2014 Music List

Benji, Sun Kil Moon

It has become an annual tradition for me to write up a list of music I liked in a given year. Now I am not one lightly to break with tradition but the truth is I have not been able to keep up as I have in years past, so I was planning on skipping this year. But I’ve had several requests to write it up anyway so here we go. Given the limitations, this year’s list doesn’t push my listening habits very far so forgive me if it’s a bit ‘conservative.’ Let me know what albums I missed or how wrong my choices are. The hierarchy beyond the top 10 is mostly arbitrary, because how can you really compare an R & B record to a punk record? You can’t.

1) Benji, Sun Kil Moon: Profoundly melancholy. Rich storytelling. “I Watched The Film The Song Remained The Same” a top song of the decade

2) Morning Phase, Beck: Earlier praised, later neglected. Slow, majestic, dramatic. Like Sea Change but the minimalism is starker.

3) Atomos, A Winged Victory For The Sullen: More strings and complex arrangements than (also delightful) debut. Ethereal, romantic, sweeping

4) Run The Jewels 2, Run The Jewels: I’m not a reliable reviewer of rap, but this lp was gripping. Aggressive, powerful, big synths

5) Home, Like Noplace I Know, The Hotelier: Tapping into multiple classic emo sounds while avoiding cliches or sounding like high schoolers

6) Shriek, Wye Oak: A strong shift from previous guitar-driven sound. Bass & synth dominate. Bass licks off the chart. Melodic and moody

7) Lost In The Dream, The War on Drugs: Perfecting the ‘dad rock’ sound. A laid back ‘post-punk’, owing more to Springsteen than The Ramones

8) They Want My Soul, Spoon: To make a record this good after being around 20+ shows just how important this band is. Full swagger rock&roll

9) In Conflict, Owen Pallett: Extraordinarily high levels of song writing. Not entirely sure how to classify it. Chamber rock?

10) Sylvan Esso, Sylvan Esso: Unlikely joint effort of an appalachian folk singer and a dj. Beautiful, airy, with hooks that sink deep

11) Are We There, Sharon Van Etten: A woman, a guitar, a soaring voice, and heartache

12) Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, Sturgill Simpson: All philosophers need to know’s the opening track is “Turtles All The Way Down”

13) Ruins, Grouper: Stunning, ethereal, ambient, piano music. Drifts now in, now out, yet lp goes quickly. Opposite of ‘background’ music

14) LP1, FKA twigs: Thoroughly contemporary art pop by UK singer. Universally praised for good reason.

15) Black Messiah, D’Angelo: Suddenly & unexpectedly released after most lists compiled. Soulful, guitar-centric, r&b frm established artist

16) Built On Glass, Chet Faker: Another progressive r&b record. I’m dreaming of a Faker, Frank Ocean, James Blake team up.

17) Too Bright, Perfume Genius: Significant artistic growth for him. Gay pride; sensitive soul; sweet voiced piano ballads

18) Asleep Versions, Jon Hopkins: Just a small remix EP, yet eloquently, patiently, painstakingly, & expertly done. Moar King Creosote plz!

19) Sea When Absent, Sunny Day in Glasgow: Sometimes a wall of guitar, sometimes a wall of synth, often catchy; a classic shoegaze record

20) In The Lonely Hour, Sam Smith: My bae. The year’s unrequitted love LP. He got popular for a reason

21) Punk lps of the year are a close tie: Say Yes To Love, Perfect Pussy; More Than Any Other Day, Ought; Sunbathing Animal, Parquet Courts; Here And Nowhere Else, Cloud Nothings; 1984, Ryan Adams; Courting Strong, Martha; and Eagulls, Eagulls – All worth checking out

22) Guilty of Everything, Nothing: Like last year’s Deafheaven, a combination of shoegaze w/ metal, but less black metal, more nu metal

23) It’s Album Time, Todd Terje: Before it’s cool again, an analog synth lp w/ 80’s influence. But not nostalgic, quite synthetic & creative Let’s add Shrink Dust, Chad VanGaalen to the punk records. Because it’s just as good, sort of belongs, and it’s my list

24) Love Fail, David Lang: Intelligible vocal work in modernist classical tradition, drawing on older sacred styles (seems to me).

