“Life is suffering, and then you die.” I was convinced this was a real quote that I had heard somewhere before, but after some research, I think it’s an amalgam of a lot of different variations I’ve heard over the years: “life is hard, and then you die;” “life sucks, and then you die;” “life’s a bitch, and then you die.” My personal favorite, from Cary Elwes as Wesley in The Princess Bride: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
This seems a pessimistic a view of the world, but it’s also hard to argue with. You could point to the many joys that life brings, but life also seems designed to take those joys away from you at some point, whether in a traumatic fashion or just in the slow, incessant passage of time. Even with all of our trappings of luxury here in America, we haven’t been able to keep suffering at bay. Everyone suffers, whether rich or poor.
I haven’t suffered, not really, not yet. But I know it’s coming someday. I seek comfort out constantly; much of my daily routine is built to avoid even the smallest amount of discomfort. But we live in a world of sin, so suffering is inevitable at some point, whether by my own hand or the world’s. Knowing this to be true, I’ve sought out several resources for how to process suffering. There are some good ones out there, but, by and large, the American church does a poor job not only of providing good teaching on suffering but also even acknowledging its existence.
Enter Sandra McCracken and her new album, Songs from the Valley. My first encounter with her music was in my last semester of grad school before I graduated and got married that June. She had just released Desire Like Dynamite, and it was one of those moments where you discover an artist that sounds like exactly what you had been looking for. Her pure voice combined with the simple images in her songwriting communicated something to me about walking in faith that I hadn’t found yet. I familiarized myself with the rest of her discography, from her solo work to her collaborations with the Indelible Grace collective, and she quickly became one of my favorite artists.
I knew of her as a person before I knew her music, because she was married to another Christian artist I liked, Derek Webb. He’s known as a kind of provocateur in Christian media, though I’ve found there’s a lot of hyperbole in Christian media when it comes to Webb. The truth is, most Christian artists are pretty staid and reserved when it comes to sharing details about their faith with the media, and Webb is very open about doubt. Also, he used the words “bastard” and “whore” in a song once, and people lost their shit- either in a bad way because those words were too worldly for them, or in a good way because they were starved for Christian artists who bucked the norms.
Webb collaborated with one of the Christian bands that influenced me the most, Caedmon’s Call. Their album, 40 Acres, gave me a language to express my faith during perhaps the one time in my life where I felt truly lost and in desperate need of my Savior. The same year that McCracken released Desire Like Dynamite, Webb released I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You. By the time that record came out, I was married. I felt at the time that the title song was a poignant picture of reconciliation within the covenant of marriage, and I strove to learn how to say those words to my wife.
The next year, McCracken and Webb announced their divorce. In any world but the world of Christian media, two celebrities separating was obvious news. But a Christian ethic makes reporting on a divorce feel like gossip, so publications like Christianity Today and Relevant stayed away from the story. The best reporting I found on it came from the Washington Post’s religion blogger, Sarah Pulliam Bailey. McCracken and Webb are, of course, entitled to their privacy, and Webb did later confess to an affair. But in a sub-culture where the two of them function as celebrities, the lack of information at the time was strange.
Since then, McCracken has released several albums, but none that directly addressed her experience of the divorce. And the album she released this February, Songs from the Valley, continues that trend, though these songs are clearly and unapologetically written from a place of suffering. The reviews I’ve seen of the album eschew any mention of her divorce, which I suppose is an attempt to be respectful. Interviews are the same, void of any questions about the experience, and maybe that’s what she wanted. Or maybe it’s the result of policies from the various outlets that published those pieces.
But this is just a blog, and I’m nobody, so I want to say the obvious thing about this record: Sandra McCracken got divorced in 2014, this is her best music since then, and those two facts are linked.
This isn’t a breakup album, the way it’s traditionally understood. These songs are not about breaking up, but they are about the process of navigating through the pain therein. McCracken recorded these seven songs over the last three years, while most of her recent official releases have focused on corporate worship, from 2015’s collection, Psalms, through 2016’s more proper album, God’s Highway, to last year’s live album, Steadfast Live. These were the most vertically oriented albums of her career, adopting praise and worship of the living God as her focus rather than her usual introspective writing.
Those albums are all worthwhile in their own rights, but they definitely feel different from her output from 2014 and before. Songs from the Valley feels like a return to the personal for McCracken, a step just as necessary as the three worship albums that preceded it. After all, part of worshiping God is knowing yourself and your position as a beloved child before God. Introspection by itself can be debilitating; introspection with the aim of worship is life-giving.
It is up for debate whether or not McCracken is addressing her divorce directly on Songs from the Valley, but it would be a short debate. Album opener, “Fool’s Gold,” begins with the line, “Nobody needs another love song,” declares that her kids have “a life more complicated,” and described her heart as “worth more than dropping in the breaks.” The next song, “Reciprocate,” features an accusing chorus of “You could not reciprocate.” In the final song, “Letting Go,” she describes herself as “trampled by a tempest,” and laments that she has “been holding up the last of my defenses.”
But this album speaks to more than just McCracken’s experience of broken love. There is also stunning imagery surrounding the process of learning to keep living while suffering. “Oh Gracious Light” finds her “walking so long in darkness,” but her experience of God’s “refining holy fire” draws her into the light. On “Lover of My Soul,” she describes forgiveness as “a pathway with a thousand bolted doors.” And on “Parrot in Portugal,” McCracken finds solace in God’s fastidious care for the birds in the trees mirroring his love for us.
I suppose this would still be a great album even without understanding McCracken’s personal history. But within the context of Christian music history, having an album so directly and intimately address divorce is huge. Sandi Patty and Amy Grant both faced a lot of ugly scrutiny in the 1990s after their divorces. The church often does a poor job of loving people going through divorce, choosing judgment rather than discipleship, and this has historically extended to its celebrities. Listening to Songs in the Valley provides a clear, nuanced picture of choosing divorce yet still running toward God.
More importantly though, McCracken confronts her suffering head-on in these songs. Christian music so rarely deals with suffering at such an intimate level. The mainstream of Christian music is concerned mostly with inspiration and encouragement: worship music that wants you to feel good, rather than help you to deal with feeling bad. Of course there are examples, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. And an album that deals with loving God while suffering from front to back is almost unheard of.
It makes sense in retrospect that Sandra McCracken spent the three albums following 2014 diving into worship songs. I can only imagine it helped maintain a sense of perspective in a dark place. The truth is, life isn’t suffering. Sandra McCracken is remarried now, and good for her. For most people, life is a collection of seasons both joyful and painful, and a whole lot of mundane in between. I’m thankful for Songs from the Valley for the reminder that God enters into all of those seasons with the same love and power. He is the God of the valley too.