In W.H. Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror, he comments on and attempts to correct what he sees as the Manichaeism in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Manichaeism is a spiritual system in which the spiritual is kept free from the bestial, and Auden believed the two extremes were identified in Ariel and Caliban. This separation is a mistake, for a human being exists as a unity of body and soul. He writes of the two,
Never hope to say farewell,
For our lethargy is such
Heaven’s kindness cannot touch
Nor earth’s frankly brutal drum;
This was long ago decided,
Both of us know why,
Can, alas, foretell,
When our falsehoods are divided,
What we shall become,
One evaporating sigh
. . . I
It is this evaporating sigh into the dear other, the space in which the I becomes We, that we find both our exit from the lethargy of the ego and our entrance into the true meaning of our humanity. We are not meant to escape this world for an individualistic, spiritual paradise. We are here to be saved together and to die trying. Anything less is heresy.
In the summer of 2015, some cool people in Steubenville, Ohio got together and decided to make some cool music. The band they formed, Dear Other, released a debut album this past December. The Exitus and Reditus of Andrew Darkstar Parrish is the sort of album that a lover of the complete album-buying experience will love. The artwork alone is worth the price of the physical copy; made by Joan Becker, it is intricate and lovely, visually challenging in a way that parallels the music it accompanies. The album as a whole is a metaphysical challenge—what should I do with this soul that I have? Who is the person that I will become? We’re all confronted by choices. No one gets to sit on the sidelines.
The album follows the eponymous hero as he confronts his choices. He is looking for his place in this world, and his search has eternal implications, because he is also looking for his place in the next world. We all come to our end eventually, the question is: will we do so kicking and screaming, having sucked all the joy out of life through greed, selfishness, and fear? Or will we die voluntarily and submit to the hot flame of death, becoming a self-gift poured out and thus fulfilling our eternal destiny as human beings made to give and receive love? If that last sentence is a mouthful, that’s because this album is dense. It’s a whole world of ice-cream parlors, Pope Benedict as spiritual guru, freaking out in bathrooms, and shipwrecked souls. It’s confusing. It’s fascinating. It is well worth the listen. Each of us sets forth to make our own way in this world, the question is, how do we get home again?
To shed some light on it, we asked lead vocalist and lyricist, Marc Barnes, a few questions.
Michael Rennier: First, how did you all meet?
Marc Barnes: Through a whole tornado of friendships ranging from high-school best friends, drinking buddies, and colleagues working at a non-profit music venue.
MR: Are you a “Christian” band?
MB: There’s no good answer to that question. A pox on you for asking it. If I say “yes,” it’s with the caveat that (a) most Christian bands are terrible and (b) art cannot be Christian in the strict sense, as the end of art is the artwork, while the end of the Christian is friendship with God. A whole bouquet of songs about Jesus would be irrelevant to the Divine Nose—He sniffs out the quality of our acts (through which we are or are not friends with God) and not our albums. And don’t we catch ourselves wishing it were otherwise? That God judged us on the basis of taste? But God is tasteless; bland, uninspiring writers who give alms will enter the Kingdom of Heaven before the deep, tortured artists who don’t.
Anyways, this view is complicated by Sacred Art (art which is prayer) and the fact that I can write a song “for God” even while the habit which guides my songwriting has its goal, not in God, but in the work itself.
But if I say “no,” there’s the obvious fact that the EP amounts to some kind of Christian existential freakout. So I’d have to settle for the following: We are a band (and as such not Christian), prone to singing about theological problems (and as such, Christian), and I (not speaking for everyone else in the band) am fully aware that no amount of singing about God will ever amount to living and suffering with Him.
MR: You have a philosophy degree and have had success as a writer over at Bad Catholic, but what prompted you to switch gears and create art? What is it about creating music or lyrics that is different from writing a philosophy essay?
MB: To the first, art preceded the philosophical writing, much as Will Smith’s rap career preceded his acting. First came my (no good) stories, (very bad) plays, (horrible) poems and (awful) songs, then I realized it was the ideas nuggeted within these mediums that made me want to write, and that I had no good ideas, and thus no good art, and so the turn to philosophy was an obvious one. Aristotelians should hate me for this: I basically see the entire work of philosophy as a functional exercise that will one day prep me for writing a decent novel.
To the second, I’d say that good essays are like knives—they ought to have a point, and the sharper the better. Good songs, on the other hand—well, I’m not super sure on the teleological end of indie-rock songs. As such, I have a tendency of point-making in my songs, resulting in a horrible aesthetic category I hereby dub the “sing-along sermon.”
MR: That said, clearly you intend to communicate a specific “moral” or point of view. Did you go into the album with an over-arching theme in mind, or did it kind of develop as you began writing?
MB: If by communicate you mean to “teach” a particular moral system, then the EP is a wash. The universe is full of moral values — it would be boring, futile, and absurd if it came in any other fashion. When we dramatize a particular struggle to understand this universe—which all narrative does—the communication of a moral vision is as inevitable as the communication of a physical vision. Is it a cop-out to quote O’Connor? [ed. note: No] “In the greatest fiction, the writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense, and I see no way for it to do this unless his moral judgment is part of the very act of seeing, and he is free to use it.”
