[Banner photo by Kylie Wilkerson.]

Photographers know a particular vocabulary of light beyond daytime and nighttime. They know those luminous in-between times called “magic hours.”

In evening’s “golden hour,” the sun is so low that the world forgets to cast shadows, and everything goes woozy with red, glowing it seems under its own power.

By contrast, evening’s “blue hour” shines after the sun is gone, cooling in an elegiac blue, the world catching and holding as much indirect light as it can. Bob Dylan might say, “It’s not dark yet / but it’s gettin’ there.”

Language about light and photography has come up a lot in the lyrics of Over the Rhine over their three decades of recordings. But if we were to organize their music into phases of the day, we’d find much of it — perhaps most — belongs to evening’s blue hour: songs for times when dreams are being surrendered, when we’re left with only distant reflections of light.

Their 2001 release Films for Radio begins with thoughts of an ending:

If this should end tomorrow —
All our best laid plans
And all our typical fears —
Am I running out of lifetimes
This is not the first time
Something ends in just tears…

Not the first time, indeed. On an earlier record, fan favorite Good Dog Bad Dog from 1996, they began with a lament for broken dreams: “What a beautiful piece heartache / this has all turned out to be.” The Long Surrender, an album released 15 years later, began with the sobering observation that “Everybody has a dream / that they will never own,” but also the assurance that “If we gotta walk away / we gotta hold our heads up high.” Over the past several years, the climax of their concerts has come with an anthem of the sort that audiences sing along with, their hearts in their throats, their voices breaking: “All my favorite people are broken / Believe me, my heart should know / Some prayers are better left unspoken / I just want to hold you, and let the rest go….”

The great Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner once wrote, ‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” By that definition, Over the Rhine’s gladness is to sing for (and of) dreamers discouraged, for those who must surrender although they strove and strove, for those who have seen beauty abused or torn down. Call it Blue Hour Music. Call it empathy. Call it the laughter of recognition or call it consolation. These might be songs for marriages or friendships that just won’t make it, artists who can’t cover the costs of their visions, believers who lose their grip on faith — even Americans who find a nation’s foundations sinking beneath the rising tides of lies, fear, and hatred.

Whatever troubles that Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler are soundtracking, they’re not faking it. They know the territory and speak from experience. In 30 years of making music and 22 years of marriage, they’ve been through things and lived to tell the tale. You can map their personal hardships by the quietness of their records, as if they’ve played and sung more tenderly, more gently, when the hurt has been especially raw. Good Dog Bad Dog was released in a time of uncertainty that the band would even continue; Drunkard’s Prayer came together as they fought to save their marriage from coming apart.

And here they are with their quietest record for what may be the hardest times their audience has known.

Love & Revelation, their 15th album, might play as the soundtrack for a movie about personal losses set against the roiling backdrop of this present American darkness. They sing psalms over intimate hurts and raise prayers for those still standing at the end of the world; they grieve our losses and horrors; and they invest in a hope beyond the human sphere. And, as they asserted on 2013’s Meet Me at the Edge of the World, these magic hours are their “favorite time of light,” a twilight when we count the cost of the day, but also an hour of enchantment, when we might sense more possibility in heaven and earth than we have yet dared to dream. Against a backdrop of blue, the flare of a torch or a candle can seem otherworldly.

In an interview with Justin Chadwick at Albumism, Detweiler — the responses seem to come primarily from him, but the article doesn’t specify — offers some context for these songs:

We’ve lost loved ones. We’ve seen our friends struggling with loss—the loss of a child, or partner. We’ve stood with friends and family members as they struggled with chronic illness, or a scary-as-hell cancer diagnosis.

And then we know a lot of people turn on the news and are in shock at what they are seeing. Beneath that shock is grief. We are grieving the fact that we aren’t quite sure who we are anymore as Americans. Things are shifting and being revealed. Maybe we are grieving the fact that we thought we were better than this.

No wonder it begins with “a beautiful piece of heartache.” The song “Los Lunas” — can a place have a name that sounds sadder? — could score a short film as a heartbroken lover, a friend betrayed, or a devastated dreamer drives New Mexico’s I-25 at dusk:

I cried all the way from Los Lunas to Santa Fe
And on to Raton
Neither one of us wanted things to end this way
But one of us had to be wrong…

Following this lament for loss, the car slows down along a path called “Given Road,” and stops at the edge of a property walled off from visitors. Someone has shut out the world with a barrier that “keeps out the sun / keeps in the cold.

As if inspired by these grievances, two voices unite on the third song, “Let You Down,” not to raise walls but to offer embraces, to make promises and offer a blessed assurance:

Don’t know if we can roll away this stone
But either way, you’re not alone
And if a song is worth a thousand prayers
We’ll sing ’til angels come carry you and all your cares

I don’t want to let you go
That’s the one thing for sure I know
You can bet I’ll stick around
‘Cause I don’t want to let you down

Are they singing to each other? Is this an offer of reconciliation to the one lost behind the wall of “Given Road”? Whether you take each track as a standalone story or as a chapter in an ongoing narrative — either way, it works. And regardless, I can’t help but take each track personally, these lines magnetically adhering to my own fears, my own hopes, my own relationships.

So much treasure awaits in the eight remaining songs: a timely tribute to Mary Oliver, a perfectly pitched Dylan Thomas reference (you could make a powerful playlist of songs in which these two have directly referenced great poets), and — particularly poignant — a clear and timely rejection of any religion or political party that preaches love but still packs heat. This is a record for those who still believe in the dream of an America that invites the broken, the weary, the abused, and the outcasts, and that bears their burdens and offers them grace. It may be too late to fulfill America’s promise of a nation built on love and liberation, but the poets have always believed that such a citizenship was never of this world anyway. For believers, human history is one long blue hour, a scramble for echoes of light, a long wait for sunrise.

Photography by Darrin Ballman Photography http://darrinballman.com

None of these convictions are new for Over the Rhine listeners, but in the past I’ve settled on certain songs as highlights and come to play them more often. This time, I find I want to play the whole record through every time, and in order. As I observed in my first effusive post upon hearing this album for the first time in January—these songs have been rigorously road-tested and lived in. (Later, Josh Hurst would say it better, saying the songs “feel as comfortable and lived-in as a favorite pair of blue jeans, all the stiffness long worn away.”) And it shows in subtlety of tender performances. Nothing announces itself as a Major Event, and nobody seizes a spotlight. The songs, like the players, seem entirely attentive to — and generous toward — one another. It sounds like it could have been recorded in one enchanted evening; no record in their catalog feels so concise but also so complete, so cohesive in sound and spirit.

This may bother listeners looking for variety. (Hilary Saunders at No Depression, after praising the band’s “mastery,” scowls over what she calls “a stagnant pace.”) It’s true that Love & Revelation lacks the stylistic range of more sonically adventurous albums like Films for Radio, The Trumpet Child, and The Long Surrender.  But I find it the farthest thing from “stagnant.” Bergquist and Detweiler seem to think these dark times call upon their subtlest, quietest strengths: an array of votive candles instead of a bonfire—lights that both illuminate and point the way to something more. The effect is spellbinding, and the collection is so much greater than the sum of its psalms.

At this point in her career, Karin Bergquist doesn’t need to prove anything as either a vocalist or a lyricist. But she does: while the album features several collaborations with her partner, she wrote most of them herself (“Los Lunas,” “Given Road,” “Love & Revelation,” “Making Pictures,” “Leavin’ Days”) and proves that she can work more than enough magic by drawing her voice down into blue embers and dwelling there, holding back from the kerosene crescendos that have so often brought audiences to their feet.

And this particular assembly — the Band of Sweethearts — collaborates with an effortless chemistry, sounding less like a meeting of minds and more like a band than on any Over the Rhine record since Good Dog Bad Dog. Since that 1996 landmark, when Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist got married and emerged as a duo from the original quartet, they’ve been inviting an ever-changing supporting cast of guitarists, percussionists, and producers. Fans learned to expect the unexpected, from the power pop of Films for Radio to the double-album epic Americana of Ohio to the New Orleans spice and jaunty pop of The Trumpet Child. But this, the twenty-tens ensemble — featuring Jay Bellerose, wizard of percussion; Jennifer Condos, bassist in boots; the legendary Greg Leisz on pedal steel and mandolin; the ubiquitous keyboardist Patrick Warren; and all-purpose guitarist (and touring regular) Bradley Meinerding — play now with the synchronous grace of a sunset murmuration. (It’s particularly satisfying to find Meinerding playing the prominent, multi-faceted role on a recording that he has played onstage with Detweiler and Bergquist for years.)

The only Sweetheart missing? Producer Joe Henry, who first assembled the Sweethearts for 2011’s The Long Surrender (my favorite OTR record) and 2014’s Meet Me at the Edge of the World. But Bergquist and Detweiler have learned much from the master, and this album stands as a tribute to his influence: the title, in fact, is lifted directly from the sign-off of Henry’s emails. You don’t have to dust for his fingerprints; dust and wild edges are part of his style.

I take guidance from this early-evening constellation. Increasingly, bad-news day by bad-news day, I think of Frodo and Sam clinging to the rocks on Mount Doom, the lava rising fast all around them, their vision failing. Tolkien insisted, “I am a Christian … so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat.'” Elsewhere, he writes, “[O]ne must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however ‘good’….” That’s a dire prophecy.

But Tolkien isn’t finished. He adds this: “[A]nd the Writer of the Story is not one of us.” So it seems right that this album’s attention turns from the road behind (“Los Lunas,” “Broken Angels”) to the road ahead, and beyond, to the the Writer of the Story, the muse of all our earthly arts. In “Betting on the Muse,” which features not only some of the duo’s brightest harmonies, but also some of Detweiler’s most memorably inspired (and inspiring) lyrics, they sing together with with a spirited and defiant resolve, even as the world’s golden hour fades into blue:

Another golden evening is dying on the vine
A rehearsal for the final act
When the light that’s lost is mine
All this blinding beauty has left me no excuse

I know the sun is setting
Who knows where it’s heading?
I’m still betting
Betting on the muse…

In this context, love and revelation represent a hope that can only be found through the work of imagination. We won’t find hope in politics or science: we’ll find it only in something that transcends this “darkling plain,” a love that goes on listening to what lies beneath and beyond. We’ll find it as the desolate, desperate Sheriff Bell finds it in No Country for Old Men, in dreams of someone waiting in the darkness beyond this mutilated world, waiting with “fire in a horn.”

When the benediction comes, it’s sung by the artists, but they might as well be channeling the Writer, the Christ present with us in or sufferings, risen as a promise of sunrise, inviting us into a fearless blue-hour feast:

With the darkness surely falling
May I propose a toast?

Open and woundable,
Good evening, I’m your host

May God love you like you’ve never been loved.

And all the people said, “Amen.”

No — as sorrows like sea billows roll, I’m not finding much hope for saving all that is being destroyed around, above, and beneath me. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there fast. All the same, blue hour is beautiful, and Over the Rhine mean to go on taking and singing their photographs. When I listen to Love and Revelation, I am blessed by what they’ve developed in their darkrooms. This is music to sing all the way to midnight, where the day begins again… right? So far, anyway. So far.