Monday, October 12, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #35: How a Resurrection Really Feels by The Hold Steady

Do you want me to tell it like boy meets girl and the rest is history? Or do you want it like a murder mystery? I'm gonna tell it like a comeback story.

Growing up Catholic, one is exposed to an inordinate amount of so-called Christian music. And it’s all terrible. When I use the term "Christian music" in this context, I’m not talking about any songs found in church hymnals. I’m referring to music that falls under the commercial category of “Christian Rock.” Often while riding in my high school girlfriend's call, I would zone out while she played DC Talk or Jars of Clay and silently wonder.  Was there something in the communion wine that prohibited these bands from writing lyrics that aren't terrible?  You can usually tell after a few masses with a new priest who can put together a compelling homily and who can't.  And apparently if you're going to front a Christian rock band, then you possess the same storytelling talents of the clueless priest who attempts to connect with younger church-goers with condescending lies about "hanging at the mall with some young skateboarders," or other such nonsense. 

I guess I heard about original sin. I heard the dude blamed the chick. I heard the chick blamed the snake. I heard they were naked when they got busted. I heard things ain't been the same since.

A girl named Hallelujah (the kids call her Holly) serves the protagonist through Separation Sunday. The first line of the album makes she may be an unreliable narrator ("She said, ‘Always remember never to trust me.’") Throughout the next 42 minutes, one witnesses her rise and fall traveling all over the country (skipping over Dallas “cause Jackie Onassis said it ain’t safe for Catholics yet”).  She repeatedly chooses vices over salvation as she struggles to overcome the wrongs done to her in the past. By the time she hits rock bottom, regaining consciousness in a confessional, drug-fueled parties and encounters with skinheads, pimps, and hoodrats have rendered her “a real soft girl who's having real hard times.”

We gather our gospels from gossip and bar talk then declare them the truth. We salvage our sermons from message boards and scene reports. We come on to the youth. We try out new testaments on the guys sitting next to us in the bars with the bars in their windows. Even if you don't get converted tonight, you must admit that the band's pretty tight.

From a musical standpoint, the band is not quite yet clicking on all creative cylinders as they would go on to do with Boys and Girls in America. They’re more or less still serving as a backing band for Craig Finn’s lyrical tour de force, which features little actual singing, but all the enthusiasm of a preacher committed to his cause.  Most critics compare Finn's freewheeling detailed storytelling to Jack Kerouac, but here he seems to have more in common with Flannery O'Connor, sparing few details in depicting the downfall of sinners who continually betray their self-imposed moral codes.

While he gets a little too cute at times ("She got screwed up by religion / She got screwed by soccer players") he usually testifies with a written density that takes several listens to fully dissect, and even after multiple listens maintain ambiguity.  This practice of course has no place is proper Christian rock, where redemption and faith are usually communicated through self-righteous simplicity, ensuring that the listener is spoon-fed the desired message. Even on the album's closing track, Holly's anthemic prodigal homecoming is tempered by a coda where she begs, "Don't turn me on again..."  knowing that temptation and relapse are always around the corner. Her salvation is still a journey, not a destination.  And despite any redemption achieved on a Sunday morning, there is another Saturday night lurking the next weekend.

The Hold Steady - How a Resurrection Really Feels (mp3)

No comments: