City of No Return

Published by Trevor Bechtel on

A Sermon by Trevor Bechtel March 19 2023

No Coffee, the song we just listened to,  is the lead single from Amber Coffman’s 2017 album City of No Reply. It’s Coffman’s first solo album.

It’s a break up album but it’s also more than a break up album. I’m going to talk to you today about why I think that part of that more is a voice spoken into an empty space that is very resonate with the kind of empty space that we seek to engage at lent. That space is the difference between the world we expect or encounter or imagine and the world as it actually is.

Those of us who have been watching and reading and talking about Women Talking have been working with this difference. The women in the book and movie learn something about their world that fundamentally changes how they see the world and then they need to decide what they are going to do. The possibilities for their future are the ones they can name Jan’s comment this morning that fictionalized stories can help us approach the actual world is another layer here.  We can only do the things we can first say. Our language ends up being the  way we can negotiate different worlds. 

I’ll admit that This perspective that we need to be able to say before we can see is counter intuitive to me. I like to believe that my body moves around the world and my senses interact with the world and that language is a way of thinking about that in words that attach to the world I have already experienced. But again and again I learn the word for something and then I’m able to see it everywhere. A simple example is someone’s name. Kyle and Brianne are back with us this morning. I can see them and recognize them partly because I remember their names.

The example that I’d pick out of the song is the one about the motorcycle.  Coffman suggests that she is going to learn how to keep up with her partner, David Longstreth, by learning how to ride a motorcycle. Riding a motorcycle is something you do with your body. You lean and shift and react with your body. But when you learn how to ride you also learn new words and those words shape the new world that you inhabit as a motorcycle rider. 

 A big reason why think this album is full of Lent Songs because for about a year after it was released City of No Reply was the only album I could listen to.

I’m going to start by talking about the song we listened to but this is one of those albums that tells a full story across its songs. No Coffee is an early part of the story. This is a love song, but you can tell that not everything is going perfectly, and not just in the obviously heretical line, “Don’t need no coffee”

(Take a sip of your coffee). 

The theme that Coffman has a lot of love to give but that David Longstreth, the partner that these songs are about isn’t returning it runs throughout the album. By the end of the album, Coffman sings lyrics like “How is playing it safe working out for you”, “Your memory can’t fade fast enough for what you did to me” and we see some of the arc of this relationship. But this is more than just a break up album. Coffman engages anger very rarely here, and she is really reflective and even kind for someone processing a break up. She opens the album with the song “All to Myself” which ends with the lyric “There’s a voice inside of me

And it’s time to listen” which is then repeated as “There’s a voice inside of you And it’s time to listen” And she ends the album with the song “Kindness” which ends with these two stanzas 

And when they ask us

When they ask what led to this conclusion

We’ll tell them we did the best we could

Yes we did

May summer rain set you at ease

May winds of change help calm your seas

And may blue feathers fall to you from up above

And may you always know you are loved

Throughout the album Coffman embeds her thoughts and feelings about her relationship into the larger world of nature so that it does feel like she is describing a new world that she’s found populated by cities, oceans, deserts and dreams.  

I want to tell you some of the story of their relationship. This is going to involve me geeking out for a couple of paragraphs. You are used to pastors geeking out in sermons; you pay us to do it, but we usually choose the Bible and today you are getting indie progressive rock music. But you are also probably used to being bored so here goes. 

David Longstreth formed the band Dirty Projectors in 2002 as a vehicle for his songwriting.  In 2006 Amber Coffman joined the band and the two started dating. They released three albums, Bitte Orca, Mount Wittenberg Orca, and Swing Lo Magellan, which were critically acclaimed during that time. It’s some of my favorite music. Longstreth was the main songwriter and vocalist but Coffman had a significant role. They were together until 2012 at which point their romantic relationship ended. After a long tumultuous period, they managed to patch things up, and in 2014 they started working together again but this time on music that she was the main songwriter and vocalist for. By 2015, Longstreth had moved from New York to L.A. and built a studio there were City of No Reply was recorded. He became the album’s producer and is a co-writer on all the songs. By the end of 2015 the album was recorded but their relationship had deteriorated and they weren’t communicating. In the fall of 2016 Coffman learned that Longstreth had recorded his own break up album and was going to be releasing it in February of 2017. She was surprised by all of this and surprised that he was continuing to use the Dirty Projectors band name which hadn’t been used since 2012. The 2017 album was the first one to be titled Dirty Projectors.  Longstreth released his break up album in February and City of No Reply was released in June.

