Songs of Quiet Hope

This day is filling up my room,
Is coming through my door.
Oh, I have not seen this day before.

The first thing one notices about The Innocence Mission is the sense of wonder that infuses its music. Gentle but not superficial, thoughtful but not brooding, joyful but never boisterous, the tone of the band’s songwriting is above all characterized by a quiet awe at the beauty of creation and the divine presence in daily life.

Karen Peris’ writer’s voice is delicate, sophisticated, and utterly original—as is her literal voice. Don Peris, her husband, plays the guitar fluidly but with an effortless subtlety that shows he’s far less enamored of his own playing than of the songs and singer he’s supporting. The band has been around since the late ’80s, and its early guitar-pop sound provoked comparisons to a variety of lesser bands, such as The Sundays, The Cranberries, Sixpence None the Richer, and Over the Rhine.

Like Sixpence and Over the Rhine, The Innocence Mission often tends toward Christian themes. Unlike those bands’ songwriters, Karen is no more prone to confessional piety or hiding her light under a bushel of metaphors than she is to evangelistic bombast. Instead, her songs speak plainly yet artfully of the hope and grace found in life. And the band demonstrates a collective, active faith as well: Christ is My Hope (2000), a collection of favorite hymns, and Now the Day is Over (2004), an assortment of lullabies, are both sold to benefit organizations that help poor families.

I picked up Birds of My Neighborhood at a concert a few years ago. The original 1999 release was out of print, and the band was selling a homemade version that included a bonus track, “The Prayer of St. Francis.” The song’s peacemaking theme seemed to confirm what I’d always assumed about the charitable, apolitical, soft-spoken band from Lancaster, Pennsylvania—apparently they were from the peace church tradition.

In fact, Karen and Don are Catholic. Many of the lyrics on the recently reissued Birds reflect a deeply Catholic sense of the physical realm’s capacity for grace, of a sacramentalism not just suggested (“I think we will become new like the snow”) but realized (“The Host on your tongue is a perfect moon. It does shine inside you; you shine into the room”).

AT THE TIME of its original release, Birds of My Neighborhood was a bit of a stylistic departure for the band. While Glow (1995) initiated a move from guitar pop toward more delicate territory, Birds presented a fully realized stripped-down palette of timbres. Many of these songs use only guitars and Mike Bitts’ upright bass, providing a simple but texturally rich backdrop for Karen’s intimate vocal performances. Drummer Steve Brown plays on just one song, “Snow.” (The band now performs as a drumless trio.) It’s an exquisite track, with a sophisticated chord progression and an ethereal piano overdub, but it’s a bit inconsistent with the album’s generally low-key, percussion-light material.

Also both lovely and slightly out of place are Don’s two songs on Birds. They have a more straight-ahead folk feel than Karen’s, and his lyrics are at once simpler and denser: While she studies her surroundings through wide lenses of relationship and faith, he focuses on precise images and sentiments. “Who raised high the lowest tree?” he asks, pondering Christian community. “Birds of every wing shall dwell within.”

Both Don’s expansive arranging and his solid composition are showcased on Go When the Morning Shineth. Shimmering and varied guitars comprise the centerpiece of this rich set of mostly instrumental songs, while the tender lyrics of the two vocal selections focus on Don and Karen’s children, on family bonds and a hope-filled future: “Greener are the hills where you are bound. Kinder is the world where you belong.”

Not particularly edgy subject matter for working rock clubs. But The Innocence Mission has never worried much about hipster credibility—Birds actually includes a cover of a John Denver song. I attended an early stop on the band’s first tour after several years spent close to home and the kids. Karen, Don, and Mike seemed excited to be on the road again, and a palpable enthusiasm filled the room. “The world tonight has seen the greatest light,” sang Karen, “too much light to deny.” It was evident that the band’s clear spiritual vision and optimism engaged listeners—even the many young, self-consciously hip ones—far more than cool detachment or clever allusions ever could.

Steve Thorngate is editorial assistant at Sojourners.

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