How to be a Christian Artist
I like music that makes other people uncomfortable. I like Pere Ubu a lot, for example, and my favorite Pere Ubu album is New Picnic Time, an album that has sent many listeners screaming from the room. Captain Beefheart is another favorite, in which case I like Lick My Decals Off, Baby, an album of great rhythmic complexity and impressionistic lyrics. Rhys Chatham’s out-of-tune guitar pieces. Tony Conrad’s violin pieces for just intonation, LaMonte Young’s minimalisms, free jazz from the mid-sixties, the Sun City Girls, the Slits, Daniel Johnston, the Shaggs, Wesley Willis, Syd Barrett’s most ominous solo work, the most experimental David Grubbs, etc. It’s not that I think this music is interesting simply because it’s unusual. This music brings me genuine pleasure. I like pop songs, too, of course, in reasonable doses. But often the work that makes an indelible impression on me comes from a place of singularity. This work doesn’t give up its secrets easily. It makes demands. In the process of reckoning with it, you feel as though you’ve helped make it what it is.
An example: a few years ago I was invited to a record club in Lower Manhattan by a painter friend. The record club worked this way: each of the twelve attendants brought two songs that they were in love with at the moment, and, according to a sequence generated by randomly dealt playing cards, we circled the room in two rounds with everyone playing his or her songs in turn. Though I’ve never really been a book club sort of guy, I was taken with the spirit of this gathering right away.
On the Friday night in question, the record club was marching along, doing what it does, glancing off of jazz, electronica, Britpop, early rock and roll, Old Time, when suddenly there emerged from the speakers the most strangled, desperate racket I had heard in ages.
The first problem was the singer’s voice. The singer sang in a tortured falsetto, or most of the time he did. Sometimes he hovered just above and below the line that separated his chest voice from his falsetto. In the tenor range, he had a boyish drawl, sort of like Kurt Cobain, if Kurt had been raised in the Ozarks. But then there was his boy soprano, into which he lurched for various pitches, where he was silly and ghostly and a little bit shrill all at the same time.
Having noted the singer, I shifted my focus to the accompanying ensemble: acoustic guitar, organ, celeste, two rather primitive drummers. The band would probably have sounded adorable, like the soundtrack to the tugboat in Mister Rogers’ neighborhood, were it not for the structure of the song itself, which I later learned was entitled “Holy Kisser’s Block Party.” It began with an alarm clock, followed by a section A, some kind of whispery chant in which Daniel, the lead vocalist, and some girl backup singers intoned their rhetorical intention, “I do vow, / here and now, / I will kiss again / It starts right now.” This was followed by section B, in which the celeste, or chimes, dominated, and a very different melody was explored, followed by a section C, in which varieties of love were described and suggested by the narrator, “Begin your loving to the one who bothers most,” this in turn followed by a section D, an actual chorus, in which piano propelled the rhythms, major triads, while above hovered some really strange counterpoint between Daniel and the backup singers, his sisters. Did I not say that the band in question, the Danielson Famile, really are a family? Daniel on acoustic guitar and vocals; Rachel on vocals and flute and sometimes organ; Megan on bells and vocals; David and Andrew on drums and percussion, respectively. “Get your rear in gear, lend an ear, have no fear, draw near, my dear, bring the cheer, take time to hear.” And then a section E, which was really section B in a minor key, consisting only of a repetition of the line, “As coals of fire rest on their heads,” with minimal accompaniment. Back to section A.
I thought it was some of the worst caterwauling I had ever heard. And I like caterwauling.
The record club always produces a little anthology—the minutes of the proceedings, if you will—and so I had opportunity to hear “Holy Kisser’s Block Party” again, in my car, because that’s often where I first listen to compact discs, and I confess I was a little shocked by the song. I resisted its complex demands. And yet when I stumbled on it, periodically, when playing the anthology of the record club event, I realized that I was beginning to think the song was indisputably great.
After a couple of years, I was invited again to the record club (visit their website: www.recordclub.org), this time along with my wife, Amy. By coincidence, Julia Jacquette, the painter who’d first issued the invitation to me, had again selected a Danielson Famile song, as though she’d been thinking of nothing else in the intervening years. On this occasion, the song was the hit, sort of, from the brand new Danielson album, Fetch the Compass Kids, viz., “We Don’t Say Shut Up,” again composed of a bunch of rather diverse sections that in this case featured really great counterpoint writing between the piano and the acoustic guitar, and great vocal arrangements, etc. At first, I had no idea what the song was about, really, except that it extolled the notion of “quiet time,” and the author of this “quiet time” seemed to be the “holiest of ghosts.” However, with proximity and familiarity I was beginning to understand something quite elemental about the Danielson Famile that had escaped my notice—they were evangelical Christians.