Here’s what I think happened and this is pure projection on my part. It’s projection based on listening to City of No Reply exclusively for about a year and trying to listen to Dirty Projectors, but failing. Dirty Projectors, the album is a horrible album. 

I think that Longstreth was eager to relate to Coffman and to work on her music. His production is exquisite. Together the two of them are very gifted at taking relatively complex and avant garde musical expressions and forcing them into the container of a pop song. Coffman leaves most of the avant garde behind on City of No Reply but what remains really gives the album a unique texture. But I think that as Longstreth read the lyrics, and listened to Coffman sing them, and thought about what musical textures could accompany them and reflected on all of that he slowly realized what Coffman was saying about him and he didn’t like it. He was able to see a new world. In response, he went off an made a very angry album in response and released it ahead of her album so his reply pre-empted the release of her album. 

In City of No Reply Coffman beautifully articulates the distance she felt from Longstreth. In a song like No Coffee she also beautifully articulates how she is going to overcome it. She display a rare and beautiful hope, reflecting in a song written and recorded after the end of a relationship on how she will make the relationship work. She portrays strength, desire, and a willingness to learn. In Dark Night she sings, 

And baby when the future calls

Pick up and talk to it

Don’t hesitate

Watch your world blossom and grow

2017 was a really hard year for me. I’d lost my dream job at the end of 2015 and was realizing that I’d also probably lost my career as a professor.  The spreadsheet of job applications had grown to well over a hundred entires and it was populated more and more not by jobs that I wanted but by jobs I thought I could get. My identity was changing, my self-confidence was falling, and I was increasingly depressed. The depression was one answer for why I wasn’t listening to music other than by Amber Coffman. One of the hardest things about depression is that it makes it harder to do and to enjoy the things that we know will make us happy. Listening to and playing music has been that for me throughout my life, but it had ceased to be an activity I could engage during that year. Except for City of No Reply. 

I think that the reason I could listen to that album, even wanted to listen to that album, was that I could see someone taking a difficult situation, assessing it seriously, and succeeding at moving on. The title song from the album is also it’s turning point and it includes this stanza, 

I’ll testify, I found a couple wells that wound up dry

But I want to get back to the ocean blue 

I want to swim in the rivers and lakes

And I’m roaming on looking for the language of love

But I hope that its not more of the same

Before this journey’s done

The personal tragedy of a broken relationship or lost career can be difficult to connect to larger social level tragedies. Individual experience things differently than groups. Individuals experience things differently than other individuals. 

We have all had something similar over the last few years. The world that we thought we understood, the one that we were hopeful for, even were working to fit ourselves into suddenly changed with the pandemic. We are able to see a new world. What are we going to do with this new world that we are able to see. There are some obvious answers here worth stating. Don’t write an angry album, write one which looks at the world blossom and grow. 

The most clear example of this for me was learning about the hummingbird moth, a large moth that behaves like a hummingbird. I’d never seen one that I’d remembered. But in the week after I learned about the hummingbird moth I saw them again and again feeding from the coneflowers in my backyard. Had they not be there the week before? No, it was just that once I’d learned that they were a possibility in my world I was prepared to see them and so I did. 

The most powerful example is learning about the interweaving of capitalism and racism and the ongoing war in our country against the poor, and then to see a bank fail and get bailed out. 

The scriptures for today are also about seeing a world, and seeing the possibility in a person. Samuel has a bunch of expectations for what God’s anointed will look like. He needs to be told what to expect. He can only see what he can say. 

John 9 is also a story about seeing and saying. The blind man listens to what Jesus says and he is then able to see. When he returns from the pool of Siloam no one recognizes him. They don’t recognize him because they aren’t ready to accept that Jesus is God. If it were easy for them to confess that Jesus is God then they would expect that Jesus could do miracles and it wouldn’t be hard to believe that a blind man could see. But their inability to say becomes an inability to see. 

Describing our world was so fantastically difficult during the pandemic, and it remains so now, three years later. It is a kind of empty space that we don’t know how to talk about.

So much of our interactions changed and there are things to learn from that. We learned that our presence, the air we breathe, are genuinely shared between people. We are interdependent and part of that interdependence is a need to care for each other. I know that some of us mask only here at church, continuing to mark this community as one that priortizes a care we learned new things about during the pandemic. I also think about how we will move forward from here, just as David and the Blind Man did. There are different trajectories and no one knows exactly what album we will write.

Are we still in the pandemic? It’s a mistake to simply say, “no” But we can look realistically at a difficult situation, assess it seriously, and look towards at moving on. But we can only do these things if we are able to say them and see them.

Categories: Sermons