Every album by The Innocence Mission is filled with characters who channel the mundane into the momentous; characters who turn the tide and save the day through simple acts of kindness.
There’s “When Mac Was Swimming,” in which a little boy enjoys a day at the pool, blissfully unaware of loved ones scurrying around town, making plans and preparations for his birthday party. (“You’ll never know, darling/ You’ll never know how you are loved,” is the song’s simple and seismic conclusion.)
There’s the friend in “July,” showing up with sparklers in her hands at the end of an arduous day; she delivers light and joy, and has no idea how badly both are needed.
There’s even Fred Rogers, iconic for his empathy and compassion, invoked as both patron saint and kindred spirit on an album called Hello I Feel the Same. In the song, our narrator dreams that she can drive for miles just to see him; for him to smile at her, and tell her how she “could make things better.”
Such humility is befitting for this, the gentlest and most tender-hearted of bands—though they may be selling themselves short. For years they have been making things better for their small yet fervent following. Like the girl in “July,” they always seem to arrive with a gesture of kindness and encouragement just when such things are in shortest supply; and it is possible that they, too, have no idea how badly their joyful witness is needed.
Their elegant new album Sun on the Square is the latest in a long line of records that feel like refuges and oases—records that favor serenity over agitation, sincerity over irony, modesty over ostentation. These albums celebrate friendship, domesticity, and God’s grace—always seen through the prism of the tiniest gestures of love and charity. One of the new song titles, “An Idea of Canoeing”—like “When Mac Was Swimming” before it—conveys something of their flair for turning idle afternoons into mile-markers; this is a band unparalleled at documenting the little moments of grace revealed by hindsight to be formative.
There was a time when The Innocence Mission followed their instincts pop-ward, even feinting toward mainstream success on bubbly, up-tempo albums like Glow. They’ve pared down from a working four-piece to a central husband-wife alchemy—Don and Karen Peris, often but not always joined by longtime collaborator Mike Bitts on upright bass, and now by their string-playing children on select songs—and since 2007’s We Walked in Song they’ve quietly released a series of albums that feel of a piece: modest bedroom recordings that champion simplicity, savoring the warm thrum of acoustic guitar strings; the diaphanous tremor in Karen’s voice; songs that move at an unhurried, autumnal pace; words that glisten with elegance and precision. Sun on the Square both continues and subtly progresses that series, offering another collection of unassuming songs that find some subtle new wrinkles within a signature sound.
It’s their most distinguished album since 2003’s Befriended, largely because it’s their most sonically adventurous and casually exploratory. The Perises still write quiet folk songs, but here there’s pure sound bleeding through the edges, making even some of the slowest and softest numbers sound humming and atmospheric. Don’s acoustic guitar remains at the forefront—and his gossamer notes still ring like church bells—but many songs are given a summery ambiance by Karen’s pump and field organs, which hang a kind of hazy mystique over the proceedings, as if suggesting a pervading and enveloping mystery so thick it’s almost tangible.
This is an Innocence Mission record that feels visceral, sensual: Karen has professed inspiration from bossa nova singers like Astrud Gilberto, and maybe that explains “Sun on the Square,” a warm breeze that you can practically feel on your skin. It’s masterful in how it assembles simple components—the acoustic guitar’s hum, a sprinkling of piano, a brisk ride cymbal groove—into something irreducible and breezy. Other songs feel like they hide entire worlds within them, each one a tiny diorama of immaculate detail: “Buildings in Flower” is lo-fi folk, a scratchy basement tape decorated by dancing bells and the jovial swell of a melodica. The dreamy “Shadow of the Pines” surrenders to opulence, losing itself in an oceanic wave of piano, accordion, and harmonica. “An Idea of Canoeing” builds into a cosmic swirl of voice and guitar, closer to shoegaze than to folk austerity.
While the group’s sound has seldom been so expansive, Karen’s lyrics are more economical than ever; in tight, uncluttered stanzas, she expresses the openness and vulnerability of characters who choose generosity over insularity. In “Records from Your Room,” the sound of old vinyl wafts through the windows and out into the street, a reminder to passersby of common grace, “the depths of belief, the kindness of strangers.” The genial waltz “Look out from Your Window” celebrates connection amidst separation and noise: “Look out from your window now/ Can you see me cheering for you, up and down?” Meanwhile, the hymn-like “Star of Land and Sea”—the only song here sung by Don—is a benediction into peace-making and neighborly love: “Be a light to all/ You shine/ Into darker lands/ You shine.” Maybe it’s an answer to the title song, a prayer lifted up in troubled times: “Let it ring into the air/ Let there be more kindness in the world.”
To pray for more kindness, of course, is to acknowledge the indecency of the world we live in; how often it feels bent toward cruelty. Dark edges aren’t totally foreign to this good-natured group, yet even on 1999’s Birds of My Neighborhood—their Sufjan Stevens-endorsed landmark, about a prolonged season of sorrow and doubt—there’s a sense of looming mercy and unseen hope: “The world at night has seen the greatest light,” one song says, maybe or maybe not referencing the Nativity. They’ve been reflecting that light ever since, on one album after another that proves its own point just by existing—delicate and brave, ringing with mundane and momentous kindness.