked with big-name artists like Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, Matthew West, and Jars of Clay. He’s grown into an exceptional producer for the likes of Andrew Peterson, Randall Goodgame, and Melanie Penn. And he’s a critically acclaimed artist in his own right. Christianity Today declared his debut album “The Ill-Tempered Klavier” the best of 2008. In 2011 he released “Clouds”, the heralded follow-up, and even as I type that it pains me to abbreviate the title. The fact that the title is so evocative in so few words explains a bit of the wonder of Shive’s music. It is not always the most accessible, but it sure does make you think and feel.
Because I write about Christian music I get lots of pre-releases sent to me. Sadly, Shive’s new record did not find its way into my hands, so instead it landed on my Christmas list, along with an avant-garde companion book. I regret not rushing out and buying it, because I hadn’t heard it when it was time for me to contribute to our “Best of 2011” list here at The Sound Opinion. Now, it’s May 2012, and I’m telling you about a song from August 2011. Alas.
Back to the train whistle. It’s the first sound on “The Cymbal Crashing Clouds”, and we hear it in the distance, mentally measuring the approaching train’s proximity. Soon, the song employs train whistles of multiple pitches as the left-hand chords that undergird so many layers of instrumentation and orchestration. This is clearly Brian Wilson-inspired songwriting, and it’s all one can do to heed the exclamatory title and listen, taking in as much as your head can handle.
A rapid, minor-keyed piano line adds to the tension and confusion before the first line is sung. Rapid brushes on a cymbal sound like a quickening pulse, and I feel like I’m standing right next to the tracks, fearing what the whistle portends as it grows loud enough to shake the ground. And then the strings – my goodness, the strings! By the time they enter the fray, the drumbeat has somehow wandered into techno, some keyboard programming has been added – Derek Webb is smiling – and I picture one of those cool string quartets that can’t sit still while they play. But then, quite abruptly, all this music stops and a tiny but glorious 8-second symphony bridges to the final verses.
As rich as the music is, the lyrics are richer still. The song is about a morning of epiphany when Shive stood all alone on a street in Brunswick, Maryland at 4 am, waiting for a ride to the airport. A sudden and unexpected train whistle disturbed the silence, and in that clamor Shive saw eternity.
Okay, if you’re with me so far I’m in your debt. But I must ask a bit more of you. The lyrics illustrate three scripture passages, so you really must read them first. In Ezekiel 1, the prophet sees an appearance of God in a whirlwind coming from the north and the image of a wheel within a wheel. (Not too much of a stretch to picture a locomotive for this one.) In Revelation 4, another vision. And in Exodus 33, an image of Moses hidden in the cleft of a rock, waiting to see the glory of God.
If that’s all pretty weird, maybe an illustration of these prophetic visions from a Maryland street will help. Shive imagines the elders as parked cars along a street, covered in white flower petals shed from nearby trees. The creatures covering their eyes are sleepy row houses lining the street. The seraphim are box elder seeds riding the breeze. In Shive’s description, “the silent street may be more than it seems, pregnant with the anticipation of some imminent arrival.” Here’s the stanza:
I pass through the door of a dream,
Hidden in the cleft of the night
Among the parked cars lining the street,
Robed in petals of white,
Where the seeds spin down from the trees –
Whirling angels in free flight –
And the houses mutter in their sleep,
Covered in shuttered eyes
That arrival is the train, which approaches like God in the whirlwind from Ezekiel. In Listen!, God is the orchestra conductor in a black tailcoat, which Shive imagines as a “train of lumbering coaches”. Finally, the whistle blasts, and the sound is echoed back by the once-quiet street.
The whistle blast echoes so loud
That it rings the bell of the sky –
A song that sounds and resounds;
An unbearable, aching sigh;
Like a parliament of owls –
Silver wings brushing my eyes;
Crossing arms drawing the phrase out,
Holding the moment in time.
It is noteworthy that Shive can continue the thread of scripture through this image: the brushing wings; the crossing arms (like railroad crossings); the echoes. Remember, this is essentially a vision of a vision. It’s also noteworthy that he used the phrase “a parliament of owls”, because that’s just cool.
Finally, in the last verse, Shive has the impudence to personalize all this. “Here in the last lines of the song,” he says, “I invite God to make whatever music he created me for, and the violence of the action is not accidental. I am a little afraid of what God might do to produce whatever sound I was intended for.”
Yes, he did it. He took something really strange from the Bible, reimagined it in contemporary but no more concrete terms, then somehow applied it all to my life:
‘Cause my bones are bells to be rung;
My nerves are attuned and tight.
So come knock the air from my lungs
Out over the cords of my windpipe.
My skin pulled taut like a drum,
I am bracing myself for the strike.
Waiting like a song to be sung,
Hidden in the cleft of the night.
Christian music is much-maligned for its sameness, its tameness, and its fairly derivative sound. Some of this dismissive criticism is warranted, but those who offer it would be wise to look a little deeper. There are diamonds out there, like this song, and diamond cutters, like Ben Shive. And they must be heard, and celebrated. Listen!