“I feel like if God had some sort of way of speaking, it would be through music”
-Ari Picker (songwriter for Lost In The Trees)
Even under the most tragic of circumstances many understand death as a beginning–a beginning that is shrouded in mystery, possibility, and beauty. It can be an invitation to wonder for those who possess a less than nihilistic outlook on life. Ari Picker, the lead songwriter of the North Carolina pop-orchestral group Lost in the Trees, is one of those people. I have no idea which (if any) specific religious tradition he claims as his own, but his latest musical offering is ripe with the conviction that there is more to life than what humans normally experience. The recent suicide of his mother provided the impetus for their new album A Church That Fits Our Needs. She took her own life soon after attending his wedding in 2009. Given this fact, I was surprised by the lack of despair the music conveys.
For an album about death, it is surprisingly more ripe with astonishment than macabre. The contours of the soundscape are wide-eyed, pairing understated vocals with forward momentum and orchestration. The melodies both surprise and refuse to be predictable. On my second listen I was grabbed by the wandering (yet peaceful) resolve that Ari communicates through a mix of frail vocals, lush strings, and an undercurrent of percussion. A Church That Fits Our Needs bursts with the same melodic interplay that makes Radiohead extraordinary. “Tall Ceilings” is an example of a tune that echoes a Radiohead ascetic (minus bleeping electronic elements). In this case, the melodies appropriately feel as if they are searching for a bright resolution. This continues through the whimsical play of the strings in “Golden Eyelids” to the ethereal background vocals on “This Dead Bird Is Beautiful”. The acoustic leanings of a sensitive singer-songwriter become vaulted in the context of the accompanying strings and choir of background vocals. Unique stuff that is part of the expanding “post-minimal” movement combining elements of pop and classical. These mixed elements are particularly strong on the track “Garden” on which the wandering movement of the strings and percussion hit a crescendo. “The Dead Bird is Beautiful” is the most heartbreaking and cathartic track. The minimal instrumentation builds to a crescendo floating operatic cries that haunt as they heal.
As previously mentioned, many of the pieces are not full of the tension and grief one might expect from an album inspired by the suicide of a loved one. There is more distance than denial, more contemplation and release than brooding sadness. I find this intriguing. Ari has said that he, “…can’t really satisfy (himself) just thinking that she went to heaven.” By and large, we do live in a culture that has no imagination for any such thing. The church has often lacked this imagination as well. Both have, more often than not, indoctrinated us with an understanding of a heaven populated by harps and angels. I dare say, most of us are left unsatisfied by explanations of the realms words cannot express. There is a hint of something more satisfying in Ari’s attempt to express these mysteries between the notes. It seems to me that he is on the verge of imagining resurrection. Not a purely spiritual one, but a bodily one. A truly Christian-type hope that believes in whole persons rising from the dead to fulfill the life they were created for. A longing for fullness that exists only after death. From death to beauty and freedom.
At its best pop music can contribute to culture and conversations by begging such questions and realizing its inability as a medium to provide thorough or satisfying answers. At its worst it can seduce the masses into shallow feeling, distraction, and despair. This kind of album is an example of the best kind. My guess is that this release will be overlooked by most because of its blatant contemplation of death and the assumption of an afterlife. And I am sure there will be conflicting opinions among critics about whether or not this album is too therapeutic, but great art is usually extremely “personal” and “universal”. This is that. On one level it may lack some of the grit and hook of a classic album, but it still does a fabulous job of begging the questions of deepest meaning. It imagines a life bigger and beyond the cesspools we live in, but it also speaks to the beauty in everyday existence. It is a hopeful reminder that pop music has the power and relevance to comment on ultimate things in a meaningful way. I needed reminding of this. Ari and friends seem convinced that death is more about the possibility of slipping into a new story than ceasing to be.