The Innocence Mission: Winter is Waning
Winter is almost here. Which means that one day in the near future, my family and I will take our annual trek to visit the monuments on the snow-covered National Mall. While this trek may be a mere three miles for us, the bitter cold makes the Lincoln Memorial feel thousands of miles away from our warm apartment for our kids. “Smile!” we grouse at our kids, as my wife and I snap their pouting photo, “Don’t you know that there are kids in Iowa counting down the days until they get to come here?”
That annual photo will go into the collection of its siblings, mementos of family times that will be remembered as more enjoyable than the frozen moments actually were. Although, to be honest, at this point, since they’re now in on the joke, we have to remind our kids to scowl for the photo. Staged or not, those photos capture both the angry bitterness of winter and the chuckling optimism of family togetherness.
For me, The Innocence Mission holds a similar tension: the band’s nearly three decades’ worth of music is deeply infused with already-not-yet narrative buoyancy. Album after album, beginning with their 1989 self-titled debut, the band humbly disseminates warm and surprising optimism – you know, the opposite of winter. Yet, at the same time, the music of The Innocence Mission introspectively trudges through the same ditches that grooved the mind of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. Without the band’s belief that history is headed somewhere, their musical ditch would lead the listener into the abyss. Thankfully, The Innocence Mission gently lifts the listener’s eyes, enabling a view of the sun peeking through the gradually disseminating clouds. The contrast is breathtaking. Winter, even with its sharpest bite, waits for life; The Innocence Mission gazes darkly inward in order to allow the coming light to penetrate. With their latest album, the band shines future hope into what has seemed an extra-heavy season of darkness.
When I first hit “play” on Hello I Feel the Same, I had next to zero doubt that I would be treated with vintage The Innocence Mission. Why is that? And why is that consistency, that lack of surprise a good thing? Well, for the uninitiated, The Innocence Mission creates on the fringes of genre. The husband-and-wife team have crafted some of my generation’s most melodic, poetic, and soul-burrowing music. Speaking to all while unfolding an exclusivity that is strange to our 21st-century ears, Hello I Feel the Same is vintage The Innocence Mission, because anything less would cease to be The Innocence Mission.
“Hello I Feel the Same”
The title track is almost perfect. The empathy in Karen Peris’ voice is almost transcendent. But, and this is important, her mesmerizing voice lifts “Hello I Feel the Same” out of indulgent empathy into the realm of soul-guide. Karen Peris knows. What she knows can only be discovered by listening to the title track of Hello I Feel the Same.
After that description, what beer could possibly stack up? Of course, this is why I earn the big bucks that No Depression is paying me; I know exactly which beer pairs perfectly with one of the best songs of 2015. Trappistes Rocheforte 10. If you’re a craft beer lover on any level, you probably shook your head in agreement upon reading “Trappistes Rocheforte 10,” even if you have yet to listen to “Hello I Feel the Same.” If you’re unfamiliar with the song and the Belgian quad, buy Hello I Feel the Same, pour a thick glass of the layered and complete beer called Rocheforte 10, and hit play.
“Washington Field Trip”
Hello I Feel the Same almost had beers paired with every single one of its 11 songs. That, of course, would have been problematic, both word-count-wise and liver-health wise. That’s to declare that I really, really wish that I could’ve paired beers with the second track, “Tom on the Boulevard.” If I were going to cheat, I would suggest sipping on Amorous, an American wild ale from Wicked Weed Brewing, while listening to the album’s second song. The intricate guitar goes nicely with the complex, wine-barrel aged beer from one of Asheville, NC’s best breweries. But, I can’t. I mean, I’m not writing about “Tom on the Boulevard,” I’m writing about one of my personal favorite songs on the album, “Washington Field Trip.” And, for the record, this selection is not because I’m a homer.
Most people have visited Washington, DC, at some point in their life. To that end, the images painted by “Washington Field Trip” should be sharp. The energy of the city is a weird amalgamation of power-hungry narcissism with the naïve, wide-eyed wonder of heartland tourists. Hope flowering in the midst of cynicism. In the song, the scurrying, inhuman aspects of our modern culture are punctuated by recognition of our connectedness. More specifically, the understanding that fears corrodes our corporate connection and that we, as humans, owe something to each other. No man is an island unto himself.
The amount of introspection required by “Washington Field Trip” calls for a beer that should be savored by sipping. Live Oak HefeWeizen is immensely drinkable but without sacrificing complex spice, yeast, and hop notes. Being confronted with the swirling flavors of this Texas favorite will cause the most jaded hop-head to reconsider his or her relationship with lagers. Reconsidering relationships is built into “Washington Field Trip.”
My wife confronted me about pairing beer with a song titled “Fred Rogers.” The word “inappropriate” came up. She’s wrong, which, I should point out, is an extreme rarity. Fred Rogers may be best known as the au fait of children’s television programming, but the reason his legacy is that is because he cut through the crap and spoke to us as individuals who are rooted in a community. Community can’t exist without individuals, and vice-versa. With that in mind, Mr. Rogers would most definitely have graciously listened to his beer-swilling next-door neighbor. Now, I’m not encouraging beer-swilling, but if you must, a session beer is in order.
Yards Brewing Philadelphia Pale Ale, while being a legit session beer, doesn’t sacrifice flavor. At all. Delicious. Malty. Hoppy. Citrusy. The adjectives pile up. The Innocence Mission recognizes that Mr. Rogers is too giant a figure for a simple description. Man, song, and beer are kin. Soft yet bracing. Warm yet inciting. Rich yet accessible. Karen and Don Peris, Fred Rogers, and Yard Brewing Company combine to create an adult landscape that was foreshadowed by childhood.
“The Color Green”
If one song encapsulates the spirit of Hello I Feel the Same, “The Color Green” is that song. Richly melodic and tightly constructed, “The Color Green” speaks to the survival of eternal optimism in the face of our jaded epoch. Colors are primordial, but, then again, so are feelings. From the searching piano to the heartfelt strings and the delicate yet resolute voice of Karen Peris, the depth of resonance woven into “the Color Green” belies any attempts to dismiss Hello I Feel the Same as a run-of-the-mill navel-gazing record produced by talented musicians. Talent only goes so far; perspective goes further. The Innocence Mission have a long game in mind. Maybe they’ve sacrificed temporal gains, but their hope is placed elsewhere.
I have a bottle of Epic Brewing Company’s Big Bad Baptist, an imperial stout, cellared, preparing to be opened in three years. Almost every day I look at the bottle and consider popping the top, but I don’t. Make no mistake; the beer inside that bottle is delicious. The long-term rewards, however, are hard to quantify. Aging the beer allows intricacies to play out. But to get that reward requires that the endgame be a long game. Buy a bottle or two of this big beer, cellar it, and, a few years down the road, pop the top and compare notes with the aging of “The Color Green.” On one level, it may be next to impossible to age any beer long enough to pair with The Innocence Mission’s endgame, but the optimism beaming into the dark recesses of introspection allows for the momentary glimpse into the eternal. Epic Brewing Company, while brewing just a beer, has brewed a beer that, by being just a beer, an excellent and rich beer, of course, transcends the immediate and speaks to what’s to come. Winter is waning. He who sits in the heavens laughs.