While I’ve been known to make bold claims like, “Rebecca Black is advanced,” and, “LMFAO is self-aware,” the bold claim that generates the most gapes from people in my friend-circle is this assertion: “Actually, Christian music isn’t shitty, you guys.”
Religion as a pinnacle institution of the human experience has done pretty well for itself exerting an inspirational influence on the world — aside from general zealousness and the occasional inquisition of course. It has offered up a wealth of human artistic muses for the past few millennia, and when it wasn’t busy inciting wars, Religion eventually made the leap into pop music by finding a serious ally in the gospel-informed blues in the 20th century, and then through a series of mutations, the drugged-out psychedelic culture.
The hedonistic flower children may have seemed impervious to the righteousness of religious teachings, but their collaboration made sense. Both realities relied heavily on the hive-mind, both courted a sense of communal existence (whether partaking in communion or joining a commune), and both were fond of tunics and robes. More importantly, the good doctor of the counterculture Timothy Leary once posited, “The purpose of life is religious discovery” in the same essay he encouraged us to “drop out, turn on, tune in.” The Beatles took a jaunt to India for a vision quest and came back, George Harrison in particular, fully Hare Krishna. The Bee Gees, when they preferred acid tracers over disco lights, adopted medieval Gregorian chant for their breakthrough “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You.” So did transdimensional proggers Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. And all that music was great!
Yet, in the last half of the 20th century, those who dug Martin Luther’s whole campaign totally sullied my bold claim that Christian music didn’t have to be shitty. Have a listen to any given performing artist at Ichthus Music Festival, and you’d be hard-pressed to not mutter a “woof” or two. Even critically lauded musicians of faith like Sunny Day Real Estate and Pedro the Lion tended to keep their spiritual persuasion mum on record, knowing full well a Christian label on their music could foster a serious stigma (despite their faith’s visceral importance to their music).
As an erstwhile Methodist-raised rabble-rouser who more or less turned agnostic shortly after puberty, I am by no means any sort of theological authority who can expound upon why this is, but the majority of my friends who’ve professed their faith and love music in a congruent manner have also expressed that Christian music tends to truly blow. Yet, when the faithful get weird, when they tap into muses less rigid and more otherworldly, the result is beautiful. And for that reason, it’s a misnomer to say Christian music is terrible. Like a reliable pot dealer, you just have to know where to look.
Ah… here’s a great one. Sister Irene O’Connor. Little is known about the Australian nun who cut her otherworldly, cavernous gospel album in 1976, and the vinyl is next to impossible to secure. Thankfully, the powers that be (namely Tim Burners Lee and the witchdoctors at WFMU) helped to recently lift the profile of Fire of God’s Love / Songs to Ignite The Spirit.
Dig the waltzy punch, dusty analog synths, ghostly vocals, and over-the-horizon reverberation of Sister O’Conners, ahem, heavenly vocals. If Tumblr existed in the late ’70s, Sister O’Connor would’ve certainly accrued a few dozen posts, a record contract with Captured Tracks, and a high-end publicity deal. Don’t you kinda feel like Beach House and Cocteau Twins oughta be ponying up residuals, or at least some scratch in the offering plate to O’Connors monastery? Fire of God’s Love / Songs to Ignite The Spirit feels more like a true spiritual specter than most hymns echoing on any given Sunday. Sister O’Conner’s eerie approach to music conjures the type of mystery and wonder that truly seems missing from an all too repent-happy fire and brimstone conversation. It’s gentle and kaleidoscopic — a real trip through and through.
It’s funny how other faiths sometimes embrace the use of mind-altering substances, while most sects of Christianity roundly reject the drugs in lieu of ‘clean living,’ even though strong arguments claim that the Bible never explicitly forbade the use of drugs (save for the whole “body as a temple of God thing” but if we’re just talking about ingesting things, let’s talk about those bakes served in Lutheran basement post-services luncheons because those things have to contain about eight sticks of butter per serving.) As such, it’s safe to assume the good Sister did not anoint herself with dank while writing these songs, and right or wrong, that seems like a triumph.
Cornering the more beat-oriented market comes Pastor John Rydgren‘s unusual take on both scripture and flower power. His quirky compilation, Silhouette Segments, compiles 20 segments recorded around 1967 and ’68, highlighting Rydgren’s syndicated psychedelic sermons known rightly as “Silhouette”. While his smooth baritone and swingin’ delivery suggests a chain smokin’ (hand-rolled only) longhair recording live from his velvet couch, Rydgren was the straight-laced head of the American Lutheran Church’s TV, Radio, and Film Department — a clergyman who preferred spreading the gospel in a haze of purple. The novelty of these off-kilter Silhouette segments, written and narrated by Rydgren, eventually piqued the interest of the old Top 40 powerhouse WABC-AM in New York, officially adding a religious dimension to the summer of love. You’ll hear snippets of The Electric Prunes, Tijuana Brass, The Association, and much more alongside nuggets of Good News. Gotta love the description of the First Day in “Hippy Version of Creation”: “the cat… flipped the switch.” Dig.
For the first few bars of the nine-minute acid folk opus “Old Lace”, you wouldn’t be wrong to mistake it for Pentangle, Vashti Bunyan, or other pioneers of New Weird Britain. Except, of course, Emily Bindiger is a Yank, and her inspiration sources from His name exalted on high, instead of dope-ass psilocybin mushrooms. If you researched Bindiger, you’d mostly come across her commercial music work — jingles, soundtracks, musicals, and a garden variety of other boring pedestrian shit. But in 1971, Bindiger recorded her debut Emily at the tender age of 16! This LP is bananas, and it touches me. If something could nudge me toward faith once again, the unbridled beauty of Emily would probably be the force to do it, with my apologies to C.S. Lewis. Copious flute solos, aggressive acoustic modalities, real gangsta shit throughout. There’s really no excuse why Six Organs of Admittance hasn’t reached out to her yet.
These are some of my favorite mind-expanding, bong-ready canticles of the Christian persuasion, but for further listening, I highly suggest explore the bountiful harvest, for which we offer Thanksgiving, within the delightfully-titled The End is at Hand compilation. You can download it for free via Aquarium Drunkard. The compilation comes replete with artists that were probably either a part of, or inspired by, the Jesus People’s Movement – an intricate, progressive, and communal crusade on the West Coast and in Nashville throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s that acted as the strongest overlap of institutional Christianity and the hippie counterculture.
In listening to Bindiger’s “Confession” and “Jesus Said,” I’ve always felt a heavy Byrds vibes. The Byrds were a cornerstone for our current indie-folk paradigm, and it’s fascinating to see characters emerge like Fleet Foxes’ Father John Misty, who don a tent revival persona for his art. Beyond the pervasiveness of Christianity in many Americans’ formative years, there’s a recognition of a trenchant, enveloping creative muse in characterizing something as storied and engrained as the Church. It’s engrained in the American gothic, and it’s rife with semiotics that can be mined for albums worth of material.
With or without psychedelics, maybe faith can get you high. Can I get an amen?