‘Comparison is the Thief of Joy’

Over the Rhine shares its own sound on ‘Love & Revelation’

By Bill Forman

When journalists began asking Over the Rhine’s Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler what kind of music their band played, they came up with an answer they’ve yet to live down.

This was before they hooked up with I.R.S. Records, whose co-founder likened them to a band he signed a decade earlier called R.E.M. It was also before they got married, moved to a farm outside Cincinnati, and began releasing their own albums with guests like Aimee Mann, Lucinda Williams and Joe Henry.

Their music, they told the press back then, was “post-nuclear, pseudo-alternative, folk-tinged, art-pop.”

While the description was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, it still turns up in album reviews and articles, more than two decades later, as do career-long comparisons to 10,000 Maniacs and The Cowboy Junkies.

“We don’t really take it all that seriously,” Detweiler says. “I think people need a touchstone and sometimes writers will need a reference to give people some idea of what it sounds like. But my wife has something tattooed on her arm. And that is: ‘Comparison is the thief of joy.’”

The two Ohio musicians, who are touring as a four-piece band to promote their introspective new “Love & Revelation” album, are less concerned with how others perceive them than with how they perceive themselves.

“Usually, if you begin comparing yourselves too much to other colleagues, or to family members or friends, it becomes an exercise in cataloging shortcomings,” the musician says. “And it’s more interesting, really, just to stay focused on the work and let other people decide.”

That’s been especially true in recent years. Like Henry, who frequently collaborates with the duo as a producer and co-writer, the couple holds religious views that sometimes turn up in songs like the album’s title track: “Semi-automatic heart / A dead weight from the start / Stop confiscating Jesus / Jesus, who believes this? / They’d arm him to the teeth.”

“Karin and I have struggled with identifying as Christian,” admits Detweiler, “because it just feels like nobody really knows what that word means anymore. And a lot of things that people are describing when they use the word Christian don’t really describe Karin and I, in terms of the word being associated with certain political views or whatever. So one thing that we’ve learned to do is just to ask people, you know, what is it you mean by that word, and then we’ll tell you if you’re describing us or not.”

As for describing the new album, Detweiler has learned to leave that to others.

“Some of our longtime listeners feel like this is a little bit of a quieter record,” he says, “and apparently people can really engage with it as a whole, and listen from beginning to end, so that’s exciting. We have a song on it called ‘Betting on the Muse,’ which is named after a Charles Bukowski poem about baseball players peaking in their careers fairly early in life. And he was contrasting that with being a writer, and just saying that writing was one of those rare vocations where you can get better at it over the course of an entire lifetime. So, we do have this secret hope that we’ll continue to become better songwriters as the years pass. And we do continue to work at it.”