This year brings us the coldest winter in twenty-five years and along with it, a new Akai album, The Coldest Hour is Just Before the Dawn. As their previous album Pretty Songs About Ugly Things was a favorite I was more than eager to give their newest outing a listen. In doing so I found it to be a fascinating artistic statement. I hadn’t necessarily planned to review a music CD here but then again it isn’t too oftent that I have so much to say about one. In the case of Akai’s latest, repeated listens continued to bring certain themes into focus and individual songs opened to reveal an unexpected look at the mindset of the Jehovah’s Witness religion.
Before getting into the deeper discussion it might be best to start on the surface with the standard genre pigeon-holing and band comparisons. The Coldest Hour could be filed under indie-pop. Musically, it has the character of early Belle & Sebastian, owing more to the prominence of trumpet and glockenspiel with the occasional spacey synth to anything else. It terms of song construction and vocals it reminded me of a more epic version of the quaint Twin-Cities band, the Owls.
The first impression of this album is that Akai’s penchant for writing “pretty songs about ugly things” carries through from their previous album. Though it lacks the genius pop production values of its predecessor, The Coldest Hour still does an admirable job, with a sparkling, melodic presentation. Since the release of the last studio album Akai’s membership has swelled to a eight piece live act. While still fundamentally a duo-effort of the husband-wife songwriting team of Hiromi and Robbie Matsumoto, The Coldest Hour is more of an ensemble piece. So supporting instruments like the glockenspiel and trumpet are present on the majority of the tracks sharing ground with the standard drums, bass, and guitar. This creates cohesiveness throughout the entirety of the album, stitching the individual tracks together as a composite work; though it often has the unfortunate side-affect of giving many of the songs a certain degree of sameness.
In my opinion, The Coldest Hour is better looked at as an art object rather than simply a music album. Artistically designed, co-produced and co-written by gifted painter Hiromi, this second LP release from the Akai is unabashedly a concept album. I don’t know too much about evaluating art so I hope that I can be excused for any misteps in putting together my thoughts in this regard.
The opening song begins the descent into evening with other songs following through the night leading to the final song which provides hopeful glimmers of the new day emerging on the horizon. Prominent lyrical themes revolve around the night, darkness, and coldness. To exemplify these themes the music is often plodding with tired and listless vocals, distant chamber choruses, somber brass lines, and the twinkle of bells to add a touch of winter.
Moving forward from these surface impressions we begin to unravel the piece to see what meaning the artist has interwoven within the musical tapestry. With conventional modern-art the artist might distill their work to a succinct tagline. In this way Akai describes The Coldest Hour as,
A dynamic journey through the hours between dusk and dawn, ‘The Coldest Hour’ echos a mélange of reactions to a dark spot in human history with melody and metaphor.
This leaves the viewer, or in this case listener, with the job of expanding on the meaning the artist is attempting to convey, an effort that is often clouded by his own experience, background, and emotion. Reviewing art is a very subjective effort.
In this particular case it is helpful that I share the same background of the artists, having been raised within the Jehovah’s Witness religion. While it is true that the band makes no outward promotion of their religion, their beliefs have made an indelible mark on the album. From my perspective, The Coldest Hour is best understood as an artistic, religious statement, something that may not be grasped by other listeners.
When I listened to their first album, Pretty Songs About Ugly Things, I thought that it reminded me of the Bible book of Ecclesiastes. It seemed to express the futility of the human endeavor (“everything is vanity”) though not without some degree of hope. The Coldest Hour amplifies the pessimism to eleven while toning down the hope considerably. It presents a dismal view of life practically void of any joy and warmth.
In the artists’ view we are in a cold, dark spot in human history; a time period that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe to be “the last days”. The general iciness of the songs might be attributed to spending a freezing Minnesota winter in a poorly heated home but it is more aptly a representation of how Jehovah’s Witnesses view the world around them and their place within. In that view the only good exists within the religious organization, everything outside is viewed with suspicion, pessimism, and occasionally disdain.
