In early 2001, the Norwegian folk duo Kings of Convenience released their debut album Quiet Is the New Loud. Channeling Simon and Garfunkel but with a more lackadaisical European pop sensibility, Kings of Convenience offered serious, beautiful melodies that went down gently. When my wife and I saw Kings of Convenience in concert at a small club in 2005, the band would not perform until the bartenders turned off the buzzing credit card machines that were processing people’s tabs. The sounds the band were about to make had to be set against total stillness. Music could not just be one more set of noises among others.
After a twelve-year recording hiatus, Kings of Convenience are back with a new album, Peace or Love. And for an increasingly noisy world, the timing is perfect.
Quietness—and better yet, silence—is obviously native to our Catholic ascetical tradition, and we have some fine reminders to encourage us into it. The magnificent film Into Great Silence reminds us of a whole other reality that a faithful few have chosen in rejection of the world’s chaos. And for those of us with unbreakable ties to a louder, more mainstream existence, Cardinal Robert Sarah’s The Power of Silence encourages us to find the still, small voice of the Lord in our everyday lives. And then there’s sacred music, holy silence’s natural partner. As the demon Screwtape says to Wormwood in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters: “Music and silence—how I detest them both!”
As far as I know, Kings of Convenience are not Christians, but Screwtape would hate the lovely music of Peace or Love, along with the silence from which it springs. Even the relatively sad lyrics contain much to round out the demon-destroying experience. In the work of band members Eirik Glambek Bøe, Erlend Øye, and a few other collaborators, including their frequent partner Feist, we find a call to a deeper, more intentional life that typifies the simple counterculture of the best of Christian families and communities. On “Love is a Lonely Thing (featuring Feist),” we hear,
Love, to you, is given, love is gifted you
No love can be taken, that love is not true
Love is pain and suffering, love can be a lonely thing
Once you’ve known that magic, who can live without it?
On another number with Feist, called “Catholic Country,” we find a soul on a journey. Perhaps this journey ends in a morbid, Scandinavian way, but the music evokes something much warmer and pleasant, like experiencing a lightness of being in Madrid or Rome—something more Catholic, as the title suggests. The song is about wanting “you,” but in wanting “you,” the more I may want something beyond “you.”
“Comb My Hair” is a pretty, almost sweet tune with a dark lyric about the end of a relationship. It is a subtle lament rooted in the loss of peace—when natural, life-giving silence turns into an unnatural abyss of despair. We hear,
The sky is full of stars tonight
The air is warm and clear
That silence that I longed to find
Is cold and senseless now.
“Killers” is another grim offering about lost love, “the miracle that brought you into my life.” The final line is startling: “It’s the blood that heals the wound.” A sacramental person cannot help but hear it scripturally, Eucharistically, even if the band had no such intention.
Peace or Love is one easy listen after another, in the very best sense. “Rocky Trail,” “Angel,” and “Fever” are all gems, and all reminiscent of one of the band’s greatest early songs, “Know-How,” from 2004s Riot on an Empty Street. The guitars, strings, and piano throughout are similar to the arrangements on Riot, as well as tracks like “Rule My World” from 2009s Declaration of Dependence. The final track, “Washing Machine,” is pleasantly reminiscent of the New Zealand novelty act Flight of the Conchords. A somber mood runs through Peace or Love, and yet the album never bums me out. Somehow, its straightforward elegance and honesty keeps me smiling and uplifted.
As I finish writing this, I am listening to Peace or Love again through noise cancelling headphones in an effort to slow everything down and tune in for the voice beyond this world that the music conveys. Part of me dreads removing the earphones and hearing once more the constant hum of the air conditioner, the low buzz of the fluorescent lights in my office, the noisy highways of Dallas, and the usual chaotic home noises of children, pets, cooking, television sets, and everyday chatter. I dread losing the notes of nothingness amid the wall of sound.
Our world is full of screens that are on in every public space for no discernible reason. Gyms and restaurants, clothing stores, and doctor’s offices are polluted with what the late Sir Roger Scruton called “the tyranny of pop.” We all walk around with infinite distraction devices in our pockets. And who knows what all the wifi waves bouncing around our heads are doing to us? There’s just too much of everything.
But spending thirty-eight minutes with Kings of Convenience has brought God to my ears and my heart, if only for a while, and prepared me to return to the fray. Silence and music always do the trick.
Check out Peace or Love, and the whole Kings of Convenience catalog for a break from the noise. The demons will hate you for it.