Wednesday, August 15, 2007
The Top Ten Christian-and/or-Biblically-Themed Songs That Are So Good That They Call My Agnosticism Into Question.
10. Dirty Dozen Brass Band, “I’ll Fly Away.” Some bright morning when this life is over... A gospel standard, originally a hymn. Your basic Southern Baptist doctrine, set to song. Never really gets old, though, whether it’s sung or merely instrumental. The DDBB take is a great jazzy-gospel hybrid.
9. Norman Greenbaum, “Spirit In The Sky.” Gotta have a friend in Gee-ZUSS! Appropriately enough for this list, this classic Jesus rock song was penned and performed by a Jew looking to either appeal to Christians or to mock them to their faces. With its high-distortion guitar chords, infectious clapping, and cheesy back-up girls, it nears pop perfection.
8. Regina Spektor, “Samson.” I cut his hair myself one night/Pair of dull scissors in the yellow light. Like “Hallelujah,” (below), this song channels the raw sexuality of the Samson story, although Spektor tells it from a seemingly innocent Delilah perspective. Her characteristic whimsy and silky vocals makes this somewhat tired trope fresh and enticing.
7. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” Undertaker, Undertaker, please drive slow/For this body you are hauling, Lord, I hate to see her go. A touching folk-hymnal dirge that can still have some bounce and life. The NGDB cover has excellent use of fife, fiddle, and bango to give it an authentic rolled-in-corn-meal-and-deep-fried feel. You could thump a bible in time to it.
6. Jeff Buckley (Leonard Cohen), “Hallelujah.” Maybe there’s a god above/But all I ever learned from love/Was how to shoot someone who outdrew you. Everyone’s favorite Old Testament break-up song. Despite the fact that this song has been soundtracked to death (from The OC to The West Wing to, my god, Shrek), it remains powerful thanks to its epic scale and its potent mix of cynicism and eroticism. I favor the Buckley take most of all, but enjoy the Rufus Wainwright and Imogen Heap versions as well. And while I regret to knock the man who gave us “Chelsea Hotel,” it must be said that compared to these excellent covers, Cohen’s original comes off as overproduced and horribly dated.
5. Bruce Springsteen, “Reason To Believe.” Still at the end of every hard-earned day/People find some reason to believe. Perhaps this is the unrepentant agnostic speaking, but I find some of the best songs about faith are the ones that question it. It’s hard to tell if the Boss admires or pities the blindly faithful; although familiarity with his work (and the increasingly ecumenical spirituality of later albums like The Rising) would suggest that he identifies with them, even if their unwavering hope also mystifies him. After all, it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.
4. Ralph Stanley, “Rank Stranger.” Some beautiful day (Some beautiful day)/I'll meet 'em in heaven/Where no one will be/A stranger to me. A bluegrass standard on kinship and faith. If the mountain mentality had a singular anthem, it would be this song. There’s a lot of fine covers out there, including a Dylan one, but Stanley’s is definitive. His voice is craggy as an App’a’latchan ridge line. The man’s breath must be made of moonshine vapors and coaldust.
3. Sufjan Stevens, “The Seer’s Tower.” Seven miles above the Earth/There is Emmanuel of mothers/With his sword, with his robe/He comes dividing man from brothers. There’s a millenarian streak in Stevens’ work, perhaps best explored in this song, “They Are Night Zombies!,” and “Seven Swans.” Like in “Night Zombies,” Stevens imagines the Illinois landscape as the setting of the Apocalypse. This song is ethereal and perhaps too churchy for some tastes. I find I enjoy it for its unflinching sense of doom and judgment.
2. Johnny Cash, “Man in Black.” I wear the black for the poor and beaten down/Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town. A direct statement of faith in action, in which Cash casts himself as kind of badass Christ figure. There’s also a pretty pointed critique of secular, materialistic America. That’s right, you douchebags with your streak-of-lightning cars and fancy clothes. Johnny here would love to sport some rainbow duds, but you’re so fucking selfish that he has to wear this here suit of black. On his back, like a fucking cross. Just to remind you panty-waisted cocksuckers of those who are left back.
1. Gillian Welch, “Orphan Girl.” Blessed Savior, make me willing/Walk beside me ‘till I’m with them. A gorgeous song about a lonely orphan who takes solace in the love of Jesus. It seldom fails to raise the hair on my arms. It can make me tear up if I’ve had a bit to drink. And it’s possible proof that there is a benevolent, sentient creator who takes great pleasure in sending foul-mouthed heathen like me straight to hell.