I just put my Jesus mask on
I just put my Jesus gloves on
I just put my Jesus suit on
It can be simple for me
Simple for me.
Absurd, fragmented, frenetic, ecstatic and devotional, Half-Handed Cloud’s first album, Learning About Your Scale, was first released on Corner Room Recordings a decade and a half ago this month, and at the official Half-Handed Cloud Facebook page, John Ringhofer has been using the occasion of Learning About Your Scale’s 15th anniversary to take fans inside the creation of this album, with a post every day featuring copious photos, facts and anecdotes about the process of writing and recording.
Learning About Your Scale sounds like the opposite of everything we usually think sacred music is supposed to be: it grapples with the infinite through 25 songs in 24 minutes; it addresses solemn mysteries with musical skits; its hymns to a perfect Creator, for all the elaborate invention that went into writing, arranging and recording, sound affably homemade.
Take the C.S. Lewis-inspired penultimate track, “Secret Christ Costume,” which redraws the perennial, impossible Christian aspiration—to love as perfectly as Jesus loved, to go out into the world with Christ-like compassion and forgiveness, and let the world see God in you—as getting dressed up in a head-to-toe Jesus Christ disguise. John makes a profound spiritual and moral struggle playful.
This is exactly what makes Half-Handed Cloud’s music so exciting. Part of seeing through Jesus’s eyes (or, as this song would have it, through the eyeholes in a Jesus mask) is the challenge of recognizing God behind the mundane and the literal, of gazing on the world with a childish, or at least child-like, wonder. Perhaps Learning About Your Scale revels in the rough, the fragmented, and the miniature, because the divine inhabits these things, too.
There is also a more pragmatic explanation for Half-Handed Cloud’s fast-paced, protean aesthetic: Ringhofer refuses to let a song overstay its welcome. He instead pares it down its essential parts, even if that means the song is nothing more than an intro, a hook, or a bridge to nowhere. But when the Asthmatic Kitty Records and Sounds Familyre labels reissued the album in 2001, an excited and slightly baffled Pitchfork reviewer pointed out that when songs this short and jumpy are organized into series of medleys and micro-operas with a rhetoric this meticulous, Learning About Your Scale is like 25 simple ditties and more like one vast, elaborate musical composition in 25 movements.
Anyone who has heard the album will want to catch up on Ringhofer’s account of the album’s genesis on his Facebook page. Ringhofer has discussed the album in great detail, answered fan questions, and discussed the album’s vast array of baffling sonic effects, from tuba solo to saw blade to trash-can bass drum. He’s talked about how he came to write and record the individual songs that made it onto the album. He’s even included a helpful cartoon illustration of the Secret Christ Costume from his composition notebook.
And anyone who has not heard the album—available to order from Bandcamp, or any record store—is in for a treat. Fifteen years after its first release, Learning About Your Scale not only endures, it disregards the limits of era, genre, and faith to squeeze some very big musical and metaphysical ideas into some tiny, potent packages.