What comes to mind when you think, “Christian musician?” Take the Double-Aught Spool test with that phrase for a second. Done? Ok.
Odds are that you thought of some song or musician that is best described as “devotional”. Devotional music takes on the most didactic skin of political, on-the-nose folk music and gives it a cloying, Evangelical lyrical bone structure. My disdain of devotional music has two facets; one reason is the focus on lyrics and not music. To make the meaning of the lyrics shine, devotional music is at its best poppy and thoughtless, and at its worst boring and cliche. I try to be a good listener, and every attempt I make at finding a musical discovery in the world of devotional music falls short. These devotional tracks aren’t hymns with a choral structure or gospel tunes with a traditional background; these are Jesus Top 40 hits, with “glory”, “king”, “redeem”, “savior”, and “heights” used in some Holy-Rolling Mad Lib vocab.
The other reason I don’t like devotional music is because I don’t connect with it spiritually. I am somewhat private with my spiritual beliefs, but when asked to explain I tend to use the analogy of “trying to be a good athlete, not trying to learn the rules.” Much like how the music should never suffer from the delivery of the lyrics, your spirit should never suffer from the delivery of religion. This idea for me includes the Christian idea of salvation and the Evangelical idea of “witnessing” or “testifying”. Buddhism teaches that “the thing” and “the name of the thing” are one too many things, and how you interact in the world defines you, not your name(Jesus basically said the same things to the Pharisees but don’t get me started…).
That lesson(from Buddhism and The Book of Matthew) defines the reason that “Christian musician” and “devotional musician” are two different things. One of my favorite examples of a musician that is very Christian but not-so devotional is Damien Jurado.
Jurado comes from a musical family tree that includes fellow Christian-led bands Pedro The Lion and Sunny Day Real Estate. Bands like those, and their contemporaries Sufjan Stevens and Cold War Kids, don’t necessarily hide their religion or feel compelled to “come clean” as Christians, and their music comes from their spirit, not their church. And I believe both that there is a strong connection between any artistic endeavor and your spirit and that for religious people the spirit and the church are one in the same. Damien Jurado is not naming himself “Christian” in his music, but his spirit shines through.
I think it important to understand that the wonderful, nearly existential lyrics to “Mountains Still Asleep”, the closer to the album Maraqopa, were written by a professed Christian: “Love is a blinding sun/we are songs to be sung”. “Joy is letting go/we are all mountains, still asleep”. Then consider the closing stanza:
I heard an echo say
We are all given away
Never to come back
And when we cross the line
We become defined
Broken sound, feeding back
Those lyrics restate the musical and lyrical theme of the opener of Maraqopa, “Nothing Is The News”:
I’ve been really interested in listening to full albums lately, and appreciating them for continuity and theme; Maraqopa is one of my favorite albums released in 2012 because of those aspects of album craft. It didn’t hurt that his music is in the free-form folk that I listen to lately; it also didn’t hurt, as a person who helps others understand how to spiritually combat Christian rhetoric on homosexuality, to have an example of a person whose religion doesn’t dominate their spirit or art. It’s way too easy to pigeonhole a Christian as a Fundamentalist; Damien Jurado’s music does a tremendous job of showing the difference between the two.
Lets start again, but this time, think of this phrase: “Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll”.
For me, this phrase brings on an image of particular rock music; the early, subversive rock and roll of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Ike Turner. To today’s standards, of course, the “Sex” element is pretty tame, but the raw, animal sexuality of those performances (late 50’s stuff) share a style in the hips, the guitar as phallus, and the smirk to the screaming lady fans. The “Rock & Roll” is also of a similar vein; bluesy with a hint of “race”. And the “Drugs” is the same, too; cocaine, maybe, but usually some sort of amphetamine.
Elvis Presley and The Beatles, together, help define the “Drugs” part of that phrase above for the rest of Rock & Roll history to come. The Beatles, even though the used the same German amphetamines that Elvis used, are associated with the mind-altering effects and relaxation of marijuana that benefited their art. Elvis will be forever associated with drugs keeping someone from their potential. Combined, their stories of enhanced highs and dependent lows keep drugs in the story of rock.
Some rockers are a little more sex, some a little more drugs. I personally seem to prefer the music of the people who are a little more drugs.
That guy up there in that video is Neil Young. I assure you that he was high then. He was always high, up until recently. But not anymore.
His recent sobering has been well documented, and I won’t rehash it here. What I will say is that I was super worried about hearing Psychedelic Pill for the first time because, boy howdy, getting clean and sober seems to be an art killer second only to… finding Jesus.
It’s not like Neil Young’s pot use hangs on his persona like Willie Nelson, but he was quite open, publicly and artistically, about the effect of drugs on his life. From testimonial narratives like “Needle and the Damage Done” to the emotional heart-punch of Tonight’s The Night, the Neil Young catalog is full of drugs, maybe even enough so to brand him as the “Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll” figure in your mind. I tend to listen more closely to the music than the lyrics, but the emotional weight given to drug use can’t be missed, from the uplift in “After the Gold Rush” to the drugs-as-sex context in “Mellow My Mind”. Knowing that Psychedelic Pill would be his first “sober” album made me wonder if an album named for drugs would be the same without them.
Psychedelic Pill ended up being great, my other favorite album of 2012 and my third-favorite post-Rust Never Sleeps Neil Young album(after Sleeps With Angels and Broken Arrow). It’s not perfect; I had too high of expectations for the 27-minute long opener, “Driftin’ Back”, and felt a bit let down with the flatness of the melodic line and the slightly heavy handed lyrics. But after that tiny bit of indulgence, the album stays solid, with the full palette of Crazy Horse filters, feedbacks, and harmonies. Even though the concept of the album seems to be loosely about times past, that concept never gets too heavy handed or cloying, like I felt it did recently in Le Noise and Americana. The rock builds in noise and down-strumming ferocity until, after the cleanser of “For The Love of Man”, the album gloriously stomps itself to death, Swans-like, in “Walk Like A Giant”
Because of my corrupt physiology I’ve been taking hydrocodone lately, and every time I take one I feel as if it will be the one that makes me addicted. My foot will get somewhat better, but it will never stop hurting, not until they cut it off. The pain relief aspect of drugs is a hard enough one to battle with; the choice of living honestly with pain or chemically without it(I didn’t take a hydrocodone as I am editing this, opting for a glass of wine instead, and in the dropping temperature and rising barometric pressure it feels like a mole made of stone is digging its way through my ankle). But as an added enticement, there is a hit of pure euphoria that comes with the pain relief. This is a drug that your body uses to make what is, basically, heroin. I like and I hate taking it at the same time. I worry about wanting and not wanting to take it as well. Psychedelic Pill would have been good on its own; it doesn’t hurt that it is also a reminder for me that how integrity comes from a place beyond pain, beyond pills.