Lord Sycamore: Understory
New Apartment: Story Under the Song
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"Story Under the Song" for "New Apartment"
track 1 from Child Coming Home (album, 2019)
WHERE DID THE SONG COME FROM?
The song's "bookend" came to me in June 2016 while I was noodling at the keyboard. It was catchy, so I recorded a voice memo, wrote the lyrics on a scrap of paper, and forgot about both.
In 2017, my friend Davis started a songwriting group in a Facebook Messenger chat.
He sent a musical and lyrical prompt. Check the chorus and bridge of "New Apartment" to see where I used his lyrics (which, I found out later, had been generated by a Markov Chain).
At first, I was stumped by his prompt. Some lines, like "a bed of fire beneath the freezing cold," seemed to open up plenty of emotional and narrative space for me to work in. Others, like "a mass commotion on the other side of town tonight," didn't.
I took the inscrutability of his prompt as a challenge. Inspiration to overcome it came from -- of all places-- my improv comedy group! We practice something we call "justification." That's our collaborative practice of synthesizing even the wildest non sequitur into the scene. Basically, we'll add extra details, interactions, and repetitions until that weird bit fits.
In applying "justification" to the song, I started asking questions like: in what way is the apartment 'new'? Metaphorically, what could 'winter' be standing in for? What exactly, and in what way, is the protagonist being 'told'?
HOW DID THE SONG GROW?
Those questions helped a little, but it was a lot of real-life pain that made the prompt sprout. Around that time, a family friend was enduring a really bad relationship. In loving our friend, my wife and I felt a bit of their uncertainty, heartache, and loneliness. That spacious lyrical prompt from Davis began to absorb those feelings, and the story-- as I understood it-- grew line by line.
(As a preliminary note, I made the protagonist a man for both this song and the album. Henceforth, we’ll call him “the Singer.”)
For me, the story of “New Apartment” starts with the instrumental opening. I pictured the music accompanying a movie scene in which, on a summer afternoon, two parents and their children rest and play in the patches of shade and sunlight beneath the old, tall trees outside their home. In essence, the music is an emotional description of the Singer’s dream to have a peaceful, stable life with his wife and children.
In the bookend, the Singer interrupts this pleasant reverie as he grapples with the reality of the betrayal of trust and the loss of intimacy he’s suffered. Then, in the bookend bridge, he sings that we should understand his experience as the start of a larger journey. (This means the album’s story arc, essentially).
In verse 1, the Singer is working at a restaurant during the winter. A new hire (imagined here as a woman) starts flirting with him (“turning up my low heat”). Due to the mutual attraction and an emergency (“apartment burning down”), the two start up a relationship that moves a little too quickly (“I should’ve said ‘it takes time’”). The two move in together.
In verse 2, the Singer becomes aware that his girlfriend has a cavalier attitude toward him (“you always put your feet on the couch”) and that she can’t be trusted, despite her promises to change (“you always... said… “I’ll turn over a new leaf). By the time a year has passed and the Singer realizes that the long-running argument (“frozen beef”) needs more than a quick fix (cooking with a stove versus with a microwave), his girlfriend has moved out.
In the bridge the Singer resolves-- despite his loneliness, the pain of his loss, and his questions about whether his former lover feels the same unrest-- to keep his dream of having a family alive.
In verse 3, that dream is slowly simmering in the Singer’s heart (“you’d find a crockpot meal... no sense in cooking for one”). While he’s sorting through his pain, he’s looking for a new woman (“I’m looking for a reason to buy a home”), and nurturing his resolve not to rush into a relationship next time. After all, in his words, he knows that “even when [he’s] got the itch to roam,” his relationship can’t have “a seasonal lease if [he] wants a harvest of peace.”
Between those verses, he returns to the chorus as he does to his apartment -- that is to say, finding it (or himself) changed and “new,” feeling alone there, and burning with a desire which, it turns out, is for a deep and lasting relationship.
The bookend (which is undergirded, I might mention, by the “Pachelbel’s Canon” chord progression so frequently heard at weddings) returns at the end of the song to show that for all the Singer’s travails, nothing has changed for him. He’s still dealing with the hurt -- and, as the recurrence of the instrumental shows, he’s still dealing with the hunger for a home and for family, too.
