And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-12; KJV)
In its best moments, Monarch, by Zach Winters, effortlessly creates silence. That music can create silence is one of many paradoxes you are going to have to get used to if you want to get to know this record. In the violence and foment of our instantaneous age, there are few things more alien than quality silence and intentional waiting. In all the hot noise of our weird, wired, wide, webbed world—noise which we often mistake for information and connectedness—our inner ears have become accustomed to ignoring the still small voice of God.
A prophet is tempted, in a world as deaf as ours, to shout. As Flannery O’Connor put it:
When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.
I have always disagreed with those words, though I admit that they seem reasonable. In a world beset by fire, I don’t want hotter fire. I want water. In a world beset by noise, I don’t want louder noise. I want headphones. Kierkegaard, writing at cross purposes to O’Connor, wrote:
The first thing, the unconditional condition for anything to be done, consequently the very first thing that must be done is: create silence, bring about silence; God’s Word cannot be heard, and if in order to be heard in the hullabaloo it must be shouted deafeningly with noisy instruments, then it is not God’s Word; create silence!
Monarch creates silence. For those who long to smooth the tumults of their modern anxieties and find a place where they can actually hear and not just listen, Monarch offers a rare and welcome succor.
I’m afraid, however that many will not receive it as such. It is hard to distinguish between the life of trees and the lifelessness of objects, since we rarely wait long enough or take enough notice. Surely there is a difference, but it is a fine one. It requires time and quiet to hear the trees breathe. In a way, the very thing Monarch offers the listener—quiet stillness—is required before one can receive it. We find ourselves at the impasse of wisdom: the beginning of wisdom is, get wisdom (Prov. 4:7).
So, I will tell you beforehand, if you are a lover of loud, raucous music (which I am, intermittently) take the time to listen to this record in an intentional way. It was obviously written and recorded with care, and it deserves to be appreciated with equal attention. With that in mind, here are some tips for listening:
- Wait until the evening or early morning to listen to it. When you don’t have any demands (of work or children or whatnot) pressing on you. Maybe a Saturday evening or Sunday dawn.
- Don’t do anything else while you listen. Especially nothing with screens. Turn off your phone noises, etc.
- Go lie down in a dark or twilit room.
- Use headphones if you are listening alone. If you are listening with others, agree to quietness and turn the volume up.
- Close your eyes and listen carefully through the entire record.
This is actually advice I would give concerning any album I cared about, but I think it particularly appropriate here.
Speaking of appropriate, this review is already quite strange. I have written six hundred words and said almost nothing about this record. Most of the reason for that is that I want you to listen to it first. It’s awesome. So go listen to it when you have time and circumstance to do it right. Then, when you have another moment, you can read the rest of this.
It is strange to me that I took very little time to figure out whether I liked this record. I unreservedly do. Most of my interaction with it has been figuring out how I like it (ever since Josh Jackson of Fiery Crash—who incidentally has a Kickstarter you should contribute to—insisted that I listen to it).
Monarch does not seem complicated, which is one of its more glowing successes, since it is. It doesn’t have huge dynamic range. It has few lulls relatively speaking. And while we’re on the topic, relatively is exactly how I have learned to love this album. Relative to itself, that is.
The music and melodies here are not even attempting to interact with the world outside of their woods (I would say walls, but that doesn’t make as much sense). When I first heard the record, I found myself thinking, “That vocalization at the end of ‘Fernweh’ really reminds me of Iron & Wine. That piano tone reminds me of Sufjan. That progression is very Bon Iver.” Now, I’m listening to it thinking, “It doesn’t seem to care actually whether or not it sounds like something else,” as if the record, first, had a mind of its own, and second, had made up that mind to do what it wanted to do whether it did or did not sound like whatever other baggage the listener was bringing into the album. It invites you, firmly but cordially, to leave that baggage at the door. Or the threshold of the woods.
That is an incredible feat actually. To make art this subtle and this naked, and yet to remove the scaffolding of artifice is quite a wondrous thing to behold. Overall, the music strikes me as thoroughly intentional without being overwrought. Every element seems very carefully selected, arranged, and performed.
This record is sodden in textures and layers and it has drawn them into itself like milk sopped into bread. What you are left with musically is at once unified and diverse, which is peculiarly appropriate for the content of the album, which regularly juxtaposes and even palimpsests the microcosm and the macrocosm, the telescopic and the microscopic, the real and the symbolic.
“Morning Dove” is a perfect example of this musical and lyrical harmony. In “Morning Dove,” the strings, percussion, guitar, and vocals bleed together to create an eery, dewy, twilight atmosphere. It perfectly evokes and unifies the bleariness of morning and the mystery of good women.
