Love songs

So, there are salvific themes in songs of protest. In Tillich's terms, these songs express a moral faith, a faith that the holy enters the world through acts of justice and human kindness. Love songs, too, are sometimes infused with more hope for salvation than first meets the eye. True, at one level, all love songs are about salvation - we place much stock in having love returned by the human object of our affections. We can turn any person into an ultimate concern and torture them with the expectations that accompany that level of devotion. But some love songs probe this longing in a way that transcends human love; some love songs recognize the beloved as a symbol of divine love. And the self-transcendence that can arise instinctively in the affections we feel for those we love is credible rehearsal for the self-transcendence that is characteristic of genuine religious faith. The Song of Songs in the Bible has long served as a prototype authorizing a use of love poems as allegories for the love for God, allowing the imagination to move from vivid depictions of the charms of the beloved toward the experience of surrender to the overwhelming love of the divine. In the New Testament, Paul spoke of the church as the bride of Christ, a bride longing for the return of her beloved. Even the drive for sexual union has inspired in religiously sensitive poets ample material for picturing the beatitude of seeing God face to face, of losing oneself in the eros of divine plenitude. This moves into what Tillich described as ontological faith - the faith that the holy enters the world through expressions of beauty.

Nick Cave is a virtuoso in this kind of gingerly, double-decked handling of the love song. With his band, The Bad Seeds, he has circled around the ploys, satisfactions and disillusionments of human love as tokens of the elusive love (and wrath) of God. In a song from the recent CD, Boatman's Call, he sings:

I've felt you coming, girl, as you drew near...

Are you my destiny? Is this how you'll appear?...

Are you the one that I've been waiting for?...

As you've been moving surely toward me

My soul has comforted and assured me ...

All down my veins my heart-strings call,

Are you the one that I've been waiting for.24

These lyrics are thick with the theme of advent, of the irresistible approach of someone unknown but long awaited, one who has long been an anticipated source of comfort and consolation. Like Dylan's song, "Shelter from the Storm" ("If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born./'Come in,' she said, 'I'll give you shelter from the storm.' "),25 love songs can stress the desire for the beloved as a symbol full of anticipation for communion with God. They can haunt us in religiously productive ways, testifying to the joys and satisfactions that will be realized in that ultimate union.

Cave is deliberate about the sacramental quality of his love songs. In an address he originally gave at the Vienna Poetry Festival in 1998, "The Secret Life of the Love Song," and later released as a studio recording that is punctuated with his own love songs, Cave proposed that:

Though the love song comes in many guises - songs of exultation and praise, songs of rage and of despair, erotic songs, songs of abandonment and loss - they all address God, for it is the haunted premise of longing that the true love song inhabits. It is a howl in the void for love and for comfort It is the song of the lover in need of her loved one, the raving of the lunatic supplicant petitioning his God. It is the cry of one chained to the earth and craving flight; a flight into inspiration and imagination and divinity.

Love songs, he goes on, are typically sad, indeed they are the very "noise of sorrow itself," because they are bred in that region of the soul where the yearning to be "transported from darkness into light, to be touched by the hand of that which is not of this world," finds its efforts unrequited. Love songs are written out of a "divine discontent," out of a longing sadness that will persist until and unless one finally sees the face of God. And this is the condition of life - to live in the prelude of this consummation. The erotic is a prefiguration of beatitude. The loves of this life are anticipatory of entering the fullness of God. Moses was told that no one sees the face of God and lives; and so, Cave concedes, he will be happy to be sad in the meantime, accompanied by the small consolations of human love and songs about it, including his own songs, his "crooked brood of sad-eyed children."26

In a poignant song called "Bring It On," written after his recent marriage, Cave presses his allegorical skills beyond his earlier themes of sadness and longing to probe the meaning of covenant and fidelity. Conjuring the image of a garden, an image that resonates with both the primal landscape of paradise, where Adam and Eve cavorted and communed with God and nature, and the enclosure where Solomon and his bride, in the Song of Songs, withdrew from the world to join together and be "drunk with love," Cave sings:

This garden that I built for you That you sit in now and yearn I will never leave it, dear I could not bear to return And find it all untended With the trees all bended low This garden is our home, dear And I got nowhere else to go.

The longing of his earlier lyrics has been subdued, and he uses the respite to contemplate an alternative to constant yearning, redirecting it into the cultivation of this garden he has built and now intends to maintain. He comforts his beloved with the chorus:

So bring it on Bring it on Every little tear Bring it on Every useless fear Bring it on

All your shattered dreams.27

This promise of fidelity, of a vow to be observed, is another mode of divine love that human beings have been invited to practice, in imitation of the love of God for Israel, and captureable in the love song. It is a stubborn and steadfast love, tender and enduring. It is not without its own sadness, but settles into a rhythm of disaffection and affection, a rhythm of departure and return that will not be broken.

Van Morrison is another prolific writer of love songs in this mode. His couplet "It's All in the Game/You Know What They're Writing About" is a masterpiece of the genre. The song begins with a plaintive viola weaving in and out of a rhythm and blues piano with steady but soft percussion in the background. Morrison begins singing in a sympathetic voice, "Many a tear has to fall," and proceeds to comment on a lovers' quarrel, "You had words with him/And your future's looking dim," but he consoles, "these things your heart can rise above." The viola continues its sad lament, as the piano meets it with some moderately uplifting chord sequences, tingling like a palpitating heart. The lyric resumes, at points barely rising above a whisper:

It's a thing called love down through the ages

Makes you wanna cry sometimes

Makes you want wanna lay down and die sometimes

Makes you high sometimes

But when you really get in it lifts you right up

Then, joined by a horn section pushing the energy up, Morrison launches into one of his trademark controlled stutters - "You know, you know, you know what they're talkin' about/You you you you you you you you you you... /It's a thang, it's a thang, ain't it a wonderful thang/A wonderful, marvelous game" - and then as if stuttered to the point of inarticulateness, he surrenders, "And when there's no more words to say about love I go," at which point he reaches down in his gut and retrieves one of his long, oscillating sean-nos drones, his body a fleshy bagpipe, until his lungs give out. And for the next several minutes he chants: "Meet me down by the river... meet me down by the water ... meet me down by the pylons," and, finally, he whispers, hollers, moans and coos: "I want you to meet me, meet me, are you there, are you, are you there? Know, know, know, know, know, I want you to meet me, are you there?" which he repeats ad nauseum.28

With every shade of brokenheartedness dislodged and swirling about, the song rises to a summit of yearning for a reunion of the separated, but it ends both lyrically and musically unresolved, the final strokes of the viola hesitant to surrender to the invitation. It is a sad song, "the noise of sorrow itself," as Nick Cave might describe it, but redolent with the longing to be transported from dark loneliness into a great, consoling embrace. It creates in music a sanctum that is filled with the air of forgiveness and a standing invitation to enter its gates.

Not all love songs rise to this level. In fact, most don't. But even in more routine songs about love, there can be a haunting sense that the immediate object of one's desire or affections is a proxy for the divine beloved, for God's own beautiful countenance, and that the rewards and sometimes grueling work of human love trains us for the community of love for which God intended creation and for communion with the divine itself. In truth, love songs are more likely to be driven by concupiscence - that inordinate, inextinguishable engine of desire within us that has lost its way - but, as Augustine, the great diagnostician of concupiscence, so perceptively understood, lurking in the background of concupiscence is a faulty memory that dimly knows it will be sated by nothing short of beholding God. As St Bonaventura would later describe it, "in God alone is the original and true delight, and we are led back to seeking it in all other delights."29

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