Life in Marvelous Times

March 14, 2011

If The Gaslight Anthem were cynical about humanity and our ability and desire to make something of ourselves, Mos Def is unabashed in expressing his awe at the wonder of life. But don’t misunderstand, he sugar coats nothing. “Their green grass is green; our green grass is brown.”

I’m not really sure that beats have ever been something Mos Def has been particularly great with, but what keeps me coming back to him is his deft touch with words. Starting on Black Star, (“From the first to the last of it, delivery is passionate. The whole and not the half of it.”) I’ve consistently been impressed at the sense of momentum that his words construct, epitomized to me by a line from “Definition.”

Connecting like a roundhouse from the townhouse to the tenements.

And really, that line right there might sum up this song, “Life in Marvelous Times,” perfectly. The song starts in a New York slum, but he pulls out his camera as the track goes on. Beginning with a description of a hard culture– “You can see them scowl, feel them prowl, while them steady sizin’ every inch about you. Fast math measuring what you amount to.”– the song shows us a world in which there are often no good choices. But that’s never an excuse for despair, in his eyes.

As Mos Def sees it, life is a journey– Good Lord, that’s a hackneyed analogy. But he keeps at it, sheer persistence turning what could be a cliche into something powerful. “Some lines open, some lines closed. Some stretches go with no lines at all. Some riders don’t know what they riding for, hands on the wheel and they mind is gone.” There’s opportunity, some might even be prepared to say beauty, in suffering. But lest we fetishize it, let’s stipulate that suffering is not “good.” It is not “good” to suffer, but perhaps something good can be made to come out of suffering. Still, Mos Def insists that in the darkest of scenarios, the very fact of life is bursting with opportunities, which might just be what Lent is preparing us to see.

Sometimes, particularly for those of us lucky enough to be affluent, that very multitude of opportunity blinds us to the things that do make life marvelous. “Revelations, hatred, love and war. And more, and more, and more, and more. And more of less than ever before. It’s just too much more for your mind to absorb.” All the more creates a cacophony of competing voices until it becomes easy to miss the small moments that make life worth living. It takes a quiet mind and soul, and a tenacious one at that– one I confess I don’t have nearly often enough– to catch the wonders that life conjures up for us every day. I don’t know that this is a battle that people can win, per se, but I do think that it is a battle that we have to fight.

“Wonders on every side. Life in marvelous times.”

Stay Lucky

March 13, 2011

Regret and melancholy have always been intimately intertwined with Lent in my memory. It wasn’t some sort of conscious thing on the part of my parents, and I didn’t even grow up in a tradition that made Lenten renunciation a big deal. Sure, you always talked about giving up something for Lent, but whether you did or didn’t ultimately didn’t matter much. And my posture towards Lent seems somewhat incongruous given the fact that the whole thing leads up to what is the most subversively triumphant moment in the entire church calendar. But, just as Advent makes me dwell uncomfortably on the tenuousness of the incarnation and human life in general, Lent has served, and continues to serve, as a reminder to me of how utterly terrible life can be, and what evil things we are capable of.

My mood in starting these reflections isn’t helped by world events. Over the past few weeks we’ve watched a madman in Libya commit to slaughtering his subjects and observed in terror as Japan was first rocked by an earthquake and then washed away by a tsunami.

Regret, melancholy, loss. This is what Lent does to me.

The Gaslight Anthem gets this, although maybe not in a “Lenten” way. Their albums dwell extensively on the conditional nature of our lives, on how quickly a person can go from seeming to have everything to possessing nothing. “Stay Lucky” epitomizes this attitude on their part. The song careens along with reckless speed, like the guys are afraid the whole thing will fall apart, just like the life of the subject of their song. And Lucky? Lucky ain’t. He’s trying, and trying too hard, to recapture his past glories. “All the other rooms are a party tonight, and you never got an invitation.”

But the band gets it, too. “Them old records won’t be saving your soul.” Their subject is just a skipping LP, repeating the same scenarios and mistakes, hoping and thinking that it’ll be better if things could just be like they were before. Trapped by his(?) own inability to change, the band’s attitude towards Lucky might be best summed up by the line leading into the chorus: “And it feels like all you have to do is step outside. Stop pacing around and waiting for some moment that might never arrive.”

Far be it for me to try to end on a note of forced positivism, but if Lent is supposed to make us reflective, mightn’t we take a lesson from Lucky? Like the man cured of his delusion that he was seed, yet retained his fear of chickens, Lucky’s fixation prevents the full apprehension of the possibility in life just sitting there waiting to be taken. To my personal disappointment, I see a lot of myself in Lucky.