Of pain and praise: Cherry Blossoms by Andy Squyres (album review)

andy-squyres

In a recent interview, Bono issued a call to Christians for more authentic songwriting, for the “brutal honesty” before God that characterizes the book of Psalms. We need more realism in art and in life, he said; we need to be “porous.”

Andy Squyres delivers all this in his 2015 album Cherry Blossoms, which chronicles his journey through pain and loss after his friend was murdered by a home intruder. Tragedy destabilizes; it prompts questions regarding the nature of God and the viability of faith in the face of reality. But it also throws into high relief God’s promises—to love, to strengthen, to walk with, to bring through. Not immediately, but with time.

A necessary step to regaining stability after receiving a blow like the death of a loved one is to spend time sitting in the darkness of the why, and that’s exactly what many of the tracks on Cherry Blossoms allow us to do: grieve, question, wrestle hard for a blessing until daybreak.

My favorite song is “What Nobody Should Know”:

While all the others focus on personal pain, this one shows what it looks like to suffer in community. (The murder victim was a fellow church member.) Here’s an excerpt:

We were in a church but we were shouting
Mourning our loss but not our doubting
Wondering why love is allowing
All of us to hit the floor
Down here is one of the strangest places
Nothing but hearts and dirty faces
Maybe this is where amazing grace is
God knows we need some more

Squyres’s lyrics are very evocative, sensory.

In “The Pestle and the Mortar,” he writes that his sweet illusions were crushed like spice pods—turned to dust—by the pestle of affliction. The implication is that suffering, by virtue of its pounding, releases in us an aroma and preps us to be used in delicious ways.

In “Labor in Vain,” he references John Henry, the steel driver of African American folklore, and considers the field as a metaphor for life, in that we often have to cut through hard ground. It’s laborious work, and it requires perseverance. But the yield is grain and grapes—that is, fuller communion with the body and blood of Christ (his people, his suffering).

Cherry Blossoms gives voice to other frustrations as well, like economic injustice. In “The Hawk and the Crow,” Squyres grapples with feelings of hatred toward the inconsiderate wealthy whose lack of care oppresses. I’m really intrigued by the line “mercy is the burden of the poor.” When I asked Squyres if he could unpack it a little for me, this is what he said:

It is the idea that those who are marginalized (the poor, the rejected, the outcast, etc.) are the most likely to be recipients of injustice and therefore have the most opportunity to forgive the oppressor, to heap mercy upon the one who has probably done great harm. Jesus doesn’t let the poor off the hook just because they’re poor. We have to show mercy too.

“Only love can give what vengeance cannot cure.”

There’s only one song on the album that’s not autobiographical, and that’s “Don’t Forget About Me When I’m Gone.” Squyres said he approached it as an exercise in songwriting and empathy: he wanted to tap into that feeling of separation we sometimes feel from our loved ones.

The album concludes with the titular “Cherry Blossoms,” a redemption song full of springtime imagery. Previously “bur[ied] . . . in a blanket of evening snow,” Squyres is now thawed out, warmed by a reassurance of God’s love. Here he is singing the song with his daughter Savannah McAffrey:

Stating his resolve to not give in to the forces of frustration and death, Squyres clings to hope and issues forth praise that is anything but cheap—it cost him blood and bone. It’s not that he’s arrived spiritually; rather, he has cycled through a season of life with God and has landed at a gracious new beginning. “Orientation-disorientation-reorientation” is how Walter Brueggemann schematizes this constant flow along which God’s children are always in transit.

Both bitter and sweet, Cherry Blossoms is for those whose equilibrium has ever been disrupted by a life event—and more than that, it’s for the church at large, because we are in desperate need of a language of suffering. Such a language is part of our heritage—i.e., the Psalms—and Squyres helps us reclaim it, letting us walk, and sing, with him through his own valley. Squyres shows that pain and praise are companions in the life of faith (the one need not be suppressed), and that Love is always there to be our breakthrough.

cherry-blossoms-album-cover

I really admire Squyres’s artistic sensibility, not only in regard to lyrics and composition but also extending to things like disc packaging. The album cover photo is striking. I asked him about its origin, and he had this to say about it:

I had seen a photo at an art exhibit at the Mint Museum in Charlotte of some kids in the 1930s standing on a street corner in Harlem. They were smoking cigarettes and looked like they had already seen their fair share of life and most of them were probably only young teenagers. When I saw that photo I just knew I wanted it for my album cover. We couldn’t get permission to use that one but we found the shoeshine boy. I love him because he looks world-weary yet determined. He’s probably got dreams, but he’s probably just gonna have to figure out a way to survive. That is the story of most of us.

He brings this sensibility to his job as worship pastor at Queen City Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, along with his life experience and heart of faith.

In a blog post dated October 15, 2012, Squyres wrote,

The season of your existence between the day you are born and the day you die is the only moment in the entire span of eternity from which you can love God in the midst of trouble, from the altar of pain. When you are finally out of the realm of time, loving God will be altogether glorious but equally obvious. You won’t be asking “why” this trouble. You won’t be reaching with hands of faith anymore. Faith will pass and you will be in the ecstasy of His presence. That’s why you must see this life, any affliction, any sorrow, any struggle as the most incredible gift that it is; this is your chance to love God from this place and in this moment. It will never again be. Every tear will be wiped away. So if now, you have a tear, then give it to God with all the imperfect love in your heart.

Cherry Blossoms is Squyres’s tear-offering—to God and to the church.


Cherry Blossoms is available for free download from NoiseTrade (in exchange for your e-mail address). You can purchase the physical disc here.

Here’s a bonus song, not part of the album but of the same spirit: “Why, Oh Why”:

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