I’ve never ridden a tandem bicycle. I imagine it takes a measure of coordination and balance I simply don’t possess. More than that, however, I imagine it requires an intimate understanding of your pedaling partner—an understanding of their tendencies, knee-jerk reactions, rhythms, strengths, weaknesses, and on and on. I can only name a handful of people with whom I share this understanding; I imagine you’d say the same. And yet, we’re called in this life to much more daunting, collaborative endeavors than a bike ride.
On Tandem, the most recent release from Waterdeep, husband and wife duo Don and Lori Chaffer explore these endeavors—both through personal and societal relationships—with tender care and grace. And they do it without any of the cheesy bike metaphors I employed in the first paragraph. Now 25 years into their career, the Chaffers sound perfectly in sync. Lori’s voice soars like the Söderberg sisters (First Aid Kit) or Florence Welch (Florence & the Machine); Don remains steadily grounded, like a livelier Sam Beam (Iron & Wine); and their beautiful harmony is bolstered by a marriage of acoustic guitar propulsions and angelic string and vocal layers.
Everything about this album lyrically and musically calls out for unity, for things to be on earth as they are in heaven. But don’t expect any “We Are the World” or “Kumbaya” moments here. Throughout Tandem’s tracklist, the Chaffers see unity as a battle to be won through one-on-one relationships, not grand, utopian statements.
Their lyrics are both personal and ambiguous, often written to a “you” which could be someone very specific to them, or it could be me, the listener. This songwriting approach allows us to experience the music in two ways—both from the point of view of the addresser and the addressee. Take, for example, mid-album song “We Made It Out.” Here, Lori reminisces on a childhood friendship set adrift. “I went holy roller and you went wild,” she recalls, and yet, she recognizes that despite any differences, “we made it out.” I’ll admit, my tendency is to identify with either the holy roller or the wild child, not both, but the grace with which each of the song’s characters is treated requires us to see ourselves in both walks of life, to find the commonalities with our neighbor rather than dividing lines.
On the album’s opening song, “Know Your Name,” we’re again encouraged to dig deeper than surface-level social titles and fight for intimate relationships. The opening verse calls these ostracizing categorizations by name: “You’re a cardboard sign / You’re the back of the line / You’re a bratty little kid / You’re ‘everybody knows what your mama did.’” However, when the hopeful chorus comes in, the lines “They don’t even know your name / You know you’re a burning flame” remind us that social labels are irrelevant. We are, each of us, called to be neighbors, united in mind and thought and sowing God’s kingdom rather than human competition.
Yet, especially in our Western context, competition is the name of the game. The idea of scarcity turns our interests inward, even when we have everything we need to find contentment. On “Over the Snow,” Waterdeep reminds us of our fallen nature, confessing, “There is nothing we don’t want / We may want for nothing / But there’s always something / Always something we will hunt.” In this context, Christ asks us to rebel against our self-preserving desires and open our tables and storerooms to one another. “Yet with more or with less / We make everyone our guest,” the Chaffers sing on the gorgeous “Blessing.”
Everything about this album lyrically and musically calls out for unity, for things to be on earth as they are in heaven. Chris Thiessen
This, it seems, is the Chaffers’ key encouragement for living in tandem with our neighbor and for loving one another as Christ loves us and offers his invitation freely. I admit, in recent months I’ve bought into “Us vs. Thems” and have failed to extend grace in divisive moments (we’ve experienced a lot of those lately, haven’t we?). Waterdeep has offered me an important reminder in Tandem that a hospitable heart opens closed doors, and a “gentle answer turns away wrath.” Sure, there are things in this world that are scarce. But the most central thing which unites us—the freedom of Christ’s hope and salvation—knows no bounds. There is room for every person at the table, and this gift casts a blinding beam across every shadow line seeking to set us apart.
Even so, embracing this unifying reality (like riding a tandem bicycle) may not be as easy as a walk in the park. It requires patience, care, and communication to overcome the falls and skinned knees both riders will inevitably endure (especially with someone as clumsy as me). I want to believe, however, that the struggle will only deepen our devotion to each other and collapse every barrier seeking to separate us.