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Between Heaven and Hell: The New Wave of Christianity in Indie Rock

on June 29, 2015, 12:00pm

On Neutral Milk Hotel’s reunion tour, Jeff Mangum got thousands of people every night to exclaim, “Jesus Christ, I love you.” Even if the words came from a place of appreciation for Mangum’s music and not the crowds’ relationship with Jesus, they’re something of a rarity among the band’s typical audiences. While songs about God can be found throughout all of music, contemporary rock artists tend to address faith in vague terms, often to lend gravitas to their work. Vengeful gods, damnation, resurrection, forgiveness, and many other forms of biblical imagery appear throughout indie rock lyrics, but often there’s a combative spirit to these references, a challenge to the artist’s Christian upbringing.

The past few decades have seen a split between conservative, faith-based genres, like country and explicitly Christian rock, and more liberal, political music, like indie rock and punk. This year, however, artists like Torres and Elvis Depressedly have centered Christianity in their music, approaching the subject from a complex vantage that neither condemns it nor evangelizes.

Christianity and indie rock have long had a strained relationship. The most Christian indie artist to earn acclaim around the turn of the millennium (when “indie” first gained traction as a genre marker) was David Bazan, whose work as Pedro the Lion and subsequent solo material frequently appealed to both indie rock crowds and Christian rock crowds until he began to move away from the religion. Other prominent indie rock artists have engaged with Christianity in the past decade, from Sufjan Stevens to The Mountain Goats. The Hold Steady’s 2005 rock opera Separation Sunday focused primarily on Catholicism, particularly its preoccupation with the virgin/whore dichotomy. And Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos, who was raised Orthodox, envisioned God as promising yet not delivering refuge, referencing Orthodox saints and crying out for help on 2012’s “To Kingdom Come”.

Other artists have taken a more combative approach to religion – much of Modest Mouse’s work can be defined by a struggle with God. Isaac Brock is a self-described atheist, but through much of The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon and Antarctica, he sees God and Jesus as adversaries. In “Bankrupt on Selling”, the apostles and angels are “selling your soul for a set of new wings and anything gold.” The album culminates with “Styrofoam Boots/It’s all Nice on Ice Alright”, in which Brock finds a man in heaven who tells him, “You were right, no one’s running this whole thing,” and comes to the conclusion that “God takes care of himself and you of you.”

More recently, Vampire Weekend’s heralded third album, Modern Vampires of the City, meditated heavily on God and religion through a more Jewish lens. Ezra Koenig sings about the fire of hell that awaits unbelievers, asking disheartened if “this was the fate that half of the world has planned for me.” In “Ya Hey”, God appears at a music festival while a DJ spins The Rolling Stones. Referencing the Old Testament chapter where God appears to Moses as a burning bush, Moses asks the Lord’s name and is met with the response “I am who I am.” “Who could ever live that way?” Koenig asks, attempting to humanize the divine figure. The album engages with religious themes on a deeper level than most of the past few years, even if it’s not overtly Christian.

The past year has seen artists, specifically those hailing from the South, engaging with a different view of Christianity. On her second album, Sprinter, Mackenzie Scott (better known as Torres) confronts her upbringing in a Georgia Baptist Church. Torres has been singing about religion since her 2013 self-titled debut, examining tropes on songs like “Mother Earth, Father God”, where she speaks about the battle for eternal soul with lyrics like “The demons wager on my fall/ The greatest trick I ever saw/ Was them fooling us to think they were never here at all.”

On Sprinter, Scott adopts many different viewpoints on God, whether speaking with the voice of God as a vengeful, androgynous figure on “Son, You Are No Island”, or telling the story on the title track of a preacher who “went down for pornography.” In an interview with Pitchfork, she spoke about her nostalgia for growing up in a church, but how she was turned off by the corporate climate of megachurches whose aim was to solely bring in new people, acting more as salespeople rather than custodians of one’s eternal soul. Scott uses her album to show the hypocrisy that pushed her away from the rigid teachings of the church and led her to develop a more personal relationship with God.

In an interview with Consequence of Sound, Scott explained how she used to be judgmental in her teenage years, explaining that she would judge people on how they handled situations using a black-and-white world view of right versus wrong learned from the church. “Now, having been in a position where I’ve been judged and misunderstood, or silenced in some ways, I’d really just like a second chance to move forward,” she said. She calls upon the sense of forgiveness and non-judgment that Christianity is based on, which often gets lost in translation through Southern conservative churches. But Scott hasn’t left Christianity behind; on songs like “The Harshest Light”, she sings about tenants such as Communion or the fall of man with the hushed reverence of someone who still believes in the message, just not the system that delivers it. Scott has made a point in recent interviews to refer to herself as a “Christ-follower” rather than a “Christian,” indicating a belief in the basic tenants of forgiveness and salvation without subscribing to the rigid restrictions enforced by many who practice the religion.

Similarly, the latest album from Elvis Depressedly, the band led by North Carolina’s Delaney Mills and Mat Cothran, contains multiple references to Jesus and Satan throughout its brief running time. The attraction between heaven and hell is a dichotomy that’s as old as the Bible itself, and New Alhambra drills into the darkness and hypocrisy underpinning aspects of the religion. In a distorted sample at the end of the song “Big Break”, a voice says, “That’s why when you get a preacher that starts preaching blasphemy, you know that even this gospel called Christian is connected with the body of Satan.”

Certain Southern Christian teachings focus as much on damnation as salvation, and Elvis Depressedly taps into that sense of doom, describing the album as “an end times prophecy.” The opening track, “Thou Shall Not Murder”, repeats fragmented ideas about obeying commandments and teachings from the Bible, juxtaposing lyrics like “Jesus Christ lay down his life for us and we are to lay down our lives” with ominous proclamations like “you drank the chalice of Satan’s blood.” And on “Rock N’ Roll”, Cothran semi-humorously implicates himself within Christianity with the line, “Jesus died upon the cross/ So I could quit my job.” An artist who’s written songs called “Burn a Church” and “Jesus Rots Inside His Grave”, Cothran now presents a more nuanced examination of Christian themes.

Rather than adopt a combative stance against God or assume an outright rejection of faith, both Torres and Elvis Depressedly write about God while remaining critical of religion in itself. Both mention “blasphemous” preachers, delving into how hypocrisy and corruption haunts the church. While Scott addresses how she learned to balance her dogmatic upbringing with empathy, Mills and Cothran examine how evil can pervade those who claim holiness as much as those who get labeled sinners.

Rock’s deepest roots lead back to Southern Christianity, but the genre’s current incarnation tends toward the secular. Sprinter and New Alhambra both challenge the notion that music need either affirm or deny faith as a whole. Heaven, hell, absolution, and damnation pervade throughout these albums, which are filled with Christian imagery without ever serving as simple praise. Elvis Depressedly and Torres wrestle with religion and criticize those who practice it without ever rejecting the notion of God. By presenting these visions of Christianity, indie rock artists, whether they identify as Christian or not, are working to take back the religion as something open to interpretation rather than a playbook to accept or discard.

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