Julia Jacquette, my painter friend, had made a pilgrimage to see them perform live, and she said it was sort of an amazing thing. For example, the singer and acoustic guitar player, Daniel, performed the entire show from inside of a large textile tree, which must have made it rather difficult to play all the chords properly. The rest of the family wore medical garb. The motives for the costumes and props were not explained to the audience, but upon reflection it now appears likely that they had something to do with the laboriously worked out theology of songwriter Daniel Smith.
My first reaction to the evangelical dimension of the work was, naturally, to resist. What I liked best was the sound of this album, which, frankly, was and is unlike anything else that is being produced today. Half-innocent and half-cultivated. Compass Kids, which was released in early 2001, was produced by Steve Albini, the man behind some of Nirvana, some of P. J. Harvey, some of Will Oldham, and the most recent album by Godspeed! You Black Emperor. You can tell a lot more thought went into the recording this time, since Daniel’s voice is mixed back a bit as the vocal choir of Megan, Rachel, and others is brought forward. Also, for a band that has no bass player, the album feels nicely bass-heavy, with strange keyboard sounds and bits of distorted guitar filling in the low end. Also, some of the music writing on Compass Kids is divided between Daniel and the keyboardist Chris Palladino, with the result that the piano and acoustic guitar interact almost uncannily in spots, in a way that calls to mind the sublime Vince Guaraldi, and his music for the Peanuts cartoons.
My wife became obsessed, too, and we bought Fetch the Compass Kids and played it for a long stretch. Not as in my youth, when I pored over the lyrics of albums (back then, I remember reading with intense disappointment an interview with Mick Jagger, wherein he remarked that lyrics were “just something to sing”), these days I tend to play things because I like how they sound, with an indifference to the “message.” I never knew what Michael Stipe was singing, and I never cared; I never cared what Bob Mould was singing; I never cared what Paul Westerberg was singing; I certainly didn’t care what Kurt Cobain was singing. Around our house, we played Compass Kids because the music rewarded attention, because the piano and acoustic guitar traded the downbeats in different verses, and because the time signatures were unusual, because the instrumentation was bizarre, and because there was something charming about the ominous innocence of the entirety.
Later, however, I did start to wonder about the lyrics. It was perhaps when my wife bought one of the earlier albums. On the first track from Tell Another Joke at the Old Choppin’ Block, released in 1997, Daniel chants “I love my Lord, I love my Lord, I love my Lord.” Pretty straightforward, huh? And, later, on “Flesh Thang,” I noticed the following: “It’s a house of the Lord. It’s a house of the Holy Ghost but the house be speakin’ at times. Haunted house is bein’ tricky. You better only be hearin’ the holiest of ghosts.” Similarly, on “Smooth Death,” the title of which acts as a leitmotif on Choppin’ Block, there is an allusion to the wine of the Eucharist: “Take a bath in the blood, it’s gonna be a smooth death, take it slow.” Maybe it’s possible that I didn’t notice the Christian dimension of the Danielson lyrics at first because I didn’t want to have to think about Christian imagery in what is, for all its eccentricity, an example of so-called indie rock. And yet the specific musical characteristics of Choppin’ Block made avoidance of the lyrics almost impossible. Choppin’ Block was produced by the one-named Kramer, who also brought you Galaxie 500 and Low and Bongwater, et al. It follows that the album rings with echo and reverb, with the repetition of open chords. The litanical reiteration of phrases like “I love my Lord,” or “It’s time to rest, my son,” from the song entitled “Jersey Loverboy,” fall naturally into this reboant space, with the incantatory quality that we associate, perhaps, with a certain kind of psychedelia. Daniel could just as easily be singing: “Mother? Yes, son. I want to kill you.”
Or: what is psychedelia but entry-level spiritual investigation? I first understood that the Danielsons were singing about God when I understood that the music on Choppin’ Block sounded as if they were singing about God. There’s a misuse of the litanical in some rock and roll. There’s a perversion of the litanical, and you hear it, for example, in Lou Reed, the reliance on the I-IV progression, while he sings, in this case, about heroin. In such a context, that is, the secular is spiritual. “Heroin,” that is, is spiritual, or it wants to borrow from a spiritual tradition in its repetitions and its life-or-death concerns. He does, after all, feel like Jesus’ son.
