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June 29, 2004

Songs for a Desert Island IV

Last Sunday my wife and I attended the baptism of our new nephew, Collin Joseph, at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Excelsior. I like visiting churches for the first time. There is something fresh about everything, and it is always interesting listening to a new (for me) pastor's sermon style and content. However, something that almost never is different when I visit a new Lutheran church is the music. Egads. Usually it is ear bleeding organ music and an old woman behind me who thinks she is an opera singer screeching in my ear. But not this Sunday. Mount Calvary Lutheran church obviously values good music. Last Sunday they featured a choir of teenagers from their very own Mount Calvary Academy of Music that, quite frankly, sang like angels. The first song they sang was a church hymn with a beautiful new arrangement, but the second song they sang, right before the benediction, really piqued my interest. It was "Let Your Sould Be Your Pilot" by Sting off of his Mercury Falling LP. First of all, you don't usually hear Sting in church, and secondly I've never thought of "Let Your Soul" as an overly spiritual song. I mean, I suppose it is a spiritual song, but for your troubles it recommends more self reliance than assistance from a higher power. However, regardless, it was beautifully done by this choir and I suppose it could have multiple interpretations. More importantly though, for the purposes of this blog, it got me to thinking about Sting songs in general, and about songs that he has done that are spiritual or have religious themes.

soulcages.jpgOnce you start thinking about Sting in this way, invariably you will start thinking about The Soul Cages, an album he released in 1991 and what I consider to be his crowning achievement as a song writer. The Soul Cages is a haunting album with beautiful music and lyrics, and it is sometimes an angry, bitter album full of regret and sadness. Once again, it is difficult to separate the singer from the subject matter of his songs. Is The Soul Cages autobiographical or not? Around the time of the recording of the album, both Sting's father and mother died. Many people have speculated that the album previous to The Soul Cages, ... Nothing Like the Sun, was a tribute to his mother. There is little doubt, though, that The Soul Cages is about his father.
Why am I telling you all of this? Today's Song for a Desert Island must be taken into context with the entire album. So without further ado, today's song is "All This Time."

The Soul Cages is about a boy who has lost his father in a ship-building accident. The accident and its aftermath is partially described in the album's first song, "The Island of Souls," and this theme of loss is also evident in other songs on the album like "Why Should I Cry For You," "Mad About You," and "When the Angels Fall." In real life Sting's father was a milkman, so, again, this begs the question of exactly how autobiographical this album is. Probably not very. But the feelings invoked by this album must have been very close to Sting's heart at the time of it's writing, especially, I think, the song "All This Time."

"All This Time" is a relatively fast paced song that fools the listener into a false sense of complacency concerning its subject matter. Sting is a master of this technique and he used it as early as the first Police album in songs like "So Lonely" (a really happy song about lonliness) and "Can't Stand Losing You" (a very popular song about suicide). "All This Time" is a song about "crisis in faith" sung in a very peppy way. It is a song about anger, anger with pointless ritual, anger with meaningless teachings, anger with God. It is also very thought provoking. Let's have a look see at the lyrics, shall we?

I looked out across
The river today,
I saw a city in the fog and an old church tower
Where the seagulls play.
I saw the sad shire horses walking home
In the sodium light
I saw two priests on the ferry
October geese on a cold winter's night

And all this time, the river flowed
Endlessly to the sea.

The song opens with Sting singing about his home town of Newcastle. In this city flows the river Tyne, a river that has been flowing through this area for probably hundreds of thousands of years, or as Sting says "endlessly." We are also introduced to two of the main characters of our song, two priests on a ferry.
Two priests came round our house tonight
One young, one old, to offer prayers for the dying
To serve the final rite,
One to learn, one to teach,
Which way the cold wind blows
Fussing and flapping in priestly black
Like a murder of crows

And all this time, the river flowed
Endlessly to the sea
If I had my way I'd take a boat from the river
And I'd bury the old man,
I'd bury him at sea

The main protagonist of this song is obviously not impressed with the ritual of the priests. They have come to serve the final rites to his dying father, but in doing so they probably argue, and the younger priest probably messes something up, and the son is left to wonder why this is so important. This time the chorus gives away his desire of simply taking his father out to the sea and leaving behind what he probably sees as a pointless ritual.
Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the earth
Better to be poor than a fat man in the eye of a needle
And as these words were spoken I swear I hear
The old man laughing,
'What good is a used up world, and how could it be
Worth having'

And all this time the river flowed
Endlessly like a silent tear
And all this time the river flowed
Father, if Jesus exists,
Then how come he never lived here.