25) Wuss rock lps of the year: Heart Murmurs, Jeremy Messersmith: Local boy makes good. Lyrically playful, rich, and inclusive; When I Was Younger, Colony House; Strange Desire, Bleachers; and Youth, Wild Cub

There are plenty of other records worth listening to this year. Some are probably better than those on this list but it’s hard to make one of these without second guessing yourself. You can follow my year lists on Spotify and figure out for yourself which ones you like. My list will undoubtedly expand as I listen to more LPs from this year. Cheers!

Favorite Albums of 2013: There Are Many Lists, But This One Is Mine

I am still working through other people’s end of year lists, and so this can only be considered provisional. (Check some out –David CongdonNPR, Pitchfork, Metacritic, MPR)  Nevertheless, here is the next in what is probably my longest running blog series. Links are to exemplary tunes. (* Marks an album especially worth checking out)

Best Albums in the tradition of 90s Awesomeness:
My Bloody Valentine, M.B.V.*
No JoyWait To Pleasure*
Fury Things, Fury Things*
Owel, Owel 
Appleseed Cast, Illumination Ritual

Best Atmospheric: 
Hammock, Oblivion Hymns*
Juliana Barwick, Nepenthe
Olafur Arnalds, For Now I Am Winter

Albums I Wanted To Like:
Deerhunter, Monomaniac
Savages, Silence Yourself

Albums I Did Not Expect to Like But Did:
Kanye West, Yeezus*
Phoenix, Bankrupt!

Best Album By a Former Member of N’Sync:
Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience, 1 of 2

Best Electronica – Dance, Pop, Instrumental, w/ Singing, Dark, Mixed, and Otherwise:
Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe*
Polica, Shulamith
Tegan And Sarah, Heartthrob
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories*
Disclosure, Settle*
Gold Panda, Half of Where You Live
Jon Hopkins, Immunity*
Classixx, Hanging Gardens
Daniel Avery, Drone Logic
Oneohtrix Point Never, R Plus Seven
The Knife, Shaking the Habitual

Best Mix of Surfy Dream Pop and Black Metal That Reminds Me of Zao’s Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest:
Deafheaven, Sunbather*

Best Old-Timey New Music:
The Bryan Ferry Orchestra, The Jazz Age*
– Also winner of sexiest song
Preservation Hall Jazz Band, That’s It!
Mavis Staples, One True Vine
Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer, Child Ballads
Glen Jones, My Garden State

Best, uuuhhhh, Indie Stuff(?):
Local Natives, Hummingbird
Low, The Invisible Way
Iron & Wine, Ghost on Ghost
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mosquito
The National, Trouble Will Find Me
Keaton Henson, Birthdays
Little Green Cars, Absolute Zero
Beach Fossils, Clash the Truth
Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The                                  More I Love You
Volcano Choir, Repave*
Owen, L’Ami du Peuple
Arcade Fire, Reflektor*
Parquet Courts, Light Up Gold + All The Things That You Broke
Dawn of Midi, Dysnomia
Washed Out, Paracosm
Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City*
Marnie Stern, The Chronicles of Marnia

Best Sacred:
Caleb Burhans, Evensong
Bifrost Arts, He Will Not Cry Out

Best Album By a Trio of Sisters Rockin Guitars and Harmonies:
Haim, Days Are Gone*

Best Guilty Pleasure:
Lissie, Back To Forever

Best Folk & Country:
Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
Jason Isbell, Southeastern*
The Civil Wars, The Civil Wars
Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle
Mutual BenefitLove’s Crushing Diamond*

Best Hip-Hop, R&B:
Lizzo, LIZZOBANGERS
Caroline Smith, Half About Being a Woman
Rhye, Woman*
Mayer Hawthorne, Where Does This Door Go
London Grammar, If You Wait
James Blake, Overgrown
Aby Wolf, Wolf Lords
Blood Orange, Cupid Deluxe

Most Heartbreaking And Cathartic Album:
Daughter, If You Leave

Most Trailblazing Album For an Established Band:
Sigur Ros, Kveikur*

No Explanation Needed:
Chris Thile, Bach Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. I*

Favorite Record of the Year:

Youth Lagoon, Wondrous Bughouse

I’m not under the illusion that this can somehow lay claim, in an objective sense, to the best album of 2013 – it’s far down on most lists if present at all – but there is something about the weirdness of the record, the uncomfortable beauty, the exploration of in-between spaces, that grips me. It’s explicitly a metaphysical record, a making-the-familiar-odd record, and in that sense an analogical record.