Choppin’ Block reaches a similar zenith of repetitions in “Quest for Thrills,” a song composed largely of one chord, which advances a relentless and slightly humorous passion play over its drone: “Hungry humans, rootless man, just a number, avoid the question of the truth. Get the injection, the good infection, take a drink of spirited tunes, spirited pop, spirited tunes, pop tunes, poppy tunes. Fifth dimension, belt of truth, Bible belt. Thirty minutes after death, something called E. coli is detected in your nose. You’ll be decomposing in the dirt, and you’re cryin’ yourself to sleep… dead man’s wishes is bein’ sacred.” Soon after, the song proceeds into a second droning passage where Daniel chants “Amen, brother,” for a good couple of minutes.
Choppin’ Block concludes with a longish instrumental, actually recorded in a funeral home, consisting of an orchestra of tuba, flute, sax, and clarinet, all playing the big ominous drone that one imagines has everything to do with the idea of the smooth death, as enunciated earlier on the album, here perhaps embodying the passage through the smooth death of evangelical experience, into the afterlife. When the vocals finally break out at the end of the unnamed instrumental, they consist merely of the words “I believe” repeated ad infinitum.
In the African-American tradition of musical evangelism, there exists a profound and seductive ambiguity that clouds the differences between the spiritual and the earthly love. God’s caritas and agape are adjacent to the eros of the first world, so that when Al Green says, “Let’s Stick Together,” he could either mean, Let’s you and I work this thing out, or he could mean that he is spiritually frail and in desperate pursuit of some kind of certainty of divine love, a certainty that is often framed in the context of doubt, because doubt is the human thing. You find this same evangelical origin in a lot of black popular music, of course: in Aretha Franklin, whose Gospel roots are well known, but even in Motown, where songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” trade on the conflation of the earthly and the spiritual. The other salient feature of this African-American musical evangelism is its lack of punitive imagery. There’s little in these songs about the theology of Hell.
The theology of (white) rock and roll is often much less forgiving. From “Great Balls of Fire,” by Jerry Lee Lewis, which makes love and brimstone bedfellows, right up to the heavy metal theology of AC/DC (in “Highway to Hell,” and “Hell’s Bells”), you feel that the spiritual in the rock and roll tradition is mainly obsessed with sin and penitence (or the lack thereof), with the downright fallen qualities of mankind, with doubt, with all that is harrowing about Christian experience, not a moment given over to forgiveness, except perhaps in that awful song by Don Henley, “The Heart of the Matter,” or in the bland affirmations of the contemporary “country” radio format.
The Danielsons sidestep all prior solutions to the problem of how to be evangelical recording artists. On the one hand, the Danielson Famile are so far from the Gospel idea of a musical ministry that it’s hard to consider what they do as being in the same league at all. There’s none of the improvised testifying of an Al Green or a Solomon Burke here, none of the reliance on scriptural citation and preordained Old Testament imagery that turns up again and again in the Gospel music tradition. And at the other extreme, notwithstanding their love of the occasional barre chord, the Danielsons avoid the bombastic cock-rock posturing of Creed and their brethren, wherein the evangelical involves the inevitable removal of the lead singer’s shirt.
The Danielsons, I think, sketch out a sonic diagram of the difficulty of contemporary faith, because they make music that is incredibly ungainly and awkward, as faith itself is ungainly and awkward, though no less fervent for its homeliness. Well, perhaps there is some consistency between the way Reverend Al Green uses his music and the way that Daniel Smith uses his in the aforementioned repetition of phrases. This has everything to do, believe it or not, with Franny and Zooey. You remember, of course, that Franny goes out to a luncheon on the day of the big game, and despite the loving and affable affection of her suitor, she passes out at lunch. The reason for this fainting spell is often given in literature classes as a spiritual crisis of some kind. In particular, it is said, Franny Glass faints because of her attempts to repeat the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.” In fact, in The Way of the Pilgrim, where this prayer technique was first given mass-market evocation, the idea was to repeat the prayer so constantly and so perfectly that your heart is able to say it with each muscular pulsation. When you get to that point, amazing things begin to happen, your life improves, your relationships improve, doors open that once were closed, etc., and, I suppose, you experience loss of consciousness. This is the way the Danielsons use a phrase like “I believe.” They use it like the phrase has magical properties, and they use it like they definitely believe, and like they know that if they repeat a phrase often enough, life improves, the door opens that once was closed, etc.
