From the beginning of time the night sky has fueled our dreams of traversing the stars, pioneering the final frontier. Deep calls unto deep as we lie on our backs looking into the vast ocean of space above us and feel the vast ocean of space inside us rise and swell. Like a transmission from the furthest reaches of the universe, or perhaps from somewhere further still within our hearts, the questions find us: “Who am I? Who is God? What does it mean to be human? Why am I lonely?” On a clear night we can see beyond the edges of our galaxy, and we are at once belittled and enlarged.
Is our longing to touch the stars a wonder-filled embrace of the great mystery of existence? Or is it perhaps a kind of escapism, a desire to break free of the bonds of gravity and the Fall and the falling that goes along with it. Is it part of our romantic hope that the grass may be greener somewhere over the rainbow, beyond Alpha Centauri?
Whatever it is, the night sky excites our imagination, confronts us with our humanity, and stirs within us the big questions.
And so it was that on Stardate 65176.3 (or September 16th, 2011) Andrew Osenga, aided by a group of friends, built a spaceship in a storage unit behind Baja Burrito in Nashville, Tennessee, with the mission of writing and recording Leonard The Lonely Astronaut: a cosmic, musical journey through the human heart to make contact with alien life–or, at the very least, our own lives that can leave us feeling alienated.
Leonard is a wonder of a record that only Andrew Osenga could bring us: a concept album about love, loneliness, and forgiveness that is the unlikely melding of Osenga’s literate songcraft, his idiosyncratic artistry, and his affinity for old sci-fi novels. It’s weird. It’s awesome. It’s fun! It’s full of heart and wisdom and it might help save your marriage, heal your past, or lead you to rediscover your own heart.
And did I mention that he wrote and recorded it in a spaceship!?
Osenga introduces us to Leonard Belle, whose story we enter in the wake of the unexpected death of his wife—a beginning made all the more tragic by the fact that they were in the midst of settling their divorce. With so much left unresolved, Leonard’s grief takes the form of his accepting a job as the lone pilot of a space freighter delivering cargo to the far reaches of outer space. Because of the laws of relativity, all of Leonard’s friends will have grown old and died by the time he returns to earth. Leonard wants out of his own life. In fact, he’s probably been absent from it for quite some time already.
It sounds like heavy subject material, and, well, I suppose it is. But Osenga manages to makes it fun. Wearing his geekiness on the sleeve of his spacesuit (yes he had an actual spacesuit made), his enthusiasm for capturing the zeitgeist of classic science fiction is irresistible. In the hands of a lesser artist this all might feel like a gimmick, but with Osenga I think it’s more accurate to think of it as a master magician’s diversion–wowing us with the novelty of it all on the one hand while the real trick is happening in the other.
Osenga is perhaps the bravest songwriter I know, generously singing his wounds for the healing of others. (Consider a lyric like this: I don’t believe forgiveness, or even repentance now – “Hold The Light”, from Caedmon Call’s Overdressed). But the magic of what he accomplishes here is that he can say things with Leonard’s voice that he might not say with his own. Thus, one of the bravest songwriters I know just got bolder, able to go where no man has gone before (I couldn’t resist).
The deeper Leonard ventures into outer space, the deeper we are led through the subterranean layers of our own inner space–the dark, cold, lifeless regions of regret, loneliness, and shame–in order to reach the light on the other side. This is the kind of journey that scares the best of us away, but maybe because Osenga is holding a guitar while wearing a spacesuit, we’re willing to let our curiosity get the better of us and go along for the ride.
Whimsical and poignant, the story begins with Leonard saying goodbye to everyone he knows: “…but I’ll make some new friends, maybe with their grandkids…” And then we are gently sent into the stratosphere with this beautiful image as Leonard addresses the memory of his wife:
I keep thinking of that painting
of the sisters at the piano
that brought a tear to your eye
babe, today, I was a brushstroke
on the canvas of a perfect blue sky
(Can I gush for a moment and say that this kind of lyric is what I love about Andy’s writing? Wow.)
It’s not long before Leonard discovers that the ghosts from the past he’d hoped to leave behind have actually stowed away on his little ship. With no place left to hide from his history or himself, a conversation begins. It starts with an important part of the healing: anger.
I loved once
I gave who I was and ended up bloody,
all that it showed me
was that I’d always be lonely
–“The Only Man In The World”
tell your father he was right
I wasn’t worth your time
I guess I just didn’t try
I was scared, I don’t know why
–“Out Of Time”
We’re all born with a wound–whether it’s loneliness, restlessness, or some unnamed sadness. But the wound becomes deadly when we blame others for it, as though our own pain is someone else’s fault. As long as we do this, there is little chance of finding healing for it.