I went into the album with difficulties I felt powerless to confront. I created a character to suffer them for me. In the preface to his Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth said “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Well, I doubt the EP rises to Poetry, much less to Wordsworth, but the process allowed me to take a backseat—to observe that character’s doubts, fears and grand conclusions in supreme personal tranquility. So I would say the album developed as the character of Andrew developed.
MR: Your album has some stunning visual art included, where did you meet the artist? Did you give her some guidelines or did you just set her loose to create?
MB: I met Joan Becker, stunning visual artist indeed, at a Ben Folds show. She’s a dear friend of my dear friend Will Murray who, incidentally, played a mean bass for the band I drummed for in high-school and who, not so incidentally, started up an awesome music venue in an old swimming pool in the middle of an old school turned apartment complex in South Bend, Indiana. I do something similar with a music venue in downtown Steubenville, and thus, within our Very Fruitful back-and-forths on music and community, Joan heard about The Harmonium Project. She agreed to paint a mural for our music venue (it involves an infinity portal and some sneaky seraphs) and somewhere along the line she also agreed to create the album art for Andrew Darkstar.
We disagree on God, free will, the last things and the first things, but agree on Sufjan Stevens and the weird and wonderful intrigue of Caryll Houselander (who dated James Bond). Joan is one of the sharpest animals to ever sprout opposable thumbs. She looks at the universe from the bottom of a lake of Irish mythology and hagiography, bubbles over with Platonic visions, and her art—which suffers a lack of exposure from her lack of hubris—has such an eye for the microscopic detail and esoteric symbolism that you may as well give up. I told her about the character of the album, told her what he was up to in each song, and gave her the children’s catechetical book “My Path to Heaven” (which mutually disturbs our subconscious) for some weirdo inspiration. She took it and ran.
MR: Can you give us the background on the character of Andrew Darkstar? Where did he come from? Where is he going?
MB: Andrew Parrish is a real guy—he’s getting his philosophy PhD at Catholic University of America. He’s kind, witty, and manages to pull-off some combination of a railroad bum and an aristocrat. Started as a math major but switched to philosophy when he couldn’t figure out what a number was. Why exactly I made an Everyman character out of him, I’m not sure, but as such he’s a product of modernity, overly concerned with “who he is,” overwhelmed by possible lives, unable to just pick a life and live it, hampered by romantic notions that he will be able to look inside and one day “find” who he really is. This is pathetic, and it annoys the neighbors that share his apartment complex. So he goes off on a Dantesque journey (told better through the art than the lyrics), guided by a character called Reason. His conclusions are definite, and largely contained in the last two songs of the album.
MR: Would you say there are any creative influences that have shaped the kind of music you make?
MB: Typhoon proved that you can have personal narrative without being saccharine, existential crises without being a cliché. Modest Mouse, I’m just fanboy—they’re less creative influences and more the people I plagiarize. MewithoutYou showed that you can always fit more words into a verse. And I read a little Shakespeare before I write lyrics—he loosens up the mind and sets the wit and rhythm flowing like no rapper can.
MR: It’s clear that Pope Benedict XVI influenced the lyrical direction of the album: How much Benedict were you reading at the time you wrote the lyrics?
MB: Pope Benedict is The Best Pope. I saw his retirement as a kind of mic drop. His writings are to the intellect what water is to the body—you hardly notice it going in, but it ends up making 60% of the whole structure. So yes, I’ve been reading a ton of it. He’s the theologian of the age, and a better writer than John Paul and Francis put together—not that they’re competing, but still. Retrospectively, I’d say his biggest influence would be his view on the “ecclesial We,” expressed most radically in his Introduction to Christianity—we rise to the fullness of our identity by transcending our ego and living with, in, and through the “We” of the Church, who does not negate the “I” but fulfills its nature as a being-in-relation. This, obviously, serves as a kind of answer to Andrew’s identity quest.
MR: The album is eclectic and influences are flaunted shamelessly. Without ruining the fun of finding them ourselves, are there any Easter eggs you want to give us a hint about?
MB: Sure, I’m not into having a subtle mystique anyways. There are two Wallace Stevens references—one is almost a direct quote from the poem “The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.” The band name comes from a W.H. Auden poem-commentary on The Tempest. There is a portrait of Caryll Houselander somewhere in the album art—and a copy of her gate of the dead in “My Path to Heaven.” Most of the buildings in the album are sketches from the Steubenville cityscape. The real economic and social trials of the city parallel Andrew’s interior struggle, so there’s also a lot of heroin spoons and needles, both in the illustrations and the lyrics. Musically speaking, every song has a riff that makes it into the last song to sum it all up. Whenever the choir sings (listed as Neighbors) it represents the face of the Other in Levinas’ and Ratzinger’s sense.
MR: So, what’s coming up next for the band?
MB: We wrote a children’s rock musical entitled “The Incredible and Death-defying Expedition to Planet X,” and will be going into the studio to record the soundtrack. We’re locking ourselves in a cabin in Vermont to write our first full-length album this June.
Michael Rennier is a contributing editor for Dappled Things. He graduated from Yale Divinity School and lives with his wife and five children in Missouri, where he is a transitional deacon for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.