Plenty of gifted female singer-songwriters write out of grief. Rosanne Cash's beautiful and heart-wrenchingly sad 2006 release, Black Cadillac, is about as good as it gets from a non-believer, a blood-on-the-tracks like confessional after her loss of her mother and father in one year. Then there's Sand and Water, Beth Nielsen Chapman's songs wrested from the grief of losing her husband to cancer. Both provide glimpses of hope amid oceans of doubt and struggle. Yet neither get anywhere near an expression of faith in God. The best Chapman can do is admit that "I will see you in the light of a thousand suns" ("Sand and Water"), and Cash can look for "roses in the snow" but can't quite come to believe in any afterlife. That's why Sara Beth Goeghegan's recent independent release, Tired of Singing Sad Songs, is a breath of non-sentimental fresh air, realistically confronting the pain of loss and sadness while affirming a sure hope in Jesus. Alright, I admit it: I am smitten by these songs.
Geoghegan (pronounced go-hay-gen), a New Orleans native, self-confessed migrating songstress, and now settled Nashville songwriter, is as songwriter mature beyond her 27 years, well able to match lyric and tune with the likes of Sara Groves or, in the mainstream world, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Shawn Colvin, Jennifer Warnes, or Karla Bonoff (just to name a few). Though a worship leader with a good sense of humor, her gifts extend beyond church and have the promise of reaching deeper into the world. I think she's done it with this collection. Indeed, there's nary a clunker on this 11-song release.
The title cut sets the tone, the melancholy giving way to the affirmation of the chorus, "When the flowers bloom/ darling we will too/ After a hard cold winter/ And the birds fly home/ with a lighter load/ They’re singing a hymn of summer." Then there's "Lord Deliver Me," a prayer that God deliver her from preoccupation with self: "Lord deliver me from the desire to be noticed, loved, exalted/ Lord deliver me from the desire to be favored, popular, chosen, or acknowledged/ Lord deliver me from the fear of being wrong, forgotten, or ignored/ Lord deliver me from the fear of being humiliated or left behind." All the better that the background vocals come through here like congregational singing, making it more a song from us all.
"Hallelujah, What a Mess," is an admission of our weakness and dependence on God, that even at our best we're a mess. It has an infectious melody that begs you to sing. "Ooh, We Need Jesus" is simply that --- that, in the end, what she is trying to communicate about is simply our need for Jesus. The real life struggle of her Aunt Marika --- a former nun who struggled through alcohol and drug dependence before emerging --- is reflected in "3 Sips of Beauty." Geoghegan channels Karla Bonoff (stylistically, that is) in "Opening," a highly singable folk-pop tune that I keep coming back to. I could go on, but the whole album is full of poignant lyric and joyful melody: a collection of "best of" on a debut release, with just enough production, just diverse enough arrangement and instrumentation, and, well, just enough of everything right. It's rare to be so consistently good on any release, much less a first release. If I gush, it's because I honestly can't find anything to levy a serious criticism against (except maybe the non-inclusion of full lyrics in the packaging or online --- something that can be remedied).
We don't know all the loss represented in the album's songs --- broken engagement, separation, or just that nagging and generalized sense of loss that can infect us all --- nor whether the songs should even be taken as autobiographical (though I doubt Geoghegan can write so well about things she is not to some extent acquainted with). But it doesn't matter. What matters is that the songs offer multiple points of connection with listeners who undoubtedly also know loss and grief, and yet Goeghegan doesn't leave them there in a mildly comforting sense of shared grief but points beyond to hope and deeper comfort in Christ. That's what sets these songs apart.
Tired of angst-ridden, world-weary, stumbling-through-the-darkness tunes that leave you empty? I recommend Tired of Singing Sad Songs. Listen to "Hallelujah, What a Mess" here: