Paths into the light: “Illuminations”

I wrote about this very much awaited album already back in November last year, after I first listened to it in my bed with my earphones on in the dark, just me and the songs. The next day I already felt compelled to share my thoughts and feelings about the CD because of the deep impact it had on me. I feel I have since then managed to dive deeper into the songs, the entire album has become much more personal to me and it is my opinion that the versatility of the music and the depths of its content make the album worthy to be spoken about again.

On the train ride to Miskolc on my way to visit my friends there I listened to the whole of “Illuminations”, twice from beginning to end, including the bonus tracks. After a longer break from listening to Josh Groban songs I had the time and the opportunity to focus on the music and lyrics only, not distracted by anything else save the landscape rushing by my compartment window. I welcome such moments of privacy as they tend to get more scarce every year. It is also safe to say that with each listening, I find myself more drawn to this album, not only because it’s the artist’s most mature and personal work to date but also because (and this may be the direct result of my previous statement) the songs reach deeper down inside my heart than most of the previous ones.

If I had to find one word that would genuinely describe this album, it would be LIGHT. Not only because of the title, which refers to the presence of physical and spiritual light but also because, for me, the individual songs represent tiny paths into the light. In the lyrics we often find words or phrases connected to or referring to light, furthermore, the instrumental arrangements are also reminiscent of light and its numerous forms of outlet. As I listened, the songs rang, resounded and tinkled in my ears and my soul, behind my closed eyelids points and beams of light danced, the rising sun shone brightly, it warmed me on the cool morning. “Wondering kind” is about development, about looking out from our own narrow little worlds into the larger space of the unknown, the importance of staying open, it’s about restlessness that does not necessarily imply physical movement but is essential for the acceptance and the understanding of the changes brought on by life. It has a gentle, uplifting, charming melody, we feel optimism and movement in it, we sense open-mindedness and sunlight approach us, the instruments laugh and smile and contemplate in it, lyrical strings and playful guitar alternate. The heart whispers one word: JOURNEY. Magic. Serenity. Hope. A few days ago at his Vienna concert the artist talked about this song and told his audience that he had composed it after a particularly bad day at school to lift his own spirits [A/N: He was twelve. Twelve!!!]. The last notes of the song work as both an invitation to a long and beautiful journey, and also as the closing of the first chapter of the album before the change of atmosphere the next song brings about. Through the mist of melancholy and wistful sighs a bridge slowly starts to figure and it is this bridge of sighs that the voice of the singer takes us across. We hold his hand, we hear the bells about which “The Bells of New York City” is about, those wishful bells, modern-age sirens whose calling makes desire rise in our chest and we understand why this particular city, the city that will host the brightest star of American vocal music and the upcoming stages of his personal development, draws the singer’s heart to it. There are facts to show that the city has a private and a professional hold on him and the words to the song make this obvious for us. It is cold within the song, we are cold, we shiver, through the mist of twilight church spires rise softly into view, snow-covered streets are winding among pastel-coloured buildings, the squares of the city are filled with crowds of rushing people, it’s all about the rush, the scurry of it, but only in the blurry recesses of it all because what’s most important only starts to dawn as a bitter-sweet dream ready to take physical shape. There is such strong longing in this song that we feel drawn toward New York as if it were a gigantic magnet. It is impossible to escape its power, nor do we want to, because the subject of yearning is inner peace, the search and the finding of ourselves: we feel something beautiful ready to emerge, magic and mystery are ready to be born as the sound-strings of delicate gleams of light roll through our souls culminating in the intensifying of desire that brings about catharsis. If anyone is not yet familiar with the musical capacities of Josh Groban’s voice, they will already receive a good taster in this song. “The Bells of New York” is about depths and heights, the maelstrom of down below and the peacefulness of up above. His voice drones with the church bells, it whistles with the winter wind, it whispers cravingly, it sighs dreamily, it cries desperation, it whirls with the snowflakes. This voice is so beautiful it caresses and causes pain at the same time. With its beauty it leaves an indelible scratch on our hearts, we cannot help feeling for its owner, we live through each note with him. For me, the one word to depict this song is LONGING. It creates havoc in the wake of hope that leads to quietude and redemption, it’s a very intense song that will leave us restless each time. There is a desire to ruminate on words and music for a long time, time which is not