WHY DOES THIS STORY MATTER?
Here's what was most striking to me in writing this song: for all the changes the Singer experiences in “New Apartment,” his deepest desires stay the same. He wants a family and children. He wants a home. And he wants relationship -- he aches to be rooted in a life of long-lasting love.
Obviously, these desires overlap. The desires for family and for relationship, it could be argued, might well be conflated into one — the desire for relationship. I make them distinct here because of the thematic role all three desires have played both in my own life and in the narrative arc of the album.
As I've thought about these three desires-- for a family, for a home, and for relationship-- and as I've thought about the role they've played in my own life, I've realized that I bring deep assumptions about their nature and origin into my writing. So to articulate those assumptions here, and to get "under" the story of "New Apartment," as it were, I'll need to reach beyond myself.
I believe that the story of the Bible is true, and that it illuminates and supports all our stories. And so as we explore how these three themes of "Child Coming Home" grow from the seed of "New Apartment," let's look too at how those same themes develop in the Bible, starting from the book of Genesis.
In the opening verses of Genesis, God creates the world and proclaims that it’s good. When he makes humans, they’re like the other animals in that they’re made from the earth and they’re ordered by God to fill it through “being fruitful.” However, men and women are distinct from the other animals in that they’re made “in the image of God” and they’re tasked with “having dominion.” In essence, people are on the planet as God’s offspring, his representatives, and his co-rulers.
1. Family & Children
“Whoever finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor of Yahweh.” - Proverbs 18:22, WEB
“Behold, children are a heritage of Yahweh. The fruit of the womb is his reward.” - Psalm 127:3, WEB
Genesis 1:26-28 shows where our desire for family and children comes from. From the beginning, says God’s story, we were made to make more of ourselves and so, as God’s image-bearers, to make more of God. That’s part of why the Bible holds out having children as a positive good-- because even fallen people reflect something of their Creator’s glory.
There’s more. Genesis 2 features a creation account that’s more up close and personal -- here Yahweh stoops to earth, as it were, where he forms a man from the dust of the ground and breathes life into him. Yahweh has planted a garden, the story tells us, and he puts the man there to “cultivate it and keep it.” Later, in Genesis 3:8, the text indicates that God walks with the humans in his garden. It’s an intimate, almost comfortable image, one that puts me in mind of going on walks with my family on days I’m home.
"Blessed are those who dwell in your house. They are always praising you." - Psalm 84:4, WEB
Ultimately, as image-bearers, it seems that our desire for home flows straight from God’s heart. What were the garden, the tabernacle, the temple, the Incarnate Jesus, and the indwelling Spirit for if not to make God’s intentions unmistakable? Whether we listen to the words and the promises God gave to Abraham, to Moses, to the prophets, in Jesus, or to John the Revelator, the same rich story crops up again and again: God Himself wants to live with us. Our desire for home, in essence, is a reciprocal, if unrecognized, desire to live with God.
"This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ." - John 17:3, WEB
The phrase “with God” reminds me of people's desire for relationship. The one thing in God’s creation that He calls “not good” is the first man being alone. From the man’s rib, God makes a woman, whom He brings to the man. The man’s response to the woman is passionate and joyful, and their relationship together is intimate and loving. It seems that God gives us this desire for relationship as a good gift, one that He intends to satisfy. The fact that the apostle Paul will later call this marriage relationship a signpost to Jesus’s union with the church proves that God intends to satisfy this desire ultimately in Himself.
To sum all this up: for the Singer — and for me— I think what makes the imagined picture of married life with children so desirable is its resonance, however imperfect, with these first few chapters of Genesis, with God’s design for his first image-bearers. In His mandate to be fruitful, God planted the seed of our desire for family and children. In His provision of a special place to live with Him, He laid the ground for our desire for home. And in His gift of our desire for relationship, He points to Himself as the one whose love satisfies.
For the Singer, when his specific desire for family and children comes up short, he’ll turn to his more general desire for relationship. He’ll do this, as we’ll see in the next song “Aching To Be Had,” as a way to probe his feeling of being alienated from the something, somewhere, or someone that would make his life essentially meaningful.
But for now, that’s the story of “New Apartment.”