During my childhood, my parents played all their music from a five-disc rotating Yamaha compact disc changer. The lineup was as eclectic as they are — Sarah McLachlan ballads led into the metaphysical opening notes of Kid A, which was followed seamlessly by the non-Christmas discography of Burnaby’s favourite son, Michael Bublé. Every song I heard before the age of seven is permanently lodged in my subconscious, only shaken loose by the coincidental “Hey, did you know Michael Bublé has other music?”
More than any other album, k.d. lang’s Hymns of the 49th Parallel was the score of my childhood. Whenever my mother was preparing for thirty relatives to turn up for Christmas or Easter or Thanksgiving, Hymns was the album playing from our ancient wooden speaker towers.
It was synonymous with a simpler time.
For many of us, k.d. lang is ‘mom music.’ If your mother grew up in the latter half of the 20th century, when the production of “Canadian Culture” was really ramping up, you’ve probably heard a lot of k.d. lang. I certainly did, and unofficial polling of my friends and coworkers has proven this anecdote to be statistically airtight.
Hymns is an album of Canadian covers that places lang along a continuum of artists who I would describe as some of the greatest English-language lyricists to ever play the game. These include Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen (as well as some lesser-known artists, for all you Ron Sexsmith diehards out there). The vocal idiosyncrasies of these songwriters are, of course, widely polarizing. But the disparate artists featured on Hymns are smoothed out by lang’s effortless renditions, supported by spare and poignant piano and string arrangements.
When I was a child, the songs on Hymns were beautiful nonsense — simple, ethereal and completely divorced from their real meaning. They were my mother’s songs.
Our parents’ music comes from a distant, impenetrable past full of secret knowledge and molten character development that often has more in common with Tolkien-esque lore than with the person driving you to soccer practice — what do you mean you “missed the ‘80s?” Where were you?
They knew so many things that I didn’t — how to drive, what taxes are, how to identify any tree in the Western hemisphere, etc. I often wondered from what mandate this total authority and omniscience had been derived. But as time went on, it became clear that they didn’t know everything. In fact, we were uncannily and unmentionably similar. They had experienced worry and fear and disappointment — they still do. It turned out they were more stressed about my going to university than I was.
Learning this about your parents is often an uncomfortable experience, as you try to reconcile their fallibility with your security. You must contend with the fact that there is no end to the confusion of childhood — it just gets more complicated and the stakes only get higher.
My mother often told me a story that I — unparalleled in my self-absorption — would file away for yet another installment in a future collection of essays entitled “Ramblings of the Elderly.”
The story is about a young woman who, grasping at employment outside of the sexist, coercive world of Toronto media, took a job teaching television production in Nain, Labrador. She went alone, with nothing, to the furthest frostbitten fingertips of the Canadian landscape.
She was well-loved by the community. But in an unfamiliar town where dark comes fast, you end up alone with your thoughts more often than not. She often had no activity available to her but throwing crooked darts at a pockmarked board in an empty bar, with k.d. lang and The Reclines as her only company.
Like I said, incoherent ramblings.
When I had finished moving into my Place Vanier dorm room, I shut the door and found myself truly and completely alone for the first time in my life. I clung desperately to the people in my past, returning to the music my mother would play as I waited for my family to fill the house with warmth and meaningless arguments.
Any student or transplant or social remainder knows that when you are experiencing all-encompassing loneliness, you must remind yourself that many others have gone through the exact same thing. I began to understand that young woman in a way I never could have before.
With time, my mother’s songs became my own, and they changed from beautiful nonsense into “Canadian music.”
Hymns is a Canadian project, but the sense of ‘Canada’ is destabilized by its title, underlining the contrived and arbitrary nature of borders and countries. Hymns is at its core a collection of complicated lives strung out across a complicated stretch of land.
In an interview with NPR, lang said she feels as though “the environment and the vastness of the Canadian landscape is just so much a part of these songs.” To me, the melancholy of Hymns is found in the simultaneous love for and alienation from the landscape that the settler experiences in a life lived on stolen land.
The subjects of each song are haunted by the past and by life’s metamorphoses. “Hallelujah” once seemed to me a religious triumph. Instead, it is an expression of desperate, ironic faith after a long-term relationship with abject failure: “It’s not a cry that you hear at night/It’s not someone who’s seen the light/It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”
Just as Mitchell recorded two different versions of “Both Sides Now” 30 years apart, the meaning of every song is different on the other side of a lifetime.
As we spend more time in the world, we begin to collect stories about ourselves. They are the stories we tell to demonstrate why we are the way we are — to our friends, our partners, our psychiatrists. Arbitrary moments in the classroom metastasize into cornerstones of our personalities. Horrible, drawn-out journeys to Salt Spring Island become treasured adventures. As we feel ourselves grow and change to the point we become unrecognizable, what do we keep from the past?
As we tell ourselves these stories, they begin to sound a lot like the ones our parents told us about their youths. My father describing Vancouver as the site of some of his “greatest failures” certainly rings true. My mother’s lonely nights in an unfamiliar town have found a cousin in my quiet in-nights as a residence advisor. It was only through my encounters with solitude that I began to inexplicably enjoy the sound of Leonard Cohen’s real voice, untempered by lang’s sweeter, softer renditions.
As we grow, the doubtful security of childhood and its broad-strokes feelings and impressions are sharpened and complicated. Everything becomes more nuanced, and things we once knew to be true are displaced and disproven.
My mom was always proud of Canadian musical success, taking it as an indicator that we were keeping pace with the Americans. The problem with having an emotional connection to the ‘Canadian artist’ is the too-recently-considered implications of cultural nationalism.
When you’re a child, ‘Canada’ is a hockey team and a day for watching fireworks. When “O Canada” was played in my middle school, one teacher would follow it up each time with “WOO! Best song ever!” It’s simple and unquestionable. But my blind pride in Canadian successes sometimes led my mother to warn me about needless displays of patriotism. We would see a truck-sized flag flying in someone’s yard, and she would tell me, “That sort of thing leads to nothing but trouble.” She is being proven correct with alarming regularity.
Hymns entered my life as a marker of comfort and joy. It came from the ether, not to be understood but to be felt. But as I grew older and looked for meaning, I turned to this album again and again, trying to understand the past — or to escape the difficult realities of the present. I found that there isn’t an uncomplicated past to which any of us can return. This ‘country’ is complicated at best, and deeply malicious at worst. While I can no longer uncritically tout the ‘Canadian songwriting tradition,’ I still feel a deep connection to the music to which it has been ascribed.
Through my time at UBC, I was made aware of many more unpleasant realities in a world that I already thought was unpleasant enough. Where I had hoped to reach the sort of surety I assumed would come with adulthood — with a triumphant score to boot — I reached hard-won, considered uncertainty.
But through all the details and complications, the feelings we derive from music are wholly our own. Each song given to another person is a gift, and this album was one of my mother’s many gifts to me. It has been a timeless companion, and has expressed wordless feelings that were incomprehensible until I myself had experienced them. Hymns of the 49th Parallel is poetic and simple, expansive and complex — it exists as a unified document of an uncanny, unnameable thing that none of us can reckon with until we are ready.