Here is the second part in my review of Over the Rhine’s The Long Surrender. (Part One, “The Laugh of Recognition,” is here.)

Thanks for your patience. I told you I was going to take my time and do this right. Here goes…

Track Two, “The Sharpest Blade”

It never fails. When I drive down to Richmond Beach and look out at the islands, the mountains, the turbulent water, the sky over Puget Sound, there is only one word for what I am feeling.


That is exactly the emotion that wells up within me. Awe, yes. Humility—how can you not feel small, put in your place, opened up, by a spectacle as vast and beautiful as the view that nature can give us?

But gratitude, above all.

I can think that I’m content in my routine. I can fool myself into thinking that I have all that I need. I can rest assured that I have things under control. I can even turn the volume on my conscience down to a low hum by doing “random acts of kindness” and sending a check off to a troubled youngster in Haiti or Guatemala.

But a few minutes in the presence of beauty, and I am cut open. Richmond Beach. Mount Rainier. The high plains of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Oregon Coast.

The grace offered me leaves me in a debt that no amount of charity can repay. I don’t deserve what I’m given.

Sometimes it catches me off guard — a spectacular stormcloud above me in traffic, or an unexpected glimpse of a mountain between skyscrapers, or a prophetic autumn leaf going blood red in late summer. But I’ve learned enough to go to my favorite viewpoints with a prayer that reminds me of a refrain from a recent St. Vincent song: “Best finest surgeon, come cut me open.

That’s why Psalm 19 is my favorite psalm. In it, we’re told that the heavens “declare,” that the days “pour forth speech.”

It might not be nature. It might be a symphony that repairs what you didn’t know what broken inside you. It might be a Georgia O’Keefe painting. It might be a poem by Adam Zagajewski or Franz Wright or Jane Hirshfield.

It might be a song by Over the Rhine.

Like this one: “The Sharpest Blade,” with lyrics by the album’s producer, Joe Henry. It’s propelled along on a current of Linford Detweiler’s piano, rolling like a deep river at the flood stage. And it’s sung with such passion by Karin Bergquist that you believe it as fully as if you stumbled onto a love letter that she wrote to Linford Detweiler… or a letter that he wrote to her.

There was a time
I could sleep anywhere—
My feet on a chair,
My heart in the woods;

Yes. We’ve probably all known brief spells of confidence and certainty, where we felt independent, self-reliant, sure, carefree.

But love was aloof,
Just a beggar for tips
A mime on whose lips
No promises stood

Send that check to charity. Give a nod of approval to the idea of love. Love’s good. I have no argument there.

But then… but then… beauty catches you off guard. It kicks in the door. It does what beauty does… it messes with you, makes you uncomfortable, changes everything.

But you cut me quick
In the light of the shade,
With the edge of the green
Of the yard’s sharpest blade;

And you realize that you’ve been blind. That the world around you is declaring, pouring forth speech, speaking of richer, higher, grander things.

When nothing I knew
Was all that it seemed

And it makes you want to see something come true… something for more than yourself, but for the world entire. You want to be a part of something that lasts. You want to give something back that makes a difference.

I still dreamed
Of a love to outlive us
I still prayed
That this night would outlast us
And redeem some small thing
Far beyond me

The song goes on, telling us that blossoms first sprout like “the tip of a spear” (because beauty is penetrating and sharp), or like the tears of a weeping soldier. (And when a soldier weeps, isn’t something other than war beginning?)

But wait, there’s more:

Seducing the guard
Of lost years falling by—
As flowers to lie
On the dead feigning sleep

We weep for what is lost, and yet we dare to imagine that the dead are just “feigning sleep.” Beauty can make you dare to dream, dare to have faith, to bless even their tombs with gifts of persistent, insistent beauty.

Am I sure that I have interpreted Joe Henry’s lyrics properly? No. In previous conversations, he’s given me a few nudges to find even more in the shadows of his lines than I’d anticipated. I’m listening, Joe.

But like the beauty of creation, poetry speaks a little differently to all of us… and it words incrementally. “The truth must dazzle gradually,” said dear, patient Emily Dickinson.

“The Sharpest Blade” was not a song that stood out on my first few listens to The Long Surrender. But I’ve learned that that the quiet figures waiting in the shadows are the songs that might suddenly lunge forward and cut me. And now this song has its knives out. It feels like a song that someone else showed me my own heart was singing, and I just needed a translator.

It’s the awe, the humility, the gratitude I’m feeling when I remember to leave the day that I’ve got under control, to drive down and look at the colors of the edge of the world, to tremble, and be restored.

Oh, creation cuts me quick, and calls this slow-learning prodigal back up the steep road through the woods. Again. And again. So that sometimes I wonder if I go wandering just to relieve the thrill of coming home.

Do you want to share what one of the songs on The Long Surrender means to you? Email your thoughts, interpretations, and anecdotes to me at I may include excerpts in upcoming posts.