granted, because “Galileo (Someone like you)” is starting, the song about which there was a separate discussion on this particular blog last year. At first hearing, this song is a humble, simple one, originally written by an Irish musician, covered in a very personal style on this album. It would be impossible for me to write down everything this song reminds me of; furthermore, it may overshadow the importance of the rest of the songs when it comes to its message. It is my (and not only my) personal belief that in “Galileo” we find none other than this: the history of human development culminating in the current illusory domination of materialism, all this through a tiny event called love. It is about a scientist’s encounter with God. In it there are mankind’s most crucial questions: how and why do we love, where do rainbows come from, how do life’s greatest miracles come about. Since the inception of humankind these questions have existed, the answers to which we are still searching. We look up at the sky, we look down under the microscope, we cut things into atoms, molecules, compounds, we sing about them, we paint them, we put them into words. We are united in our search for these answers, we, humankind, the crown of creation, the effigy of God, and through our greed and boastfulness, the greatest enemies of our earth. Our curiosity is the means that justifies all ends, it is our goal to cut up everything into processes of formula, equation and tangible explanation. Including love. For me, the message of the song is HUMBLENESS. The melody flows gently, it arches into incredible heights with the singer’s voice, almost as if searching for God. It is not my intent to force my personal point of view on the song or the artist; I am only referring back to odd sentences in interviews, words only noticed by those who are on the same path. I cannot know for certain where Josh Groban is in his spiritual development, I’m mostly relying on intuition. It is for the above reasons that in my opinion, “Galileo” is the most spiritual song on the album. Its humbleness and the heights of the melody are the manifestations of that very duality so characteristic of a life lived in faith. The makers of the album may have thought it desirable to counteract the elevated mood of the song with one that pulls us back down to earthly reality and tells about the inevitable goodbye in a relationship, “L’ora dell’addio”. For a long time, I disliked this song. The genre of the opera is still distant from me, only time will tell if we ever befriend each other or not. The style of the song is undoubtedly verging on classical music, on opera, the singer’s magnificent baritone can shine in all its glory, therefore the lovers of classical sound will probably consider this as the culminating point of the album. The farewell of the man and perhaps a little skimpy explanation as to why he has to leave his beloved is a little pathetic to me. It could be because I haven’t yet lived through such a farewell. I am aware of the fact that life is full of goodbyes, of endings and beginnings; the song might bother me because I think it lacks in its dwelling on the beauty of passing love. The parting occurs and what is left behind is none other than the void, the feel of something finished, sadness. The beauty of memories is blurred by emptiness, there is nothing left. Nothing. Maybe the song is just about that. If this is its aim, then the endeavour is a successful one… but for me, the song is not positive enough in its content and message, especially compared to the other songs. In one word, I would say the song is about SHADOW. I find myself unable to love it yet, neither musically speaking, nor content-wise. I’ll patiently wait to understand and accept what this song has to say. In the meantime, the physical and emotional silence that ensues it is quickly broken by the intimate piano-playing in “Hidden away”. Again we find a modest piece whose music is restrained and simple, very simple, it lacks flourishes and eloquence, it only has words. Here the words are more important than the music. It’s an appeal to everyone to stop hiding, stop running, stop looking for darkness and be brave enough to show their true colours, accept themselves, speak up and say everything they cherish inside themselves in the fear of rejection and being misunderstood. A call to face the light, to take a chance on themselves, to let their voices heard, to find their personal expressive powers, to be themselves. We can only lead a complete life if we accept ourselves and we are brave enough to show our own real selves in front of others. We all carry our crosses, real or imaginary, we are all scared, nay, terrified of something, we all feel that something about us is not accepted. At times we all become mute, we keep from saying things, we don’t stand up for ourselves. We have to understand that we can never have a positive effect on anyone this way. We are all flowers, individual, unique, admirably beautiful flowers with a one and only scent, unique hues of colour and singular shapes. Let us dare to open our petals, let us allow those of others to touch ours, let us accept the blessings of rain and sunshine and let us herald our true selves into the world, bravely, loudly. The message of this song is: COURAGE. I had goosebumps when I first heard it and as time goes by, as the desire is stronger and stronger in me to accept my true self and values with a healthy but not excessive confidence, my love for the song is increasing.

