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The Man Who Was the Circus (A Review)

October 14, 2013

Rather than force myself to choose a favorite song, something that I know would be a useless endeavor, I’m writing about the song that’s playing right now: “The Man Who Was the Circus” by SHEL. Here’s a nifty youtube link if you haven’t heard it before.

My world is turning grey.
My life is slipping away.
The man who was the circus is weak.
Close his eyes, let him sleep.

We watch the Simple Fool turn his cheek.
Why does the Strong Man mock the joy of the weak?
The man who was the circus is murmuring,
And while he sleeps he can’t help remembering.

And all the clowns gather round,
Wiping off their smiles as the tears drip down.
The man who was the circus is gone.
Still the show must go on.


First of all, let me just say that this song–along with everything The Last Bison has ever made–is the best possible argument for classical music training. If there are any kids out there currently struggling with a difficult piano piece or a hard passage on the clarinet, this is why you persevere.

This song is story, and it’s one I can’t pretend to entirely understand. I won’t attempt to explain it to you. You’d be much better off just listening to the song yourself a few times. Instead, I’ll try to convey what it is that I love about the song. I guess I’m writing a review.

Most modern music is written on a fairly sparse sonic landscape. You have the drums hammering away in the back; the bass picks out exactly one note to play for each chord; in front, there’s a guy playing rhythm guitar chords and singing, and off to the side you might have a guitar soloist or a pianist. There’s nothing wrong with this style of music, and I’ve heard some breathtaking pieces matching this description exactly, but so often I find myself wanting more.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find classical music and some varieties of jazz. I appreciate this very technical style of music and listen to it on a semi-regular basis. The problem I have sometimes with classical music is that it lacks the ability of some modern music to sweep me away. Instead of entertaining as the music I described in the previous paragraph does, it engages me. This means that it requires mental effort to enjoy classical music. I wouldn’t want it any other way, but sometimes I simply can’t. I can’t encounter classical music with all of the attention it deserves when I’m mentally exhausted. I can’t give classical music the respect it requires when I’m distracted by homework.

All of this is why I absolutely adore music such as that which SHEL has crafted here. This is music that carries you away to somewhere else. Rather than offering a hand so that you may join it in dancing as a classical piece might, this song sweeps you off your feet, carries you up to the balcony and sets you down so you can stargaze together. It manages to be both cerebral and simple at the same time.

Now that I’m thinking about it, this is what my favorite books do, too. Sure, there are books that are worth reading and require every ounce of intellectual engagement one possesses just to finish and begin to comprehend. I’m sure there are also works of pulp fiction which are well-written and worth reading, though I haven’t encountered them. But the books I really enjoy–the ones that I find myself thumbing through years later–sweep me off my feet and invite me to contemplate the stars.

Listen to the intro to “The Man Who Was the Circus” again. Doesn’t it remind you of the introduction to some of your favorite books? Maybe a poem you hold dear to your heart?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles Dickens

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Robert Frost

Can’t you feel that same spirit running through this song’s introduction? Can’t you feel it preparing you for an emotional journey? For a story? For a question that can’t quite be phrased in words?

The stanzas following are obscure, and they would probably make no sense whatsoever if just read of a computer-screen, but in the landscape of the music, they breathe. If the music by itself is a jungle, it’s vast and empty and scary until populated by toucans and tigers and chimps, all brought to life by the singer’s voice.

And we hear a story to which in many ways we’ve already been introduced by the music itself. It’s about death but really it’s about life. It’s about the way one life intertwines with so many others. It’s about vocation and identity and the relation that such things have to other people. It asks more questions than it answers and leaves me gazing at the stars in my jungle.

The connection I feel to music and the connection I feel to literature are usually separate, incomparable things. This song leaves me with all of the deep emotions that music does while also somehow drawing me in like my favorite books. That’s the strongest commendation I can give.

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