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Track Review

One way I keep current on what's happening in the music world is pretty old-fashioned: channel surfing through various radio stations in the car on the way to work. I was doing that last week when I heard what sounded like the voice of Kelly Clarkson singing these chill-inducing words, almost in a whisper: "But I'm not afraid/I know who I married/Just let me stay here by your side."

Wow, I thought. What is this?

As I continued listening, I picked out the repeated word "unimaginable," as well as mentions of "grace" and "forgiveness." I knew that Kelly Clarkson was recently married and had her first child. She's also talked in the past about being a Christian. So I thought maybe she had a new single out about the challenges of marriage, and how faith sustained her through those rough spots.

I did some homework on the tune as soon as I got into the office that day. Turns out I was two-thirds right: It was Kelly Clarkson singing the version of "It's Quiet Uptown" I'd heard on the radio. And the song is about a married couple working through a horrible loss.

But Clarkson wasn't just singing about her own struggles—though these lyrics may very well be applicable to her personal life, too. Instead, she was covering a full-box-o'-Kleenex weeper of a tune from the hit Broadway production Hamilton: An American Musical. Clarkson's take on the song is one of 23 such covers by popular artists found on the musical's alternative soundtrack of sorts, The Hamilton Mixtape, which recently debuted at the top of the charts.

'There Is Suffering too Terrible to Name'

Kelly Clarkson's version of this profoundly poignant song can stand on its own without the musical's background context. It certainly did for me when I heard it the first time. But knowing the narrative helps us understand exactly what she's singing about here. So let me take a review detour of sorts to explain the story that Clarkson is singing about.

The song finds Alexander and Eliza Hamilton working through grief after the death of their oldest child (out of eight), Philip, who was killed in a duel after defending his father against someone who'd criticized him in a speech.

"It's Quiet Uptown" begins in the wake of that loss: "There are moments that the words don't reach/There is suffering too terrible to name." The Hamiltons held Philip as he died from a gunshot wound, and the next lines hint at that awful moment: "You hold your child as tight as you can/Then push away the unimaginable."

The balance of this historically inspired track finds Alexander and Eliza trying to navigate through grief. Alexander (whose first-person perspective most of the song is written from) does so alone at first: "I spend hours in the garden/I walk alone to the store/And it's quiet uptown."

The tragedy has, we hear in the track, apparently pushed the influential, desperate Founding Father back toward God: "I take the children to church on Sunday/A sign of the cross at the door/And I pray/That never used to happen before." Grace and forgiveness, as I noted above, make appearances too: "There's a grace too powerful to name," we hear as the song moves toward a quietly hopeful conclusion. "It's quiet uptown/Forgiveness, can you imagine?"

Elsewhere, Alexander's initially solitary grieving process gives way to sharing his broken heart with his wife, Eliza, as they walk their somber path together. "If you see him in the street, walking by her side, talking by her side" the chorus instructs in the third person, as if observing the couple from a distance, "Have pity/ … They are trying to do the unimaginable."

Alexander also says he'd have traded places with his son, if that had been possible. "If I could spare his life/If I could trade his life for mine/He'd be standing here right now/And you would smile." The song acknowledges Alexander is in uncharted emotional territory ("I don't pretend to know/The challenges we're facing/I know there's no replacing what we've lost"), but it affirms the strength of the couple's marriage to see them through: "But I'm not afraid/I know who I married/Just let me stay by your side/And that would be enough."

Popular History

Hamilton: An American Musical is a curious thing. In our fast-paced, functionally ahistorical age where what happened yesterday—or even an hour ago—is almost instantly forgotten, this musical narrative about one of our Founding Fathers reminds us that history actually matters.

I'll confess it's been a long time since I've thought much about Alexander Hamilton (probably since I read The Federalist Papers in college). But I actually found myself digging back through the story of his life writing this review—something I can't remember a pop song prompting me to do, well, probably ever.

Even apart from the historical particulars of Alexander Hamilton's life referenced here, however, "It's Quiet Uptown" tenderly delivers some messages we rarely hear in pop music. Kelly Clarkson's "remixed" version reminds us that tragedy can strike anyone, rich or poor, privileged or powerless. And it potently illustrates how marriage and faith, humility and dependence upon one another can help us make our way through unimaginable loss to a place of grace and forgiveness on the other side.

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December 2, 2016

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Adam R. Holz