This stanza begins with some famous sayings of Jesus. The first is from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, or the Beatitudes, and is certainly one of the more thought provoking things Jesus ever said. What did he exactly mean by "the meek" and how or when exactly will they inherit the earth? The second saying in its entirety is actually, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God." Some have speculated that it refers to a notoriously difficult gate into Jerusalem that forced a camel on to its knees before passing through. However, there is no archaeological evidence for this gate and some have surmised that is was just a common saying during the time of Jesus. In the context of this song, these sayings are repeated during the final rites for the boy's father, and again he seems to be mystified at what exactly is the point of all of this. Furthermore, he even suggests the father would be equally perplexed at point of the ritual, especially considering he wouldn't want a "used up world" anyway. Again, the chorus is repeated, but this time it ends with a statement of pure doubt. Where is Jesus in all of this? The boy seems to be saying, "I live in Newcastle. And yet I am expected to believe in a man that lived a long ways away and a long time ago. My father has died. Where is Jesus now?" The boy is angry.
The teachers told us, the Romans built this place
They built a wall and a temple, an edge of the empire
Garrison town,
They lived and they died, they prayed to their gods
But the stone gods did not make a sound
And their empire crumbled, 'til all that was left
Were the stones the workmen found

What is the difference between the gods of the Romans and the Christian God? At one point Newcastle was ruled by Rome, and the people that lived there prayed just as fervently to their gods as we do to ours today. The boy is asking , who is to say 1,000 years from now workers won't be digging up the rubble of our churches and statues, proof of another failed religion? Um ... yeah, the boy is definitely angry and confused. The song ends:
And all this time the river flowed
In the falling light of a northern sun
If I had my way I'd take a boat from the river
Men go crazy in congregations
But they only get better
One by one
One by one...

Once again, we have the theme of the river, the river that has seen it all, been through it all, and has never wavered. This is something the boy can trust, he can see it with his own eyes, he can feel it, and he knows that it has always been there and probably always will be there. Finally, the song concludes with what apparently is a slam on church congregations and the people inside. One by one we can all get better, but it is still a mystery to me how this is actually done. By renouncing our faith? By finally realizing the pointless ritual of it all?

You might be wondering why a Christian like myself would like this song. Again, it is thought provoking and interesting. It makes me stop and think about the nature of my faith. How would I react if my father died? I know I would be angry, I know I would question the meaning of it all. I know I would not be happy with God at all. How would I get past that crisis in faith? Who knows, really. It is something I hope I don't have to deal with for a long time.

Songs of worship and praise certainly have their place in our churches, but what about songs that really make us think? What about songs that don't have easy answers, that make us question our belief system and possibly make it stronger? Obviously I am drawn to songs like this and that is why I like "All This Time." Sorry again for another long-winded Songs for A Desert Island. Hopefully I won't have as much to say next time.

Posted by snackeru at June 29, 2004 7:10 AM


I'll take "Late in the evening" by Paul Simon. To quote American Bandstand "It's got a great beat and I can dance to it". Seriously, if this song can't get your feet moving you need some medication. Plus, it's got this great set of lines:

The first thing I remember
When you came into my life
I said I'm gonna get that girl
No matter what I do
Well I guess I'd been in love before
And once or twice I been on the floor
But I never loved no one
The way that I loved you

Always makes me think of my wife, everytime I hear that song.

Posted by: Cheesehead Craig at June 29, 2004 11:26 AM

Hey, Shane, that sounds great. I would love to hear Sting on Sunday. Our art-oriented Behold Bible study group discovered Bobby McFerron's interpretation of the 23rd psalm, which is on his album Medicine Music. It is not the usual psalmody, nor is it "typical" McFerron, if there is such a thing. It is McFerron chanting. I would say more but I have to confess I haven't bought it yet. Maybe I'll have to get both albums - Sting and McFerron!

Posted by: Susanna Tambien at June 29, 2004 11:54 AM

There is a real person named Jesus Christ that did all the stuff in bible. Hi! just thought I'd say that :)

Posted by: Mike at April 1, 2005 1:57 AM

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