A Different Kind of List: 2012 Music Favorites

Tony Sig

In years past I have offered a “best of” list for a year’s worth of music, knowing full well that such a list is limited and subjective. But everyone offers these lists, so this year I will be more creative and even more subjective.

Some Favorite Female Artists

First Aid Kit, The Lion’s Roar
Sharon Van Etten, Tramp
Norah Jones, Little Broken Hearts (A mature step forward for this artist)
Best Coast, The Only Place
———————————————-
Favorite Guitar Tone

Mint,” from Kathleen Edwards’ Voyageur
Runner Up: Japandroids, Celebration Rock <— Also winner of Best Record From Canadians
———————————————-
Favorite Local Record, Favorite Record With Two Drummers, & The New Minneapolis Sound

POLICA, Give You The Ghost
———————————————-
Most Culturally Astute Record

Anais Mitchell, Young Man In America
Runner Up: Passion Pit, Gossamer
———————————————–
Favorite Record That’s Actually Pretty Good But Only Famous For One Single

Gotye, Making Mirrors
———————————————–
Record Full Of The Most Beautiful Short Little Pop Ballads You Ever Heard

Perfume Genius, Put Your Back N 2 It
———————————————–
Best Indie Rock LPs That I Rather Like But Probably Won’t Listen To In A Year

The Men, Open Your Heart
Metz, METZ
Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light
———————————————–
Best Indie Rock LPs That I Rather Like And Will Listen To In A Year

Cloud Nothings, Attack On Memory
Alt-J, An Awesome Wave
———————————————–
Albums That Were Predictably Fantastic Since They Come From Predictably Fantastic Artists

Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself, & Hands of Glory
Beach House, Bloom
The Tallest Man On Earth, There’s No Leaving Now
The Walkmen, Heaven
———————————————–
Favorite Nostalgic Records

Twin Shadow, Confess
J. D. McPherson, Signs & Signifiers
———————————————–
Records In A Genre I Normally Don’t Listen To, R&B, But Were So Good I Listened To Them Over And Over

Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
Bobby Womack, The Bravest Man In The Universe
———————————————–
Best Record By A Former Drummer of Fleet Foxes

Father John Misty, Fear Fun
———————————————–
Records That I Wanted To Like More But Was Mostly Bored With

Sigur Ros, Valtari
The xx, Coexist
———————————————–
Records Of Outstanding Quality

Punch Brothers, Who’s Feeling Young Now?
Grizzly Bear, Shields
Jack White, Blunderbuss
Hammock, Departure Songs
Bat For Lashes, The Haunted Man
———————————————–

There are about a dozen or so more records that I recommend, and one could find them on my Spotify List “2012 Worth Your Time.” Do please leave other suggestions in the comments. Until next year, vivat ars musica!

Why Should The Gregorians Have All The Good Music?

Tony SigWho doesn’t remember those days, anyone who was raised on “christian music” and forced to scorn “secular music,” when the distinction between the two started to break down? And who can forget the epiphany that much of even the “Golden Age” of christian music was still a pale imitation of the “secular” music? And who can’t recall getting in arguments with your parents over whether christian heavy metal was really Christian or whether their singers “sounded like demons?”

Ah yes, the sad and tragic tale of the coming of age of the post-evangelicals. Yet these discoveries of downcast 19 year olds in Bible Colleges spread throughout the land have yet to find their way into the heart and mind of Dr. Dwight Longnecker, one time Evangelical turned Anglican turned Catholic, who still sounds rather like my parents did 15 years ago. Only Mr. Longnecker now has the benefit of the cleansing waters of the Tiber, which have cleared his ears to hear the angelically musical, the gloriously transcendental, the singularly appropriate music of that “sacred polyphony,”  Gregorian Chant.

