Relatively short reviews of three new(ish) albums by indie musicians who are various stripes of Christian. Three very different approaches, even within the extremely narrow subgenre of “guy with crackly kinda difficult voice and a million emotions tries not to despair, while playing the guitar.” In, iirc, order of album release.
The Mountain Goats, “In League with Dragons.“ I love the Mountain Goats. Somebody got me to listen to this thing (trigger warning: No Children) and I was instantly hooked. I loved “Beat the Champ” (my review undersells it), the “pro wrestling nostalgia as way of coping with unslaked childhood thirst for justice” album; “Werewolf Gimmick” is one of the scarier songs about committing violence, and “Choked Out” is the absolute best song about ecstatically surrendering to it. Anyway so, this album was more hit or miss for me. There’s a very ’70s/early ’80s flavor to the situations, and an ’80s synth element in the music, which I always am here for. Eerie synths and a sax solo and a man doin’ wrong… can do no wrong. There are some echt MG lyrics (“It never hurts to give thanks to the broken bones/you had to use to build your ladder”) and some self-parodic ones, as in the song where an elderly garbage-raiding possum is the singer and possibly also God. “All you parasites climb aboard! All you vagabonds, praise the Lord.” The usual MG paranoia, anticipation, haunted houses (“things were even worse here than they sounded”). There’s country guitar, jingle jangle, and in the back half of the album there’s some very bizarre crowding and spacing of the lyrics, which I didn’t appreciate.
The ’70s atmosphere extends to a D&D flavor, in the title song and also in “Clemency for the Wizard King.” That song struck me as catchy but slight. It set up a powerful situation–a wizard’s minions come to beg/threaten, “Cut loose the handcuffs/Let him go free”–but somehow the fantasy elements seemed cute in a way that diminished the rawness of the situation rather than heightening it by contrast. Maybe that’s my own tastes getting in the way.
The song I truly adored, my favorite here, is “Passaic 1975.” Very simple anthemic song, about a trainwreck musician on tour. Nearing a crucial point in life’s long downward road.
Sometimes I wake up
Coughing on blood
Tomorrow the Flood!
and then the chorus:
Tell the person next to you
I want everyone to get high!
Tell your boss, tell your mother
I want everyone to get high.
Perfectly balanced between the bad fun and the consequences; someone nearing the moment when you either give in to rapture of the deep or make a break for the surface; the ecstasy of resignation, that strange lonely freedom inside self-destruction; the world where something matters more than morals, because something matters more than life. I was thinking today about having been a philosophy major, and whether it was all ivory-tower narcissism as people nowadays like to think or whether it was as urgent and real as we all said back then. And not that Plato needs any justification–I do not demand that he be useful–but I think long training to think in terms of Diotima’s ladder of love in fact did help me understand what was (is) going on with my alcoholism and recovery. The idea that all our desperate loves and longings point in some way beyond themselves was obviously a part of my conversion, but also, I think, part of my experience of “sublime recovery.” (Lol do you like how I put that in quotes like I didn’t just make up the term myself? Thank u.) I realize that reading the Symposium to stop drinking is perverse, but well, I yam what I yam. And sometimes I think, in our new moral age, that you are really missing out if all you can see on the lower rungs of the ladder is their destructive potential. How can you look at Alcibiades, even knowing what he’ll do to your life, and not catch your breath? Tomorrow the Flood….
Harrison Lemke, “Ghost House.“ An echoey, hissy, out-of-the-past short album, revisiting a devout and haunted childhood and assessing it as worse than you remembered. I was hard on the insistent plangency of his last album–I’m rarely about music where the lyrics just tell people what you felt. This one occasionally sways a little too far into “here is a detail from my childhood which is a microcosm for many sad feelings” for my taste, but I think with this album that’s more of a question of personal taste; or maybe I was just able to perceive the art with which those moments are selected and depicted more clearly in this album.
The opening song is a good way to know what this thing is: strong, estranged, biblical lyrics; the guitar darkening and raising its voice when the chorus line repeats; high vocals striving for stable ground; skilled, swoopy synths. (I think they’re synths! I honestly don’t have the musical knowledge to review responsibly….)
Emotionally/spiritually, several of these songs explore questions we’ll also see in the third & last album in this post: How much of what I believed in my Christian childhood was “a myth I made myself”? What did I need? Why has so much of my spiritual life, despite all docility, been a matter of “still eat and drink what doesn’t satisfy”?