Fetch the Compass Kids, the 2001 masterpiece of the Danielsons, comes immediately after a two-album package called Tri-Danielson Alpha and Tri-Danielson Omega, in which Daniel Smith tries to play in three separate group contexts: 1) in a primarily acoustic guise, 2) with the Danielson Famile as described above, 3) and with a sort of a conventional rock group, replete with electric guitar. The Trinitarian model is obviously premeditated on Tri-Danielson, but it’s also a bit facetious, since the same Smith siblings and the same cast of side characters play in all three groups. The results also vary more widely than on any other Danielson album. A hilarious song like “Rubbernecker,” a dead ringer for the early B-52s, can be followed by something that really relies on Daniel’s obsession with downwardly moving chromatic melodies, wherein there is no chorus and no hook. Tri-Danielson is hilarious and moving in spots, but it’s also big and sloppy.
Not so with Compass Kids. You emerge from the diffuse ambitions of Tri-Danielson into a record that is thoroughly composed, where the band is better organized than ever before, where the young drumming Smiths suddenly seem to be first-rate drummers, and where the evangelical context of the album seems entirely organized around a single idea, which is the pursuit of a moral compass in a dangerous and modern secular world. “It’s an incredibly confusing time / been told I must be in my prime,” Smith observes on “Rallying the Dominoes,” “It’s too much of a confusing time, / ‘you forgot to eat again,’ but I don’t mind.” Or elsewhere, on “Singers Go First”: “Poppa pushed me out the boat again, my morning face says I can not swim, did not eat again.” Or, on “The Wheel Made Man”: “Fear comes where loves was then love comes where fear was, the wheel within wheel in the sky, who am I?” Of course there are the usual protestations of faith on Compass Kids: “Happy and sad gonna sing the wide and long and high and deep, oh Lord,” or “In Him do we move and live and do become.” And yet in general, Compass Kids attempts a more subtle evocation of the frailties of the spiritual life. It attempts to evoke these frailties gently and compassionately, while it continues to demonstrate the evangelical properties of music and religious imagination, all of this in the context of a musical idiom that I suspect most people would find too strange for their listening delectation. The result is that the contradictions implicit in such an undertaking emerge as massive, overpowering, and, for me, incredibly interesting.
Which is to say that I find I have come somehow to identify with the Danielson Famile. I identify with them, in that rock and roll way, and I am reassured by them. Here’s why. Because in the literary community, at present, one of the worst career moves you can make is to admit that you are a person who believes, a person who goes to church and who finds value in it. To say both that you go to church and that you consider yourself an intellectual is to court skepticism and even disdain in your peers. I have been asked by at least one editor not to talk about churchgoing because “people don’t want to think about you as a churchgoer.” And the reason for this is that churchgoing has come to mean literalist fundamentalism.
I should qualify my experience for the purposes of these remarks. I don’t have particular adherence to Episcopalianism, the religion in which I was raised, to the extent of including or ruling out adherence to any other sect. I don’t believe in Christianity as the one true faith; I don’t believe in the Christian God as the one true God, excluding all others. I don’t believe that the ancient Abrahamic faiths are more correct than some Druidic sun-worshipping commune in eastern Oregon. At various moments, I have been just as taken by the Quaker faith, or Tibetan Buddhism, as with Episcopalianism, and I am a fan of the Qur’an and Talmudic scholarship. A friend of mine sends me daily prayers from the Lubavitchers, and I think they’re fabulous. While I find Madonna’s obsession with the Kaballah kind of self-congratulatory, I don’t rule it out. I love the church of my birth because I love the ritual of the church of my birth, the bells, the censer, the sung liturgy, the emphasis on textual interpretation. Moreover, I like the repetition of certain kinds of rituals, simply because things repeated are pleasing. And I love that Episcopalianism is the locus of debates, now, about what scripture means on the subject of homosexuality. I love that my church has been brave enough to lead in the matter of ordaining gay bishops.
Do I believe every day? I believe every day, and I doubt every day. I cannot conceive of faith without doubt. I can’t conceive of a relationship to the God of my faith without conceiving of terrifying overpowering silences that make me wonder what the hell it is that I think that I’m doing when I am praying and when I am addressing myself to the divine. I have never found that my faith has completely eliminated the fleshly appetites, and I don’t even know if it’s meant to be that faith eliminates these fleshly appetites—because we wouldn’t have these bodies if were weren’t meant to wrestle with the significance of having them.
Did I also say that I love the music of the church? As Dylan remarked, I understand the spirit, whatever it is, through music. Music somehow actualizes belief in the face of doubt, in the face of the considerable secular pressures in my life and professional community, so that I feel myself made stronger by music and literature. And this seems to be the sort of thinking at the very center of Compass Kids, as when Daniel Smith says, “I will empty all my accounts to become a waiter on hand and foot and tend to invisible hammers, guitars, and pens; everything returns with purpose again.”