Never mind that there is just as much terrible “secular” music as there is “christian” music (so much for the “sharp and salutary effect of market forces!”), he cannot be bothered with such observations. His eye of judgment is on those insidious architects of secular music, the founders of all things Rock & Non-Gregorian, whose single mind was turned toward the manufacturing of a “certain type of feeling.” Just who these designers are, where they came from, and what terrible pagan deity they worshiped, we are not given to know. His airtight argument is strengthened even more by his probing rhetorical questions and his unassailable adjectives. With perhaps an exception granted for “the library of sacred hymns” – though preferably the oldest songs most especially, and those in Latin (Ok, I added that bit) – and with a Niebuhrian nod to tragic compromise so as to “meet people where they’re at,” it is, nevertheless, hopeless to find any genuine beauty or any authentic worship, outside the liturgical walls.

Fine. The pot shots at Gregorian Chant are easy and unnecessary, I myself deeply appreciate that tradition, as an Anglican and as a lover of Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. I would even be willing to grant that in a corporate setting of united worship with the skilled and unskilled, an eye toward what is simple, catechetical, and easy to follow, is most fitting. But the idea that this cannot be done with guitars, with organs, with pianos, with — heaven forbid it — drums, is sheer bigotry and is more a result of his conversion narrative than it is anything like a result of truth.

Moreover, this kind of attitude to art is simply inexcusable from a Christian leader. It’s precisely the kind of attitude that has bred such terrible art and music in the Church. By putting arbitrary and vague pietistic boundaries on art, the true creative freedom of artists is severely stifled. And it’s not just this fetishizing of a particular kind of music at the expense of others, it’s this strange and damnable portioning of music (and, by implication, other arts) into “secular” and “christian.”

Please, artists, novelists, musicians, dancers, poets, and the rest of you, please make the very best art you can possibly make, tell the truth with as much insight and imagination as you can muster, and do not be afraid to transgress boundaries, even as you live into a wonderful tradition, not so much as to “stick it to authority,” but to expand what has come before you, and to create new possibilities.

Theses on: Whither Youth and ‘Classical Music?’

Tony SigOnce, when I was waiting tables, I ran across a young lady who played an orchestral instrument (I don’t recall which one), and she asked me, exasperated, why it is that, as she put it, ‘young people don’t care about classical music anymore.’ I don’t know that that’s really answerable, but I’m gonna give a few shots at why, and what can be done about it. Specifically I’d like to encourage anyone, young or old, who has no interest in or is intimidated by classical music to venture into the waters and also maybe gently indict friends who aid in classical’s bad press and relative irrelevancy.

Whether or not it’s true, I think many people associate a classical music with upper-class snootiness: tuxedoes, ties, champagne (in champagne glasses), glove tapping, monocle wearing, nonsense. People who like classical, the thought goes, can’t like Bruce Springsteen (I actually don’t much care for the Boss, but it’s a good blue collar example). Worse yet is when classical folk, and I’ve seen this done, get down on popular music as some form of crude, barbarous, primitive, art form. Thus there is a sense of a high price for entry into the classical world. You’ve gotta have lots of money and you need to denigrate the music you actually like.

Speaking from my experience, not having any knowledge other than a few ‘big names’ made me feel overwhelmed. Here’s this mass of music with a tradition that spans centuries, how could I approach that? If someone says that I should check out a rock artist, it’s fairly easy to find them and listen to them. If I really like them, I can get through much of their entire library, usually, without much effort. But have you seen the complete works of Bach? How do you start with that? Or what about all these fancy names for genre? What’s the difference between a fugue and a symphony? And knowing that I’d not be able to ‘get’ a composer, can be a strange and frustrating feeling.

Moreover, I long found the classical music I did hear to be rather boring and unexciting. I’d only hear it in lobbies and elevators.

It was really a combination of two forces that made me start looking to get to know classical more. 1) I felt that I was rather uncultured and wanted to grow more in this regard. So I started looking at art, reading poetry, and listening to music. 2) There were several theologians who commended classical, primarily Bach and Mozart. But whatever reason works for you is fine. I think you really should give it a shot.

In that spirit, here are a few of my recommendations.

