The Wailing Wall is multi-instrumentalist Jesse Rifkin together with a company of friends. Rifkin brings the East to his brand of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s Middle Eastern in the Jewish inspiration, faith, and tunings. It’s Near Eastern in the way Rifkin is enamored with Hinduism and Sufism, blending those sounds into the music as well. On top of this, Rifkin also counts Baroque and Renaissance church music as part of his inspirational canon.
The Low Hanging Fruit (2010) brings all of these inspirations together into spiritual tones and love poems that could easily fit into the band of brothers that is Half-handed Cloud, Sufjan Stevens, and Danielson.
And I know there is light in each crack, in each corner
But I cling to the darkness, forever a mourner.
Rifkin’s song works from that place internally where you realize that God’s goodness is reaching out to find you, but you’d rather run from it. You don’t want to name it, you don’t want to look it in the eye, you don’t want to come face-to-face with it, but no matter what darkness you chase, the light of God finds you with grace, beauty, and love.
I could speak not its name but it still would define me.
“Speak Not Its Name” comes from a similar tension spoken in Psalm 139 which deals with that overwhelming sense of realizing how completely God knows us, how completely His light reaches into our lives.
Psalm 139 says:
O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
You perceive my thoughts from afar.
At first glance, Rifkin’s song appears in revolt against God’s light, saying: I could break down its walls but it still would confine me. Yet, this is exactly what Psalm 139 says: You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. The weight of God’s hand on our shoulder at first causes us to want to shake Him off and say, “Don’t touch me.”
But then we calm down—or perhaps better said, we are calmed by God. He reaches out continually with that light to reach into every corner in which we hide, reaches out until we realize that He comes in peace, comes with comfort and salvation and healing.
It’s not clear to me whether Rifkin ends the song with the same hope offered in Psalm 139. The psalm builds to a critical point when the writer, King David, turns from being horror-struck at the Lord’s knowledge to realizing its greatness and instead praises the Lord’s knowledge: I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful.
In contrast, Rifkin’s song builds in tension, the percussive, chanting nature of the song growing to a breaking point as he sings: And the mind tries to chisel, tries to crop, tries to shape it/But it’s there, oh, it’s there, and you cannot escape it. Leading to a chorus of wordless chanting that dies out to leave the tune to be plucked out on stringed instruments. The hope isn’t necessarily there in Rifkin’s song, leaving you still trying to escape this light that has come into your darkness.
For the note of hope, you need to couple “Speak Not Its Name” with the following track, “Bones Become Rainbows,” which points to a resurrection-type hope both in its musical tone and lyric. It’s a tribal song of praise, raising the eyes to the skies that deliver us from the darkness that would try to overwhelm the light. Here is the hope of Psalm 139 ready for us to hear, sing, and rejoice.
And on the day that I die and my spine sprouts its wings
And I’m freed of the burden that my frail body brings
And step out of my skin that so callously clings
As my bones become rainbows and my skin is melting away
So this is my prayer now, please bring me near.
The dervishes spin, the music reaches a certain frenzy, and the rejoicing of heaven begins. His poetry may not necessarily match the imagery and understanding of Christian theology, but there’s a way in which Rifkin’s song are conversing with the Psalms, conversing with believers in Christ, conversing with our hope that God will deliver us from this world of darkness and bring us to a new world where our old trappings of sin and death will melt away.