catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 10 :: 2011.05.20 — 2011.06.09


Can music save your mortal soul?

Did you write the book of love,
and do you believe in God above,
if the Bible tells me so?
Do you believe in rock and roll,
Can music save your mortal soul,
And can you teach me how to dance, real slow?

Don McLean, “American Pie”

What are the things that save us from the dark places? When our spirits are wandering in the corridors of blackness and every turning seems to lead further down or to a dead end, what are the things that grip us by the hand and pull us toward the light? Increasingly I have come to believe that music, and the lyrics that music upholds, are key in pushing back the darkness, creating a little breathing room in the midst of the things that would snuff out the light.

I spend a good part of my life wandering in the dark places. And our culture has certain kinds of solutions for that. The ones that seem most available always seem to involve words: books that give guidance, counseling, rational kinds of solutions, figuring out the problem, puzzling through a solution, trying to change how I think about things.

Except that the problem is not only a problem of the mind. The problem is one of the heart and the spirit. And only something that speaks to the spirit can help. But where are those voices? Where are the people who speak to the spirit, who bring to expression the deep sorrow or pain that attends so many of our days? Where are the people who speak hope into the darkness?

Two thousand years ago these people were called prophets. They spoke and wrote poetry, poetry that expressed the anguish of God and the people, poetry that spoke words of imagination that transformed the darkness. For all we know, they may have sung this poetry. (I can imagine the words of Jeremiah in a blues club in ancient Judah, with a smoking lyre solo between sections — a mournful ballad called, “No People, No Cry.” But I digress.)

Today, many of those prophets are writing and singing songs. And one prophetic voice that pulls me out of the darkness is Welsh singer-songwriter Martyn Joseph.  (I should say here that some of Joseph’s songs are co-written with Stewart Henderson, so although I will just refer to Joseph, much of what I have to say refers to Henderson’s exceptional lyrics as well).  Joseph’s songs reach down, grip my wrist and pull me up, up out of the pit and into the light. Lately I’ve been trying to figure out why and I think that there are two reasons.

First of all, Joseph has an uncanny ability to name the pain that is present not only in our individual lives, but also in our culture. You see, we live in a world that is adept at cover up. Our culture is very good at providing avenues to numb us: once we are overwhelmed by the amount of sorrow in the world we are encouraged to consume our way into senselessness. I once asked someone how he dealt with all the stories of abuse and violence in our world. “Denial,” he replied, laconically. Sometimes it seems the only way.

But denial can only keep us wandering in those hallways of darkness. Sometimes we need someone to name what we are feeling and Joseph is superb at this. Here are the first two verses of “The Weight of the World” along with the first two lines of the chorus:

It’s the weight of the world
keeps us nervous at night,
locks up the light,
makes our efforts seem slight.
And it’s the weight of the world
that’s pressing us down
buckled your crown
watchin’ you drown.

It’s the weight of the world
that gouges the land
shrivels the sand,
praises the bland.
And it’s the weight of the world
that frenzies our fears
so when hope disappears
we start sharpening spears.

So is this paradise or prison
because the verdict is unclear…

What’s the problem? The weight of the darkness, the fears that feed our anxiety, this whole bland culture of fear and violence that makes us so uncertain about our safety that we can’t help but move to self-protective violence. What kind of a place are we in, anyway? A place only of weight? Is this paradise or prison?

Or consider the chorus from the song  “I Would Never Do Anything in This World to Hurt You”:

I would never do anything in this world to hurt you,
I would never do anything in this world to hurt you,
But I do.

The first lines are so commonplace, the assurance that lovers have given each other through the ages, so that the words are almost trite. And then the reality check of the last three words are dropped like stones into the smooth pond of calm assurance. But. I.  Do. We all do. We all hurt most deeply those whom we have promised never, ever to betray. In a culture where the myth of romance pervades our fairy tales, our advertising, our movies, our sitcoms and our wedding services, Joseph allows us to name the reality of our lives. We are in messy relationships, bleeding with the wounds that we have inflicted on each other, fraught with the betrayals that we have inflicted. No happily ever after here.

And there is more. From the poignant lament of “How Did We End Up Here?” which questions how Western culture has ended up in a place of such political violence, to the deep cry for newness of “Turn Me Tender Again,” Joseph brings to expression both lyrically and musically “the unseen rage of all our days,” the deepest fears and yearnings of our hearts.

But naming the pain is not enough. We can’t just stop there. There needs to be a word of hope as well and Joseph has an uncanny ability to turn from that pain to hope, to sing lament with the expectation that there will be, someday, somewhere, healing. So the weight of the world becomes “the world where we wait…it’s a chorus of grace.” In the midst of broken relationships and betrayal, “There’s always you and me, my love, each other’s pentecost.” In the midst of hurt, loss and devastation we can still be agents of grace for one another.

Over and over Joseph provides a glimpse into another reality. In a world where we are “nurturing child soldiers” while we “toast our toxic riches and reinforce the bolts” there is this vision of hope:

Yet still this will not be
Though all around is rage
The story getting darker
With each turning of the page.
Yet still this will not last:
This kingdom of the fool
Will be humbled and made low
When the broken-hearted rule. 3

The words and music together lift us up, carry us forward into a new world, where the broken hearted finally inherit the earth. But be warned. This is no cheap and easy utopia. The story is getting darker with each turning of the page. There are those who will be humbled and made low. Those who rule have suffered deeply — they are the broken-hearted.

And this, in the end, is what gives us hope, for many of us are the broken-hearted. And though we may not be interested so much in ruling, we so deeply desire a glimpse of another world, a vision of how things can be. This is precisely the sort of hope that Joseph provides.

So when I find myself wandering in the corridors of darkness, I put on some of Joseph’s music. I allow my imagination to be shaped. I allow another world to be sung into being around me by a man with a golden voice. And I find myself looking at the darkness with eyes that can see the first faint light of the dawn.

Martyn Joseph Listening List


  • Vegas (Pipe Records, 2007)
  • Deep Blue (Pipe Records, 2006)
  • Evolved (Pipe Records, 2008)
  • Don’t Talk About Love: Live ‘92-’02 (Pipe Records, 2004)


1 From “Everything in Heaven Comes Apart” on Don’t Talk About Love, Volume II.

2 From “Nobody Gets Everything” on Vegas.

3 From “Yet Still this Will Not Be” on Deep Blue.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus