A hundred years ago, the world was caught in the grip of a pandemic. Without TV or internet, lockdown was a lonely state. Radio was the place to turn for comfort, and a variety of composers attempted to capture the yearnings of the era. “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,” written by Ernest Seitz and Gene Lockhart, has endured because its lyrics are affected by, but not restricted to, the influenza epidemic. Dear one, the world is waiting for the sunrise / Ev’ry rose is heavy with dew / The thrush on high his sleepy mate is calling / And my heart is calling you. The song’s first known recording is by Edward Allen, but new renditions have appeared every decade ~ Les Paul & Mary Ford, Willie Nelson, Jeff Beck. Each decade has carried its own crisis, and now history has come back around.
Jacob Cooper and Steven Bradshaw have not so much covered the song as pull it apart like taffy, examine it, roll it out, and sprinkle it with new ingredients. Recording apart, the composers sent the files back and forth like digital letters until the cooking was complete. Their rendition is one 32-minute piece, unfolding in five movements. Echoes of the original song are sampled alongside other 20th century sonic ephemera.
The work proceeds from ghostly to mesmerizing, accumulating a palpable psychic residue. As it begins in layered breath and fragment, the track seems less the work of a 20th century composer than a 21st century choreographer. The first (and only) verse is darkened and percussive, barely legible, like voices through choked tears. A deep bass growl occupies the second movement and vibrates like Tibetan chant. In the tenth minute, a pure choral voice arrives, intoning only a few syllables at a time. As the lyrics begin to loop and swirl, the work of Ian William Craig comes to mind. Cooper and Bradshaw call this their “favorite excerpt,” and we agree. The intonations are gorgeous, stretching toward heaven, toward sunrise, toward the end of influenza, remembering the possibility of love on the horizon.
Toward the end of this segment, a distracting drone swoops into the sonic field. What then disturbs our reverie? Soon the entire field is filled. A cloud of distortion descends, obliterating all within its wake. As intimidating and monstrous as it may seem, the drone does not last, and does not win ~ the lyrical undertone of “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,” now embedded in an instrumental frame. A piano begins to lead the way from the underworld. The song returns, even slower this time. The darkness does not disintegrate, but is integrated. Light and dark fade into a minute of birdsong. What do the birds know of our troubles?
When it’s all over, we feel like the composers comprehend our existential dilemma. Cooper and Bradshaw have drawn a line back to the prior century, highlighting human nature in a comforting manner. They’ve “covered” a classic in a manner that no one has attempted before, making it their own while amplifying the emotional impact. The album’s subtle reminder is that love ~ not fear, not anxiety, not infighting ~ is our highest spiritual attribute.
Without the lens of time, it’s hard to predict which songs from the current pandemic might become future classics. We nominate Shards & Isolation Choir’s “Inside I’ll Sing,” although most of the pop world never noticed it. Alicia Keys, Thomas Rhett, OneRepublic and even Pitbull made the charts with topical hits. The top hit of 2020 (The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights”) had nothing to do with the pandemic, but is the most likely to be remembered. Will the pandemic of 2119-21 find a way to repurpose this piece? I said ooh, I’m blinded by the lights / No, I can’t sleep until I feel your touch / I said ooh, I’m drowning in the night / And when I’m like this, you’re the one I trust. (Richard Allen)