How To Become An Esoteric Mystic: Five For Fighting “Above The Timberline”

May 2, 2013 at 7:09 am, by

After 9/11, Five For Fighting played “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” for the widely watched benefit Concert For New York City. The once-ignored song from a largely ignored album suddenly became ubiquitous. If you turned on the radio, or if you were watching VH1’s Top 20 Music Video Countdown, John Ondrasik’s falsetto and piano would be screeching in your face.

But then things changed.

After his hit “100 Years” in 2003, Ondrasik (the man who is Five For Fighting) faded away into the recesses of pop culture.

Once VH1 and MTV stopped playing music videos on their main channels, and TV aired channels to stream 24/7 individual genres of popular music (rap, hip-hop, pop, rock, etc.), Five For Fighting’s music videos were no longer slated for the videos the kids would watch.

When Five For Fighting released “The Riddle (You and I)” in 2006, the teenagers of 2003 were no longer counting down for their favorite music videos. They’d just click whatever they wanted immediately on YouTube.

When the music video died, video did not just kill the radio star. It was an epic battle.

Five For Fighting’s single hit #4. But not on radio for the young people. This was Billboard’s Adult Contemporary Charts. Long live rock. Let it be. Middle aged.

At a certain point, the new kids on the block couldn’t take it anymore (or so the DJs decided). The piano and the slow tempi Five For Fighting played 3 years ago added up to exactly that:  the music of 3 years ago. It was a forced retirement.

Three years after already being three years too late–we’re talking 2009 now–54F released a largely unheard album, Slice. Its single “Chances” peaked at #8 on the US Adult Contemporary Chart. (But how many people can even name 5 current US Adult Contemporary hits?)

Since the producer didn’t get Ondrasik to write a song for young people, it doesn’t matter how good or bad the songwriting was on Slice. The melody of the single they chose is perhaps the least dynamic track on the album. No catchy chorus, the words are heavy, and the kids already confessed not to liking Five For Fighting anymore.

But the album could have been a comeback. They could have chosen a better single. Why not the nostalgic “Slice,” the patriotic “Note To The Unknown Soldier,” the aspirational “Story Of Your Life,” or the rhythmically complex “Love Can’t Change The Weather?”

Or, why not my favorite song from the album, “Above The Timberline?” This song (co-written with Stephen Schwartz, the man behind Wicked and Godspell) is the most sophisticated, most experimental, catchiest, hardest-rocking, most sublime song on the whole record.

It could have been huge.

And maybe that’s why they didn’t choose it.

“I get a little tired” is a very vulnerable opening line for this masterpiece of a song. We are listening to a story about resigning from this world to pursue something higher. Literally and metaphorically.

“You need to find a mountaintop / And get out of this town,” advises Ondrasik. Forget all the mundane worries of the life you know.

Look upon high. “Above the timberline.” It’s not easy to get your mind all the way up there. “The higher I go, the harder I climb.”

You can almost hear echoes of the second of the Psalmist’s 15 Psalms of Ascents (120-134). Esa einai el heharim—I lift my eyes toward the mountains. Me’ayin yavo ezri? From where will my help come?

Granted a distance from all of these earthly troubles, Ondrasik feels a greater intimacy with the one who gives him comfort (a woman, or a god)? “I’m closer to you. / It’s clear in my mind. / Love shines bright above the timberline.”

The singer is—unbeknownst to him—engaging in the Hasidic practice of hitbodedut, the “seclusion of the self” to commune with nature and all that is Divine. He is guided only by himself and the spirits. “I’m listening to the wind. / I’m writing down the words.”

Five For Fighting, rising to the stars and the moon, is enshrouded in the robes of a mystical journey. And it all begins with his focus on the horizon: above the timberline. That point where our eyes no longer see the skies—the end of the heavens, miktzeh hashamayim (Psalm 19:7)—is called Mi by the Zohar. Mi is not merely an abbreviation of miktzeh, but it is the Hebrew word for “Who?”

When the Kabbalist sees the edge of the skies, the Jewish mystic does not see an answer, but a question. Who is the Mystery beyond the skies (Zohar I:1b)? And, to whom is John talking anyway?

Well, who cares about John Ondrasik? These esoteric mysteries and existentialist questions that arise in Ondrasik’s mystical ascent are essentially divorced from the everyday experiences of the Billboard Hot 100 demographic: cool kids. The peak of religiosity in popular music is Macklemore and Ryan Lewis trying on outdated clothing at a thrift shop.

But who cares about those kids? John Ondrasik declares his allusive muse, “All that really matters: / You’ll all I’ll ever need.”

The things that matter to Five For Fighting really won’t matter to the American youth. They’re deeply personal—relevant only to a maturely developed sense of self. As for the things that concern most people, Mr. Ondrasik is leaving those “realities / Parked down at the curb.”

“Above The Timberline” is the boldest song Five For Fighting has ever tried. In fact, I believe it is the best song he has ever written, and I am happy to give Stephen Schwartz credit for advancing John Ondrasik’s songwriting to a place more magical than ever heretofore explored.

With a song of Zoharic concerns like this one, it’s no wonder that Five For Fighting has been slated for the Adult Charts. This fascination with the unearthly must be the reason that it is rumored that you have to be 40 years old before you study Kabbalah. (False by the way. The great Kabbalist Isaac Luria died at the age of 38—the same age Ondrasik was when he released the smash hit “100 Years.”)

Age might not really matter, but we still see age as the dividing line. There’s no rule that says you have to be 40 to like adult radio. But obsessing with the material world (boys, girls, clothes, money, etc.): this is the excuse that keeps kids away from mysticism, from nature, from deep questions, and from Five For Fighting.

A mystical journey or an intimate melody can be the best secret–a secret best kept kept secret. Intimacy can fizzle when you try to make it popular.

According to his website, John Ondrasik is at work on new album now. The kids might never hear it, and he’ll just have to hope that those who seek the esoteric, and such an esoteric album, find it anyway.

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