Listening to Brooke Fraser’s music is like listening to a masterfully written book. The author knows how to engage the senses of the audience that they may see, taste, and feel what is being described. Just about every song I’ve ever heard by Brooke is flowing with imagery, symbolism, and hidden meaning that might not reveal itself until the 20th time that I’ve listened to the song.
Listening to Brooke’s music is a journey because you will never hear the same thing twice. Just check out her first album, What to do with Daylight. Listening to that album is like hearing the same singer on a set of different songs while you flip through the radio. The album is impossible to categorize because it transitions from pop to reggae to RnB seamlessly.
There are many details about Brooke’s songwriting that stand out. For me, those qualities are the instrumental production (how the instruments and voices play their parts and are recorded) and the lyrics.
Let’s start with the instruments: If you have ever aspired to play an instrument, sing, write songs, or become a music producer, you will find a worthy challenge and inspiration in this music. There are so many musical ‘moments’ throughout these songs that make seasoned musicians go “mmm” and wrinkle their face as though savoring a sophisticated hors d’oeuvre at a party where people wear monocles and handle-bar mustaches. Yet this musical intelligence is accessible; no degrees, special vocabulary, or monocles required (though a handle-bar mustache is helpful in every context). I may listen to a song and conclude only that I “like the guitar part,” while a group of fancy-pants music students might describe their love for the “harmonic and stylistic interpretation by the guitarist,” but we’re both describing the same thing. Their is something for everybody here.
Lyrically, there is some serious stuff being written here and it is best to come prepared. You will not be given a gift-wrapped box labeled “contents: the meaning of this song.” Rather, you will be shown the musical equivalent of a complex “Eye Spy” picture book (remember those?) that initially seems to be an artistic collage and nothing more. Yet with further study and examination, certain patterns or anomalies begin to stand out that direct your attention to other details you previously overlooked and soon the beautiful collage becomes only the framework for a deeper story and meaning. You may find that certain lyrics will get stuck with you for days, turning them over and over in your head, coming up with a list of possible interpretations. I love this kind of stuff. After all, that’s what this blog is all about.
Now, what about the song posted on this page? Albertine. This song contains all of the elements described above: rich instrumentation, production, and lyrics. Yet as sweeping and beautiful as this artist’s music is, this particular song makes me a little uncomfortable. The deep, rhythmic guitar and percussion play like the soundtrack to a solemn ritual, commanding your attention. Listen to the song a few times and you will start to get a sense of it’s context:
On a thousandth hill, I think of Albertine
There in her eyes what I don’t see with my own
Now that I have seen, I am responsible
Faith without deeds is dead
My goodness. Regardless of how familiar you may be with the genocide, you may be wondering (like me), “What did you see? What are you responsible for?” If you look up any interviews with Brooke about this very song, you may hear her describe how Albertine is a real person that she met when she travelled to Rwanda. The story is true.
The thing about this song that makes me uncomfortable are the phrases “Now that I have seen, I am responsible” and “faith without deeds is dead.” These aren’t thoughts that I like to dwell on. But look at it this way: Brooke is writing about a real person. We are not told much about her in the song itself but, given the context, it is likely that her world has been terrorized by forces beyond her control. Being in the presence of such oppression naturally evokes a response from the viewer. I believe this song is part of Brooke’s response. She wanted to do something, maybe the best thing she could do was to write a song about it and share it with others:
…I am on a stage, a thousand eyes on me
I will tell them, Albertine.
I will tell them, Albertine.
Brooke did not set out to right the wrongs of an entire nation. She did something practical. She chose not to be numb to the pain of another and then she told someone about it: us. And she told it in the best way she knows how: through music. Like we talked about last week with Eric Bibb, sometimes it’s the small things that pave the way for a major impact. What happens when millions of people (or “a thousand eyes”) hears this story and it spreads like a fire following a trail of parched vines? Do you think it will be easier for someone to see the struggles and pain in the lives of their neighbors? Do you think it will be easier for that someone to recognize how their gifts, talents, and personality fit like a puzzle piece into the void of that neighbor’s need? Do you think it will be easier for that someone to do something about it? I do.
I think we are far more equipped to change the world than we think we are. We’ve all been loved by somebody, we all know how to love somebody, and we’re all gifted at something through which to express that love. It will make the difference.
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” – Frederick Buechner
What is your deep gladness?