Not all the songs are so successful. “Deep, Deep” felt far too bumbly and buoyant in its music, to the point that it was hard to take the most direct lyrics in the whole album very seriously. Which is a pity. The lyrics are very good, and with a slightly different treatment, the music could probably work. But the two don’t seem to belong together, and “Deep Deep” suffers as a result. That said, it really is the only complaint I have about the whole album, and it is quite a minor irritation all things considered. I might even change my mind as I have only listened to the record about a dozen times. If the album were not so nearly perfect, I would not have even noticed what is to my ears a discrepancy.
Poets don’t usually explain themselves. Neitzsche thought this was because they were “more afraid of being understood than misunderstood.” Most lyrics written today are intensely personal, which is another way of saying they can mean anything, and often do. So it was refreshing that, as with most everything else on the record, Winters took great care, and he wrote lyrics that meant something particular.
Winters has gone even one step further by writing an annotated guide to the lyrics. If you’re interested, the annotations contain a great deal of backstory, context, explanation, and wisdom. And they also prove that Winters did not write these lyrics as mere melodic placeholders. What a sad world we live in when I can be so grateful for what should be a granted duty of the songwriter—to say something.
Monarch is not mundanely transparent though. The album opener sets the lyrical tone with a word Winters coined as far as I can tell: blurried. This is not the blur of drunkenness or carelessness, however. It is the blur that comes from holding two things in focus at once: the heavenly home that we were made for, and the earthly makings we feel far too at home in. The record begins with far-sickness and ends with home-sickness, and the sense is that both of these things are unified only in quiet submission and hopeful waiting, but they are unified. Like C. S. Lewis said,
If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.
This concept unifies the senses of Fernweh/Heimweh, in that the longing for the freshness of the unfamiliar and the yearning for the comfort of the familiar come together in heaven.
Only in a record of this quietness would there be any way to deal with such nuanced content. But I find it interesting that the nuances in this record are best explored and most exposed by the metaphorical equivocations that Winters employs. The fine distinctions are, paradoxically, made most obvious by bringing things together. In “City,” the victim of sex trafficking and the city that imprisons her become interchangeable. It helps to define the nature of sex-trafficking—the impossible convolution of its motivations, and the lostness of individuality that can occur even within a single body. This equivocation works uncannily well.
In the blurried sense of the record where sky and sea bleed together, each inter-penetrating element of Monarch’s equivocation enlivens and enlightens some part of the other. Since marriage is the defining human reality of the equivocation of distinction and unity, where one-fleshness and self-sacrifice combine, it makes sense that Winters explores marital relationships in a few tracks: “Apology” and “Meant” take particular advantage of the cross-pollination of paradoxical unity.
In “Apology,” he writes about a hurt he caused his wife over some art that she had made. We know that his wife helped him track the record. So the apology for the insult to her art is his art, but it is also her art: he sees his best self in and through her— “through the window of her skin a mirror shines.”
“Meant” has similar unities. For instance, in the first lines: “Teach me your heart / Show me where to find / all the secrets there / the ones you know are mine,” you find a wonderful equivocation on what “my secrets” means. Are they your wife’s secrets that you inherit in marriage? Or are they your secrets that your wife inherits or embodies? Yes.
Throughout the record, these blurried equivocations, like the blurried musical textures, can require some unpacking and re-listening. The listener must allow the record to live in its own space, which it politely requires. This record certainly rewards multiple listens. When you really take the time to live with and dive in to Monarch, you find in those dark places where you didn’t expect to find anything a billion worlds worth exploring.
On another note, I was happy to have the annotated lyrics, and I was thankful for Winters’ humility and earnestness in providing them. But I think I could have eventually navigated the album without his additional help, since the record has, as I said, a clear life and voice of its own.
Within the first five seconds of this record, it becomes obvious that Zach Winters knows how to record music. The production on this record is lush, complete, intentional, and impeccable.
Winters was able to achieve this mostly because of the musical choices he made. You won’t hear any rocking drum tones on this record or classical-quality piano or strings.
That’s not the point of this album though. This record didn’t need anything other than what Winters provided to it. And what he did, he did very well. I am boggled that he and his wife recorded this in a side-room of their house in about a year. This record seems like it would have taken far more time and resources to complete to this degree. Which makes this a record of great maturity and inherent weight. Even if it weren’t for the arrangements, melodies, lyrical ideas, and everything else, I would still take note of this record as an extraordinary example of how far home recording can be taken.
Silence, waiting, the life of trees, the equivocations of various marriages, and the paradox of already-not-yet. These are a few of the things that Zach Winters explores in Monarch. Overall, the title brings to mind two things: our transformation in the pilgrimages of this life where we are being prepared for a metamorphosis beyond our wildest understanding, and the fact that, in this probationary period, we must learn to wait in patient silence on our Heavenly monarch’s quiet voice. Our transformation is dependent on our submission. As Winters says in his notes: “We are kept in indecision so long as we demand full understanding before we can act.”
You can connect to Zach Winters and his music through these various links, and please do: