Listening to Christopher Lively’s new LP Distance, you get the impression that the Americana songwriter is on a search: a search for peace, happiness, understanding, truth, and, above all, a connection with others that transcends the superficial relationships we forge based on common interests and shared beliefs.
At times, Lively suggests that this connection is essential to being human: “Bring back the glow to this hardening heart before I turn to wood,” he pleads on the opening track, “Turn to Wood,” which throbs with images of loneliness, like that of businessmen stuck in offices, watching planes take off to wherever their loved ones wait for them.
“Turn to Wood” is gentle and balladic like most of the ten tracks on Distance. It also has a clear message: Distance yourself from people and lose your humanity. A simple equation seems to be at work: To feel is to be human, and to feel we must have meaningful relationships. Humans feel; wood doesn’t.
But Lively hurts for those who’ve grown numb, who’ve alienated themselves from others and have thus forfeited their humanity, and sometimes the burden of what others should feel grows too heavy to carry; in “Turn to Wood” and throughout Distance, Lively’s voice, at times, warbles, threatening to give way and crack, but it never does. Those trembling notes, though subtle, turn out to be some of the album’s most poignant moments.
“Turn to Wood” sets the album’s somber tone; it also introduces the album’s recurring theme, namely distance. Over email, Lively discussed the various meanings of “distance” he had in mind while writing the album:
“I think the theme of distance (both in terms of time and space) is loosely interwoven throughout the whole album, both in its positive manifestations (the lengths we travel on our paths, the lengths people can go for each other, giving space for things to breath and grow) and negative (the alienation, loss, and separation that can ensue from having too much or too little of it).”
In “Turn to Wood,” distance keeps people apart, but in the “The River Song,” distance implies moving closer to others. “The River Song” is a folksy gospel tune that, without ever mentioning God or heaven, uses the theology of Christian baptism to champion the importance of community, in which the individual disappears: “We come together and we meet as one; we come together and we bleed as one,” Lively murmurs, as if telling a secret. But before we come together, we have to walk down to the river and close the distance between ourselves and those waiting there: “Come on down to the river with me,” Lively beckons.
The distance we travel to get to the river is the difference between a life spent alone and one spent in community. The song emphasizes that community is neither static nor does it merely entail nominal membership in a group. Rather, belonging to a community entails being part of a dynamic, living, breathing organism: Many cells operating as one, not unlike a river, which the song evokes beautifully.
“The River Song” feels fluvial, from Lively’s undulating picking to a song-structure that imitates the way a river swells and shrinks, swells and shrinks before feeding into the ocean. It starts with Lively playing alone — a soft rippling, a narrow creek that opens into a swirling stream, deep and wide, when drums, bass, and steel-guitar enter and fill out the song, which shrinks in the bridge and swells again in the final chorus.
What makes a community move, breath and grow, and come to life, the song suggests, is sharing, and not just your possessions, but also your secrets, your fears, your personal experiences, everything that has shaped you. Lively invites us to “tell a story to (our) brothers that will set (us) free,” and he, in turn, will “show (us) all the things he’s seen.”
Conversely, the album’s title track focuses on isolation and on the consequences of withholding instead of sharing. As Lively wrote over email, “’Distance’ (the song) explores the colder aspects of excessive distance in an interpersonal context.”
And in the relationship about which Lively sings, the couple’s failure to talk about their issues estranges them from each other. Yet they keep “acting like there’s nothing wrong, moving right along.”
“Distance” is heart-wrenching because the couple feels helpless to do anything about the distance that has come between them. They long to be close again, and both admit to hurting the other without meaning to. But their relationship is beyond saving. Now it’s time to separate, to actualize the distance they feel: “I know it may hurt to move along, but we could put it in a song. We will carry on,” Lively insists at the end.
“Blues in a Broke Red Heart,” though it precedes “Distance” in the album’s song-order, is the kind of lament that would be written after such a breakup, one that neither person wants, but knows must happen. And when the breakup does happen, staying separated is like resisting gravity. You can’t help but forget the bad and think about how good the two of you were for each other, how much you bettered each other before the flame went out and the relationship turned cold and dead. As Lively recalls, “She loved me hard and knew me well, and helped me find my way.”
He hurts in her absence: “I miss my baby; I miss my girl. If I didn’t see her comin’, sure as hell could see her go,” Lively moans with the pain and honesty of a guy who, besotted and cut off by the bartender, sneaks abandoned half-empty drinks and unloads his woes onto a bunch of polite but indifferent strangers who just wanted a quick beer on a Tuesday night.
With Distance, Lively has proven himself to be a sophisticated songwriter who understands that folk music should sound literary and homespun at once. Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Joan Beaz, Odetta, all the great folk artists knew how to strike this balance, and that’s why we still listen to them. Lively’s songs are twangy poems that will hold up fifty years from now.