Joy Kills Sorrow’s “Books”

Everything gets quieter at winter, stilling to a murmur. As obvious a statement as that sounds, I spent much of my young adulthood in the south, where the closest we got to winter was a chilly day. It wasn’t until I moved to Champaign for a year that I experienced true winter once again—the winter of my childhood in Toronto, Winnipeg, and later Cleveland and St. Louis. Winter that had a weight to it. All of those layers, all of that insularity. It was hard not to retreat, to move slower in pace with the season.

Around that time in Champaign, I found myself retreating into Joy Kills Sorrow‘s reflective track “Books.” I first heard about the band in 2010, when their tour included a stop at Baton Rouge’s famed—and now sadly defunct—venue Chelsea’s. I loved their sound so much I later caught them play in New York while I was there for a brief summer internship. (In fact, that show is famously how I came across Leif Vollebekk, who was one of two artists on the bill ahead of JKS that night.)

My life in Champaign was extraordinarily solitary at times because I didn’t yet know many people outside work—the reason I’d moved there in the first place—so I often passed my free time with lengthy walks between my apartment and the few square blocks that marked “downtown,” withdrawing into the music that coursed through my headphones. During winter, “Books” became the soundtrack for all of those publicly private strolls. 

“Books” appears on JKS’ 2010 album Darkness Sure Becomes This City, and it requires a certain kind of quiet to hear properly. It wasn’t until I moved to Champaign that I got it. The song begins with a hushed mandolin before banjo brightens the melody line and lead vocalist Emma Beacon softly sings the first verse, “I got lots of books/ And my house stays warm in winter/ So I don’t go out too much these days.”

I love when your life grows to meet a song, as mine did that winter. “Yes,” I thought, hearing a scene I knew well.

Now, in the early days of 2021, I find myself returning to “Books” once again. Durham doesn’t experience a traditional winter (aka snow), but it’s been cold enough and pandemic-y enough for that first line to resonate loudly. In a year marked by so much isolation and solitude, “Books” feels fitting once again, though it’s less about the season itself, and more about the care the current moment requires: Move slowly, take your time—things will unfurl in due course.

I feel particularly hungry for that message right now. My life last year would’ve been messy without the added chaos of a pandemic. A breakup and subsequent move to a new city left me cautious, questioning my course and the steps I’d taken to walk it. The song painted a new picture, one I again saw myself in. It wasn’t just about the cozy care of winter, but about the beauty of stillness and consideration. “I move so carefully slow/ Cuz I don’t know where I should go/ And I’m holding on tight to my soul,” Beacon sings, luxuriating over the phrase and expanding its meaning with her delivery.

Choice can be overwhelming and making two big ones, especially back-to-back, requires a certain pause in order to know what comes next. A year ago, that attitude wouldn’t have fit in the larger scheme of things because, cliched as it may be, life moves fast. But not in a pandemic. It’s ok to move slow, to hold tight to your soul for a while and see what comes next rather than force action. For now, I hold tight to this song, which speaks volumes.