Befriended’s appearance at number one on NPR’s list of the top 10 albums of 2003 could be seen as either a blessing or a curse. NPR’s accolades are often like the musical equivalent of an Oprah book-of-the-month stamp: a belated recognition from the too-stupid masses. But like Oprah’s surprising choice of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as her book of the month for April, Befriended’s critical acclaim was simply a validation of what so many Innocence Mission fans already knew: that the band has been crafting consistently charming music for almost 20 years. But unlike Over the Rhine, another spiritually minded, early ‘90s band led by a beautifully voiced female vocalist, the Innocence Mission have stayed humble, as well as stayed at home, touring less and pulling themselves further and further inward. While Over the Rhine recently released an unnecessary career-spanning best-of album, the Innocence Mission released a nearly vital collection of cover songs that lead singer Karen Peris sung to her young children growing up, 2004’s Now the Day Is Over.
We Walked in Song is a true sequel to 2003’s Befriended, down to the fold-out digi-pack design and contemplative band photos. Almost like another album of lullabies, it sees the band further elaborating, and strengthening, the soft, nearly loungy folk-pop that they have inched toward since drummer Steve Brown left in 1999 to pursue his culinary dreams (for the diehards: his restaurant is Lily’s On Main, with one in Ephrata, PA and another in the band’s hometown of Lancaster).
The band was a strange anomaly in its early days. Critics liked to play up their shy, down-home, anti-rock image. Or as old 120 Minutes VJ Dave Kendall summed it up, they were a bunch of “fresh-faced…blushing kids” in a sea of bands “making it, making out, making up and making trouble.” There haven’t been any strange detours during the Innocence Misson’s nearly 20-year path. They played music, toured occasionally, had kids, toured less and mellowed out. The almost Amish-like naiveté of their early days has evolved into a sort of old-age charm, with husband and wife Don and Karen Peris continuing to make music that echoes their lives. And if before it was all autumn walks and college lit, nowadays it’s family, friends and faith. Befriended revolved around the loss of Karen’s mother; We Walked in Song around the loss of her father and her love for her children.
“Happy Birthday” and “Love that Boy” are both dedicated to the Peris’ daughter and son. A more cynical person would find Karen’s maternal tales of her children playing in maple leaves and running up the hill overly sappy—but that person is heartless. My biggest complaint is that, as adorably subtle and honest as We Walked in Song is, it can be, to put it simply, a bit dull. Since Brown’s departure, the band’s early instrumental oomph has been replaced by a more ethereal elation that comes through in Karen’s evocatively personal lyrics.
Speaking of Karen Peris, she hasn’t changed a bit. If you look at photos from the band’s early period, she doesn’t seem to have aged a wrinkle. Her voice is still the same fragile, flowing thing it was since the beginning, always evoking fallen leaves and winter, candlelit nights for lazy writers (myself included). Don Peris’ guitar work is still understated and shimmering. These things haven’t, and probably will never, change. The Innocence Mission will never make a bad record; what could be called a boring record, sure, but never a giant experimental misstep or a lazy follow-up. We Walked in Song is another aural photo-album of a year or so in the Peris’ life. I’m looking forward to their empty-nester album.