I’ll have to admit, when I first loaded up her new album it didn’t touch me. I flipped through a few of the first few songs on the disc and immediately thought,”Oh crud! What have I gotten myself into? I have to review this?!” I’ve recently been on a kick of listening to Damien Rice and Glen Hansard, two artists who pour their souls into their music in a vivid and sometimes accosting manner. If you are familiar with Carrie Newcomer and her music, the the contrast between these artists will likely already be apparent.
It was not until I printed out Newcomer’s lyrics that I took the time to pause and consider the beauty of her art. Her album could not have hit me at a better time; life is running at a hectic pace, I can barely keep up, and I approached the album with this same chaos. Fortunately, her lyrics gave me pause. I could not put it better than what her website biography states: “In a world that encourages us to move faster and think bigger, Newcomer invites the listener to slow down and reflect on the small things that make life worthwhile.”
So, at 11 p.m. I stepped out into the dark silence of the ally behind my house with lyrics, a pen, and my iPod in hand to create a space where I could begin to hear what Newcomer had to offer. Suddenly, amongst the flickering orange glow of a street lamp, the aroma of pipe smoke, and a falling Seattle mist, her beautiful folk songs came to life in my heart and soul. I jotted notes alongside her lyrics, I hummed and sang along, and I felt a peace and stillness that I had not known for a long time.
In what follows, I’ll highlight some of my reactions and notes intermingled with Newcomer’s own commentary and inspiration behind her songs.
There is a Tree
The first song on the album is prefaced in her lyrics by the following: “I dreamt that the spirit of God passed by close enough to fog the window. I’ve come to believe that mystery is as near as my front porch. There is a song at the center of all things.”
The Clean Edge of Change
Entering the depths of one’s soul involves searching both the light and the darkness within ourselves. This journey takes place in the hope of creating a space where self-knowledge allows us a “clean edge” for change. Newcomer’s lyrics beautifully describe this space: “In that clear space of knowing there’s / As many names for dark as for light, / I am choosing mostly now to speak / The names that get me through the night. / But always, with humility, / With a worn out but grateful heart. / Having sang so recently, / Full-throated in the dark.”
A Map of Shadows
Newcomer: “I am fascinated by the liminal places. This song originated as an essay describing an experience of watching the night become morning.” What a beautiful image of light entering the world as the night turns to day. The threshold between the two is indiscernible—where does the darkness end and the light begin? Only in the shadows can we see the lines clearly.
Geodes are a common type of rock formation in the land of Southern Indiana. They are considered commonplace amongst those who live there. They seem to be common brown and grey stones, yet their centers contain sparkling quartz crystals. Newcomer sings: “Some say geodes are made from pockets of tears, / Trapped away in small places for years upon years, / Pressed down and transformed, ’til the true self was born.”
Newcomer worked with Parker J. Palmer on this song (it is based upon one of his poems). It fits well within this collection of her works since it addresses the line between sound and silence. Sound, silence, light, darkness. All are difficult to explore with regard to one’s heart and soul.
Where You Been
A suddenly upbeat song on the album, “Where You Been” is a bardic telling of the folks that Newcomer has experienced in common places, markets, streets, coffee shops, etc. The people of whom she sings, though, have not been simply common, but have also truly served as prophets.
Biscuits and Butter
Newcomer: “Inspired by a short story in the book Wilderness Plots by Scott Russell Sanders, this song and story is about grief and how often women and children bear the price for unchecked ambition and acquisition.”
A Mean Kind of Justice
This song has a foreboding feel to it. Newcomer’s only commentary prior to her lyrics is a quote from Gandhi: “An eye for an eye and we all go blind.” A selection from the song: “There is a goodness on this earth / That will not die will not die. / It bears all, and seen it all, and still it survives. / I know that we have failed, / But I I’ve seen that we can fly. / There’s goodness on this earth that will not die.”
Leaves Don’t Drop, They Just Let Go
Newcomer: “All of life is letting go.” This piece tells tales of letting go of one’s family in order to make space for new growth. Leaving and cleaving from one’s parents and children to bring change.
You’d Think By Now
Newcomer again only offers a quote as insight to this revealing song: “There is a crack in everything, / That’s how the light gets in.” (Leonard Cohen). This is a song for when we fail and fall into the paths that we have traveled all too often. We have traversed these failed paths so often that we fall back into the ruts of our own footsteps. The song is haunting and leaves me with a sense of being unfinished. My only critique is that as it ended, the next song began so quickly that I had no time to sit with the silence. I ended up giving this song its own playlist so I could just be present with what it stirred within me and move on when I was ready.
One Woman and a Shovel
This song is another upbeat bardic tale of a grass roots rally to right the wrongdoings of a community through the voice of a single woman. Newcomer: “The story [is] of one passionate woman [who] was able to rally her community to right a wrong done in the name of progress and greed. It’s not too late, but the time is now.” I love the chorus of this song: “When it’s time to say enough and set things right, / The whole world is waste deep in trouble, / Never doubt or question the power of love, / Or one woman with a shovel.”
Newcomer: “The character of Lazarus has always intrigued me. We are born out of the mystery and return into mystery. While we walk this world, we live in the overlapping space between.” Musically, I think this is one of the most beautiful songs on the album. Its arrangement of voice, guitar, piano, and strings is captivating. The lyrics and tone are somewhat haunting; the song is written from Lazarus’ point of view. The song ends with this verse: “I ought to be grateful to drink from the grail / But I don’t belong on either side of this veil. / I look down at my hands that are clasped in my lap. / When He left this world I thought he’d take me back.”
Throw Me a Line
Newcomer was inspired to write this piece as an exploration of the journey from adolescence to adulthood, viewing it as a rite of passage instead of a crisis. And in this rite, Newcomer expresses the fear of change and uncertainty that are certain to exist in such a tumultuous time. The song seems to extend beyond her inspiration to reach any of us in times of doubt and fear as we cry out for help.
Don’t Push Send
This is a comical tale of the woes of e-mail. A fun, upbeat way to end the album, but it does not really leave the listener space to sit with the spiritual, emotional, and personal places that this album induces.
According to Newcomer, “songwriting is not about being clever, flashy or fancy—it is about telling a compelling story in language and music with elegance and clarity.” She does this marvelously. This collection of tracks portrays a roadmap of life, humanity, and divinity that traverses light, darkness, and the space between which one’s soul travels while exploring The Geography of Light.
Newcomer, Carrie. The Geography of Light. Philo/Umgd, B0011XFOGK. Published 2008 by Philo/Umgd.