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For the Love of Layered Things

First—before you read any further—do yourself the mighty favor of watching this video of “Holemabier,” a new song composed, arranged and deftly performed by The Arcadian Wild. You’re welcome.


Once you’ve taken that three-and-a-half-minute joyride, come back to read this essay which is a sort of ode to such examples of beautifully-layered art and the folks who make it, and also a celebration of The Arcadian Wild in particular as they close in on the crowdfunding goal to record their new studio project.

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I love layered things, because I love the feeling of entering a work of art off-balance, wondering what strange new world I’ve landed in, what the rules are, what the history of the place is. I delight in the search for some fixed reference point of familiarity that I might latch on to in order to be oriented to this new experience. I love finding that there is indeed such a starting point, that the structure is firm, and that the world is well-made and riddled with real meaning, though it might still be a foreign land to me where I have yet to learn the language and customs.


Far too many of the stories our culture tells today are only thin veneers of such mystery, forms that initially dangle the bait of some transcendent element, some beckoning wonder. Such stories are long on ambience but short on any satisfying depth. They fall apart by the third act. Once your eyes focus beyond the surface reflection, you realize the pool is only an inch deep. What you thought you were about to plunge headfirst into turns out to be something you can’t even satisfactorily wade through.


All the more reason that I love well-layered things when I find them. I love poetry layered with more meaning than I can tease out in a lifetime. I love the sense that a work of art can tutor me over months or years or decades, slowly increasing my understanding of and appreciation for truth, for beauty, and for the genius of the crafting. I love creations that offer the promise that however deep I choose to dig, the creator has dug still deeper, burying treasures at every level that I might have the delight of uncovering them. I love paintings that offer that. And novels. And movies. And music. And the essays of C.S. Lewis who was so gifted at dressing a complex point of theology in the skin of a poetically-fitting analogy, and in so doing opened doorways for the average layperson to enter a new world of ideas that would deepen as their spiritual understanding matured.


I love expressions like Lewis’s that give me something I can immediately latch onto and love, even while inviting me into a long journey that will allow me to one day love that same thing more fully and with greater understanding. I think it parallels the process of falling in love with a person, and then marrying them so that you might be in daily relationship, learning to love them more even as you learn to know them more, even as the wonderful mystery of them deepens rather than decreases in that knowing.


As a lyricist with almost no musical literacy, I discovered soon enough that the talented musicians I was working with were often wowed by songs that left me indifferent. In time I realized this was most often because they had gone so deep into the mysteries of musical expression that their ears were tuned to slight nuances and to the deeper stories that melodies and harmonies and countermelodies and various intricacies of rhythm and unexpected chord choices could tell. They were prodigiously fluent in a language of musicianship and music theory and even of audio production that I was sadly ignorant of.

While their music is often unpredictable, it's seldom unfamiliar. The compositions are warm and human in ways that children can appreciate, but beneath that hospitable exterior, the musical complexity is a world waiting exploration. Doug McKelvey

But the lack of connection wasn’t always entirely my fault. Sometimes there really was something missing from the DNA of a song. Sometimes a song simply failed the “C.S. Lewis test.” A track might boast legitimately stunning performances for those musicians savvy enough to fully appreciate their technical virtuosity, while yet offering no real point of entry for the average person. No handshake. No welcome. It was like an elaborate assembly of gears that no one had bothered to fix the watch face to. Intricate and skillfully made? Yes. A curiosity? Sure. Missing something? Seems like it. Meaningful or useful to those of us who are not expert watchmakers? Not really. Not as much as it could be, anyway.

Which is again why I love layered things.


Because I actually do want all those complex gears to be in there, whizzing and whirring whether I ever learn to see and appreciate their intricacies or not. If I start poking around in the guts of the thing, I want to be assured the mystery will only deepen, rather than being easily resolved. But a creation that offers only complexity is still lacking something essential. Great art, by contrast, has the power to engage us and to move us on a human level, even when (maybe especially when) we aren’t capable of fully understanding and appreciating why it is as brilliant or as moving as it is.


