this essay was first published on November 29 in Folkworks Magazine
TITLE: One Light Many Windows
ARTIST: Merlin Snider
LABEL: Barking Dog Music
RELEASE DATE: November 21, 2016
By Terry Bailey
Years ago I visited painter Friedensreich Hundertwasser in his Venice (Italy) studio. I was surprised to see canvases lining the walls in all sorts of styles – not just the colorful spiral and raindrop paintings he was well known for at the time.
“My gallery owner prefers that I stick to one style. He believes that is what art buyers want from artists: a consistent identity,” he explained to me. “Sadly, I cannot even bring these other works of mine into the gallery.”
This marketing identity demand bleeds over to all art forms: too often writers, filmmakers, composers, songwriters – all creators – are pressured to create in one style and stick to it.
When Merlin and I first chatted about his new album, One Light Many Windows, our conversation began with his expressed concern about the diversity of song styles on this his third CD. But Merlin has transcended the need to write folk music in one style with a traditional song structure. That transcendence is who Merlin is. And we can be thankful that he has the courage to display his many canvases.
“I think that good music is at once familiar and original,” he shared with me.
As long as Merlin writes music, he will continue to move his audiences into new musical realms – and we will travel with him safely and happily.
With One Light Many Windows, Merlin has built a musical safe-house for his fans. A sanctuary from which we all can commune, looking inward and outward through the mirrored views and communal vistas of his windows.
Fresh Dirt is a reflective window, from which Merlin the builder shares the wonder of turning a shovelful of dirt into a place to shelter us from the storm, a place where one day tears and laughter will make the place a home. And Merlin the poet follows his house as shelter with an ironic metaphor: what’s to shelter us from the storm inside?
One window, Cold Rain, calls us to feel our world, like the cold rain pounding on our nerves, and to witness, in sacred Thoreau-like fashion, the poem of creation. Another window, Fly Away Sail Away, finds us singing along, stomping our feet and clapping our hands as we peer out at all the people who leave to find their home, and acknowledge that, indeed, everybody wants to feel at home.
Near Merlin’s musical home rooftop is a window of Memory. It looks over everything that has come and gone before. The listener at that window may find herself weeping at first listen, and experiencing the greatest of joy the next time around on the dance floor with it. The song is a waltz.
Merlin shares that some of his favorite writers, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, and the early Randy Newman, have the ability to be both melancholic and joyful, sentimental without resorting to saccharin. He admits it is a difficult trick to pull off, but something he strives for. With Memory, he accomplishes it to the moon and back.
Many of Merlin’s windows open to, in his own words, “a search for transcendence.” Unlike so many songwriters, Merlin’s songs are not about his personal bouts with the intricacies of living, but a way to get out of himself and into our shared existence, “to connect with something much larger.”
“Can I forgive?” (Sea of Forgetfulness). “Can I get out of myself and create something that allows others to see and laugh at themselves, ourselves, together?” (Procrastination Blues). Each of Merlin’s songs reveals a fresh perspective on transcendent possibility. This is true of his previous albums as well. And it is the key to why those of us who have discovered his music relish it, and flock to commune with him and each other at his concerts. Merlin’s musical home encourages us to come together to reflect, grieve, share, laugh at our foibles, forgive, throw off our regrets, love, be with our true feelings and then cast them aside to dance, sing and celebrate in the warmth and safety of our oneness.
All the music of One Light Many Windows is memorable, beautifully produced and performed. Merlin has assembled a first-class cadre of musicians and singers. Ed Tree has co-produced and engineered recordings that are of the highest professional caliber. Merlin and Ed have arranged each song lovingly and to musical perfection. Each track is “just right.”
One song deserves special note, and that is Abraham’s Light. We are transported to Lincoln’s era with a masterful arrangement that includes only instruments that existed during Abraham Lincoln’s time. Our eras are especially bridged with the consistent sound of cornet horns and a marching drum beat throughout. And with lyrics that bridge generations: a hateful virus is multiplied, I say bounce it back with Abraham’s Light.
Merlin says of the song: “I am very moved by the way Lincoln stood courageously (out of an empathy born from tragedy and depression) for preserving the Union as a place where all people are equal in their right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, and yet at the same time he saw the humanity of his enemies enough to leave the door open to reconciliation. Lincoln lived in a time when our country was even more divided than it is now, and I think we could stand to be instructed by his life and words.”
Another great poet-songwriter, Leonard Cohen, departed our planet the day before our infamous November 8, 2016 US election, gifting us with his last song, You Want it Darker. The following day we got it darker, and Cohen’s masterpiece calls on us to face that darkness. But we must not get mired in it. Merlin’s One Light Many Windows will surely be a tool to help us transcend the darkness, to guide us in remembering that for all our diversity, we share one light. As we gather together in Merlin and friends’ musical home, “in this night, may we read by Abraham’s light.”