Watching Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros play their communal songs of love, joy and genuine heart at this particular moment in time, it’s impossible to fully extricate my mind from the mood of our country in the wake what befell our nation so heartlessly little more than a week ago. The devastation of that massacre casted a black cloud over the minds of the entirety of our land – as parents, as daughters, sons, teachers, students, friends, neighbors, and sympathetic strangers. An atrocity such as the one that occurred on December 14, 2012 is a tragedy so horrendous many of us could hardly have feared such hell beforehand. Like every senseless tragedy, it was previously an unfathomable nightmare, and now it’s a reality.
Presumably, few of us pretend to have the proper wisdom in times like these to suppose we have answers for why or what to do now. We can assume any person who tells us otherwise knows nothing more than we do and is a true huckster. Answers are non-existent, but opportunities may be at hand: opportunities for communal healing, for love, for goodness, for forgiveness, for family, friends, faith and rebirth. For so many of us, the fragility and sanctity of life have been brought to the forefront of our minds. We’re at a crossroads with an outdated GPS. We can choose righteous anger, tuck away and hide, live in constant dread and fear, or we can live life the best we know how and we can choose love and see what happens.
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros have done the latter since bounding headlong into our hearts in 2009 with Up From Below. The ever-growing collective of Californian merrymakers, fronted by songwriter and bandleader Alexander Ebert, brought their songs of abundant joy and transcendent harmony into our lives and we couldn’t get enough of them. Tunes like “Home,” “40 Day Dream” and the “Up From Below” sounded like absolutely nothing else in popular music at the moment, yet they harkened back not only to illustrious pop and rock acts of generations ago but also to diverse cultures, lands, and religious denominations. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros write pop songs that magically reach a realm of terrestrial grace; they are modern hymns that are all at once worldly and otherworldly. If you know the back story of Alexander Ebert and the heritage of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, you know he understands a thing or two about rising from the darkness to embrace love, friendship, and goodwill in order to find the light beyond a silver lining.
Since Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros’ new album, Here, was released back in May, it has won more than a few passionate fans, many of whom were already in love with the band’s music upon hearing Up From Below. Several months later, Here is beloved in the hearts of many fans, but it hasn’t been as readily embraced in the consciousness of vocal tastemakers quite like the debut album was. The album has yet to yield a runaway hit single quite like “Home” achieved a few years back, and it has been noticeably absent from the majority of the ubiquitous “Best of” lists that have brought the year to a close. It’s fairly safe to presume the reasons are because Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros aren’t bluntly hitting you over the head with Here in terms of songwriting, production or atmosphere.
When I interviewed Orpheo McCord, percussionist and vocalist in the band, weeks before the release of Here about the record and tour, he addressed how critics had characterized the album as having a “campfire” feel. Orpheo told me he preferred to describe the songs as having a “mellow feeling,” and he went on to say, “(Here) sounds like a great record to just sit around outside with friends and, you know, ring in the summer feeling.” The rewards come organically on the strengths of genuine heart and harmony, rounded out by an impressive collective of friends who consider each other family and happen to be wondrous musicians but rarely vie for the spotlight. The band immaculately demonstrates the magic of many, diverse moving parts working in harmony for the greater good. The proof is in the songs, and the unbreakable fulcrums are the harmonies that welcome all into the fold.
The full band settled into Indianapolis on a Sunday afternoon in September and moved mountains to squeeze the entire collective on to the intimate confines of the stage in the Do317 Lounge for this Pabst Blue Ribbon Presents session. The two Here songs the band chose for the session, “Fiya Wata” and “Man on Fire,” go a long way in evoking the subtle gifts each member brings to the group and how the sum of the parts compound into works of deceptively subtle beauty. It’s easy to understand the power songs like these can hold for an intimate Indianapolis crowd on an otherwise average Sunday, but their extraordinary powers seem more readily apparent now in the context of the world we have inhabited over the past several days. They are songs to give yourself over to, to allow into your heart, and to exclaim aloud with arms outstretched and friends and family by your side.
In “Fiya Wata,” Jade Castrinos takes the lead to sing, “We’ll all be riding on a river of love and ever will it stay running.” Such is a message of all-encompassing positivity that we’d always be better off welcoming with open arms. When she goes on to sing, “Lay down your guns. Open your hearts. Please free your hearts. One day I’ll see you all farther down this river to a place we’ve never ever gone before. And when we sing the song we’ll know the sound of love delivered to its hiding place beneath the winter snow,” it’s impossible not to feel the power of that lyric at a time such as now. You can try to go it alone, or you can join the loving procession in the time ahead.
When I wrote my review of Here upon its release, I ended it by saying: On Here, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros have scaled back the production to that of an open air celebration of faith in the immediate world and love of your fellow man. Few bands have looked so deeply inward to write gems with such magnificently outward appeal. They have upped the ante by creating a communal testament of oneness, love, and faith in music so pure it’s nearly subversive in today’s perversely ironic and cynical download age. There is no easy answer for the way to rise past the dreadful cloud of a senseless tragedy on a national scale, but it’s safe to say the pervasive irony and cynicism in our current age can only make matters worse right about now.
“Man on Fire” throws out a rope for us to latch on to and join the spirited, loving community. Alexander and the rest of the band couldn’t have known we would stand at this very crossroads at this point in time, but that doesn’t mean “Man on Fire” isn’t prescient in the ways we may be able to move ahead. When I hear Alexander sing, “Everybody want safety / Everybody want comfort / Everybody want certain love,” I’m now thinking of the constant vulnerability our nation, especially the myriad loving parents with school-age children, faces on a moment-to-moment basis. That this wasn’t the initial inspiration of the song matters none. Alexander follows up that lyric by singing, “Everybody but me / I’m on a man on fire,” chronicling a free-spirited drifter rolling into town and begging the world to let loose and dance with him.
Before that chorus ever comes around, Alexander has already proclaimed, “Come dance with me / Over murder and pain, come set us free / Over heartache and shame / I wanna see your bodies burning like the old big sun / I wanna know what we’ve been learning and learning from.” The song may have been written from the perspective of a solitary drifter living outside the confines of everyone else’s needs, but the words Alexander has chosen make “Man on Fire” an even more powerful statement when we adapt it to this specific moment in time.
Yes, we certainly are facing the darkness of murder, pain, heartache, rage, panic, and shame. Have we learned anything? Who are we learning from? If we ever know, it may not be for a long while. For now, why not open our hearts, sing out in triumph, and let our bodies burn in motion like the old, big sun?
Singing and dancing with Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros right now may not solve a damn thing for us…but, then again, they just might.
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros’ Here is out now courtesy of Vagrant Records.
Recorded live on September 23rd, 2012 at the Do317 Lounge in Indianapolis
Filmed by: Doug Fellegy / Derik Savage / Christina Reid / Sheridan Gibson / Meghan Shearer
Edited by: Doug Fellegy / Sheridan Gibson
Recorded and Mixed by: Spencer Hooks / Jeff Dupont
Written by: Justin Wesley