In considering the The Coldest Hour from this perspective it would be beneficial to first consider the track, “Morning Follows The Night”. Coming in halfway through the recording, it acts as the central thesis for the album proper, making a direct theological statement about the album’s concept. Using somewhat muted, religious metaphor the lyrics follow the fall of man into darkness, a transition from day to night. It looks longingly toward a time of edenic renewal where they’ll “replace the old with something new”. Such a transition comes at the destruction of present. “We’ll tear it down / we’ll burn it up / we’ll use the fire to light the world”.
According to Witness theology will darkness always prevail? No, the song expresses a hope that morning will “someday” come to end the dark, but such a time is elusive and the hope, incorporeal. In the face ever present darkness, the lyrics repeatedly call for the need to have “a reminder that the morning follows the night”. It well characterizes the general weariness felt by members of the religion who have lived with the unfilled hope that the present world would soon end and be replaced with a paradise. Rather then see themselves as “children of the light” per the scriptures, the artist uses the term “midnight’s weary children” to describe those that have grown mentally drowsy after so many long hours and passing bedtimes with no new day in sight. The history of Jehovah’s Witnesses has been one of repeated expectations for certain dates to bring forth the end of sorrows of the present and a transition into a new world of tomorrow. This song well highlights the increasing insecurity of a religious community that is now near the centennial anniversary of 1914, the pivotal date of their prophetic chronology, with a long interim of failed hopes in between, and now no end in sight. With their eyes always pointed to the uncertain future they miss out on the tangible realization of what Jesus has offered for nearly two-thousand years.
Before moving on to look at how this theological convention is conveyed in the other songs we can give attention to the purposeful album art. The album cover is a hand drawn illustration by Akai front man Hiromi and carries on the imagery of album depicting a stark, wintery night. The artists illustrates the moon (a nod to the night) looking down upon a slight anthropomorphic reindeer (a nod to the cold). (As a side note, the moon and the reindeer, also seem to be a depiction of the two Akai leads.) In the illustration the doe is surrounded by menacing wolves, one of which holds a rifle toward her. Again this must be seen as a particular religious view point. Jehovah’s Witnesses exhibit a siege mentality, considering the entire world outside of their organization as “lying in the power of the wicked one”. They believe it acts as a conspiracy designed to rob them of their faith and lead them with the rest of the world into destruction. Perhaps more specifically, members of the religion are conditioned to see any who are critical of the movement as ravenous wolves. In the face of such distress the disposition of the doe is rather abject. While Jehovah’s Witnesses believe they are living in the last days they do not exhibit that confidence and joy but rather lingering doubt, fear, and trepidation. The scene offers no hope of deliverance for the doe who languishes in despair.
With the central theological statement covered we can give consideration to how the other songs uphold a distinct Jehovah’s Witness worldview. The Coldest Hour opens with “When the Sun Goes Down”, it acts to set the stage for the bleak, dismal night. When the sun vacates the sky, darkness prevails, and wickedness advances. Presumably speaking on behalf of those that welcome the darkness, Akai sings “we won’t have to fight, the conscience of light / when the wrongs become right” ; “we don’t have to see the stains of carefree ways / on our hearts and our names”. The song again reflects a semi-veiled hope for the destruction of the present and a time of renewal and resurrection; “when the fires are lit and we burn up the past with it / friends will arise to light up our smiles.” However such a time is elusive, a fading campfire longing, as the progressing night brings bitter cold, pushing away any warmth. The destruction of mankind is touched on again as the morning draws near. In this new day the “hungry sunrise”, a consuming fire, will catch the wicked by surprise, leading to their demise. Despite the tragic subject matter, the fall of man and the destruction of the wicked, the song interestingly ends with an unfeeling chorus seemingly mocking the passing of the world, leading to laughter. I don’t know if this is meant as an expression of joy of the coming day or an eerie look at how Jehovah’s Witnesses callously, and quite eagerly await the destruction of everyone save for themselves.
