The Lyrics of The Innocence Mission

The Innocence Mission

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I can’t remember which philosopher observed that life is a series of back and forth movements, from positions of risk to positions of relative safety. This is true not only on an hour-to-hour level—driving a car, then sleeping in a cozy bed—but in a larger sense. We go on life journeys, personal odysseys, and return home to regroup. In this way, we grow, we become wiser; as T.S. Eliot said, we “arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” The Innocence Mission is a band for the home half of the cycle.

In the summer of 1995, after working and going to school in Manhattan for two years, my wife and I moved back to St. Louis—my hometown. I was entering the seminary. Life seemed to stop in its tracks, because we had been moving, bustling, trying, stretching, accommodating, and now we were back on familiar ground with a stack of theology textbooks and a course schedule card. We lived with two cats in a carpeted apartment. On Sunday afternoon you might hear the dryer clicking, and occasionally the bells at St. Roch would chime. Nothing else.

For me, it was the perfect season of life in which to discover The Innocence Mission’s Glow—Karen Peris’ shimmering vocals describing, in lucid fragments, what it means to live at home among family and friends. “Hearing your voice in the blue light, / calming people in the house, / traveling upstairs — / good to be there / now, right now,” begins the first song on the album, “Keeping Awake.” It goes on to describe voices floating around the house, plans being made to go on a picnic, a sister running into her room. The speaker seems to be moving in and out of a dream-state as she says, “Oh I’m near to sleeping, I’m keeping awake … // In the house / In the heart of paper vines.”

“Bright as Yellow,” explores the integral role of personal relationship to the joy of being at home. “And you live life with your arms reached out. / Eye to eye when speaking. / Enter rooms with great joy shouts, / happy to be meeting.” The speaker wants to be bright and warm, not thorny or ostentatious. But in these lyrics you can see that Peris’ lyrical style is quite abstract. She takes the joy of home out of its comfortable narrative, casting it instead in small shiny phrases, the kinds of words that might run through your head when you’re drifting off … nearly napping.

“Brave” brings a twist; there’s trouble. Of course, we don’t know exactly what it is, but we have hints. “You cry up in your room,” she says. “You see how I go to pieces … // And I always go to pieces. /And I have it in my mind / that the sky is tall and heavy, / when I could be / brave, / brave.” The poet I think of when I hear the sky described as “tall and heavy” is 19th-century French symbolist Arthur Rimbaud. He sees the world as a collection of concrete objects, shifting and regrouping; in his poetry, feelings and ideas become things.

Later that fall, I sold my hip urban Volkswagen Golf and bought a 1984 Chevrolet Caprice station wagon. Talk about a comfortable ride—it had cushy, velvety bench seats and the crappiest tape deck imaginable, with big plastic knobs. It had this smell that only GM cars have. I began to realize The Innocence Mission and my new Chevy complimented one another. There was something about cranking up that old V8 engine, lowering the power window in the tailgate, and steering the car quietly down the street—crunching leaves and twigs under massive squishy tires—that felt like home. The car symbolized pure emotion.

Home is about people, the shapes of people, their eyes, their expressions, cast in deep psychological memory. “Cars and trees go by me,” Peris writes in “Happy, The End”; “You are in the yard, / and in my arms again.” The very next track, “Our Harry,” begins: “We will squint into the sun, / waving madly at the camera, / Harry standing in the front. / And I will be sitting on his shoulders.” Later, in “Everything’s Different Now,” Peris returns to earlier imagery—“Now we’re in the yard. / Aunt Mary’s car is coming, coming. / And all of our plans / are giants in this light, / now that we’re coming away.” You can see that, even to Peris, the car is a kind of emotional object. People, cars, yards lights, and plans constellate around one another. From song to song, they break up, move and reconnect in different patterns.

But how does a sense of home persist when everything’s different now? “Everything’s changed,” she tells us; “Everything, even the sun.” This, I think, is what Eliot is referring to in the lines quoted above. We know the place for the first time, partly because our travels have changed us, but also partly because the place itself has changed. Peris is right: everything changes. This would be immensely sad if not for powerful moments of grace throughout the poetry of Glow. Even in the first track she tells us, “My room is held in someone’s arms, / my bed is held in someone’s arms. / I am—I’m held now.” In the last, she renews this idea with another symbol:

Say about iron bridges.

They rattle, they rattle but never give way;

And this boy who is leaving his home,

Who is reaching out, says:

Yes I’m sure about some things.

When I will be driving away

I will not be alone there.

The hope expressed in Glow is one that transcends the cycle of risk and comfort, travel and return. It is a hope that, no matter where you go, you are “held in someone’s arms.”

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