Four Songs with Unique Perspectives on Spirituality
A vague spirituality is evident in the vast universe of rock, from the most mainstream, corporate stylings of U2 to the splintered subgenres of Scandinavian metal. Christian iconography is also common, and the cross is a favored symbol of rockers, for some reason. But outside of openly Christian genres such as CCM, it can be hard to find a pop or rock song that deals explicitly with themes from the Christian faith—one that admits of the importance of Christianity for the song’s narrator, while also truthfully presenting that importance in an intelligent and honest sense. But here are four examples, from artists with varying degrees of openness about the personal meaning that faith has for them. They are all good songs, and worth a listen.
“My Own Prison” (Creed, 1997)
Everyone likes to hate Creed. They are rather derivative, and their music videos make no sense. I’m not really sure if they are a Christian band or not; they certainly are comfortable with dropping Christian jargon in their songs, but when they do so, it can sometimes sound either forced or corporate. But this song (one of the first they ever wrote) strikes me as a very honest cry from the heart, a description of the personal hell we sometimes make for ourselves. Scott Stapp, the lead singer, claims that the song is about the earthly consequences of his own choices, but it sounds much more as if he is describing a literal hell.
The slow, plodding drumming and meandering guitar lines reinforce this song’s mood of resigned despair. Even though the narrator protests his situation, he is aware that there is no going back, no escape. He is filled with futile regret at not having listened to the gospel when he had the chance: “should’ve been there on Sunday morning, bangin’ my head.”
“John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” (Sufjan Stevens, 2005)
This might be the most disturbing song I know of, and it can be hard to listen to: the horrifying story of a real person, who lived in Chicago in the 1970s and sexually abused, tortured, and murdered more than thirty people, burying their bodies in his basement. Stevens goes into great detail, but in a veiled, poetic way; enough is told that we are given a conception of what happened, but we have to bring a lot of ourselves to finish the picture. This is deliberate, because Stevens wants us to internalize the song’s closing line: “and in my best behavior I am really just like him; look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.” Stevens is letting us know that on our own, none of us can claim to be perfect; we are all capable of committing heinous acts, and even if we haven’t killed anyone, our own misdeeds still tarnish our soul.
“One Sunday Morning” (Wilco, 2011)
Spotify / YouTube (album versions; an extremely good live version is here)
In this song, the narrator looks back from the vantage point of old age to a specific conversation with his father in which the narrator abandoned his faith. Details such as the red sunrise on the beach are still with him, years and years later, as are his father’s harsh, condemnatory words. Jeff Tweedy songs in a near-mumble, conveying a mood of an intimate, revelatory confession, perhaps to only one other person, the sort of thing that gets spoken late at night near a dying campfire. Looking back, though, the narrator is ambivalent. “I fell in love with the burden holding me down”; “in my mind I miss being told how to live.” Could it be that the certainties of faith outweigh its strictures?
Wilco’s musical composition perfectly reflects the narrator’s vacillations—the music itself vacillates in the end. The song’s main theme gives way to a rocking two-note bass pattern, before coming back again . . . and moving back to the two-note bass . . . and coming back, again, in the long fadeout. As the song nears its end, the music can’t make up its mind what it should be—just like Tweedy’s narrator.
“In The Garden” (Van Morrison, 1986)
This song’s reverb-drenched production mirrors the lyrics’ continual mention of the “garden wet with rain”. The dynamics rise and fall, following the narrator’s emotional journey as he experiences a very intimate moment with his lover. But what makes the moment complete? The presence of God. “Just you and I and nature and the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost in the garden.” The language of the song is a kind of secret code, with phrases and allusions to things which, I’m sure, are meaningful to the two lovers, but are difficult for the rest of us to understand. But the repeated refrain, invoking the presence of the Trinity as this couple reunites, suggests that God is also part of their closely-held shared experiences.
New issues of RUINS come out on Monday mornings. Subscribing is free and easy!