Over the Rhine: Drunkard’s Prayer
Label: Back Porch/Virgin
Sound/Style: Sparse, emotionally rich alternative acoustic music full of subtlety and poetic sensibilities
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- Over the Rhine makes music with an Old World charm and a sense of inspired craftsmanship that evokes the European district of Cincinnati, from which the group takes its name. The band, centered by the husband-and-wife duo Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler, is the antithesis of commercial music, though don’t presume this makes their work iconoclastic or inaccessible. Quite the reverse is true, in fact. Since its debut in 1990, the group has connected with fans by freely sharing their personal lives and insights through their music. Never has this emotional exposure been as evident as Over the Rhine’s eighth release, the unusually intimate Drunkard’s Prayer. While perhaps not the most representative introduction for first-time listeners, the album overflows with a disarming transparency that sets it apart from most pop music treatments of romantic love.
Since its inception, popular music has tried to isolate love’s most exhilarating, top-of-the-roller-coaster moments, setting up impossibly rosy expectations for all who buy into the fantasy. Standing in sharp contrast is a proliferation of songs that conversely declare love’s crushing defeats. These two extremes form a continuum clumped with distortions that cling to opposite sides, each denying the other’s existence and leaving reality lost somewhere in between. Is it mere coincidence that a culture that propagates an unattainable romantic ideal is strewn with the debris of disillusionment, infidelity and divorce?
Just as Bergquist and Detweiler have stayed true to their artistic goals by sidestepping the demands of the major label marketplace, they have upheld the integrity of their marital vows by not letting career concerns take precedence over them. When the two sensed a growing relational crisis midway into a national tour, they cancelled the remaining dates and returned home to address their neglected marriage over a nightly bottle of wine. The result of their heart-to-heart summit was distilled into the collection of songs on Drunkard’s Prayer. The songs, recorded at the couple’s home, present their music stripped down to its essence, with spacious acoustic textures and only the slightest of tonal coloration.
The straightforward but atmospherically produced songs traverse a crooked line connecting country, folk and traditional jazz. Their common thread is Bergquist’s full-bodied and expressive vocals, which recall the earthy but elastic singing style of Rickie Lee Jones, if not exactly Jones’ cosmopolitan-leaning style. The opening three tracks are linear, undulating pieces reminiscent of Astral Weeks-era Van Morrison, though with lyrics that dispense with Morrison’s mystery. They reveal deep longing and fear but hold fast to resilience and the promise of redemption. The title song perfectly straddles the line between love song and devotional, finding the place where physical, emotional and spiritual transcendence converge: "Like an ocean without waves/You’re the movement that I crave/And in that motion/I long to drown/And be lost, not to be found."
Detweiler and Bergquist are non-mainstream Christians who maintain art should tap into something larger than a belief system. They leave their spiritual deposits in unorthodox ways. On "Who Will Guard The Door," a gently loping country-folk number, they address the human tendency of worshipping at love’s altar: "You were the hand that I tried to take/You’re the religion that I should forsake/You were the savior that tripped and fell/Beautiful dancing infidel." The centerpiece of the record, "Lookin’ Back" signals a painful turning point and a restored momentum underscored by the presence of drums, which are absent on all but two tracks. Rather than being a fingers-crossed declaration of hope with one eye closed, the lyric captures the very real ambivalence of simultaneous loss and gain: "Good news can be so unkind/When it’s everything you have to leave behind/I’m lookin’ forward to lookin’ back on this day."
The record unveils itself both immediately and in layers, offering superficial delights but inviting us to listen past the surface. It demands attentive focus. As with the therapeutic process itself, Drunkard’s Prayer demonstrates the bravery, vulnerability and commitment it takes to move beyond emotional obstacles. As such, it is best appreciated up close, with a shot or two of courage.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.