By Geoffrey Himes
“The sunken city rises in this land of drought,” Sam Baker sings on the title track from his new album Land of Doubt. “The border is restless in this land of doubt.” The image of a man-made lake drying up in the rain-starved Southwestern U.S. and revealing the abandoned town long ago flooded by a dammed-up river is striking, and it resonates far beyond the region where Mexico meets the United States.
It reverberates across a globe where drowned ghosts and repressed fears are rising to the surface again, not only in electorates unsure of their governments’ mission but also among lovers uncertain of each other's honesty. We are suspicious of strangers, distrustful of the news, nervous about motives. We are living during a time of doubt in a land of doubt.
Doubt is not necessarily a bad thing. You can’t learn something new unless you’re willing to doubt the self-sufficiency of your old knowledge. You can’t improve your craft, your marriage, your government or your standard of living unless you’re willing to question the status quo. But there’s a difference between doubt as an agent of change and doubt as a chronic condition, between doubt that's leading to a new kind of belief and doubt that's blocking the way to belief.
Over his dreamy electric-guitar themes, buttressed by trumpet, keys, percussion, strings and more guitar, Baker's conversational voice (and his mist-filled black-and-white photographs) evokes the twilight shadows inhabiting the no man's land between an old belief and a possible new belief.
It could be a man doubtful of an old girlfriend, a man doubtful of a new romance, parents doubtful of a daughter's marriage, a soldier doubtful of an old war, a junkie doubtful of her next move or an immigrant doubtful of his new home, but each character in these songs is ankle-deep in the shifting sands of mistrust. Each one wants to get across to the solid rock of trust, but it’s unclear which of them—if any of them—will make it.
Of course, what looks like a doubt-free oasis of faith is often a mirage. Some folks are so frightened by doubt that they run back to comforting old stories of tribalism. Recent elections in Europe and the U.S. suggest that many people are doing just that. But these old beliefs do not answer our questions; they deny the validity of those questions. They don’t relieve the anxiety of doubt; they repress it until a later, more severe drought brings back it to the surface again.
Just as dangerous as the denial of doubt is the embrace of doubt. If you begin to doubt your hopes for a better individual life, a better collective life, it’s often easier to abandon that hope than to resolve the doubts. If you can convince yourself that everything is a hollow sham, then you’re relieved from all responsibility for making your small world or your large world a better place. That's cynicism.
But if denial of doubt and the embrace of doubt are dead ends, skeptical hope provides a path forward. There is a kind of doubt that always questions the reality of every claim but also maintains a provisional set of beliefs that allows one to engage lovers, friends and strangers in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is creative irony: the ability to hold in mind both the world as it should be and the world as it is, to forgive the world and its residents for that shortfall even as we seek to narrow that gap wherever we can.
It’s that vision that illuminates Baker's songs. “We meet at the border,” he sings, “with its beauty and scars.” He forgives our fallibility, our constant inflicting of wounds on each other and on ourselves—wounds that never completely heal. And he celebrates the world's capacity for splendor—whether it’s a flock of birds singing at sunrise or a red-faced woman smiling in bed.
-Geoffrey Himes (410-235-6627; firstname.lastname@example.org)
Geoffrey Himes is a music journalist for the Washington Post, Paste, American Songwriter and others and a songwriter/poet living in Baltimore.