Tuesday, November 29, 2005

mix 3: Songs for (Non-)Believers

I'm not a religious person. Sure, I was an altar boy for a while, and I was confirmed, and I've traded in my former militant atheism for a kinder, gentler holding pattern of agnosticism, but my past and present relationship -- or lack thereof -- with a higher power really warrants its own post (or series of posts, or short series of books). For now, I'll just say that religious devotion, to me, is never more palatable than when it's expressed in song. Since the whole subject is supposed to be about transcendence, and since music seems like arguably the only truly transcendent art form to me, it's a good fit.

Luckily, many modern musicians take a more subtle approach than, say, Stryper -– who, if memory serves, believed strongly in God, and believed strongly that He wanted His children to dress like bumblebees. Or Carrie Underwood, the most recent American Idol winner, whose first single -- if I heard this right -- is sung from the perspective of a woman ceding control of her steering wheel to Jesus as her car careens out of control. Wise move.

(OK, wait, I found the lyrics. These are too classic not to share:
She was driving last Friday on her way to Cincinnati
On a snow white Christmas Eve
Going home to see her Mama and her Daddy with the baby in the backseat
Fifty miles to go and she was running low on faith and gasoline
It's been a long hard year
She had a lot on her mind and she didn't pay attention
She was going way too fast
Before she knew it she was spinning on a thin black sheet of glass
She saw both their lives flash before her eyes
She didn't even have time to cry
She was sooo scared
She threw her hands up in the air

Jesus take the wheel
Take it from my hands
Cause I can't do this all on my own
I'm letting go
Um, me again -- does anyone else think this CD should come with some kind of disclaimer? I’m imagining something like this: “All songs about Carrie Underwood’s savior, Jesus Christ, should be taken metaphorically. In all cases of vehicular danger, particularly those involving infants and not just those occurring on the outskirts of Cincinnati, experts strongly advise that human hands should be kept on the wheel at all times.”)

It turns out that many singers I like incorporate fairly fervent, but much-much-much less strident Christian sentiment in their music. Off the top of my head, and based on various sources, the list includes Rosie Thomas, Denison Witmer, The Innocence Mission, Pedro the Lion, Damien Jurado, Sufjan Stevens -- oh, and then there's Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder. So, here's a group of songs that do more for my spiritual side than a thousand sermons. I'd love suggestions for this list, because I know it's a brief one (and doesn't include more traditional fare), and because my soul can use all the help it can get.

Some of these only qualify because of a line or two. And the Lyle Lovett song is a bit of a red herring to get things started. It does prominently feature God, but only as a counterpoint to the prevailing sentiment. Here's a sample of the lyric, which is great:
Who keeps on trusting you, when you’ve been cheating
and spending your nights on the town?
And who keeps on sayin’ that he still wants you
when you’re through running around?
God does, but I don’t
God will, but I won’t
And that’s the difference between God and me.
OK, I'm babbling. Here's the list:

God Will - Lyle Lovett
God Loves Everyone - Ron Sexsmith
Little Flowers - Denison Witmer
Promise - Pedro the Lion
In the Lord’s Arms - Ben Harper
Full Force Gale - Van Morrison
In the Sun - Joseph Arthur
You and Me - Rosie Thomas
Angel Doves - Mindy Smith
Spiritual - Spain

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you're going to include the Lyle Lovett song, then I think you also need to include "Hallelujah." It's an old Leonard Cohen song that's been covered by Jeff Buckley, Gavin DeGraw, Rufus Wainwright, and John Cale. But for my money, Jeff Buckley's version is the best.

If you look at the lyrics, it uses Biblical imagery to talk about a modern relationship, and it even closes with this stanza:

Maybe there is a God above,
But all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you.
And it's not a cry that you hear at night.
It's not somebody who's seen the light.
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

So "spritual" may not be the best word to describe this song, but when sung by Jeff Buckley, it's certainly transcendant. And check out all the lyrics; they're beautiful.

--The Comish (sic)

2:44 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Yes, Buckley's rendition of that song is classic. Consider it added to the list. thanks.

4:18 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

OK, in your list of great artists who address spiritual issues you left out U2. Their entire debut album? The first hit single, "I Will Follow", is a declaration that Bono and the boys will follow God's will. The most beautiful of their more spiritual tunes is, of course, "'40'", the album closer on WAR. It got its name from a Bible verse is essentially that verse in song.

Another nice one more off the beaten path is Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Life Without You", the perfect epitaph for SRV himself. It addresses the death of a close friend, and includes some beautiful sentiments about his friend's spirit amongst the angels and so forth. "The angels have waited, so long / Now they have their way, take your place..."

12:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Dezmond - how can you leave out U2? Ben Harper, along with his various backup bands, has a very strong sense of the higher power in his songs, too. And, although it now seems corny because it is so catchy, I must mention for "What If God Was One of Us" by Joan Osborne. The idea of God being a stranger on the bus - sorry, it still shakes me up. --tavia

1:13 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

Another artist famous for addressing the spiritual side of life: Johnny Cash. One of the great things about his music is the push a pull between the bad-ass Cash of "Folsom Prison Blues" and so forth vs. his strong devotion to God. He has released entire records full of gospel tunes.

2:18 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

I always liked "O My God" by The Police, but that is definitely not a spiritual uplifter. A perfect example of Sting hubris, though. He is lonely in his life, and demands to God that He fill Sting's life with meaning by bringing him a good piece of tail.

2:21 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Fair point about U2. I like "I Will Follow," but "40" might be more in keeping with the mellow vibe.

6:10 PM  

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