With his anger spent and nobody around to blame, Leonard faces his own pain, looks into his heart, and begins to see things that he was blind to before. The focus turns inward as clarity and conviction comes:
I don’t know a lot but that never stopped my mouth
a soapbox full of injured pride
she had the confidence and grace to hear me out…
–“Ever And Always”
If I had to work late
I tried to take you out
it didn’t make it better
suddenly it hit me
like when we said “I need you”
it didn’t sound right
we were hurt and confused
fragile as the breath of a candle
staring in silence at the tower of Babel
–“Tower of Babel”
Forgiveness is a gift that we are graced to participate in. When we forgive others and the fist of our heart releases and finally opens, it’s easier to see the brokenness we were holding onto so tightly. We heal as we forgive and find we are also set free to seek forgiveness:
I was a madman, drunk with desire
you were a lifeboat, I was on fire
now that it’s over
the damage is seen
all I can say is
would you forgive me?
if ever you find it again, boy
give her room to learn to love you
and maybe she’ll stay
–“Hold On Boy”
Leonard’s transformation continues as his pain leads him deeper into his own story where he faces crippling wounds inflicted by family, misguided religious idealism, and even his own self-reliance. It all rises to the surface to be named and healed.
I was the firstborn son of a firstborn son
in the wake of family tragedy
We prayed each night to the risen God
for our loved ones health and safety
then we locked the doors and windows up
so there was no danger and we were not free
God, help the man who helps himself
he needs no other devil
give us courage now to say farewell
to this fear and watch it crumble
– “Firstborn Son”
As Leonard’s heart is being prepared to re-enter the human community, he’s led deeper into his loneliness until he arrives at the very beginning. The first light of the first day breaks upon my favorite moment of the record (and this stunning lyric):
Monday, there was light and dark
Wednesday, trees began to reach toward the sky
the stars and moon were new above
the birds that framed the blue that found the Friday night
Saturday, a man wiped dust off of his face
and opened up his eyes
after the weekend
he was standing at the corner
with his hands itching for pockets
he was looking for another just like him
and the heart of God broke for his creation
it was not good for man to be alone
–“It Was Not Good For Man To Be Alone”
Pain has muscle memory, and as the heart comes back to life, old wounds are felt again:
We had a thousand choices every day
to stay closed or give ourselves away
and love just kept losing
–“Never Said Goodbye”
It suddenly struck me, dear
sitting bored on the last frontier
it was you, it was always, only you
but when everything got so rough
I was a coward and just shut off
only God can hold what’s dead and make it new
(here in the silence)
I hear a whisper
(here in the darkness)
I glimpsed a light
(here in the emptiness)
I feel the beat of my heart again
–“Beat of My Heart”
Leonard Belle is learning to dream again and be led by his desire. But he’s also wiser as he returns to planet earth and prepares to re-enter his life both figuratively and literally. He understands that the root of our deepest grief (and the destroyer of every relationship) is always idolatry:
She was a goddess, a beautiful Athena
I bowed and I vowed nothing would come between us
but she fell off my pedestal
she was human after all
so I got angry and silent
that’s why she left I know
The album closes with the anthem of a new man who has found the gift of his heart again, though he’s aware that his newfound peace will be tested. Will he hold onto his healing or will gravity pull him down into his old wounds again? He is sober-minded, and yet free to hope:
Brace for the splashdown
the grip of gravity and age
we’re going to find out
if anything can really change
ready or not, baby, I’m a shooting star
here I come now, baby, I’m a shooting star
Leonard is as much a musical accomplishment as it is a lyrical and conceptual one. Osenga somehow manages to capture the aesthetic of a garage guitar band that at once sounds like an artifact from the great pop/rock records of the 70’s and 80’s and yet sounds wholly modern, too. It feels like the kind of record that a guy named Leonard would make if left alone on a space ship for a good long time. And that’s a good thing.
I stand in amazement of Osenga’s accomplishment, and I often find myself shaking my head with either a big grin or tears as I listen–sometimes both at once. I would stack the writing of this record against any of my all time favorites, but the greater accomplishment in my mind is the fact that this is a record of healing and will do much in those who will let it in to do it’s work.
Here at the end I think of Henri Nouwen who tells us that the role of the spiritual leader is to go first into the dark to help show the rest of us the way through. In this work, Andrew Osenga is a brave and generous leader who takes us into the darkness of our own sin and loneliness–a consuming black hole that can swallow our whole lives-–to chart a way through to the healing on the other side.
And did I mention that he built a spaceship?!