I am undecided if the song “Satellite” should be viewed as a self-assessment on the part of the artist or yet another example of the writer adopting the first-person perspective of those outside of the religion, a common songwriting tool used by Akai. It is perhaps both. The songs speaks of judgment, but not so much internal conviction, but that which comes from the outside. The lyrical image conveyed is of an orbiting satellite capturing “the best and worst of life”. As a source of ever present, ex-terrestrial judgment, the satellite might be seen as a stand-in for the Witness concept of Jehovah God. As the “satellite” snaps pictures of the singer, he wonders what the verdict will be. He is concerned if he will he be viewed as a “loved or hated man”.
The singer introspectively gives the description of himself as possessing a “dark side” which he worries about being exposed. The end of the song offers a cynical expectation for the state of the man; he will grow older and his sins will become more apparent, but he looks forward to the morning when he will experience a renewal of the 0ld man within. This is illustrative of how Jehovah’s Witnesses often view themselves in the face of continual divine judgement. They are aware of the darkness around them and of their own repeated failings to live up to the tenants of their religion but have no idea how to overcome. They feel resigned that they will have to wait for a future paradise, where they will be cleansed of their sin and be made new. This is contrary to the good news preached by early Christians. Speaking of the current state of those who have Jesus, Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Cor 5:17) Because they have no appreciation of the righteous standing offered by Jesus they live in a continued state of fear of adverse judgment. Their standing before God is tenuous, where they feel that they can easily slip from being a man “loved” by God, to one who is “hated”, ready to be consumed by the fires of everlasting judgment.
In the song “Drifted” the artists particularly tip their hand to their Jehovah’s Witness religious disposition This marks the third time a version of this song (previously called Adrift) has appeared on an Akai release if you count their 0.5 EP. The song opens with the lines,
“I’ve lost all faith in your once friendly smile / now that we’ve been away for awhile. / I’ve heard rumours of your independent thoughts / though we’ve never fought my mind’s spinning.”
The Orwellian connotations of the term, “independent thoughts”, are not lost on anyone who has had an experience with the strict conformity of thinking demanded of by Watchtower leadership. Within the religion, “independent thinking”, is loaded cult-speak specifically used to describe any ideas outside of the expressed dogma of the Witness leadership. Even if you don’t express such independent thoughts, mentally holding them can be grounds for disfellowshipping or expulsion from the religion thereby severing all contact with Jehovah’s Witness friends and family through organizationally enforced shunning.
This lyrics of “Drifted” tell about a former friend of the band who went “drifting away” with “independent thoughts” leading to a severe, even harsh, personal rejection by the artist. When Robbie sings “I used to call you my friend” it speaks volumes of the way that personal relationships within the religion, no matter how close, can be instantly and totally severed by the witness. Whereas the previous incarnation of this song was presented with a twinge of sadness at the state of the relationship, the new heavy-handed version comes across as angry and scathing. Vitriolic vocals are underscored by a droning drum beat and a wash of distorted electric guitar. In the end the song is petty and full of hatred, emotions standing squarely against Jesus instruction to “love your enemies.” (Matthew 5:44)
“An End Deserving” brings a vindictive view of a degenerate world ready to be destroyed. The imagery conveyed by the lyrics, while somewhat veiled, paint a typical Armageddon scene from the Witness publications. The Witnesses live with the expectation that the end of the world is coming and will bring with it the destruction of all those who have rejected them and their message.
The callousness by which the Witnesses view the world around them are typified in the lyrics of the song that speak to a recipient of the coming judgment.
Like a suicidal plane, / Falling from the sky again, / Second thoughts won’t stop the tailspin.
Once the judgment begins there will be no opportunity for repentance; destruction is imminent.
And as the ground starts closing in, / You start to lose your solid grin, / As you reminisce.