Several of these songs are sharp and poignant things that get stuck in your head (“Ghost House,” “Need Help”) but the standout song for me was “If I Make My Bed in Hell.” There’s yowling, he breaks out into yowling at one point and it’s utterly deserved; there’s electric guitar and there are handclaps, the perfect touch. Ironic contrast to the hard-edged lyrics, but also genuinely pleasing and restorative. The lyrics are wrenching and theologically acute: “God of my childhood/Your praises were on my tongue before I could tell bad from good” is a concise statement of the awful epistemological dilemma, how can you judge the people you trust (or the Persons) if they taught you how to judge in the first place? God made Job’s reason and trained him in all his judgments, so in judging God, is he just cutting off the branch he sits on? And then the urgent, awful question: Even if God doesn’t love us, don’t we need Him? How do you live if that’s the question you’re asking?
Steve Slagg, “Strange Flesh.” I’ve reviewed this guy when he was making music as Youngest Son (including a song partly about (his idea of) me, lol full disclosure). A lot of this album is again about reassessing childhood faith, though in Slagg’s case, coming out and accepting a new sexual ethic was a major part of that reassessment and shapes the album’s concerns.
It’s a mosaic album with lots of different styles, often even within the same song. I preferred the songs with greater tension; some of these songs have the same (thing I’ve identified as a) problem as some of Lemke’s, where it’s just narrating things that happened in your life and how they made you feel. The blunt sincerity of the second song, about his grandfather’s death and wondering how he would have reacted to the songwriter’s male lover, is frankly too willfully unshaped: “in that same brick church where he was buried in North Dakota/or am I mistaken, did he move there when he was grown,” I get that this is a stylistic choice but it’s one which strikes me as self-indulgent. To me that song got a lot better when the violins came in dark, or the piano rose up urgently at the end toward the climax and silence and coda. (That said, an also-plainspoken description late in the album, of his grandmother’s life and faith, struck me as poignant: simple and sincere without being too attentive to its own simple sincerity.)
The first song is a good summary of the album’s “personality.” There’s a cheery piano and an almost ad-jingle singsongy rhythm as Slagg sings, “I was given strange flesh.” That term “flesh” is laden with religious meaning: the Word made flesh, God taking our flesh and offering His own, the Eucharist broken and entering into the body of the believer. Slagg sings that this strange flesh has “been worshiped and abused. They still get it wrong in the movies; they still get it wrong on the news. It leaves me confused!” That’s one of the things I deeply believe, gay experience (gay flesh) as synecdoche for or extreme version of human experience. Being gay is like being human only moreso, basically. It does in fact leave me confused! There’s a bit where Slagg sings, “The lips that kissed your ear danced in a choir,” and here this bright music turns to minor keys, the piano and the harmonica, a longing and an ambivalence: Is the kiss like the dance, or opposed to it? Then there’s a journey back to jauntiness, to making “strange love” and turning away from those who “told us all along” that it was wrong.
I had three favorites here, all in a row in the middle of the album. First “Craters of the Moon,” which did in fact remind me somewhat of the Mountain Goats. It’s stressed and harrowed, uncomforted, a family trip into the wilderness:
I was horny, scared, and faking
You just stared slackjawed at God’s creation
We didn’t know, Lord, how could we know?
That death was bubbling up from beneath your skin
We didn’t know, Lord, how could we know?
That love would make me a stranger to my own blood kin.
Like many of these songs it has a sudden ending, a turn at the end; and the piano rolls us home. The sudden ending on the next song I admit I didn’t understand or love, but that song reminded me a lot of They Might Be Giants, if they were traumatized Christians. Ironic bounciness which does sometimes open up into real light.
Once when I was a part of something bigger,
I’d look up at the sky and feel small
Small, like a finger on a trigger–
One part of a powerful whole.
And then “Dismemberment Song,” which reminded me of the Velvet Underground (!) in its musical slipperiness, the voice emerging and subsiding. A puzzle made of musical styles; the vocals have a swinging louche sexiness until suddenly they’re saying, “They told me to gouge out my eye/So I gouged out my eye.” It’s a story about moving from self-dismantling, stripping off the skin like a horror movie, to building a new man in a new life. With no skin? With new skin? And finding that this restoration–even if it was right; even if it was necessary–doesn’t bring resolution.
Picture of a mountain goat telling you about his childhood via Wikipedia.