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The Language of Lament

by Lee Coleman

On October 27, 2014, Taylor Swift released her fifth studio album entitled 1989.  It was notable for all the usual reasons: it debuted at #1 on the Billboard chart, sold 1.2 million copies in the first week, and was a huge hit with fans and critics.  But it was also significant in that it was Swift’s first purely pop album as she sought to distance herself from her country roots.  Synthesizer and percussion tracks took the place of steel guitars and banjos to make the album buzz with a quirky energy and enthusiasm.  If “Shake It Off” comes on the radio in your car and you can get through the song without singing, bobbing your head, or doing some kind of shaking-it-off-flicking-your-wrist hand motion, then you are apparently immune to the infectious power of T-Swift’s “sick beats.”

Then on September 21, 2015, something odd happened.  Singer-songwriter Ryan Adams released his 15th studio album, 1989.  The album was a track-by-track, song-by-song cover of Swift’s album.  Same lyrics, but drastically different melodies.  Gone was the high energy, bubble-gum-popping dance vibe.  Ryan’s album felt more at home nestled in between Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan than Maroon 5 and Lady Gaga on your playlist.  The album was a cult phenomenon, but quickly became a widespread success, debuting on the Billboard chart at #7, ironically one position ahead of Swift’s 1989, now in its 48th week on the chart.  Swift reacted positively to Adams’ project saying, “My favorite part of his style of creating music is his ability to bleed aching vulnerability into it, and that’s what he’s done with his cover project of my album 1989. When I first heard that Ryan was going to be covering my entire album, I couldn’t believe it. It’s such an honor that he would want to take my stories and lyrics and give them a new life.”

The first time I heard some of Adam’s album, I felt unsettled.  Hearing these familiar upbeat radio songs set to contemplative, and sometimes, mournful melodies revealed a new layer to Taylor Swift’s songwriting.  There were deeper emotions there: confusion, hurt, uncertainty, and even hopelessness.  Same words, but strikingly different impact.  Ryan’s vulnerable and haunting inflections revealed an alternative universe that was coexisting on the same plane as Swift’s album.  A place where sometimes you can’t just shake it off after all.

Swift later said of the album, “They’re reimaginings of my songs, and you can tell that he was in a very different place emotionally when he put his spin on them than I was when I wrote them. There’s this beautiful aching sadness and longing in this album that doesn’t exist in the original."  She couldn’t have been more true.  Ryan was coping with the collapse of his marriage to actress Mandy Moore who filed for divorce in January 2015.  Same lyrics, same stories.  But fundamentally different impact considering the emotional state of the singer, or in our case, the listeners.  The message can be one of triumphant hope or downcast despair … or to use a more theological sounding term: lament.

The idea of God’s people simultaneously voicing both triumph and lament is one of the most biblical concepts imaginable, and I’d like to encourage you to check out two short blog posts to explore this idea.  First, read the brief post, Liturgical Lessons From Ryan Adams’ 1989 from author James K.A. Smith which takes the 1989 analogy into the sphere of our worship in a much more effective way that I can.  Then click over to The Gospel Coalition for Mark Vroegop’s article, Strong Churches Speak the Language of Lament.

Wherever you find yourself this Easter season, don’t be afraid to speak (or sing) in the full range of emotions that the gospel of Jesus allows.  Bring your lament to the feet of the Savior who is able to give us grace when we need it most.

Hebrews 4:14-16 “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

1 Comment

This is such an important message. I'm so thankful our church is led by an elder who "gets it".

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