My daughter observes that I don’t laugh enough. Sometimes she poses it as a question: “Why don’t you laugh?” Sometimes, as a wish: “I wish you would laugh more.” I recognize now that she uses this phrase to remind me I’m edging toward too quiet, too distant. But it haunts me as part of her definition of who I am.
When Hiss Golden Messenger released Lateness of Dancers in 2014, the album cemented my devotion as fan. I returned to the earlier Hiss albums and imbibed the music. I thought I had gone deep with my listening in the years since, but as is often the case, place and time and circumstance possess a powerful alchemy that can alter one’s connection to a song.
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Mid-January. Early afternoon. I’m alone in my university office. Snow covers the grass on the quad below. Heavy, gray clouds darken the sky and ice encases the bare tree branches scratching at my office window. I’m listless and longing for some between-semester direction, and I’ve had too much time to get in my own head. Staring at the frozen world outside is all I can manage to do.
The second side of Lateness of Dancers spins on my bookshelf turntable. Quiet and meditative, driven by acoustic guitar and piano, “Chapter & Verse (Ione’s Song)” begins to play. M.C. Taylor’s voice comes through a bit worn, reaching, and burdened. I’ve listened to the song dozens of times, so it requires no effort to mumble out the words, my breath laying the lightest fog over the window pane before me.
Part hymn, part lament — the song pulls me along in its slow drift and lyrical contradictions. But my gaze is unchanged, expressionless, until nearly halfway through the track when Taylor sings, “Oh, Ione, yeah your daddy’s just as dark as can be….” I feel gutted, feel sucked out into the frigid, dark air. And the extended pause in the lyrical line leaves me hanging, exposed, until Taylor comes back, tenderly, with, “But I can be your little rainbow too.” In the window, my half-reflection gazes back and I recognize myself.
The guitar strumming grows harder, and the song plays out its final minutes of recorded life repeating, “It’s a long time.” I lift the needle and slip on my winter gear, lock up my office. I’ll be at the top of the school steps when my daughter comes out of her 4th-grade class. I’ll find a way to laugh in this dark season as we walk home because I’ve got that capability inside me, even if I sometimes forget.
In the right moment, a couple of lines in a song can save us from ourselves for even part of a day. There’s a revelatory effect in encountering your own image set apart and illuminated in a work of art. We’re not always good at seeing and acknowledging our dichotomous nature. Sometimes we need a darker song to bring us to a lighter place, to remind us who we can be again.
(Song recommendation by Andrew Jones)