Dispatches from the Other Side
"Are you sitting down?"
It's the kind of loaded question that is almost invariably followed by the revelation of difficult news. The implication is that what is about to be said will be so shocking, so unexpected, so horrible that the listener may lose their ability to stay standing. More than anything it's a safety measure, a prophylactic against damage. It's proof that the messenger cares about the person they are about to inform.
In "Rites", Ari Picker of Lost In The Trees employs this phrase masterfully. He leans on the implied fragility of the listener as he tells them that he is leaving his skin, leaving all that he loves. The spare guitar and piano melodies create a skeleton for angelic harmonies delivered by Picker and a choir of backing vocals. Picker's words are barely more than a whisper for much of the tune, his gentle and non-threatening tone relays his message with a delicacy that is evidence of his care for the person he is speaking to.
The imagery in the lyrics calls to mind ghosts, or the idea of living in a haunted house: "drift through rooms of white light", "our family's in the background", "a ghost in sun", "I'm disappearing". Where has the narrator gone that he has both "crawl[ed] out of [his] skin" and is still in a position to have a conversation with a loved one? The album's title, Past Life, may offer a clue. Isn't it possible that the narrator has recently passed on and is attempting to break the news of their passing to someone they love? This would explain the wispy, languishing qualities of the motif as well as his extraordinary care to not cause pain or anguish to the person hearing him. As beautiful as the song is, it works potently as a piece of sheer wish fulfillment: wouldn't it be amazing to have our last words with those we love on our own terms and at a time of our choosing, after we know the exact circumstances of our demise?
This interpretation makes it nearly impossible to not imagine those we love in our own lives who have left us. I imagine my grandfather putting a ghostly hand on my shoulder and telling me that he is no longer in pain, that he can't even remember what pain felt like. I imagine him sitting across from me at this table right now, guiding my thoughts and my words gently, letting me know that his consciousness is at peace in a way that it never could have been while on Earth.
There is a poetry in this that surpasses the prose, like a loving caress that goes further than the skin and sets the mind at ease. I don't really believe that anything like this is possible in a way that we as humans could understand it, but I can fully grasp why many people do. My grandfather would have wanted all his grandkids to know that they needn't be worried about him in the afterlife, and so the comfort in this idea is as indisputable as it is appealing. But the last thing he would want would be to spook or frighten us with something that our minds wouldn't be able to comprehend.
His first question to me might be, "Are you sitting down?"