Walk the Moon and St. Augustine

December 11, 2012

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Lately I have been using my vacation time to visit friends from my first parish assignment, who at one time were in my youth group. It’s a great joy to maintain those friendships, as they are the kind of friendships that John Paul II had from his early years of priesthood and maintained throughout his life. Such friendships are precious to any priest.

My “dear young friends,” (as I call them in the spirit of John Paul II), are in their mid-twenties now, and although some have remained in the Cleveland area, others have moved on to Boston, Chicago, Miami, New Orleans, San Francisco and Washington DC. One of my young friends, however, lives and works in Norton, Virginia – the heart of Appalachia – where he does important and excellent work for the church. I went to visit him this summer.

My young friend was happy to welcome me and show me around Norton, but he, too, needed a couple days of vacation. So we decided to head south to Asheville, N.C., which is known for its breweries, galleries, farm-to-table restaurants, its history, nature trails, and for the beautiful basilica of St. Lawrence. Asheville also boasts one of the top music venues in the country, The Orange Peel. We had tickets to see Neon Trees.

The highlight of the night, however, was not Neon Trees – it was their opening act, Walk The Moon. The quartet from Cincinnati played a tight, fun, interactive, high-energy set that had the sold-out crowd jumping and smiling and singing and dancing – think secular Steubenville. And this was impressive, seeing that most of the crowd was there to hear the headliner and was unfamiliar with the music of Walk The Moon.

Before leaving The Orange Peel that night, I bought a copy of Walk The Moon’s self-titled cd from the merchandise table. I considered saying hello to the band, as the four twenty-somethings were signing autographs just a few feet away, but they were surrounded by a mob of teenage fans who seemed to want to spend time with the band much more than I did. So I let them.

I have, however, been spending a fair amount of time listening to their album since early August, and I want to say a few things about it. First, Walk The Moon is a very gifted group of musicians. Their album sounds great, but you know a band is really good when their live shows sound even better. Such is the case with Walk The Moon. I’ve even watched a few of their acoustic appearances on Youtube and have been quite impressed, as those unplugged performances quickly expose shoddy musicianship. Of course, I’m not the only one to notice all of this. VH-1 named them “You Oughta Know” artist of the month for September, Hewlett Packard uses one of their songs in a commercial, and the band is currently selling out concert clubs across the United States.

But what about their message? What about their lyrics? As a priest friend asked me when I told him I wanted to write this piece about Walk The Moon, “Is there anything Catholic about them?” It all depends. What I hear in songs of Walk The Moon is what I hear in Confessions of St. Augustine before his tolle lege moment, that is, before his major conversion. There are tracks on the album named after women like “Lisa Baby” and “Jenny,” which are echoes of a young Augustine. Then there’s “Shiver Shiver,” a song that sounds like old-school Prince. Musically speaking “Shiver Shiver” is pretty terrific, but unless the song is about a married couple, the lines “Please check your clothing at the door” and “Shall we get intimate again?” are most definitely old-school Augustine.

“Anna Sun” is yet another song with a woman’s name in the title and is perhaps the most popular song on the record. (The clothing outfitter American Eagle included “Anna Sun” on their rotation this past summer.) Lead singer Nicholas Petricca explained that the song “is about college, about maintaining that little bit of being a kid.” Petricca studied at Kenyon College and named the song after his sociology professor, although it actually has nothing to do with her – but her name makes for a great hook.

I know, I know, you’re still waiting for the Catholic part. You are thinking, “Most bands today are writing about extra-martial relations and having a ‘good time,’ so why spend the ink writing about Walk The Moon? What’s the point?” Here’s the point – this band has enormous potential, just as the young Augustine had enormous potential.

“I Can Lift a Car” is one of the best songs I’ve heard in years, and the band’s performance with PS 22 (you can check it out on Youtube) is nothing less than beautiful. Also, the most serious track on the record, “Iscariot” is a carefully written and masterfully played tale of betrayal and lost friendship. These are the songs that make me think that Walk The Moon has only begun what may be a very long and successful journey in the music world. But their success, like in anything, will depend upon their growth and maturity.

My hope for Walk The Moon is that they continue to mature and develop not only in their musicianship and professionalism, but also in the themes and the depth of their songwriting. There are far too many bands with loads of talent that never get beyond writing about good times and girls. Those types of bands, by their nature, cannot remain relevant — they never gain a new audience. Late into their careers, such bands are limited to performing for 60-year-olds who wish they were still in high school, and often do so on the stage of the local rib burn-off. The bands that are great, the performers that are in for the long haul and have something important to say 20, 30 and even 40 years after their first album are bands that grow and mature and deal with the most important issues. Think Dylan, Springsteen, and U2 – their songs are all about running toward God or away from God, in the words of Bono.

Walk The Moon is a young band. And they are very talented. But if I were to give them any advice, it would be for lead singer Nicholas Petricca to tap into the formation he received during his high school years at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy and see if there aren’t some themes he learned as a teen that are worth reconsidering as an adult.  Such themes might make for some very interesting songwriting for their follow-up album. And read Augustine’s Confessions while you’re at it.
Father Damian Ference is a priest in the diocese of Cleveland. He is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a member of the formation faculty at the Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio. 
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