Here, a break is necessary. A short one. For me, there occurs in the album a shift, both in content and music. From here on more melodic and poetic pieces follow each other until the end of the album. The best way to put it would be that I usually fall from one emotional shock into another upon listening to the second part of “Illuminations”. While thanks to the mood-shifts of the songs I can still breathe in the first half, the second half literally wrings my heart and soul. Before I could recover, I have to face yet another emotional blow. “Au jardin des sans-pourqoui” is sung in French, which in itself renders it more emotionally charged for me. I always pay attention to how the words are pronounced, their perfect sound would give me joy even if I didn’t understand their meaning. But I do. Hot and cold chills run along my spine alternately whenever I just think of this song. I don’t think I can put into words what I feel when I hear this song. It’s about the return to innocence, it chants the hopeless longing for a world once better and more beautiful. There is great sadness in it and even greater craving that never ends. Something has ended but while in “L’ora dell’addio” the ending is merciless and irrevocable, here we’re opposed to it, we cry out in pain, we weep, we hurl into the darkness: “light! light!!” Here we remember the original Garden, in our blood perfect bliss is running, we still want to recuperate the idyllic moment that once was unbroken. We were born as angels who knew nothing of the duality of good and evil, but our fall has transformed us into flesh and blood beings who can feel pain, anger, jealousy, sorrow. From the darkness we long to return into the light. For me the song is unquestionably about RETURN. The desire is so strong that we feel we could go back any time and recreate the state of Eden once again. Perhaps if we accept the fact that the realm of Heaven is within us, we can succeed. (As a tender memento, let us acknowledge the artistry of Rufus Wainwright and that of his fatally ill mother: they worked together on the song while Mrs Wainwright was slowly devoured by cancer and according to what the singer professed during a concert, the song is the only surviving collaboration between mother and son.) The song ends on a longing but hopeful note and is followed by one similar in mood. “Higher window” is about literal and figurative heights, a relationship perhaps not supported by both parties, one that might run between two people like a deep abyss surmountable only by love and forgiveness. A man mourns the past where he rejected her and turned to his career instead; now he’s lonely and would like to get back to her. But is that possible at all? A waterfall of light envelops the two of them, literally the divine Light that makes redemption possible. The song dwells on the simple beauty of life, on the forgiving of the past and the hoping in a better future. It’s subdued and humble and yet a powerful request from one human being to another. Begging. It’s beautiful. It brings tears. It’s a PLEA, almost a prayer. I have no time to swallow my tears as “If I walk away” comes next, a plea and a resurrection in one, a soft citadel and an honest confession, dreams woven into each other and the bleakness of the present. “Fragments, shells of a long ago lifetime”. Beautiful words! Notes are jingling, the seaside is sprinkled with shells, memories float by softly, we almost understand these memories, they are so beautiful. We also were once stupid, we regret what happened and what didn’t. We are in the state of weightlessness, we search for the path laid out for us in the mist-covered life, we crave the light that surfaces above the horizon faithfully following the the heightening arch of the song, our core is warmed by the sunrise of the melody as well as the first beams of the real-imagined rising sun, darkness is followed by light as the past is followed by a magical, hopeful, bright future. It’s a gorgeous song with gorgeous instrumentation and all the above is emphasized by what the artist himself recently said about the song: a song of gratitude for his family and friends and at the same time, a plea to them, so that when the hard times come, he can lay back and fall softly. This song is LIGHT itself. We don’t even have the time to grasp it all because “Love only knows” adds to the string of painfully beautiful songs. This one is about a love perhaps hopeless, perhaps kept secret. We may stand in the moment of farewell, we might bury our heads amongst the pillows to hide from the grim certainty of tomorrow in search of warmth and the immortality of the moment. We are in love, nothing else matters, not the past, nor the future, only the present. We rely on the omnipotence of love, we cannot make decisions because that would be too painful so we let fate decide, but before that we look into each other, we enter each other, we embrace and accept each other, our flesh and our soul unites in the flame of perfection. We choose each other against the world. This song is an EMBRACE. To enhance it we are given the chance to hear the most special song on the album sung in Portuguese, “Voce existe em mim”, an ode to love. Maybe it’s about the amorous feelings of an angel for a human being, maybe the confession of a man in the throes of unearthly love but the song is by all means about love that shatters the earth, about FIRE. About bodies, and embers, about lush rain, about blooming into flower, about burning, and creation, about gardens, thirst, souls. The foundation for all this are the sensual rhythms of the Brazilian drum ensemble underlined by string instruments: the original Big Bang comes to mind, the first carnal encounter between Man and Woman. Exotic, smouldering journey of the body into the realm of the senses, it’s a magnificent song in which heart and body beat together with the drums. After it’s over we try to catch our breath in the dark, emotionally spent, using those few moments before “War at home” starts. Our hearts fill with the atmosphere of burials and mourning as wind instruments wail toward the sky. The song pays tribute to the soldiers who arrive home from war but are hostages of an emotional war that never stops. Not one opinion stated that this song is “too American”, but from the beginning, I saw it differently. Almost all nations have lived through wars; we know, but at least we suspect how difficult it must be for someone who upon stepping back from the threshold of death tries to find refuge in the haven of every day. Despite all this the merits of the song are not decreased by the knowledge that the artist wrote it after his visit to a rehabilitation hospital. His voice is the most plaintive in this song. It weeps, so much, that my soul weeps with him. He doesn’t ask the almost worn-out question: why we hurt each other, why there is war, how can God allow suffering etc., but he speaks about facts. Not about rhetorical questions, but about genuine hell. About the reality that cuts through the flesh and the soul. About those who out of duty or compulsion (the reason hardly matters) went to war, fought against their fellow human creatures who had become enemies because of their nationality, and through a miracle survived and returned home only to feel completely lost and out of place. Whoever has been to hell cannot believe in heaven any longer. Whoever has faced death can only accept life with great difficulty, or not at all. The song is about them, these men and women crippled in body and spirit. PAIN. It’s about the heroes with bodies hardened by fighting but with souls forever damaged, it is for them that the singer’s voice and our soul weeps. If there was no closure in this powerful song, wrath and incomprehension would ensue, the beginnings of another war. Those of revenge. Josh Groban, however, is a spiritual artist who bears evidence of emotional maturity in “London Hymn”. A very short piece, barely two minutes that provides a perfect ending: redemption. The lump in our throat shapes itself already hearing the sounds of the Latin choir; this was the song that brought tears into my eyes at first hearing even without understanding the lyrics. “Morti irrequieti somnum reperiat et lux memorandi nostri eum, porteat ad pacem aeternam”, “May the dead find peace and may the light of our remembrance lead them to eternal rest.” What a wonderful, divine sentence! Whoever sings anything like this, whoever identifies with something like this can only be someone with a profound spirituality. May God bless Josh Groban for offering solace and PEACE to millions in these two minutes of relinquishing the past, relinquishing anger, of acceptance and of resignation. And if these songs so far weren’t spiritual enough, if they weren’t sufficiently focused around light, let us look at the ending song of the official album. “Straight to you” is borrowed from Nick Cave and it is my opinion that Josh Groban transformed the song into pure perfection. Kudos to Mr Cave for the breathtaking lyrics and the original melody, but just as part of the album recalls earthly affairs while the rest of it reflects on the heavenly spheres, Mr Groban’s version of this song is the flawless symbiosis of the two worlds, it unifies Earth and Heaven, fuses amorous love into the Divinity. All that humans madly in love can feel is present in this song: celestial visions, heavenly horsemen, chariots, wind instruments, and speaking of the instrumentation of the song, it alternates the enigmatic with the earth-shattering. It is no coincidence that the current world tour has been named “The Straight to You Tour” and that each concert starts with the small orchestra playing an instrumental version of this very song. It sounds miraculous. It sounds purely divine, without a doubt. Light and shadow meet thus in the song, the two flow into each other, morph into one another like two bodies; the chariots of angels collide, the World ends but Love lives on, Man defies everything and everyone, heaven, earth, humans, demons, angels. We get goosebumps listening to the melody, the instrumental arrangement, and the lyrics that praise the vision of Nick Cave. This song personifies BIRTH. Creation. The Beginning of something New.

