When, in my early twenties I went hiking in Northern Ireland’s Mourne Mountains; pea-green valleys, rock-strewn peaks, swirls of snow, and ancient stone walls, it was easy to imagine a deep vert dragon rising suddenly through the mists in front of me.
And easier still to long for one to do so.
Dan Conway’s latest album, Northernness, captures that longing, one voiced by a far better Irish writer than I, C.S Lewis, who hiked those same ancient volcanic peaks as a young man.
Lewis, and lifelong companion, JRR Tolkien, were captivated by Norse mythology, and a sense of what they called “northernness”: brief, but powerful feelings, evocative, almost painful desires for a place that was either imaginary or unattainable.
Later, as a Christian, Lewis recognised that what was imaginary was in fact real. What was unattainable now, would be attainable later.
Conway’s guitar-driven album captures that longing perfectly. And it’s the culmination of his own journey towards Jesus, or more to the point, Jesus’ search and rescue of a lost sheep such as Dan.
No stranger to big stages and big sounds (he was a guest artist at the finale of Australia’s Got Talent at the Sydney Opera House in 2012), Northernness is as sparse as gorse. It’s a spare, intimate reflection of the inner life Dan has cultivated through prayer and meditating on Scripture.
Conway’s great talent is to shrink a room. There he is sitting alongside you in a warm fire-lit cave, a musical Mr Tumnus, plying you with tea, cake and achingly sweet songs of grace, love, forgiveness and longing.
Northernness is replete with Narnia references, (“further up, further in”, “maybe we’ll meet in the back of an old wardrobe”) but it’s no mere homage or shadowland.
Conway is a self-confessed book addict. Like a mina-bird he’s always searching out bright slivers of grace in the classics. So we have a song called Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird fame. And Dan asks “How can a man of the law be so riddled with grace?” Sound like someone else you know?
And Do You Love Me? is a reflection by St Peter, post-denial, pre-death, smothered in the grace of the Lord Jesus who looks him in the eyes once again, lovingly calling him to care for his sheep.
It’s an album of second chances. Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the great literary figures, crafted so deftly by Dickens, and in Ebenezer, Conway urges the shrivelled, mean-spirited troll that Scrooge has become that “it’s not too late to start again.” It’s a song about grace first received and then grace handed on. “You’ve got to die to live again.”
Northernness has sentiment without syrup. There’s a Sufjan Stevens tone to it, a fellow travelling Christian minstrel who has gone through his fair share of heartaches. That’s not to say it’s maudlin. Like Stevens, indeed like Lewis, Conway has that knack of being surprised by joy in the midst of the banal.
So in Lord Willin, my favourite track, everyday married life is celebrated with this earthy wonder:
I can sing to you
You can cook for me
We can yell at each other
Like other people do
Yes, other people do yell at each other. Often. Loudly. And in anger. Other people such as I. And that’s why I need the grace that so deeply infuses this album.
Northernness may call out to that bleak, cold realm far beyond the experiences of a southern hemisphere Mediterranean city dweller such as me, but it’s designed to melt even the most ice-encrusted heart.
Northernness is available now on Bandcamp. You can buy it here.