By Joel Hartse
I haven’t a clue about apophatic theology, and have still not read the tattered copy of The Cloud of Unknowing I picked up in a California bookshop three years ago, so I’m once again finding my ontological footing through pop music. A theme has been moving through my life this year, which, if I had to put a name to it, might be “surrender” to any number of things having to do with what J.D Salinger called “the religious life, and all the agony that goes with it.”
And though I’m dismayed to learn that 2008 wasn’t a fluke in the sense that my favorite songs are getting slower and quieter, it’s still in the tried-and-true formula of three chords and something approximating the truth that I am able to ground myself. So here is my 2009 list of songs of surrender.
Laura Gibson—“Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me,” from Come, O Spirit
Laura Gibson may not be as well-kept a secret as she once was, but she’s one of the lesser-known artists on this lovely compilation from Bifrost Arts and Great Comfort Records. Gibson’s lovely take on this slightly hokey “sailor’s hymn” was the first version of it I’d encountered, and I’m glad.
The Cave Singers— “Welcome Joy,” from Welcome Joy
The Cave Singers, like me, are dudes who used to be into bombastic rock but are now drawn to some seriously quiet folk music. I’ll be honest: most of their songs sound the same, a spidery, dynamic guitar riff with a winningly warbling melody, and I’m not entirely sure what this song is about, but the name and the sound of it point to surrender to the warmth and hope of spring.
David Åhlén—“Spirit Fall” from We Sprout in Thy Soul
A Good Letters reader pointed me toward David Ahlen, whom I consider by far my greatest discovery of 2009. The Swedish folk singer’s music falls somewhere between sounding like a lost relic of the 70s Jesus Freak movement, a Gregorian monk with a guitar, and the ethereally androgynous Antony and the Johnsons. “Spirit Fall” is one of ten impossibly beautiful songs on Ahlen’s We Sprout in Thy Soul.
Frida Hyvönen—“Jesus Was a Crossmaker” from Crayon Angel: A Tribute to the Music of Judee Sill
Hyvönen’s arrangement of this single recalls Sill’s piano ballads (the original had a country-gospel twang) and teases out its classical roots. Also, I’d like to point out that even though the man in this song is not Jesus, the song is about surrendering anger and embracing forgiveness because of Jesus; as Sill once noted, reading The Last Temptation of Christ made her realize (of her lover) “even that bastard wasn't beyond redemption.”
David Bazan—“In Stitches” from Curse Your Branches
A heavy song from a heavy album about abandoning evangelical Christian faith but being unable to let go of God, “In Stiches” is one of Bazan’s most affecting songs, which is saying something. “I might as well admit it,” he sings, “like I even have a choice.” Bazan has mentioned in interviews about this album that he doesn’t believe, but does perceive that God exists. And what does one do about that? Throw up one’s hands and write a beautiful song, I guess.
Soul-Junk—“Persian Earball” from 1960
It takes an audacious visionary to write an entire album based on one Psalm, but Glen Galloway is such a visionary and Psalm 119 is the text for this juggernaut of a record. As Galloway continues to move away from the crazy experimental hip-hop of his 1956, 1957, and 1958 albums, he returns both to the strictly Biblical lyrics and loose indie-rock jams of early Soul-Junk, but with a new sense of purpose and craft. The result is a song like this, sprawlingly joyful in its orthodoxy and surrender to the commandments.
U2—“Moment of Surrender” from No Line on the Horizon
What I like about “Moment of Surrender” (aside from its obvious thematic resonance for this list) is its similarity to the dark, sensually spiritual 1990s U2. Part “One,” part “If God Will Send His Angels,” this song is the pop version of a contemplative prayer, and I get so lost in its seven minutes and twenty seconds I don’t even notice the length.
The Rentals—“Song of Remembering” from Songs About Time
I can’t go a full year without powerpop, and this song from the Rentals’ multimedia project Songs About Time is their best of the year if only for the simple elegance of the guitar riffs from Joey Santiago of the Pixies. The whole project represents a surrender of the traditional tools of the music business—no more albums, no more labels, no more singles—and it gives the band room to breathe and reflect on what happens when you give up trying to “make it” in the pop world and focus inward instead.
The Mountain Goats—“1 John 4:16” from The Life of the World to Come
I don’t want to spoil anyone’s day, but I am almost certain this song is written from the perspective of a Christian who is about to be thrown to the lions, a historical reality that is so much a part of our cultural imagination that it’s a wonder John Darnielle is able to actually humanize the moment in song. It’s maybe the saddest and most hopeful song of the year. The refrain “I won’t be afraid / of anything ever again” in this context is doubly powerful if you consider the titular verse.
mewithoutYou—“Every Thought a Thought of You” from It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All A Dream! It's Alright
Like many of the other artists mentioned here, I’ve written about mewithoutYou on this blog before, but I don’t think I adequately explained the remarkable shift the band made on this album, how the (compelling) self-flagellation of their earlier work has been subsumed by a profound sense of kenosis and a desire to be consumed by the divine. Almost every song on this album touches on surrender, but “Every Thought a Thought of You” is the only song that does so with an undeniable, body-shaking groove. And as I enter the thirtieth year of my existence on this planet, one thing I am not entirely ready to surrender is my love of rocking out.