We Walked in Song by The Innocence Mission (Review)
We’re well into June, and the days are constantly getting warmer and brighter. And so it’s as fitting a time as any to be listening to Pennsylvania’s The Innocence Mission. The group has been around since 1986, and have made a career of releasing bright, shimmering folk-inflected pop built around the husband/wife duo of Don and Karen Peris, and their gossamery guitars and cooing vocals, respectively.
Focusing too much on the light, airy elements of their music, though, might lead one to think that The Innocence Mission is all fluff and filigree. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even when singing age-old (and clichéd) lullabies, as they did on 2004’s Now The Day Is Over, the group imbues their effortless compositions with a core of simultaneously heart-wrenching and heartwarming beauty.
The same is true on We Walked in Song. The music is as pretty, graceful, and deft as ever. Karen Peris’ voice might be something of an acquired taste, but once you get past that, it’s the kind of voice you want singing you to sleep. And her simple-yet-poetic and evocative (and sometimes slightly surreal) lyrics bring forth all sorts of longings and nostalgia. Backing her are musical arrangements that seem deceptively simple and plain, built around Don Peris’ graceful, effortless guitar.
When you bring those things together, the result is the sort of music you want to listen to on headphones while walking down streets in full bloom. Or while sitting on the porch as the sun passes the western horizon, sending streamers of gold over the park and through the trees. Or while gazing out the window with a nice cup of tea while a light summer rain mists the lawn.
But it’s also more than that, more than just simply evoking nostalgic memories while you gaze pensively out the window. There’s an undeniable and irresistable undercurrent of melancholy that lies just below the surface, making it impossible to listen to such songs as “The Brotherhood Of Man” or “Love That Boy” without getting a catch in the throat. The album is dedicated to both of Karen’s parents, and that sense of loss and mourning permeates the album.
However, loss and mourning don’t dominate the album. Ruminations on the fragility of human existence are there, to be sure, if only expressed in the fragility of the band’s sound. But the album’s songs continually celebrate those brief moments of connection and relationship, be they between lovers, friends, or total strangers, that seem to beckon towards eternity. Moments that exist in spite of loss and mourning, and that can redeem such things. During “The Brotherhood of Man,” Karen sings:
Waiting at the airport on my suitcase
A girl traveling from Spain became my sudden friend
Though I did not learn her name
And when the subway dimmed
A stranger lit my way
This is the brotherhood of man
“Into Brooklyn, Early in The Morning” finds Karen singing of a “beautiful life, full of grieving,” as if the two are not at all incompatible. Later, on “Song For Tom,” Karen draws strength from simple faith:
You are my friend, though words will fail me here again
The sacraments will lift us
And we set out in the day again
Oh you’ll never lose that light
Though so much is gone
Those final words strike me as the album’s central theme. We live in a fallen world, wracked by sin and death and guilt and suffering and horror. And yet… there always remains hope and faith and love and the possibility for forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation, which the surrounding darkness can never snuff out.
And so Karen is able to close the album with words, if not necessarily of celebration, then at least of hope, yearning, and possibility:
If somebody calls to me
I’m hoping to not fear, not fear to answer
How will it be?
Like so much of The Innocence Mission’s music, it’s deceptively simple, but pregnant with meaning and beauty that’s worth contemplating.