Philosophers have written tomes about the meaning of existence. Somehow, the Eau Claire-based indie folk band The Daredevil Christopher Wright has boiled it down to a three-minute song: "I & Thou."
The nature of being alive is a subject songwriters don't tackle very often. John Sunde is different. His band is from the same scene that produced Bon Iver. There's a strong tradition of woodsy, even pristine folk music, and penetratingly introspective lyrics.
Sunde, 29, studied classical voice but also was a religion studies minor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He's always been interested in the big questions.
"I love exploring my own doubt, and how people have wrestled with the idea of understanding human motivation [and] purpose," he said. "That seems to be what gets me most fired up."
Fired up enough to musically embrace a depressing realization.
"We are a complex, profound being, who for a ton of their time does extremely mundane things," he said.
We're kind of existing, Sunde said, but we're not experiencing life fully. This nagging recognition fueled the creation of the song "I & Thou," from The Daredevil Christopher Wright's latest album, "The Nature of Things." It begins with what seems like a recollection of a strange dream.
Woke up this morning
I thought I'd been transformed
my body turned to seed
Grew up a wheat field
hewn about the knee
that's all I'd ever be
And as that image of being a lone stalk in a colossal wheat field either comforts or throws the listener into an existential tailspin, the chorus sweeps in with a reminder of the task at hand.
And I am looking for the thing in itself
not healing but health
the other, not self
the I and thou
"I'm ... really striving for that sense of understanding what it's about, what the point is," he said.
And you'll notice how that chorus ends, with the words "the I and Thou." That goes back to Jon Sunde's religion studies at college and the writings of Jewish philsopher Martin Buber. Buber said there were two realms of human relationships, the "I and it."
"Where you are responding to something and kind of using it to benefit yourself," Sunde said.
And the "I and thou," in which the person is benefiting or serving another. Sunde said devout Christians interpret "I and thou" as a connection to God.
"But we also can experience that between human beings and in experiencing that between human beings we are being connected to that divine relationship," Sunde said.
While the lyrics in "I & Thou" are profound, the airy melody and spare instrumentation somehow make them easier to absorb. We hear finger style playing on an open D tuned acoustic guitar a la Joni Mitchell or Nick Drake, and an electric guitar strummed in counter rhythm. The breezy beat of a shaker is prominent in the mix, lending an island vibe to the music. All the elements are simple by themselves.
"But together they create kind of a complexity that we just found really satisfying," Sunde said.
Sunde is not afraid to admit he doesn't fully understand the concepts he sings about in "I & Thou."
"But I also feel an artistic liberty to kind of use half knowledge and just like speak where I am at along the path," Sunde said.
Judging from the "half knowledge" displayed in "I and Thou," Sunde is pretty far along that path.