Those who own the songs mentioned so far can already call themselves truly fortunate. The album is a rare musical delicacy, I think anyone who heard “Illuminations” can only agree with me. Those who also own the bonus tracks can further enrich the musical shades on their palette. “Feels like home” is an old-fashioned confession of love, tender and simple, patient and all-accepting, an arrival into bliss, the closing of a difficult, lonely past. What a treasure, to be able to love somebody in this fashion, to be given this wonderful opportunity! “They won’t go when I go” is a Stevie Wonder cover, a musical peculiarity in itself; now it gets boosted by the baritone of Josh Groban. What depths! What chilling sounds! And what lyrics… “Le cose che sei per me” is probably the most beautiful song on the album if we consider the monumental and larger-than-life melodies sung in a classical style that used to be characteristic of the artist’s previous albums. A love confession, or a prayer to God, the lyrics might be considered trite and average. However, the Italian language and this fantastic baritone form a duo difficult to top. The result is painful beauty.

“Illuminations” is a musical jewel set with wonderfully sumptuous gems floodlit by light. The songs are, by every standard, positive and uplifting. We journey on from the beginning to its end, we roam the wondrous wilderness of human emotions; if there is any sadness, it is always redeemed by happiness, or at least hope. Light is forever present, it allows darkness no real space. Believers could say that God is very much alive on this album. For me, hearing it means hearing a miracle each and every time; to this day I’m grateful to the artist for creating the album and trusting us enough to share his most personal songs to date with us. His previous album, “Awake” evoked similar emotions in me, let us not forget the breathtaking, spiritually mature title song or “Un dia llegara” or the double-edged, ambiguous and wonderful “In her eyes”, the magical, magical “Smile” or the indescribable hymn, the song that literally saved and continues saving hundreds, thousands, “You are loved (Don’t give up)”. Nevertheless, “Illuminations” is undoubtedly more evolved in every aspect of the music. It’s fuller, richer, many-layered, peculiar, tasty, aromatic, epicurean and piquant, proving the sophistication of its creators as well as that of those who dive in and allow themselves to fully enjoy the blessings of this music. It’s significantly more daring, more candid and by all means more intimate than any of the singer’s previous work. Sometimes painfully intimate, especially if the listener is blessed (or cursed) with profound empathy. I truly feel fortunate for having heard this album and I love its every note (even “L’ora…” which is still slightly foreign to me)… as well as their co-maker and performer. With all my heart.

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