Meet Me at the Edge of the World
by Tim Timmerman
In a camp in Southern Indiana, the air mattress lies on the linoleum floor of a rec hall. While dense and warm outside, it’s too cold in here; someone turned the air-conditioner on high. Earphones in, I am collapsed upon the flocked, inflated plastic, taking a much-needed rest from the week’s activities as leader of a five-day intensive men’s retreat. Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler sing to me, “All I wanna be is a thousand black birds / Bursting from a tree into the blue / Love—let it be not just a feeling / But the broken beauty / Of what we choose to do.” The piano, the sleepy electric guitar, and Karin’s tender voice are a comfort as I doze and, later, waking up, mark how long I’ve slept by noting which songs I’ve missed.
Over the Rhine’s new double-disk album Meet Me At the Edge of the World has been grounded into a place and time for me, as any good album should be. You buy a CD, and a new relationship is formed. The music speaks and marks where you are in this time and place, and you listen to it until it’s stuck in your internal iPod.
More people relate personally to Karin and Linford’s music than to the music of any other artists I know. We take ownership of their lyrics as if they’re ours. My friends remark that having a new OTR album is like having a wonderful hour-long phone call with a dear friend they haven’t heard from in a while. They play back the conversation again and again, each time finding new insights and nuances. Friends see their lives in the poetic reflection of these two very sincere musician/songwriters. Anyone who is alive and awake to this world’s care and cruelty can’t help being caught in the authenticity of Linford and Karin’s songs of love or absence.
Faithfully making music since the mid-’90s, OTR is now in their mid-20s of album-making. With that volume of creativity as a bulwark around them, there is clarity of vision and maturity to their writing that clearly can come only with time and experience. Karin sings, “The newness of uncovered skin / Your messy hair your goofy grin / Your shattered places deep within / All of it was music.” And the next verse: “To those I’ve wronged, Please forgive me / I hope this song, helps you believe me / The holding on the letting go / It all gets buried soft and low / But even then a song might grow / All of it was music.” There is wisdom of seeing both love and pain as part of the bigger melody. There is maturity in seeing that forgiveness of what we have done and what we have left undone may be used as a part of beauty and wonder.
Over the Rhine’s music is made up of grounded musings of their surroundings: a tupelo tree, ironweed, goldenrod, barren fields, a blue heron, a highway shoulder, red-winged blackbirds, starlings, the Cuyahoga River, a chain-link fence, and dishes left in a sink. They are not artists who look for grace, hope, and life in the teeming streets of Paris or on an exotic beach. Instead they find wonder in taking the time to be rooted in the locale of their home in Highland County, Ohio. On this soil or concrete and within the relationships they have called their own, they clearly have found a reverence for this world.
OTR’s songs wander into your ears like a familiar dog into your home— the plunking of keys, the gentle and methodical strumming, Karin’s longing and plaintiff voice, and the smoky meandering of an electric guitar—these are welcome guests. This familiarity plays out with the traditional instruments they use: an upright piano and bass, harmonium, chamberlin, autoharp, accordion, and mandolin. And this down-to-earth philosophy is manifest in the authors from whom they draw inspiration: Annie Dillard and Anne Lamott, two writers who, like OTR, while grounded in this world clearly point to and long for the next.
Driving away from the camp through Jackson County’s sleepy landscape of rolling corn fields and leafy trees with a scattering of high clouds above, I listen to Karin and Linford sing, “Just the whisper of a breeze / Rollin’ up these threadbare shirtsleeves / Love makes me want to bruise my knees / Sweet Jesus can you come release me / Underneath a blue jean sky / Underneath a blue jean sky / Open up your love and lay it on me / Underneath a blue jean sky / It’s just a faded blue jean sky / Gimme a swig of a little kick ass beauty / Gimme a swig of a little kick ass beauty.” And I’m seeing what they are saying a little clearer after the week, and I can’t help but be thankful to have them along for this ride.