Recently I went on a long road trip by myself, which naturally means listening to music for hours and hours on end. Ironically, while listening to certain albums in a certain order, I made some discoveries on the meaning of silence. The musical themes of the albums flowed seamlessly into one another, providing thought-provoking meditations that struck deep within my heart. There were many themes reappearing and referencing each other throughout the musical experience, but the new understanding they granted me about silence were personally the most poignant, and so I felt a strong desire to share those specifically. But I do want to recommend taking the time to listen to these albums as a meditation and to discover more of their depth on your own!
Movement One – Lent: “Vessel” by Twenty One Pilots
One of Vessel’s main themes is the wandering of a soul dealing with its own brokenness, failures, and fears. The album’s tone is very Lenten, for it recognizes sin and failure as a stain upon one’s life, a stain that needs to be removed. Many of the songs remind me of the psalms, which, though they are full of hope, did not have the Fulfillment of the hope present to them. The lyrics reveal a struggle with simultaneously knowing that there must be healing in the future while still facing troubles in the present moment, and this theme runs through many of the songs on the album.
The soul prior to Christ’s redemption, within this turmoil of heart, cannot find comfort in silence. There are three significant reflections on silence and what it means for the restless soul in Vessel. In “Fake You Out,” the soul prays to God with a dual fear: fear of a life without God but also a fear of what might happen if God is let in.
I, I’ll never be, be what you see inside / You say I’m not alone, but I am petrified / You say that you are close, is close the closest star? / You just feel twice as far
I’m so afraid / Of what you have to say / ‘Cause I am quiet now / And silence gives you space
For someone who does not know God, giving Him space through silence would be terrifying. Who knows what God might demand of him?
“Trees” also presents a negative view of silence, one that focuses on it as an absence. The soul accuses both himself and God of silence, that is, of hiding from each other, of a broken relationship.
I know where you stand / Silent in the trees / And that’s where I am / Silent in the trees
Why won’t you speak? / Where I happen to be / Silent in the trees / Standing cowardly
It reminds me of the soul crying out to God and asking why He does not reveal himself in flashes of light and in large and loud proclamations. Silence seems to indicate disconnect, a lacking, and that God is invisible (or worse, unreal).
But the clearest struggle with silence occurs with the song “Car Radio,” which is placed near the center and the heart of the album. The lyrics tell a story of someone whose car radio has been stolen, and so he can no longer use music to keep him from thinking about his own hurting heart. “Sometimes quiet is violent” is the very honest description of how frightening it is to sit and think in a silent space.
I’m forced to deal with what I feel / There is no distraction to mask what is real
I have these thoughts / So often I ought / To replace that slot / With what I once bought / ‘Cause somebody stole / My car radio / And now I just sit in silence
Silence is feared and rejected by the restless soul. It brings to mind accusations of sin and brokenness in the inner depths of the person, and thus is treated as an evil that needs to be avoided to bring at least some semblance of relief.
But what would happen if the sin and brokenness was healed?
Movement Two – Holy Triduum: “Fortunate Fall” by Audrey Assad
The need for redemption does not end with the beginning of Fortunate Fall, but this new album rather turns the thought of sin on its head with the first line: “O happy fault, o happy fault, that gained for us so great a Redeemer.” How can these faults in any way be “happy”?! This simple phrase summarizes the whole celebration of Holy Triduum. The paradoxes of the gospel, God made man, blessedness in suffering, and glory in humility, all shine forth most clearly as the Lord of all creation is crucified for the sake of sinners. Suddenly, the soul realizes that answers to the wages of sin are found only through Christ’s sacrifice. Fortunate Fall is a meditation of the soul entering into the paradoxes of redemption. After the beginning lines introducing the theme of “O happy fault,” the second song, “Help My Unbelief,” considers the mystery of healing brought by the Savior:
Strange and sweet collision of justice and mercy / Your burden is light and Your yoke is easy
O happy fault that gained for me the chance to know You, Lord / To touch Your wounded side and know the joy of my reward
As the album continues with this contemplation of redemption, it is striking how much more poignant the meditation becomes after having heard the soul’s cry for help from Vessel. But even more striking is that Fortunate Fall has not removed the theme of brokenness – it has added Christ’s saving power and thus transformed the story of brokenness from a catastrophe into a eucatastrophe (as Tolkien would have called it).
So what does this have to do with silence? By redeeming the restless soul, Christ simultaneously redeems silence. In Fortunate Fall, there are two musical interludes, one of which is completely instrumental. This music has the confidence to leave what you might call “open spaces” for interior contemplation, something with which the soul in Vessel would not have been comfortable as demonstrated by “Car Radio.” The musical style is obviously more calm and quiet, and illustrates a kind of peace that only Christ can bring. The soul is no longer afraid of a silence that “gives God space” because it realizes that opening space means that it can be filled with goodness.
But the crowning jewel of Fortunate Fall and the last song of the album, “You Speak,” provides the ultimate answer to Vessel’s wondering how there can be relationship in silence.
You liberate me from my own noise and my own chaos / From the chains of a lesser law You set me free
In the silence of the heart You speak / And it is there that I will know You and You will know me
The silence in Vessel might have been an exterior silence, but there was no interior peace that is the fruit of true silence. Silence was feared because of “my own noise and my own chaos,” but once the soul allowed itself to be loved and led out of the darkness, Christ transformed and then deepened the silence into a sacred place that is an opening to love.
Movement Three – Easter Season: “Alive Again” by Matt Maher
I woke up in darkness, surrounded by silence, o where, where have I gone?
As Alive Again begins, you can almost feel the sun rise on the dark night of the soul. The album begins as if the soul is waking up, and Christ crashes into the soul’s life with an exuberance that seems startling after the focus on quiet and silence. In fact, many of the songs on the album are much more loud and energetic than those on Fortunate Fall. This is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it is like the bursting open of the flower’s bud after the slow growth from a seed planted underground. Now, in Easter, the Church sings “Alleluia!” with joyful voices. When Christ comes into the silence of the redeemed person’s heart, that heart naturally begins to sing out to other people with the message of redemption and goodness.
This album shows a progression from a faith of one person to a faith that is practiced in a community, a Church. While the first two albums mostly focus on the “I,” the individual, this one includes more mentions of “we” and “us” as the subject of the songs. “Hold Us Together” especially captures the new understanding of the primacy of community in Christian life
Love will hold us together / Make us a shelter to weather the storm / And I’ll be my brother’s keeper / So the whole world will know that we’re not alone
These songs are the songs of the newly founded Church, of the first Christians. They have put all of their past fears into the proper perspective and have learned all that matters: Love of God and love of neighbor. The people of God should not remain totally turned inward on themselves; they should give themselves as gifts in relationship. This involves action! Speaking! Singing! Loving!
Then Alive Again closes with the song “Garden.” This is a lovely, quiet song that summarizes the answers to all the questions the soul had in the first two albums. It pulls the soul back from activism to the “one thing necessary,” the first reason for love and the deepest meaning of life: relationship with the Creator. In perfect peace and harmony, the soul walks and converses freely with God, an image of original innocence in the Garden of Eden. It is silence and peace that makes the garden in the heart possible.
Oh, why would I hide / Away from Your face / Where the light of Your love / Illuminates?
Your hand in mine / A steady line / Drawn on my heart / And deep in my mind
And You walk with me / You never leave / You’re making my heart a garden
Silence was once twisted and distorted, for sin warps everything it touches. But once Christ comes into a person’s heart as Healer, silence becomes a welcome place of refreshment and relationship.
P.S. If you want a shorter version of these albums in a playlist with the main themes still intact, I’ve made a playlist you can access here.