  • Realize that you’ll probably never become ‘expert’ in knowing Beethoven the same way you know the entire U2 discography. It’s just harder to do and takes a ton of time.
  • Don’t be afraid to say you don’t like something. Just because someone says something is great, doesn’t mean you’re stupid or a fungus if you don’t. For instance, I’ve never been able to feel anything but contempt for Joseph Hadyn’s music. It sounds like really boring math problems making love. Maybe you don’t like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Maybe, like me, you think John Cage is a quack rather than a genius. Whatcha gonna do, pretend to like music you hate?
  • Don’t be afraid to like something. I have all six soundtracks to the Star Wars films as well as that for Braveheart, Lord of the Rings, Shindler’s List, and a few others. I like them, and I listen to them.
  • Find a nerdy friend who does know more classical than you and ask them for recommendations. Not just for pieces and artists, but for recordings. You’ll find that a single piece can sound radically different among recordings due to varying interpretations or sound quality, and not all are created equal. For instance I really like ‘slow’ versions of the Debussy’s Claire de Lune.
  • Realize that if you’re going to experience any music, not least potentially complex and layered pieces, you can’t just throw it on in the background. You’ve gotta sit and just listen to it. Many composers will state a theme or a melody and play off it; turn certain notes minor, make unexpected shifts in emphasis. I sometimes took this to be merely vague repetition, but it’s more than that. It’s a game.
  • Trust and distrust authorities. As I said, don’t be afraid to say you don’t like something. But also realize there are reasons that some consider Bach’s Mass in b minor or Mozart’s unfinished requiem to be great works. You can’t really do the ‘indie’ thing of liking ‘underground’ acts very well if you’re only just starting. Hit the big names first. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, etc…
  • Find instruments or styles you like. I like pianos, organs and choruses, symphonies, sacred music, and fugues, for instance.
And for you, classical world, and you my classical loving friends.
  • Don’t denigrate popular music or John Williams soundtracks. Not only can you find genuinely creative pop music, but John Williams is the man.
  • Make sure you make your kids take music lessons and music appreciation. If you want them to like it, then make sure they’re exposed to it. Take them to concerts too.
  • Don’t be a judgmental jerk.
  • Consider that maybe much of the abstract, abrasive, narcissistic ‘art for art’s sake’ of ‘modern classical’ is an adventure in ego stroking. If classical isn’t actually connecting with people, then it might not be attentive to the spirit of the people. Music should speak to people.
I leave you with a few of my own recommendations meant to be very much a ‘beginner’s primer.’ It’s not exhaustive and is limited by my own shallow knowledge. See first of all, James’s posts (One and Two) because he covers some ground with Bach, Rachmaninov, and Palestrina.
  • Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor – You’ll recognize the opening organ lick surely, but the whole thing is a masterpiece. As James said, Bach’s fugues are an adventure in the infinite.
  • (Many of these links, btw, are to reliable interpretations by a gentleman who also uses visuals to help you ‘see’ what is going on. I’ve genuinely found his graphics helpful in visualizing pieces. He’s got over a hundred videos and you can trust that they any of them are worth hearing.)
  • Bach’s cello suites are all great, but the first one – in six parts total- is probably his most famous.
  • Eventually look at Bach’s Mass in b minor, his Brandenburg Concerti (sample here), and his fugues. There’s a reason that he’s considered one of the best.
  • Beethoven’s fifth and ninth symphonies and his own “Great Fugue” is shockingly ‘modern’ and very powerful.
  • Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Arabesque #1 are a great place to start.
  • Among the small group sometimes called the ‘Holy Minimalists,’ I find particularly wonderful John Tavener and Arvo Part. For Tavener, see his The Lamb, Song for Athene, God Is With Us, and Funeral Ikos; For Part, Beatitudes, De Profundis, from Missa Syllabica, the Sanctus, and his organ music, like this.
  • For more sacred music, Tchaikovsky’s Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrystostom is an absolute must. It truly proclaims the Gospel.
  • There’s much more to add. For instance Chopin’s nocturnes and preludes, Rachmaninov’s own Divine Liturgy and Vespers, and his Prelude in c sharp minor, and others. But I don’t want to make this too long.
  • Finally, if you’re on the music program Spotify, I’ve got a few classical lists that you can check out. Just search for Tony Hunt.

Dead Shopping Malls

Tony SigThis is a longer version of an essay I originally wrote for The Living Church. I’m posting it here to contribute to James’s music series. 