Which brings me back to the music of this dangerously-named band The Arcadian Wild. Obviously they’re gifted musicians. Isaac and Lincoln probably already had a better understanding of music theory in junior high than most of us will ever have. I’ve wondered whether other Nashville artists might sometimes feel a twinge of insecurity watching them perform, what with their complex interplay of instrumental phrasings and their intricate vocal harmonies layered three-deep. They have a knack for making difficult pieces seem effortless. So much so that those internal weights and gears that are clicking and twirling endlessly in their music are sliding right past most of us unnoticed, I suspect.


But you don’t have to be able to appreciate the complexity of their arrangements to appreciate the beauty of their songs. While their music is often unpredictable, it’s seldom unfamiliar. The compositions are warm and human in ways that children can appreciate, but beneath that hospitable exterior, the musical complexity is a world waiting exploration. The layers go down a long, long way. If you choose to dive in, you won’t risk hitting your head on the bottom of that particular pool is what I’m saying.


And yes, some accusations of bias or nepotism would be appropriate at this point, as my middlest daughter Ella has been married to The Arcadian Wild guitarist and vocalist Isaac Horn for the last year-and-a-half. But truth is, I was excited about The Arcadian Wild before the two of them ever started dating, before I ever met Isaac. One live show in Nashville had been enough to win me over. Then once I saw them back up Andrew Peterson at a book release event, the deal was done. I was sold. That’s still the most moving arrangement of “In the Night (My Hope Lives On)” I’ve ever heard. [Seriously, when is that tour going to happen?]


Once Ella and Isaac were married though, I was privileged with more penetrating glimpses into the band’s creative process. Mostly, what struck me was the level of dedication to the craft. The newlyweds lived with us for a couple months, and when I would stumble out of my bedroom in the morning to pull my first cup of espresso, Isaac would already be sitting in the kitchen, arranging a song on his laptop, oblivious to anything else around him. A couple hours later he would head off to several hours of band practice. When he returned home and I asked what they had worked on the answer might be something like “We spent six hours working out the guitar and mandolin parts for a twelve second instrumental section of this new song.”


Who does that? Who willingly creates in that sort of upside-down economy, lavishing so much care into such a small space?


But don’t you just love that they do? That they pack that much artistry and concern into a couple of measures?


It goes a long way toward explaining what you saw in the “Holemabier” video, right?


The thing about The Arcadian Wild is that while they might be musician’s musicians and arranger’s arrangers, they never let that get in the way of hospitality. Their songs—for all their technical brilliance—still beckon listeners in, welcoming like a warm hearth fire on a crisp night. In the midst of intricate arrangements they don’t lose the humanity and the poetry and the rooted reasons for why they’re doing what they’re doing in the first place. They’re still writing as a way to connect to other human beings.

At a certain point during his stay here I told Isaac: “The Arcadian Wild are kind of like the C. S. Lewis of folk music. Because you are taking these ridiculously complex musical ideas, and you’re integrating them into songs that the average person can appreciate the first time they hear them. You make the complex seem simple, and then once people step into that, the musical complexity expands around them.”


I love layered things and I love the artists who make them because I love how those things shape me and shape the community I’m a part of. We so deeply need songwriters like The Arcadian Wild amongst us. And clay-slingers like Eddy Efaw. And painters like Jamin Still and Kyra Hinton. And dramaturges like Pete Peterson. And illustrators like Joe Sutphin and John Hendrix. And leatherworkers like the Growley folks. And novelists like Jonathan Rogers and Leif Enger. And theologians like David Taylor and Heidi Johnston. We all need those influences who give of themselves by diving deep into their disciplines and who lean into their crafts in ways that elevate all of us, moving us forward as a community, expanding our vision, articulating our purpose and our longings, and so making all of us better at what we do and better-equipped for the journey ahead.

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