Listen to this track by Atlanta-based hip hop collective Arrested Development. It’s “Tennessee”, the first single taken from their smash-hit debut record, 3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days In the Life Of … released in the spring of 1992. The group are widely known as being pioneers in southern hip hop and authors of the aural counterbalance to the rise of West Coast scenes during the early nineties, with their debut record as a fine example.
In contrast to the violence and nihilism of a lot of rap at the time, Arrested Development traded in more celebratory themes, while still acknowledging the same burdensome weight of history on black communities in America and the anger and sorrow it justifiably creates. Under the creative leadership of Speech and Headliner, the group concocted a potent blend of musical styles from soul, gospel, dub, funk (this song samples Prince’s “Alphabet Street” prominently), blues, and jazz.
Importantly, this song in particular eschews the braggadocio, posturing, and often very understandable cynicism of a lot of the rap coming out of the West Coast that dominated the field at the time and embraces a brand of vulnerable candour in its place.”Tennessee” is downright humble, being in the form of a prayer. Yet the themes built into this song are not to be dismissed as lightweight. In fact, it evokes much of the same darkness and struggle as is found in any example of socially aware hip hop of the time. Read more
Listen to this track by gospel music fan and one-time “topical” singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, who recently had another birthday; he’s 74! It’s “Gotta Serve Somebody”, his 1979 hit single that would represent the last time to date he’d have a song in the top 40. This one reached #24 on the Billboard 100 upon its release in August of 1979.
The song was also featured on his new record, Slow Train Coming, a work that reflected his philosophical shift toward evangelical Christianity. It was the beginning of the Gospel Bob period! As such, it was something of a controversial release, with many of the songs on the album taking on a strident and spiritually polemical tone, tinged with a religiosity that seemed to be antithetical to the rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic. Dylan had always been something of a mercurial figure who seemed committed to undercutting expectations at every turn. But, even the session musicians who played on this track, and producer Jerry Wexler, were taken aback by Dylan’s new worldview. It was something of a surprise to Dylan’s peers, too. John Lennon of course wrote “Serve Yourself” in direct response to this tune. Many fans held the same point of view as Lennon on Bob’s gospel trip.
Yet, with this song that won him a Grammy for Best Male Vocal that year, there are elements here that had been a part of Dylan’s songwriting style all along, even celebrated in his earliest work. Read more
Listen to this track by one-time mystic-folky singer-songwriter, later to turn political and social commentator, Bruce Cockburn. It’s the live version of “Dialogue With The Devil”, a highlight from his 1977 live record Circles in the Stream. The original version appears on Sunwheel Dance released five years earlier.
The song taps into where Cockburn was at during the earliest part of his career as a solo artist, writing songs with a sort of C.S Lewis meets Mississippi John Hurt approach. Not many artists have hooked into that kind of vibe, of course.
But, Cockburn was interested in the nature of spirituality, how it’s manifest in human experience, and what symbols and stories, particularly those couched in natural imagery, helped to reveal it. I think he was also interested in how American rural blues playing and English folk styles converged, which is certainly revealed in his work at the time, with this song being among the greatest examples
As far as this song goes, the scene is one we’re familiar with. It’s a variation on the story in the Gospels of a meeting between Jesus and the Devil in a remote location, with a tempting offer from the latter; no less than fame and fortune in exchange for surrender. But, in Cockburn’s story, what is the nature of that dialogue, and what is the temptation? More importantly, does it have any bearing on where Cockburn would turn as an artist? Read more
Here’s a clip of flaxen-haired 80s hit machines the Police with their 1983 album track “O My God” as taken from their final (to date) studio album Synchronicity . The record was their most successful up until that point, and the tour was one of the biggest of the era. So, they broke up soon after. That’s showbiz!
But, the most interesting thing about the Synchronicity album for me, which is embodied very well in this song, is that writer Sting wasn’t really interested in putting across standard pop songs, despite the enormity of their success at the time. Every track on this album is about doubt, insecurity, and the exploration of the darker side of the human experience. They simply don’t make pop-rock records like this anymore.
Smash hit “King of Pain” is about being spiritually bereft. “Wrapped Around Your Finger” is a classic tale of ruthless ambition and ultimate betrayal. “Tea in the Sahara” is about the dangers of expectation and disappointment. And popular first dance wedding song “Every Breath You Take”? Well, let’s say that couples should take heed before choosing it as an anthem for romance.
