Emery’s “You Stole God from Me”


It's fair to say that post-hardcore is a genre somewhat outside my musical comfort zone. As I sit in the living room typing, I glance up at a Babelesque tower of raggedy piano books: my ‘\currently learning' pile. The volumes, whose edges jut in all directions like rickety brickwork, range from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier to Mozart’s keyboard sonatas. Not exactly punk rock…

It was with trepidation, then, that I dipped into the recent album Rub Some Dirt on It, an endeavour by Seattle-based outfit Emery. Many’s the newcomer to the music of Emery, myself included, who discovered the band via the BadChristian podcast. BadChristian, with its tongue-in-cheek title, has been presented since its inception by Toby Morrell, Emery’s lead vocalist, and Matt Carter, the group’s guitarist.

I’ll admit, I had to Google the phrase, ‘rub some dirt on it.’ As a Northern Irelander, who has never once been to the Land of the Free, little did I realise it was an American baseball idiom. Where I live, ‘rub some dirt on it’ sounds more like street wisdom for how to quench a petrol bomb.

Just as 'rub some dirt on it' – as in, put earth in a wound in order to seal it – is terrible advice if taken literally, so too have proven various evangelical teachings that Emery members Morrell and Carter have railed against. Rub Some Dirt on It, Emery’s ninth album, draws upon themes from the pair’s podcasting career for inspiration. Throughout its ten years of existence, BadChristian has covered issues ranging from sexual purity culture to mega-pastor corruption scandals. Juicy stuff.

Above is only my take on the meaning of Rub Some Dirt on It. Inevitably, people interpret album titles in different ways. John Bacon of HM writes, ‘The title Rub Some Dirt on It is an empowering message of how to approach the hardships life throws at you: keep your chin up, take it in stride, and let it make you stronger for what is to come.’ Fair enough, Johnno.

The track “You Stole God from Me” holds a special place in this album: the song from whose lyrics the name Rub Some Dirt on It originates. We’ll come back to the words later, though. Before the vocal entries begin, the track dishes up an instrumental intro. This opening is a gradual build-up of strings and percussion, which establishes a mood of troubled soul-searching. When Carter sounds that unnervingly distorted C# minor chord on his electric guitar, you know this isn’t a pantomime ditty.

When the vocals do start up, they’re generously peppered with allusions to the Bible, a telling sign of Emery’s hinterland in the Southern evangelical tradition. Here is an illustrative sample:

• ‘I chased after him [God] like a jealous lover.’ Compare with Deuteronomy 6.15.

• ‘Take the child and make them trust you.’ Compare with Proverbs 22.6.

• ‘The Good Lord will make his face shine upon us all.’ Compare with Numbers 6.25.

These references to scripture don’t stand alone, however. Each lyric above takes an immediate sinister turn. Ponder the passages again but with follow-on lines added this time:

• ‘I chased after him [God] like a jealous lover. / I closed my eyes and prayed for relief, but no one answered.’

• ‘Take the child and make them trust you. / Fill their heads with hell but promise them an escape.’

• ‘The Good Lord will make his face shine upon us all. / His light will reveal what you must hate.’

Every time a wholesome verse is invoked, a riptide of negativity comes along to sweep it away. Perhaps this is to show that scripture itself is good but has been serially misinterpreted in the pulpit. It’s a clever way to raise a musical warning about erroneous preaching and its potential to leave churchgoers disillusioned with Christianity. This is all familiar territory for listeners weaned on BadChristian.

Disenchantment with religion, falling out of love with church, is the central axis on which “You Stole God from Me” turns. There are many lines in the piece – ‘The God I loved became silent,’ for example – which imply the dwindling of a relationship with God. Such lyrics are tinged with longing for a time when the Holy One was more personally real to the believer. As things are, the Creator has proven to be not as changeless as depicted in the Bible.

Then there’s the doctrine – cheerful as a cherub, this one – of infinite punishment for unrepented sin. While Toby sings about born-again Christian views on the matter (‘Fill their heads with hell but promise them an escape’), Matt uses a cool vibrato technique on his guitar. This mimics a trembling human voice, one terrified of limitless torture in the ratty-smelling dungeons of a dreadful underworld.