When the Grammy for “Best Album” was awarded to an alternative rock band from Canada for an album named The Suburbs over such mainstream acts as Eminem and Katy Perry, various electronic social webs were a flurry with outrage. Many people simply had never heard of them. This despite the fact that Arcade Fire is hardly a small band, regularly selling out very large venues and touring tirelessly. Critics claimed that the Grammy’s had lost touch with pop culture by making such a choice (a notable exception being Kanye West) – see for instance Steve Stoute’s letter to the Grammy’s. I take issue to this accusation. To be sure, Eminem is unquestionably more influential in the pop realm and more indicative of mainstream music in general, but Arcade Fire is among the most culturally aware bands now writing. Lady Gaga is a spectacle of contemporary culture but Arcade Fire is a mirror.

Their first record, Funeral, is a profound expression of unfettered youth, a polyphony of parts barely yet successfully held together by thunderous drums and a chorus of vocalists. It is considered universally to be a modern classic. The Suburbs, their third record (Neon Bible is the sophmore), is in many ways the negation of that record and a searching tale of the modern “Suburban” person. Their first two records abounded in movement, in running, in singing, The Suburbs struggles even to remember what movement was like (“Ready to Start” & “We Used to Wait”). Instead the “Modern Man” waits in a line, accepting with total passivity the hidden and pervasive authority of forces outside of their control. Suburbs are the erie realm of the endlessly flat “Sprawl” on the one hand, and the the rising peaks of “dead shopping malls” on the other. Such an oppressive space feels like “A City With No Children” in it, a space from which vigorous life has been drained, where there is “No Celebration” and where hours now are “wasted” and the “half-lit” nights are spent driving through the streets, recalling when friends used to listen to music together, grow their hair long and dream of getting out.

The album speaks of an exceeding aimlessness to life. Perhaps the suburbanite has a job, indeed perhaps they even have cars and a 70’s house, but there is no real life there. And this situation has been resigned to; there is no sense in which the narrator(s) show us any struggle against the powers, no anger, no zeal. This shows up sonically too. In previous records accompanying vocalists were infused in almost every song, but on The Suburbs they show up rarely and never have the effect of rallying the listeners. Likewise there is a near singleminded focus on the guitar which either drives a fuzzed and droning tempo or drifts listlessly above the chord structure, but the organs, pianos, violins and accordion that we’d become accustomed to are very rarely heard.

Does this sound nothing like a youth culture where there is endless stimulation but few job prospects? Where one might simultaneously be poor yet have several electronic devices and where college is still normed but where students remain skeptical that such education leads to a more prosperous future? Where kids live at home into their 30’s and change careers multiple times?

It is this uncomfortable clarity with which Arcade Fire sees contemporary youth culture that makes them so important. If what they say is true, then it poses the political and social question, to what extent are the politicians and the preachers adequately dealing with this widespread pessimism and skepticism.

Live at Radio City by Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Part 2 [Theological Liner Notes]

james

Read Part 1

“Don’t Drink the Water,” a song which evokes images of both the South African apartheid and the persecution of Native Americans, is Matthews’ moving indictment of oppression and empire.  The song is narrated by the oppressor who possesses the other’s land with confidence:

“I have no time to justify to you/ fool you’re blind / move aside for me.” 

Toward the end, Matthews breaks into the first verse of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” and then ends the song, still singing as the oppressor, who now explains how it really is with a disturbing clarity that deserves to be quoted at length:

“This land was made/ And I’ll build heaven and call it home/ And I’ll live with my justice, and I’ll live with my greed in me/ live with no mercy/ and I live with my friends at feet/ and I live with my hatred/ and live with my jealousy/ oh I live with the notion I don’t need anyone but me/ Don’t drink the water / There’s blood in the water”

These lyrics expose the poverty of the oppressor himself, who drives away, and crushes, and burns all others, so that he is finally consigned to a kind of hell—living with himself alone.

Implicitly, this song critiques wide swathes of Christianity that are historically responsible for going along with, and in many cases providing the ideological backbone for, oppression, and imperialism.  The condemnation is complete whether we are talking about the Dutch Reformed church of apartheid, the pietistic Protestants behind American expansionism, Catholic “missionary” activity among the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, or Anglicanism which “held the coat” for the British rape of several continents.  It is a crushing indictment of all those who believe they can build heaven on the backs of the poor and the dispossessed.

