The Common Good

Gown of Grief: The Collection’s Songs of Mourning and Celebration

No abundant bright bloom of flowers on the CD cover or obscure Latin in the title or gentle dance of cursive font describing the song list, nothing can hide that this is not your light-and-breezy summer release of cruising-with-the-top-down jams, but rather, a full-blown concept album of folk hymns about the art of dying.

Photo by Stephanie Berbec Photography http://stephanieberbec.com/
Photo by Stephanie Berbec Photography http://stephanieberbec.com/

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The Art of Dying (officially Ars Moriendi) represents a brave and risky move for the make-it or break-it breakout album of an up-and-coming band. The Collection’s courageous collection of orchestral pop hymns chart and curate the grieving heart of a gifted songwriter and the community of bandmates and fans that surround him.

At a time when the flame of the alternative folk explosion still burns bright despite much backlash, this North Carolina ensemble shows up as the son of Mumford and Sons, married to Edward Sharpe’s second cousin, with too many members to pack the tiny stages of clubs and bars, with a sound fit for mountaintop vistas, and songs as mystic visions that pierce the veil between life and death.

Despite the heavy earnestness of the entire package, it’s exactly the grief-support-group that my ears need, and I imagine a rendering of fragile faith and hope against hope that our world craves. The Collection manage to sing about Jesus and Thomas and the prodigal son without getting pushy, dancing on the fringe of explicit CCM, exploring sacred-meets-secular crossover paths and gritty crossroads that groups like Needtobreathe, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, and Gungor have already traveled.

Death remains that earthly finality to render our denial mute—and our religious musings about whether it represents cosmic reunion, bodily resurrection, or eternal rest are powerless when we admit that the mysterious premonitions of the “heaven is real” crowd are but passing glimpses and not bulletproof facts. The Christians that remain relevant in our world have invested in the Kingdom here, now, and all around us, and they don’t shove tracts that guarantee afterlife fantasies in our faces on the same street corners where tramps and hobos sleep and sometimes starve.

This album is everything but a tract, and a cosmic creation consciousness drips from every track as David Wimbish invites listeners on the single “Gown of Green” to “Stop looking at the ground, start looking at the leaves” because “up among the dirt and rust is where the kingdom breathes.”

This kingdom doesn’t suckle at the unenlightened nipple of mindless obedience to stiff doctrine, yet instead it feeds on seeds and weeds and breeds wild green freedom for the dangerous disciples daring to “sow the earth with diligence and love.” Anthems for an anarchic 21st-century faith do not come with pat power-point slides and tidy handouts and bullet-point programs for salvation.

Wimbish moans with melody and groans with gravity what we were already thinking: “a cross hangs around your neck so loose/and though it brings you life, sometimes it feels just like a noose/but god is not disappointed in you/but love and beauty haunt you in your dreams.” The Collection sip from the overflowing cup of spiritual freedom, and one taste of this new wine might make bland another taste of the lukewarm life-numbing churchianity still making its way around the land.

As my daddy departed this earth this past May, I must confess many attempts to review this album have been interrupted by uncontrollable fits of weeping. The solemn-yet-exuberant trance invoked by these songs does not easily evoke translation as a regular record review. These ruminations about death inspire a rant against death: I want to dance and scream and just cry some more. There is an emptiness on the other side of emptiness where it can feel pointless to carry on, because, we’re all just going to die anyways, right?

How quickly gratitude can give way to apathy when you suffer from the lazy grief of which C.S. Lewis wrote an entire book. Wimbish wonders if he even has the “right” to sing his songs in this world filled with wrong. I feel the same way about writing this review, not to mention the countless poems and sermons and social media statuses I continue to crank out, about a laundry list of worldly hopes and woes. Is anyone even listening? Does anyone even care?

Did you ever wonder if Jesus ever asked himself if anyone was listening to his crazy stitched quilt of parables and poems? Was anyone even nourished from yet another dinner party, another feast of bread and wine? Up-and-coming musical artists like The Collection don’t make much money to speak of and often go into debt instead. Sadly, there are probably several thousands of souls who would love to hear these songs but may not be plugged into the blogs and indie radio and social scenes that would make it possible.

Yet — The Collection carries on anyhow, and those of us who get to wrap ourselves in these sonic poems and potent songs are inevitably changed and charged to share our reactions to these prophetic tunes. These tunes bring soaring melodies, mythic crescendos, orchestral aches, sponsored by a rambling circus-tent revival of songcrafters touring the country for just a few weeks in a rented van, before many return to day jobs as educators and artists and theologians and recording engineers and foodies and what have you.

The Collection is a collection of friends I could not have dreamed into being. They hold open the door to heaven for just a few milliseconds, and the view is foggy with the limits of our vision, but the songs are bigger than they are, bigger than we are, and they are a form of poetry that even poetry cannot touch. Somehow, I hear angels, and my dead Daddy has a new body and is dancing with me.

For tour dates and more information about how to get your own copy of Ars Moriendi, visit: www.thecollectionband.com

Andrew William Smith is an English professor by day and DJ by night who works as the Faculty Head of the Tree House environmental living and learning village at Tennessee Tech. He’s an activist, poet, blogger, ruling elder in the PCUSA, Vanderbilt seminarian, and aspiring preacher. He blogs at http://unlikelysundayschool.blogspot.com/ and teacherontheradio.blogspot.com. Follow Andrew on Twitter @teacheronradio.

Photo by Stephanie Berbec Photography http://stephanieberbec.com/

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