Like many music geeks, I spent the idle moments of the last month or so ranking and re-ranking my favorite music that came out this year. A lot of factors can make an album stand out for me—music serves a lot of functions in my life. It’s a soundtrack for bus rides and reading, writing and grading sessions and cooking and internet surfing and, well you know. It’s also how I serve my church leading worship and an important part of how I connect to God. It’s the only arts culture I really keep up with, I don’t see a lot of movies or read many novels. The music that I appreciate for these various purposes is often pretty different, and I think that’s ok. Two albums that I liked this year as part of my indie music soundtrack, though, also made me think about what it means to be Christian, which is a lot for one album to do. I thought I’d tell you about them.
The first is The Life of the World to Come by The Mountain Goats. I’ve heard a few of this band’s previous albums, and detected some references to obscure bible stories and passages. In this newest album, lead singer and songwriter John Darnielle makes his engagements with the bible explicit. Each track is named with a bible verse. Some songs have the words of the verse in them, some are meditations on the story or belief the verse represents. Some would fit on a CCM album, others in any low-fi indie pop mix.
The songs I liked best are the ones where I had to look up the verse and figure out what it had to do with the song. Many of the songs gave me a new perspective on the parts of the bible they responded too. This album approaches the bible with respect and freshness at the same time, and the songs have a raw emotion in the vocal performance and acoustic instrumentation that make the stories feel more immediate and contemporary. A great example is “Genesis 30:3” which seems like a typical pained love song, until you look up the passage and discover it’s about Jacob and Rachel’s infertility. I might add “Ezekiel 7 and the Perfect Efficacy of Grace” to my advent playlist in the future, it ends the album on an eschatological tone.
The second has gotten more press: David Bazan’s Curse Your Branches. I don’t think I would sing one of these songs in church, but it nonetheless made me think about faith quite a bit. I’ve paid some attention to David Bazan since my days at Calvin College, which was a frequent tour stop for his band Pedro the Lion. His music has always had Christian themes, but with a rougher edge than you might find on your local Christian radio station. Bazan now calls himself agnostic and some of his disillusionment may come from his rocky relationship with Christian fans. This album witnesses many of his struggles in life and with faith.
Though interviews indicate that Bazan himself does not consider it a Christian work, it does resonate with some of the parts of the bible you won’t find on an inspirational poster, like the Psalms of Lament and Ecclesiastes or Job. In fact, the last song on the album “In Stitches” references Job and suggests Bazan’s inability to leave God despite his anger.
David Dark’s comment in a fascinating review helped me reconsider the biblical tradition. Dark said, “If we are referring to the deep strains of complaint and prayers and tirades against conceptions of God in the Bible—yes, then in that way he's in your Christian tradition. But I disagree that he's an advocate for the biblical.” In this way, Bazan’s album breaks my heart and makes me see the bible in a new light. Not bad for music.