But the song is not without a subtle note of hope.  “Don’t the water/ There’s blood in the water” is surely a reference to the terrible slaughter of innocents that was the result of South African and North American apartheid.  These lyrics also make the historically accurate point that through brutality, the oppressor poisons the resources he fights so hard to take. However, I believe there is a biblical allusion in these lyrics.  Blood in the water references the Exodus narrative when God plagues Egypt for refusing to end the oppression of the Israelites.  So, Matthews evokes—perhaps inadvertently—that great story of liberation, how God freed the Israelites from slavery, how through Christ God “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” [Luke 1:52] and how, in the final shakedown, God will vindicate the oppressed and the downtrodden.

++++

As a self-identifying agnostic who writes lyrics replete with Christian and biblical themes, you would expect Matthews to insert a healthy dose of skepticism to his songs, and he indeed does.  In “Eh Hee,” in addition to that faith in love mentioned in part 1, we a find a deep suspicion of religious leaders and teachers:

“Be wary of those who want to try to convince you/ that they know answer no matter the question / Be wary of those who believe in a neat little world/ Cause’ it’s just fucking crazy, you know that it is.”

Could you ask for a more succinct and devastating critique of the Truth Project?  These lyrics comprise the warning label that every postmodern would put on the products of modernity, especially the Christian products of modernity.  These are the lyrics that keep Dinesh D’Souza up at night.

Of course, Christianity does not have to be that way.  Making truth claims, as the Church most certainly does, doesn’t mean you have to be an ass about it as some in the Church most certainly are.  It doesn’t mean we have truth completely figured out, nor does it mean that we’re the only ones who posses truth in our faith tradition.

“Praise God who has many names…” 

There is such a thing as absolute truth, but there are also truths that bend, truths that are not always true for everyone at all times (There, Baby Boomer generation of Christians, that wasn’t so hard, was it?).  Matthews lyrics call us, the Church, to stop focusing on being right and start focusing on overcoming evil with good (love).

Continuing with songs where Matthews directly engages with Christianity, we come to the “Save Me.”  In an imaginative retelling of Christ’s temptation in the desert, Matthews casts himself as encountering a man in the desert (Jesus), and becomes his “tempter;” he offers Jesus food and drink—a perfectly humanitarian thing to do, but he refuses:

“No, my faith is all I need.” 

To which Matthews replies,

“Then save me/ Mr. walking man/ If you can.”

As the song progresses, Matthews role as the Adversary who dares Christ to save him morphs to a humble person who wants to believe, who wants to be saved, but can’t figure out how, and wonders if it even still possible:

 “You don’t need to prove a thing to me/ Just give me faith, make me believe/…Save me, Save me/ Stranger if you please/ Or am I too far gone/ to get back on?”

Expressed in these lyrics is a real sense of longing, of wanting to find faith in God, but coming up short.  In the video recording of the Live at Town Hall concert, a totally hammered Matthews introduces the song in an interesting way: “This song is a comedy…song.  Maybe, no, maybe it’s tongue in cheek.  I don’t know, maybe it’s a plea for help from the heavens.  I don’t know. You decide.”

By the end of the song a third voice enters,

“You might try saving yourself.”

In this fractured soteriology, then, we have a God who doesn’t have time for sinners such as Matthews, we have a satan who cries to God for faith, and we have a Pelagian who tells the penitent to save himself.

There is a danger in the Church to write off such people as the narrator of this song.  Sometimes the attitude is that if you don’t simply have faith in God, if it doesn’t come easy, then there is no room for you in the Church.  But faith doesn’t always come easy.  Who hasn’t felt abandoned by God?  It’s not that Matthews didn’t have faith before.  He asks if it’s too late to get back on.  Matthews the agnostic and many like him are having an extended (permanent?) Dark Night of the Soul. The Church should not only welcome these folks, and encourage them, but we should also welcome their voices and opinions, and let them challenge our own over-confidence, our own self-assuredness.  Maybe we are afraid of them because they threaten to expose our own doubts and frailties to the members of our community and to ourselves.

Part 3 (coming soon, including some notes on the song, “Bartender”)