“O My God” may be the daddy among all of these for me. Sting was raised as a Catholic while growing up in the North-East of England. It would be a force in his life which he would continue to explore in his solo career. But, no song of his comes close to this, which basically is the voice of a man who is wracked with doubt, yet still yearns to believe that there is a god who is interested in humanity and human suffering. But, ultimately one gets the impression that his plea to “take this space between us/fill it up some way” is one that echoes into the darkness, returning nothing but a reverberation of an unanswered prayer.
I love the arrangement on this too, a sort of funked-up R&B derived groove, which works against what you would expect in terms of how it relates to the lyrical subject matter. I love that, a classic post-punk gambit, this time in the context of a pop song. On the studio version, Sting’s saxophone lines (yes, that’s him playing sax…) bringing off a groove like a low-rent Maceo Parker. It’s clear that he was interested in going beyond the drums-bass-and-guitar sound, starting from the preceding record Ghost in the Machine. Sting would later re-embrace his jazz-rock roots more fully on his first solo record in 1985, The Dream of the Blue Turtles. But here, it’s clear that Sting was interested in wrapping some pretty weighty themes in palatable packaging. And none is more weighty, perhaps, than the problem of evil, a very common dealbreaker in placing faith in an all-powerful, all caring god.
When I was younger, I really thought the song was an anti-authoritarian anthem made to shock. But, later I changed my mind. Much like XTC’s “Dear God”, this is not a song made to make people uncomfortable, even if it seems that way on the surface. It’s a song that is the expression of the writer’s disappointment in what he was promised, more so than his disdain of it. It is the sound of a spiritual ideal of a loving god who cares being challenged in the mind and heart of that writer.
For my money, the best songs about god are never the ones which try to define whether the writer is devoted, or whether one rejects the idea of god. Rather, I think it’s one that acknowledges that a part of the power of god lies in what human beings have placed in god, regardless of which side the writer ends up on. I think this is true because it is the more common connection across human experience. The power of culturally ingrained ideas are impossible to deny, whether they’re flawed or not.
God. The Big Guy. The Man Upstairs. The Creator and Ruler of the Universe. The Sacred Mother. A Concept By Which We Measure Our Pain. Anyway you express the idea of god, the fact remains that god has made quite a few appearances in pop music through the decades, being as he is an important aspect of human existence.
Even in the so-called Devil’s music, God doesn’t escape the attention of songwriters. Some artists declare their own faith in all of His mysterious works. Others look upon god as being a figment of the imagination, or a cruel hoax of humanity’s own making. Still others associate God with the idea of an ideal version of how the world should be if we were to be more godlike.
So without further ado, here are a choice few songs about, or relating to, God.
There is an interesting dichotomy in the blues, much like there is in early rock n’ roll, between the sacred and profane. If Robert Johnson told tales of hellhounds on his trail, then his namesake Blind Willie Johnson was talking about how to find the soul of a man. In Blind Willie Johnson’s “In My Time of Dying”, the preparation for the next life is counterbalanced between what is done in the current one – a recurring theme in the gospel-blues tradition.
The song’s immensity has been covered by a lot of rock artists, most notably Bob Dylan on his self-titled debut, and Led Zeppelin who made the song into an 11+ minute epic of slide guitar and thundering drums on their 1975 Physical Graffiti album. In the link above, you can watch Zep playing a snippet of the song on their recent show at London’ 02.
Norman Greenbaum listened to a lot of country music on the radio, most notably the Grand Ol’ Opry which often featured gospel songs on the closing numbers. So in the, um, spirit of that tradition he wrote his homage to this tradition in his sole hit song “Spirit in the Sky” which combines the sentiment of airy-fairy Christian escapism with a John Lee Hooker-like stomp. The song would be a number one for Greenbaum, and later make a – if you’ll excuse me- second coming in the mid-80s when Doctor & the Medics also became one-hit wonders on the back of the song.
A lot of songs don’t mention God directly, but rather describe how easily one’s point of view can change when faced with the beauty of nature and all of the power in metaphor to be found there. For some years, singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn had been working toward an aha moment in pursuit of this phenomenon.
This song, taken from his 1974 album Salt, Sun, and Timeis the expression of that moment. Cockburn would later take the strength of it and turn it into activism in the 1980s, with the attitude in mind that one can’t love one’s neighbour, if one doesn’t know who one’s neighbour is.
Much like Cockburn, Bob Dylan had an aha moment. His was in a hotel room in 1978 while touring his record Street Legal. He claims to have had a visitation from Jesus, which initiated what he described as a born again experience. It was the beginning of the “Gospel Bob” era, which produced a trio of albums starting with 1979’s Slow Train Coming, closely followed by 1980’s Saved and 1981’s Shot of Love.
