Fear and hope on the runaway train: A review of Eliza Gilkyson’s “Beautiful World”
By Robert Jensen
Published in ZNet · June, 2008
Before I offer my review of “Beautiful World,” Eliza Gilkyson’s new CD on Red House Records, two disclaimers up front.
First, this really isn’t a music review because I don’t know anything about music. I’m the guy they put in the back row of the choir with instructions to mouth the words as quietly as possible. I learned three guitar chords once; I remember two of them.
Second, while I’m not a big fan of the rules of so-called “objective journalism” in the corporate-commercial news media, this is really a not-objective review — the singer/songwriter is my partner, in community organizing projects in Austin and in our personal lives.
With those disclaimers, let me say without hesitation that you absolutely can trust me on this one: If you are concerned with the state of U.S. society and the health of the planet, listen to Gilkyson’s new record. I have been writing about similar subjects in journalistic form in recent years, but these songs do what I can’t do in prose — they help us let down our guard, if only for a few moments, so that we may ponder honestly the cascading crises we face. Gilkyson opens up not only an intellectual but also an emotional space for dealing with reality.
To be at our best politically, we need to be able to stare down that reality without giving in to either sophomoric cynicism or silly sentiment. We need a harsh critique, but one grounded in the recognition of the beauty that remains all around us. Given the serious nature of these crises — political and social, economic and ecological — it’s not surprising that people often are reluctant to face these realities. Gilkyson’s invocation of our world’s beauty makes it easier to do.
The core of the record is four songs that address our relationship to the larger ecosystem. “The Party’s Over” reminds us the energy-orgy lifestyle of recent decades is almost finished. “The Great Correction” suggests that a readjustment is coming in the not-too-distant future, a moment when we’ll be forced to recognize our interconnectedness because “we’ll all be burning in the same big sun/when the great correction comes.” “Runaway Train” asks us to think about the reckless nature of First-World affluence, reminding us that whatever our personal position in U.S. society, we are all riding on the same train. And the record’s final cut, “Unsustainable,” argues that we need to go “back to the drawing board/start all over again,” delivers a difficult message in a slow, jazzy style.
OK, that sounds a bit grim, and it would be if Gilkyson left it at that. But as the tragedy of our arrogance plays out all around us, she reminds us that it plays out in a truly beautiful world, “circling infinitely/fragment of sun marbled in blue/turning in time and tuned like a symphony.” That beauty can be found, for example, in Austin in Barton Springs (thinly disguised in the song “Wildewood Springs”), “where the wild birds sing/where the water’s clean” a place where we go when we “long for revival.” If we open ourselves up, that beauty — and the joy that comes from it — can be found all around us. And from that comes the strength to continue political struggles. The game isn’t over yet.
Woven in among the more overtly political songs are reminders that in our personal relationships we struggle to find the same beauty within ourselves and each other, sometimes successfully (“Clever Disguise”) and sometimes not (“Rare Bird”). Gilkyson reminds us that even in our failures, there is the hope that “we’ll go on from here unbound/meet again on higher ground/some uncloudy day.” The personal is political is planetary; we live in a web of relationships — to self, others, and the non-human world. Learning to attend to all of them is at the core of our struggle to be fully human in a mass-mediated/mass-marketed/mass-medicated world.
A number of these songs were first performed at a series of “Last Sunday” community gatherings in Austin in 2006-07, when we invited people to talk about their fears and hopes for the future. The Rev. Jim Rigby, Gilkyson, and I were the primary organizers, but Gilkyson’s music was the emotional center of the events. Rigby and I always knew that more people probably came to hear her music than to listen to us, but that never bothered us. Rigby’s prophetic preaching and my political analysis were important, but we all desperately yearned for the art that can confront and nurture.
“Beautiful World” provides that kind of challenge and comfort, offering not definitive answers but, in Gilkyson’s words, “just a little prayer from me.”