Void of Sentimentality: A Review of Alanna Boudreau’s “Champion”

December 1, 2016

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What is the opposite of sentimental? I spent an entire morning over Thanksgiving break searching for the answer to this question. Engaging in some good discussion with friends, both in person and on Twitter, I hoped to find an answer. AuthenticGenuineRealistic? Steely-eyedSubstantial? All these suggestions have something about them that works, but none of them ultimately succeed in answering the question adequately. Eventually I resigned myself to admit that there is no one word in the English language to rightly describe the opposite of sentimentality.

The reason that I was looking for such a word is because I wanted to use it to describe Champion, the latest album from Alanna (like ‘Atlanta’ without the T’s) Boudreau. Champion is an eleven-track collection of introspective, intelligent, and sober songs from one of my favorite young singer-songwriters, who just so happens to be a graduate of Franciscan University. But Champion isn’t a praise and worship album, and I wouldn’t even characterize it primarily as Christian music, but rather as good music that just so happens to be written and performed by one who is Christian. If you are looking for music with overproduced harmonies, trite lyrics, and big hooks made for the radio, you won’t like this record very much, and you probably don’t have the attention span to appreciate it. But, if you value the English language, adroit songwriting, lovely vocals, prophetic boldness, and judicious playing, then you are in for a real treat.

Boudreau’s parents are French-Canadian and you can hear their influence in her vocal presentation, particularly in her very deliberate diction. Unlike most American singer-songwriters, Boudreau’s words are all formed at the very front of her mouth, which makes her sound quite unique. Boudreau’s voice is warm, kind and comforting, but it’s not naïve – it knows heartache and suffering and sings about it with all sorts of conviction and credibility, which is a noticeable change from her first LP, Hints & Guesses. (I liked that first album, by the way, but doubtless Boudreau has grown significantly in the past couple of years.)

“O Anxious One” is the instrumentally sparse opening track of Champion and it serves as an invitation both to the listener and to the subject of the song itself. Boudreau’s soft croon accompanied by a single guitar is meant to disarm: “Are you scared of me?/ I don’t want to hurt you/ Please believe/ I don’t have plans for your undoing.” Much of Boudreau’s songwriting addresses the guarded human heart, which is part of our fallen condition, and yet the acknowledment of this condition is the first step toward its un-guarding. 

On the second track, Boudreau (or Boudreau’s character – but I’m pretty sure it’s autobiographical) stays with the theme of un-guarding on “Let Me In.” She addresses the two dangers that are always present when making oneself vulnerable in love with another human being: the first is that of being crushed by the other, and the second is making a god of the other. (Note that neither one of these dangers is actually present in our relationship with God – he will not crush us and he is God.) In the chorus Boudreau sings about the universal need for intimacy, the universal desire to know the other and be known: “I say, let me in to that place/ Let me in to your space/ Let me in to you.” I once heard Christopher West explain that intimacy translates well to into-me-see; that notion is at the heart of this track.

If you didn’t know anything about Boudreau’s Catholic faith, you would still be able to listen to this album and appreciate its sound without paying much attention to the lyrics. But if you listened closely you would soon realize that tracks four and five are about two very important men in Boudreau’s life: St. Joseph and her new husband. On “Joseph” we encounter the one-of-a-kind love that the foster-father and carpenter had with the Mother of God and consider the complexities of such a unique and holy, yet human bond. As Boudreau moves from considering Mary’s hardworking husband to her own, the tempo shifts to something that initially sounds sinister and suspicious but turns out surprisingly pure, yet gritty: “Who’s that guy with the light in his eye/ Old fashioned face and a terrible tie/ where is he from?/ Who’s that there with the messy brown hair/ arms all folded, leaning back in his chair/ I want to know.” Boudreau’s vocal on this track reminds me of Jewel from her early, acoustic, coffee house days, which is to say classy, jazzy, and bright. 

The only song on Champion that Boudreau didn’t write herself is the title track, and it’s perhaps the catchiest tune on the record.  Opening with a big, fat, beautiful bass line, “Champion” is the heart of this album.  Boudreau’s older sister discovered this song while working as a missionary with a group of Salesian sisters at a home for girls in Zambia a few years ago.  Boudreau thought the song needed another verse so she wrote the second one herself, making a very good song great. 

“The Oldest Story” is also the oldest sounding track on Champion. It’s an account of a relationship transitioning from one level to the next, which is always exciting and scary and unpredictable. “Controlled Burn” follows with a pleasant cadence of repetition, “My life, my life my life: it stretches behind me/ And I see all the missteps, and the poorly timed kisses/ And I ache, I ache, I ache, when I see all the nothing/ That could have been something, that could have been you.” Bruce Springsteen likes to describe his songs as “blues in the verses; gospel in the chorus,” and that description works well for “Controlled Burn.” The verses present various trials and tribulations “but the chorus is hopeful and refreshing: “In this forest full of second chances/ Your green sap draws me upward… In this forest full of second chances/This child is recovered.” Ultimately, it’s a song about the Paschal Mystery – death turning into life.

According to Boudreau, “PEM” is a clandestine acronym. I have no idea what it means and likely never will, but I do know that the song returns to one of the main themes of this album, which is the great un-guarding of the human heart. Love has no time for safe spaces; it needs to be vulnerable and take risks: “I could play it safe, play it safe, play if safe/ I could hide away, hide away, hide away/ But I can’t live that way.”  Who can?  Only one who has never really loved or been loved.

Among her many inspirations, which span from Paul Simon to C.S. Lewis to Ryan Adams, is the theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar. Reading von Balthasar inspired Boudreau to write “Petros (Simon),” which is an account of the terribly complex man upon whom Jesus built his church.

Instrumentally this track boasts the fullest sound on the record and it also contains some of the best poetry: “Rivers carve the valleys on my face/ I told you I’d not leave you, but I have run away/ As the coldness settles on my back/ Who is the greatest lover?/ You said you are I AM.” That last line gives me chills. Truly.

The greatest risk that Boudreau takes on Champion is with “Dismantled By Love,” a song that deals with the epidemic of porn. It’s the only song of its kind of which I am aware, and it’s worth the price of the album. Boudreau begins singing, “My mother raised me to be a lover of the truth/ she said don’t ever compromise it/ Even if lying might be easier to do/ it’s a hellhole of disguises.” That’s ultimately how she understands pornography, as a lie, which always offends what is good, beautiful and true. Flannery O’Connor considered pornography sentimental, “for it leaves out the connection of sex with its hard purpose, and so far disconnects it from its meaning in life as to make it simply an experience for its own sake.” Boudreau is void of sentimentality both on this track and throughout the entire album – she sees the world with a broad vision and doesn’t take shortcuts. She understands that many people fall into the habit of porn by no fault of their own: “O precious child, O tiny kid/ Startled at a third-grade party/ You can’t forget the images that spit/ ‘Cross the screen; you’re no longer free.” But she also doesn’t default into acceptance, but prophetically beckons her listener: “It’s better to be dismantled by love/ that’s as pure as running water/ Than be soothed by a fire built on sterile desire/ You look so as to slaughter.” It’s a firm yet merciful and hopeful cry for resistance and virtue. To my lights there is no song like it.

The late Leonard Cohen used to write about the interplay of men and women and often would write songs that displayed the distinction of the sexes. On “The Tension,” Boudreau explores the differences of men and women while also showing their necessary complementary. She closes Champion with a sober reminder that the nature of love is constantly purifying and re-creative: “I will love you so much that I’ll take you down/ I will love you right up from the ground.” And there is nothing sentimental about that.