What does music sound like when it is rendering these sorts of complexities, the paradoxes of belief in a modern age? It doesn’t sound easy. Daniel Smith came up through the music department at Rutgers, and he learned composition, and his thesis was the first Danielson Famile album, A Prayer for Every Hour, and even in that far more primitive recording, you can already feel him aspiring toward punk rock, prog, children’s music, and the high-art tradition of contemporary classical music. Likewise, lyrically, he is already longing for an architecture of Christian symbolism that is not tainted by overuse, sentimentality, and tradition. In a way, Smith is like Dante, wanting to conceive of an imagination so rich that in understanding his words and his protagonists, you will have automatically worked through some of the mystery of Christianity: “Making a point of being disappointed, that rule of thumb will take you far in this life, ’cause I know I’m always being disappointed by my plans, by my boys and girls and by my plans. I now know I need, I now know I’m needy, I need to me [sic] a King. King of the jungle. There’s a good fire and a bad fire, my flame’s burnin’ at both ends. The one’s gotta go, the other’s gone wild. My wild fire is my feeling tank, my tank or heart is not mine. There’s no me involved, it’s the Great Comfort moving man, amen, brother.” Already, the experience of listening to the music and coming to parse the lyrics is the experience of being faithful, which is an experience of much confusion, and much disappointment, and much that is not reassuring, and not simple, and not easy. Or, as a friend once preached at my parish in NYC, people would quit asking for angels to visit if they bothered to read up on when exactly angels turned up. Angels are terrifying. The appearance of angels always brings with it cataclysmic changes in life and circumstance. They aren’t hovering outside to make sure that your tax return arrives promptly. They appear to tell you that you are about to be impregnated by the power that created all space and time. Or they appear to tell you that the world as you know it is going to end, and that you may perish among the billions.
Consider the allusive quality of the most beautiful song on Compass Kids, “Can We Camp at Your Feet”: “I get down from my sky high chair to camp at your feet / with what can I get away? Your love will have your way with us / anything that we can do? Water all the gifts in my shipshape children, bless this mess. Water all the gifts in my compass children / feet of good news.” There’s nothing screechy about the music on this one, just a morose stillness to Daniel’s harmony with one of his sisters. The pulse of a backbeat begins with the line “with what can I get away?” which, as anyone who has ever tried to be religious will tell you, is the line that your brain utters with greatest regularity, Why should I bother to do this, I get very little respect for trying to do this here on earth, where the options are between some mindless adherence, which seems to involve wearing blinders and condemning everyone I love to a fiery eternity, why bother with the coffee hour with the Republicans after a church service in which they have ignored everything they have just heard, why should I bother, couldn’t this possibly just pay off a little bit, couldn’t the thing that I’m supposedly praying to, the thing that supposedly created all this stuff around me, just respond once to my pleas, couldn’t it just one time, this thing, make life a little bit easier instead of making it more complicated? Isn’t there a reward for people who go through with all this stuff and give away a lot of money because that’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t there one meager reward for doing this in terms of actual gifts given, or results conveyed, because if there’s no reward, when everyone else is outside doing all the stuff they get to do, buying what they get to buy, sleeping in on Sunday, why should I bother to do this, because it really would be a lot more fun not to have to do it? “Can We Camp at Your Feet” brings this difficulty into relief, suggesting what is frankly heretical in most sects of Christianity, that the believer should take his or her faith directly to the unnamed omnipotence (Christ is almost never mentioned in the entirety of the Danielson oeuvre, for example), around the intervening authorities, the bishops, ministers, etc., around the commentators who say it should be done this way and no other way. In doing so, the song proceeds toward a truly magnificent instrumental coda in which, after the line “your love will have your way,” there is a beautiful overdubbed exhalation, by the vocal chorus, and this exhalation, the breath of God, I guess, recurs through the chord progression, while the backup singers sing the word “good,” from the good news of the last line, and the drummers stop and start in some kind of martial style, with myriad snare rolls, and the song threatens to end three times, always with these exhalations, the breath of God, the thing worshipped brought near, away from the history of a religion, away from the religious controversies of the moment, away from the sectarianism, away from the battles between Christianity and Islam, away from the Anti-Semitism of fundamentalism, and in a musical style that any smart kid on any college campus in this country would recognize and respond to, a musical idiom that is full of instruments actually being played, instead of machines being played, mistakes and awkwardnesses preserved, barely an amplifier turned on, all because this is the way things really are, they are insurmountable, they are irreconcilable; it’s hard to get through any twenty-four hour period, that’s what it means to be a Christian artist, it means that you understand what it’s like to be here, and you don’t presume to know more, you presume to care about what other people think and feel, which is emphatically what most Christians do not do, that’s how it is.