“Every Grain of Sand” is a straight-forward gospel song, no longer obscured by Dylan’s elusive use of imagery on which he’d built a reputation. This time around, the richness of the imagery reveals the writer, instead of hiding him. Although these albums are not considered to be among his best, this song is certainly one of the most notable of the era. Emmylou Harris recorded it for her superb Wrecking Ball album.
Dylan would return to less overt references to god on subsequent releases. But spiritual references are still very much a part of his work, with images of spirits on the water cropping up every so often, as much a part of the blues and gospel music which inspired him to become a musician in the first place.
U2 have had an interest in Christian faith since their inception, with enthusiasms for it being relative to which band member you’re speaking to. But one undeniable thing is u2’s political stances and social consciousness, which both wins fans as well as repell potential ones. “Wake Up Dead Man” from their 1998 concept album Pop seems to merge both interests – a plea for help in the middle of a “fucked-up world”.
As critically panned as the album was, it was quite a move away from the stadium anthems of the past which to me makes it worth noting. It was also a move away from their take on the Psalms, “40” too. This new prayer is fearful, and angry, wondering why the world is so inhospitable. If the concept of the album was the superficiality of our western culture, than this song may stand as a single ray of hope that in times of darkness, the best thing to be is honest in one’s helplessness.
Depeché Mode’s bread and butter at one time was teenaged angst to a synthesised beat. But this track is when they were beginning to grow up, and to face their own thoughts about larger issues. I was a Christian in the mid ’80s, and this song shook me up; the idea that God was playing a trick on us, that devotion to Him didn’t mean that we were in any way safe from harm was unbearable. I hated this song because it frightened me.
But maybe that was the best message I could have received; that my devotion to anything other than common decency and sense was secondary, and that any faith that I had should serve that purpose, and no other. It took me a long time to start that journey and where I certainly don’t have Depeché Mode or this song to thank for it, I can certainly understand that what they’re trying to say is extremely important.
The theme of absurdity when it comes to the world and the God who purportedly made it is a pretty strong connection. On Costello’s “God’s Comic”, one of the best tracks from his Spike album, God is a misrepresented figure who scratches his head at humanity, making him wonder whether he “should have given the world to the monkeys”.
You can kind of understand this point of view in many ways, given how much evil and unthinking cruelty has been carried out in his name. Costello frames this very well, with a parallel between metaphysics and show business that shows that humanity’s image of God has been reduced to that of a figure of celebrity. Or at very least a confusion with Santa Claus; “it’s the big white beard, I suppose,” says a beleaguered God.
One thing which the best songwriters with faith are able to do is draw a distinction between the idea or even person of God, and the systems which are built up around them. Sam Phillips and her husband T-Bone Burnett are two such writers. This song, taken from the 1994 album Martinis & Bikinis proclaims a direct message – I need love/Not some sentimential prison/I need God/ not the political church”.
So much paraphernalia is attached to faith, so much extra weight that has become attached to it, like barnacles on the side of a ship. But, Phillips’ song cuts through it. It almost makes you think that if every person of faith thought this way, there would be no need for religion at all. Loving one’s neighbour would just be best practice.
Sometimes, different takes about God and the value of faith can be reflected in the work of a single writer. Take Andy Partridge, for instance. His 1986 song (later added to pressings of the band’s Skylarking LP) “Dear God” deals in disappointment. It’s a prayer to a God who is seemingly uninterested in the state of a world He created.It’s an angry song about throwing down one’s own graven images, and moving on.
And it caused a lot of stir when it was released too. Yet, this is a pretty popular and compelling view; that free will is one thing, but this “evil” thing is becoming more than just an alternative to good. Children are dying of hunger, wars have started because of conflicting views about sacred texts, and we’re left to wonder what it all means.
I love that Partridge wrote another song about Peter Pumpkinhead on XTC’s 1992 disc Nonsuch; a Christ figure who doesn’t adhere to the rules of conduct, because they get in the way of doing what really matters; feed the starving, house the poor, and show the Vatican what gold’s for. Where the absurdities, and murderous intent of religion go undiminished in this song, this is a story about how Christianity and faith should have worked systematically – that the crucified Christ looks a lot like you and me, that we should also feed the starving, house the poor, and show the establishment what gold’s for.
So there we are; God. The Biggest There is. The Major Dude. The Master of Ceremonies. It makes sense of course that there continue to be songs about God and about our relationship to the eternal. And maybe art – song, story, visual art – is one of the better ways of making sense of it.