I’ll begin with something of a confession: While I enjoy lots of music, and there’s an abundance of excellent artists and well-crafted songs these days, and it’s marvelous to behold—very rarely do I hear a song or album that I wholeheartedly love, that speaks to me on a visceral level.
For What It’s Worth is that kind of rare album for me. It stopped me dead in my tracks and insisted that I listen a second, third, and fourth time. And J is celebrating the release of this album with a concert this Friday night at The Well on Granny White Pike (click this link for tickets).
J Lind’s music comes from a unique place. He says it best: “My songwriting is grounded in true stories and old ideas, few of which are my own.” Many of those true stories emerged from the time he has spent with hospice patients. He studied philosophy at Princeton, where he also served in two civic service groups—Ascend Hospice and Princeton Music Outreach—that aim to forge connections between students and hospice patients. He then kept studying philosophy at Oxford before interning at a home-based palliative care organization in New Delhi, India. All the while, he’s been writing songs that bear witness to the suffering he has encountered.
In fact, this album’s aim is to convey some of those stories in song form. And if that makes you feel a bit uneasy, I can understand that. Like, isn’t it kind of audacious to turn the stories of the sick and dying into a piece of art? Can it be done without sounding patronizing, condescending, or self-serving? Can the question of human suffering be engaged so directly without collapsing into truisms and platitudes that ultimately do a disservice to its subjects?
It turns out that it can be done exceedingly well, because J Lind has written these songs from a place of honesty and sobriety. This album asks the question of theodicy over and over again from various moments in history, each iteration of the question lending a new dimension of insight.
The album begins with “Letter to the Editor,” which approaches the question of human suffering from the relatable perspective of someone stuck in traffic. He muses:
That accident on the interstate was so bad that they closed both lanes A man was dying while I complained that the traffic wouldn’t move Soon all the cars will drive themselves Some people think it will really help— Help me complain about something else So grant me the serenity to accept what I can’t change And give me the audacity to look the other way “Letter to the Editor”
It’s hard for me to resist quoting the whole song. He moves seamlessly from this portrayal of guilt-laden cynicism to a tone of determined gratitude, clarifying what it could mean to truly love this world:
No, I don’t want to love in spite of it Like it’s just some sad mistake No, I would rather love because of it Oh, the contrast that creates All of the colors found in every twist of this kaleidoscopic fate Yes, I’d like to learn to love it anyway “Letter to the Editor”
In the second song, J Lind moves from the modern world to a far-off one, singing of a mighty king who asks his servants for an ancient ring (uh-oh—those rings are trouble) that will serve him in “both his misery and joy.” After the servants’ futile striving, a wise man fashions for them a ring with the words carved into it, “This too shall pass.” The rest of the song unfolds the wisdom to be found in this affirmation that all is transitory, as the king’s kingdom endures both wealth and want.
Before we have time to catch our breath, we’re launched into space with “The Astronaut (Part II)” for another take on hubris and the human temptation to insist that all problems can be solved with more innovation. After painting a portrait of our extravagant, ill-fated protagonist and effortlessly alluding to “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats, J Lind crash-lands us in the middle of an unknown shore for the moral of the story:
Behold the astronaut, so far from home He washed up on a shore unknown He’d build a tower out of stone, but all he sees is sand Mistaking confidence for competence He calls himself an optimist And builds until the sand is wet and running through his hands So you build your crystal palace high up in the sky The rivers of Babylon will never leave you dry And what would it take to teach a man that he can’t fly? Though you won’t triumph, you will try “The Astronaut (Part II)”
This album asks the question of theodicy over and over again from various moments in history, each iteration of the question lending a new dimension of insight. Drew Miller
Next up is the centerpiece and title track of the album—the moment where all these questions find their conceptual and emotional climax. We travel to the wilderness to observe tigers, hyenas, and jungles (hence the album cover). In the first verse of the song, J takes on the question that all Planet Earth viewers have found themselves asking at some point during a violent episode: “Wait! I thought the earth and everything in it was beautiful. So why is it that animals have to kill each other in order to survive? Is this really the way God made the world?”
The rest of the song confronts harder and harder questions about the contingency of all death-fated creatures, humans included, until it juxtaposes the suffering of impoverished children with their inexplicable laughter, drawing attention to the absurdity of such a broken universe being laced with joy:
And their song is lost to the chaos of the earth But they still lift up holy hands for what it’s worth And the people sing for the day their gods have made As the bishop bows in a foreign land to pray, “Let the Lord rain down his judgment on the earth, But I still love the heart of man, for what it’s worth” “For What It’s Worth”
With all the restraint I can muster, I will now cease my rambling so as not to spoil the way this album draws to a close. Suffice it to say that J returns to the beginning of the biblical story with his song “It Is Good” to find a landing place for his searching questions:
There’s wisdom in the garden But a serpent in the grass A just reward, a flaming sword, a flood throughout the land Till arcing ‘cross the heavens The rainbow bids you stand A voice commands, “It is good, it is good The colors, the wonders, the consequence of man Yes, it is good, it is good And I would do it all again” “It Is Good”
I’ll let that speak for itself.
One more thing: I would be remiss not to mention how masterfully these songs were arranged, recorded, produced, and mixed. Lucas Morton strikes again! (If you’re not familiar with his name, Lucas has worked on projects by Jordy Searcy, Jill Andrews, Sandra McCracken, Carly Bannister, and the list goes on and on.) The sonic landscape of this album switches seamlessly according to the setting of each song, shifting from medieval kingdom to outer space to jungle to open sea, never sacrificing a bit of cohesion.