Caught by the Art

Jay Nordlinger brought up another familiar name in his review of a joint concert of classical violinist Hilary Hahn and folkish singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, to whose album The Animal Years a friend and coworker directed my attention a couple of years ago. Jay had a reaction similar to mine to the song “Thin Blue Flame,” if I attribute his description accurately:

One of Mr. Ritter’s songs was a ranty, interminable number about war and peace and capitalism and religion. I thought of late nights in a dorm room, populated by hazy undergrad sages>

As it happens, this song has often flirted with deletion from my tightly packed MP3 player precisely for being interminable and ranty. Something about it, though, has continued to intrigue me — something having to do with its meaning. To be sure, throughout most of it, with the tone set at the beginning, the lines convey an anti-religious, perhaps atheistic, message, but increasingly throughout, one gets such sentiments as “you need faith for the same reasons that it’s so hard to find” and “it’s hell to believe there ain’t a hell of a chance.” If one takes the song as a narrative, rather than an exposition of a worldview, the final paragraph transforms the meaning into a nearly Roman Catholic perspective:

I woke beneath a clear blue sky The sun a shout the breeze a sigh My old hometown and the streets I knew Were wrapped up in a royal blue I heard my friends laughing out across the fields The girls in the gloaming and the birds on the wheel The raw smell of horses and the warm smell of hay Cicadas electric in the heat of the day A run of Three Sisters and the flush of the land And the lake was a diamond in the valley’s hand The straight of the highway and the scattered out hearts They were coming together they pulling apart And angels everywhere were in my midst In the ones that I loved in the ones that I kissed I wondered what it was I’d been looking for up above Heaven is so big there ain’t no need to look up So I stopped looking for royal cities in the air Only a full house gonna have a prayer

Musically, it’s not a very good song, certainly not the best on the album. (That would be either “Wolves” or “Good Man,” amid several other contenders.) Still, there’s something compellingly artistic about its ambiguity — and something refreshing in the closing sense that its ambiguity tilts toward the side of hope and belief, rather than faithlessness and cynicism.

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