‘Vocalist Toby Morrell is at his most venomous here,’ notes a staff reviewer for sputnikmusic.com, ‘unleashing an uneasy spoken word section that explodes unpredictably as he calls out the hypocritical, one-sided thinking that pushed him away from the church.’ I wouldn’t exactly say the lyrics are ‘venomous’ – which to me suggests a vindictiveness I fail to detect in Toby’s words, or in the song as a whole – but it is indeed an emotive monologue.

Following on swiftly from the hell bit is the second thrust of a one-two jab, with drumsticks in hand, at biblical fundamentalism: ‘His [God’s] light will reveal what you must hate.’ We have, here, a nod to that often-quoted idea that Christians are known for the things they’re against rather than the things they’re for. Consider the bleedin’ obvious: homophobia within certain churches is, like the supermarket wine you splattered all over the curtains during the row that ended it with your ex – Matthew sees all, my dear – a ghastly, blood-red stain on Christianity.

Despite all this, Emery haven’t finished with Jesus. The words, ‘I keep on searching for salvation,’ denote an ongoing struggle with religion. The drum rhythm changes noticeably when these bars land, with off-beat strokes yielding a vaguely whimsical effect when paired up with A major and E major guitar chords. The syncopated rhythm also helps to stress every single syllable in the lyrics for this part.

Another doctrine, apart from eternal damnation, that has inflicted its fair share of trauma would be that of predestination. This dogma gets its mention in the track as well. ‘I touched a hand that was reaching out for me,’ sings Toby, ‘but wasn’t it long ago that it was decided?’ This could be categorised as another, more indirect, scriptural citation: ‘For he [God] chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight’ (Ephesians 1.4, NIV).

Why the moniker “You Stole God from Me”? Till now – that is, the track’s thunderous conclusion – this riddle has been hanging in the beer-soaked air of Emery’s recording studio. Time to blow the case apart, Scooby-Doo. The lyric which ends the number is, ‘But you stole God from me and replaced him with your certainties.’ There you go. Mystery solved. After this fiery cri de cœur, not unlike Our Lord’s ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,’ the final C# major chord rumbles on for another four bars until fading out… and breathe.

It’s really something to watch Emery perform “You Stole God from Me.” Check it out on YouTube. The videography, handiwork of a large production team, combines roving camera- with tripod footage. Somewhere, I’m sure, in this visual contrast between shakiness and stability, there’s a comment on doubt versus faith to be made, although possibly that’s reading too much into things.

Of all the songs from Rub Some Dirt on It, I felt moved to reflect on “You Stole God from Me” because it speaks to where I feel myself to be currently with regards to faith. When I see news headlines like, “Chesterfield couple guilty of ‘brutal’ Christmas Day murder of baby son,” I have to wonder where God is. Can he not intervene?

I’m well aware there are high-minded responses to the problem of evil, having spent hours upon eyes-glazed-over hours in seminary lectures. I still await a good explanation, if any there is. Maybe taking our pain in hand, and shaping it into something beautiful, is all we can do when faced with immeasurable suffering. ‘I saw the world begin to eat itself, void of answers and left to bleed,’ as Emery put it.

Words like this are presumably why, for Nadia Alves of itsalldead.com, ‘Rub Some Dirt on It is Emery’s hardest hitting album to date.’ Bach and Mozart are alright, as far as they go, but sometimes you need sounds which take you deeper – far beyond your comfort zone, even.

These are the shadow seasons of life when, to borrow from Leonard Cohen, you really do want it darker. Happily for us wanderers, Emery has music like “You Stole God from Me,” music that’s fine-tuned for the loneliest of roads: the one paved with unresolvable questions.

5/11/2023 3:56:07 AM
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    About Matthew Allen
    Matthew Allen is a writer and musician based in Northern Ireland. He is a graduate of Queen’s University, Belfast, where he studied Theology and Liberal Arts.