The finale to Songs of Serenity returns us to the key of A (the key in which “Say I Do” kicked everything off), and also to the realm of the pure love song. Sequencing the album I saw that it had to be ordered this way, bookended by these two love songs, embracing “Cariboo” and “Trigger,” both in the key of C from poems of my father’s – it makes the whole album a circular journey returning to where it started.
The photo that goes with this song is full of circles too (many of the pieces on that table: glasses, watch, ring, buttons), but the main one showing in both this and the shot for “Say I Do,” which it closely recalls, is my father’s wedding ring. It is hanging on one wing of a ceramic owl owned by my mother (who collected owls, wise woman that she was) while the other wing is broken (ceramic: so fragile!). That broken-winged owl stands for my mother, and if you like to think of it that way, represents her in Heaven. My father joined her there 13 months later, the longest separation of their 55-year marriage, and it’s hard not to imagine him joyfully rejoining the love of his life.
The oldest song on the album, I’ve had this kicking around for over 22 years now, occasionally bringing it back in to some project (over the years I’ve worked on it with both Todd Fancey and Jamie from the Orchid Highway), though it never broke through to be recorded. Maybe partly because I really wanted it to be done right – it’s a lush, complex arrangement that demands a lot of attention and work to realize.
The origin of “Above” was an interesting image related to me by a friend I went to UBC with, who was dating my roommate at the time. It was early in their relationship, still pretty casual, and she felt more serious about it than he did so she was trying to basically get him to the same place. One night she told me that after he’d fallen asleep she would lean in close to his ear and whisper “I love you” to sort of implant the emotion, let it sink in subconsciously. I absolutely loved that idea, and felt the image was a powerful one for a love song.
I already had the simple two-chord progression that makes up the chorus, and I can’t recall if I even had the lines “Oh God, I’m in heaven above / Heaven, I’m in love” – quite possibly I did; if so I realized it would be the perfect starting point for this new song. The verse starts in the same key as the chorus, moving on to a G and D, and all the words are from what I heard that night: whispering in a lover’s ear, wondering if it’s getting through, imagining the effect. My favorite moment is the line “Saying I love you just above / Sub-con-scious-ly…” which breaks the song into new territory, drifting off to a dream section where the sleeper seems to be subconsciously “picking it up”. We can never turn our ears off, even asleep they are constantly picking up sounds.
The imagery is simple: one lover above, awake, actively whispering words into the passive partner’s sleeping ear below – both in physical space, and in the sense of consciousness (subconscious). Thus the singer of the chorus is the waking lover, above, almost like being in heaven, which is how we have so often expressed the idea of being in love (see: “When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek”).
Having this song around for so long, I had to let go of some preconceptions about how it would sound, as much as I tenaciously clung to the overall vision for it. As with every other song on this album, once we got the band working on it, everything sounded better, they truly brought it to life. Adrian’s drums are exactly right; Eric finds a defining bassline that carries throughout and ties it all together. And Derek again came up with some hauntingly beautiful melody lines on the keyboard that added a totally new fresh feel to this song I’ve known for half my life. I played 12-string electric to start the piece off, quickly bringing in acoustic (my Gibson Hummingbird, natch – which appears on every song here except the first, “Say I Do”).
The band did a particularly good job of executing my vision for a dream section in the middle, with only vague directions from me to make it somehow dreamy or ethereal. Adrian backs right off and adds tasteful hits, and Derek finds the crazy keyboard/synth sounds I knew he would to bring out this part. It all pays off when that section comes to an end and the whole band transitions smoothly, inevitably, back to the waking world with that final chorus. For the ending, the band plays on, starting to fade out while a late guitar part I wrote only a few years back fades in to take over. Over this (or under, as it’s the lowest note I’ve ever sung on record!) I sing the simple refrain of “Heav-en.”
The most complex arrangement though is in the vocals, which help give different feelings to the various sections of the song. I kept coming up with new parts that I couldn’t resist adding to the mix. Due to time limitations and the fact that I had all these parts floating around in my own head, I sang most of them. But Derek and Adrian add a couple parts, and the beautiful thick choral harmonies underpinning the chorus are again all four of us around one microphone in the live room at Echoplant B doing what we love to do most of all in this world. Real people making real music together.