Nature and Love: K.D. Lang’s Hymns of the 49th Parallel

The song that follows, co-written by K.D. Lang with David Piltch, is a ballad affirming the simplicity of love, and what it is like to hold it. Most of the songs on Hymns of the 49th Parallel are about nature and love, about the comfort and difficulties to be found in place and people.

By Daniel Garrett

K.D. Lang
Hymns of the 49th Parallel
Producers: Ben Mink, K.D. Lang
Nonesuch Records, 2004

K.D. Lang’s voice gives a mellow introduction to Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” such that it seems the continuation of a conversation: and in a way this is, as Lang has long been a standard bearer for intelligent and idiosyncratic songs. “After the Gold Rush,” a song that mentions dreams about soldiers and peasants and silver spaceships—and a narrator in a basement with music in her head and a desire to get high—is a return to a time (the lyrics mention the 1970s) when popular music was intelligent and imaginative at levels both high and eccentric. The song that follows, co-written by K.D. Lang with David Piltch, is a ballad affirming the simplicity of love, and what it is like to hold it. Most of the songs on Hymns of the 49th Parallel are about nature and love, about the comfort and difficulties to be found in place and people.

In fact, some of the lyrics of Neil Young’s song “Helpless” are so remarkably simple I wondered for a moment whether this was talent or its absence. The lyrics mention an Ontario town and a remembered—unspecified—experience and the stars and sky. (“Blue, blue windows behind the stars,/ yellow moon on the rise,/ big birds flying across the sky,/ throwing shadows on our eyes,/ leave us/ helpless” are some of the lyrics.) Neil Young, like the other writers here, is Canadian. The western mountain plains and southern lowlands of Canada, its country and its cold, find some tribute here: and one thinks of some of the culture that Canada, one of the world’s largest countries, has produced; Canada, a country sometimes seen as supremely decent, though it has its social conflicts, among them its own history with indigenous people; and Canada, a parliamentary democracy and a federation, a country of several spoken languages, has given the world writers such as Margaret Atwood, Saul Bellow, Marie-Claire Blaise, Robertson Davies, Saint Denys Garneau, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Carol Shields, and Elizabeth Smart; and film directors such as Denys Arcand, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin, and Patricia Rozema; and song writers such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Joni Mitchell, a writer who is almost never simple, has two of her songs performed on K.D. Lang’s Hymns of the 49th Parallel, and one of them is “A Case of You,” which Lang caresses and loosens (though not releases) from Mitchell’s hands and voice. Mitchell’s song structures seem to mime Mitchell’s own thoughts and vocal style; and the lyrics of the song are both rough (direct) and elegant, capturing the love it describes.

“You rise every morning,/ wondering what in the world/ will the world bring today./ Will it bring you joy,/ or will it take it way,” sings K.D. Lang in Jane Siberry’s “The Valley,” a poem of country living, and the song is a doorway to spiritual contemplation. Lang sings, “You walk through the shadows uncertain and surely hurting,/ deserted by the blackbirds/ and the staccato of the staff/ and though you trust the light/ towards which you wend your way/ sometimes you feel all that you wanted/ has been taken away.”

In “Hallelujah,” the Leonard Cohen song, a song about love and music, about seduction and craft (and cunning), Lang’s voice is stronger than that of Jeff Buckley, who also performed the song, and while there is nothing wrong with Lang’s version, I prefer his still—maybe for the vulnerability in his voice. Bruce Cockburn’s “One Day I Walk,” a song I was not at all familiar with but now like a lot, is about the ups and downs of life experience, and the Cockburn song begins “Oh I have been a beggar, and I shall be one again./ And few the ones with help to lend/ within the world of men,” and it ends with “One day I walk in flowers./ One day I walk on stones./ Today I walk in hours./ One day I shall be home./ One day I shall be home.” Between the beginning and the end is metaphor and Lang’s supple voice, and in metaphor there is much suggested life.

The changes of the seasons and of love are featured in Ron Sexsmith’s “Fallen,” and by now the collection’s focus seems less simple than ambitious: intellect and spirit are its realms. Hymns of the 49th Parallel is a meditation on nature, love, music, and the importance of home.

“I’ll try to keep myself open up to you. That’s a promise that I made to love” are words from Joni Mitchell’s “Jericho,” a song to which Lang gives a very nice performance. The lines I cannot let go of are “Anyone will tell you/ just how hard it is to make and keep a friend./ Maybe they’ll short sell you,/ or maybe it’s you/ Judas, in the end,/ when you just can no longer pretend/ that you’re getting what you need/ or you’re giving out anything for them/ to grow and feed on.” Ouch—that hurt; and those lines are true: which is to say, they convey human experience as I have observed and lived it.

Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” is a song I have listened to without truly hearing until now, until hearing Lang: the lines admit independence and inconstancy in love, and they unfurl a paradox of desire and resistance. The set of songs ends with Jane Siberry’s “Love is Everything,” a song full of consideration and recrimination, of promises tested and broken and of lessons learned.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett is a writer of journalism, fiction, poetry, and drama. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo,The City Sun, Film International, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Option, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com

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