I’m pleased and proud to let you know that my dear friend Ben Shive‘s newest collection of songs is now available for pre-order and/or immediate download here in the Rabbit Room. These songs are quirky, brilliant, poetic, and joyful—and the lyrics are smack-your-forehead good. I’m being serious when I say that I don’t know of any songwriter on earth who could make an album like this—one with pop hooks, chamber strings, great sounds, intricate poetry, and on top of that, Scriptural allusions galore. As the proprietor of this establishment, I implore you to download this record (or pre-order the disc) and listen to it eighteen times in a row, as I did when I first heard it. Then sit back and thank God that there are true believers in the world who are using their gifts for the glory of the Giver.
When I introduce Ben at concerts I usually say that he’s a great poet and that he knows the Bible better than most people I know. Well, as you’re about to see, he’s also a great writer. Ben’s working in conjunction with a 14-year-old prodigy of an illustrator named Benji Anderson to produce a Shel Silverstein-meets-Tim Burton-esque book as a companion to The Cymbal Crashing Clouds and wrote the following about his writing process for the song “Listen!”. It’s a fascinating read, whether you’re a songwriter or not. (We’re putting the audio player at the top of the post so you can listen as you read along.)
Before this album was The Cymbal Crashing Clouds, I was calling it The Animist. (I called it this mostly to myself; no one else cares what I’m thinking of writing next.) The idea came to me one day when my brother remarked that my son, Jude, was “a little animist,” talking to his trains and plastic men as if they had eternal souls. I overheard this and thought that I would love to write an album of songs ascribing souls—or at least voices—to inanimate, everyday things. I later abandoned the title because of its pagan implications. But The Cymbal Crashing Clouds is really just another way of getting at the same idea.
Seconds after my brother’s comment, I also knew that if I were to write such an album I would like it to begin with a prelude much like the one to William Blake’s in Songs Of Innocence. In it, I would meet the muse in some form and be sent to write the songs that followed. You could think of it a prophetic vision of sorts, though I’m certainly not a prophet.
This song, “Listen!” is that vision. It was the last song I wrote for the record, mainly because it was by far the most ambitious in concept and the most challenging to write. It also came last because I was waiting for the baby on the cloud to appear, and he took his time.
The first stanza describes a street in Brunswick, Maryland, where I stood at four in the morning waiting for a ride to the airport after a week spent working on the Carousel Rogues record. The imagery here is borrowed from the fourth chapter of Revelation. The cars clothed in white blossoms are the twenty-four elders. The row houses are the creatures covered with eyes. The box elder seeds falling are seraphim (“box elder” was also meant to evoke “elder,” but it didn’t sing well so I left it out). The opening line alone is an exception, with its reference to Moses hidden in the cleft of the rock, waiting for his own vision of the Lord. Together, these images are clues that the silent street may be more than it seems, and that the silence here is pregnant with the anticipation of some imminent arrival.
I pass through a door in 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
In the second stanza, the description of the approaching train is drawn from the first chapter of Ezekiel, in which God appears to the prophet on a stormy wind and a dark cloud flashing with fire. There in the dark hills of the Northeast, the fire was burning in the throat of a great locomotive running down the rails on wheels within wheels. I hope comparing the train cars with “the tails of his coal-black coat” evokes both the train of God’s robe filling the temple in Isaiah’s vision and also the coat tails of a great conductor entering the orchestra pit. Working out these lines, I envisioned Bugs Bunny (who were you expecting?) dressed as the conductor Leopold Stokowski gliding through the pit, the awed musicians turning all colors as his glove, floating in the air by itself, holds the final note out into infinity.
