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.”

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