On the surface these lyrics continue the imagery of a crashing plane headed toward the ground. Perhaps on a less overt level it calls to mind a visual motif in a Witness Armageddon illustration of the ground opening up and swallowing non-Witnesses. In this vindictive mindset those who are facing their end will lose their confidence and think back to the message they rejected. They will feel regret but it is too late to stop their death. Again, this end is expected for everyone who doesn’t accept the message of Jehovah’s Witnesses and join their religion. What is the reaction to the death of their neighbors, workmates, and acquaintances on the part of the Witnesses? They conclude it to be “an end deserving”.
The final track on the album, “As Long as it’s Tomorrow” is a departure in tone and in style. An older song written and sung by Akai drummer Reed Sutter it seems selected for it’s suitable chronological setting rather then the message, which is somewhat discordant from the other songs.
The song is set during an all-night road trip just before daybreak. Just as the album begins with the sunset it now ends with the sunrise. In this way it carries over the central statement of the album that there is a morning that follows the dark night, a new tomorrow. During this drive the singer describes catching sight of a city on the horizon that is “hopeful”, yet “hazy”. Again this captures the uncertain hope that Witnesses manifest toward future.
Otherwise, the approach to the subject matter is quite different. With the Hiromi/Robbie songs there is a certain detachment to the world around them as they paint rough caricatures, often falling into derision and mockery of humanity outside of their religion. Theirs is more of an accurate representation of how the Jehovah’s Witness community views outsiders, approaching them with a certain level of disinterest, save for attempts to contact them for potential conversion into the religion. On a surface level their manner and appearance is carefully constructed to “give a witness”. They may appear kind and well mannered to outsiders but it is superficial to the extent that Jehovah’s Witnesses are discouraged from cultivating any close relationships outside their religion. Outsiders, no matter what their background or disposition, even those who believe in Jesus and live moral lives, are branded as “worldly” or “bad association” to be avoided.
To the contrary the final song on the album provides a more empathetic view of those who are traveling down the same road as the singer/narrator. During the second stanza he describes catching sight of a Canadian family traveling along side him. He expresses a certain curiosity and empathy for this family as he “wonder[s] what’s their story.” He is curious if “they love each other”. He wonders if the sleeping children have just experienced “their greatest day”. He wonders if the parents have been fighting, before empathetically offering his hope that they all will be okay.
If the driver is singing from a Jehovah’s Witness perspective this offers a more cautious, curious look at those sharing the road of life, represented by the Canadian family, those foreign to him. It is interesting that he pictures them driving toward that same hopeful city on the horizon, whereas the other Akai songs would more likely have the car crashing and burning. He also offers his personal hope that the family is happy, loving, and doing okay which stands against the pessimistic view of a humanity without any good, which is on display in the rest of the Akai catalog. Throughout the song there is a perceptible quality of warmth, which is much appreciated after being drug through eleven songs of a very cold, bleak view of humanity.
In the end, The Coldest Hour provides a rare glimpse of the underlying psyche of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their response to this “coldest hour” is to fearfully withdraw, pull down the shades, huddle by the fire and wait for the morning to come and remove the rest of humanity so the Witnesses can live happily ever after on a paradise earth. But as the night drags on, and the cold becomes overwhelming, they struggle to stay awake, and fear that their faith will not hold out and they will be swept away along with the rest of the world.
As the album concludes it holds out hope but maybe not necessarily in the way intended by the Jehovah’s Witness artists. While cold, high control religious groups can stifle the flame of compassion, joy, love, and peace within their adherents there will be some who are still able to shine brightly and sincerely touch the lives of others. This brings to mind Jesus who eschewed the religious of his day and warmly embrace those that were considered as sinners and dirt by the proudly pious. The best evangelism tool is still sincere love and compassion, qualities that are often inhibited within Jehovah’s Witnesses. While the album as a whole is rather depressing the end encourages me that just as the darkness has never overcome the light there will be those whose true hearts will not always be bound up with the chains of false religion.