Shrouded in steam and smoke
On a dark cloud he approaches
And the tails of his coal-black coat
Are a train of lumbering coaches
He passes unseen like a ghost
But he thunders like a herd of horses
And he calls to the heavenly host
To join with their airy voices
I was unaware of the train as it drew near. Brunswick is a tiny railroad town, so all her residents are barely aware of the constant racket of the cars in the yard nearby. But as I stood in that street alone, dazed from lack of sleep, the train whistle blew. It couldn’t have been more than half a mile away so it was wonderfully loud. It was the most beautiful, mournful sound and it not only saturated the air around me, but it filled me up as well. I felt that it overflowed my sense of hearing and then spilled over into all my other senses. When it ceased, still it echoed and echoed, and now it occurred to me that I was hearing not the train whistle itself, but all the world speaking it back to me–a wordless word repeated by the flat faces of buildings and billboards. All the angels of the atmosphere were singing it with their elemental voices.
I knew this was not the voice of the Lord, but it occurred to me in this moment that if I had ever heard the voice of the Lord I had heard it in this way. He spoke in the past through the prophets at various times and in various ways but now he has spoken by his Son. And that Word he has spoken pools in the hollows of the world and pours forth daily in all manner of ecstatic utterances. Before I wake, the Word arrives at my door in the sun’s daily bulletin. In the afternoon he tears the veil of the clouds. At dusk he bleeds red and the dies. I sleep. I rise. Meanwhile, the eye is ever receiving, ever transmitting. The hammer and the anvil tap out their constant missive. If I had ears to hear, it would read a Name a Name a Name. I owe the image of owl’s wings brushing my eyes to the room full of ravens in a book called Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. If you’ve read the book you’ll recognize this as another prophetic vision of sorts.
The whistle blast echoes so loud
That it rings the bell of the sky
A song that sounds and rebounds
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
Now, in this fourth stanza, the tone of the lyric changes to prayer and provocation. If you can ring the bell of the sky, I say, then by all means strike up the band! I stumbled over the opening line one afternoon as I mowed my lawn. I hurried inside and wrote in my composition notebook: “I forgot about the cymbal crashing clouds /and the rivers with the reeds in their mouths.”
I wish the words that follow had then presented themselves to me like little Von Trapps all in a row, but no. I spent hours on a couplet picturing the shadowed hills ringing the town as stately old men dozing off in chairs while their wives, the graceful, winding lanes, danced in “streetlight strings of pearls.” It sounds nice here all by itself, but it didn’t play well with others.
Andrew Peterson tells the story of Nikola Tesla’s “little black box,” which could determine the resonant frequency of a building and then generate that frequency in ever-increasing intensity until the building was swaying and threatening to come apart. I’m afraid I am a little dull and slow to take notice of things (ask my friends), so my prayer here is for God to shake the building, to wave his arms a bit and get my attention.
So signal the cymbal crashing clouds
Pluck all the steeples and spires
Cue the rivers with the reeds in their mouths
Conduct the electrical choirs
Rattle every window in town
Strum all the telephone wires
Crossing arms drawing the phrase out
The fifth stanza is not the first time I have brazenly stolen from a Rich Mullins essay called “Playing Second Fiddle.” In it, Rich imagined the awful emptiness a violin must feel, the horror and loneliness of being shut in its case, the terrible tension of its nerves now and again raked painfully by the bow. And he observed that the poor instrument is deaf to the music made through its suffering. Here in the last lines of the song 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. What then shall I say? Lord, spare me from this hour? No, it was for this hour that I came into the world.
Cause my bones are all bells to be rung
My nerves are attuned and tight
So come knock the air from my lungs
Out over the cords in my windpipe
My skin pulled taut like a drum
I’m bracing myself for the strike
Waiting like a song to be sung
Hidden in the cleft of the night
Maybe worth mentioning (and maybe not) is that I did most of the really difficult writing on a trip to Sweden with Andrew, much of which was spent riding on trains. In fact, I appropriately recorded the first bits of the music (though not the train whistles themselves) on a passenger train. Also, I should (or shouldn’t?) mention that the title is a play on “Look!” which is a song from the lost Beach Boys album, Smile (“Look!” is called “Song For Children” on Brian Wilson’s Smile). This is the first of many references (musical and lyrical) to Smile on The Cymbal Crashing Clouds.