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IN A 1961 LETTER TO BILL W., who founded Alcoholics Anonymous, Carl Jung described an alcoholic, a mutual acquaintance, “whose craving for alcohol was the equivalent on a low level of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God…. Alcohol in Latin is ‘spiritus’ and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison.”

Country music’s greatest songwriters have always known this intuitively: their art links the lowest human predicaments and pains with the highest human yearnings. Country, at its best, longs for transcendence. Even the genre’s easy-to-parody obsession with alcohol gestures toward that longing, as drinking and drunkenness, in the work of certain exemplary songwriters, embody Jung’s claims, becoming a secret and sublimated stand-in for a desire to intimately know divinity.

Some singer-songwriters outside country’s mainstream continue in this lineage, as in the final track on Margo Cilker’s exceptional debut alt-country album, Pohorylle, whose choruses alternate between repetitions of “I wish I had all of the time in the world” and “I wish I had all of the wine in the world.” A rhyme is an implicit declaration of kinship between the two rhymed words, and the internal near-rhyme of “wine” and “time” in Cilker’s choruses follows Jung’s argument, tacitly asserting that drinking is a misplaced means of finding transcendence, that wine could be a stand-in for infinity.

In general, however, the yearning found in many alt-country songs, which emerges in part from the legacy of country’s southern gospel roots, is absent from mass-market country music. Glimmers of it can be found in the work of Zach Bryan, one of 2023’s newest and biggest country stars, who sings knowingly of “that small-town bar scene, where small vices kill your big dreams,” but for the most part, spiritual honesty and depth or complexity of desire have left commercial country music for the less-lucrative genres of Americana, alt-country, and folk-rock. There, at mainstream country’s margins, musicians like Jason Isbell are creating some of the most powerful contemporary American art about the anguished and exquisite human experience of alienation and the longing for a life of wholeness, beyond addiction and solitude and materialism’s petty despair.

Of those artists underneath the alt-country umbrella, Tulsa-based singer-songwriter John Moreland is among the best. Through six solo albums, beginning with 2011’s Earthbound Blues, he has created one of the most honest and beautiful reckonings with religious disbelief in American culture. Though Moreland does not subscribe to any traditional faith system, his music is suffused with Christian imagery and with a palpable, unorthodox longing for transcendence.

Born in 1985, Moreland was raised in a fundamentalist evangelical Christian community whose narrow and rigid moral code and threats of eternal damnation he describes in interviews as traumatic. He’s been reticent about the details, but his music itself tells the story, as in his 2011 song “Christian Rock.” “I grew up with old-time religion, guilt, addiction, and superstition,” he sings. Yet despite his renunciations of Christian belief, Moreland cannot escape its questions, nor its imagery: “I don’t lie to myself,” that song continues, “even when they call it treason…. I don’t define myself by what we pretended to believe in. [But] there’s no reason why I still can’t let it go.”

This tension between Moreland’s disbelief and his inability to stop reckoning with Christianity animates his songwriting. He yearns for love, even as he fears that absolute love may be a myth and his yearning “a sickness”; he longs to feel at home in the world, even as he experiences the world as a fundamentally alien place (“this life,” he sings, will “make you homesick for a home you never had”); he is obsessed with heaven, a metonym for transcendence, even while he sees transcendence as impossible, a self-destructive quest.

Heaven—both the word and the absurd, impossible, necessary idea—recurs throughout his lyrics; it is the unreachable refuge against which Moreland batters, again and again, and sometimes breaks into momentarily before being cast back down to earth. “I’m just a lonely star trying to burn my way through heaven’s floor,” he sings in “White Flag,” the fourth track on 2015’s High on Tulsa Heat. This attempt to penetrate heaven concludes in failure, as that album’s closing, title track tells it: “We got wrecked on love in the heavens above, now we’re back on broken ground.”

That phrase, “the heavens above,” appears several times in Moreland’s songs; he seems to have assimilated it into his own private vocabulary after hearing it in his childhood church. It can be found, among other places, in the New International Version’s Acts 2:19 (“I will show wonders in the heavens above and on the earth below”) and in the King James Version’s Jeremiah 4:28 (“For this shall the earth mourn, and the heavens above be black: because I have spoken it”).

Of the two examples, Moreland’s use of the phrase is closer in spirit to Jeremiah’s bleak prophecy. In his own reiterations, Moreland builds on that biblical passage, insisting that God is a destructive punisher, while also subverting it through his insistence that God may not be present at all. “There’s a noose hanging down from the heavens above,” Moreland sings in “Sallisaw Blue,” the opening track on 2017’s album Big Bad Luv. As in Jeremiah, religion is violent; for Moreland, looking upward to find God brings one only to a supernal hangman’s empty noose.

But that’s not the whole story, and the song continues: “It’s no use, God bless these blues.” This is the paradox out of which Moreland makes art. God is an agonizing absence, a sinister threat. Faith is impossible. But so is a world without God, and without the transcendence divinity enables. What, then, can one do? “It’s no use.” The paradox refuses resolution. “These blues”—the pain of living in an unredeemed and perhaps irredeemable world, of longing for an infinitely distant love—are real.

But Moreland’s artistry and spiritual maturity are developed enough that he can let go of the need to find a tidy answer to these contradictions; he can step instead into a “sweet surrender like the break of dawn,” as he sings elsewhere on that album. He resists a world that insists on forcing the complexities of human consciousness into brutally circumscribed, binary categories of belief and disbelief, of piety and atheism. In music, Moreland creates a space in which he can simultaneously insist on God’s absence and appeal for an absent God’s blessing.

His sound itself contains multitudes. From his earliest punk and hardcore records, to the spare, country-inflected, guitar-driven Americana that built his reputation, to his recent incorporation of electronica into folk, Moreland rejects conventional and industry-driven ideas about which genres are and are not compatible. In this, his sound both echoes and enables the spiritual contradictions in his lyrics.

This is what songs mean to Moreland: they are, above all else, a medium for truth-telling—an approach he knows places him at odds with an industry that prioritizes commercial appeal. “I heard truth is what songs are for. Nobody gives a damn about songs anymore,” Moreland sings in the second track on 2013’s In the Throes. Like the biblical prophets whose poetry he was raised with, Moreland sees himself as alone in a society whose values have moved away from those to which his life is devoted.

Elsewhere on the same album, Moreland sings: “The older I get, you know truth, it gets harder to find. And famous false prophets get by off of robbing good men blind.” For Moreland, those “famous false prophets” are both the musical celebrities whose materialism and vapidity enrich them—and the powerful preachers and church leaders of Moreland’s youth. He spares no ire for either group, but hypocritical and self-aggrandizing religious communities receive most of his criticism, in part because of the psychological and spiritual scars they have marked him with.

“I’m thirsty, but the holy keep on pissing in my well,” Moreland says in “3:59 am” on that same album. And two tracks later, he describes with specificity the toxic effects of his childhood church in the song “Oh Julia,” which begins: “Julia, do you remember how the church bells rang? How your Sunday dress looked, and how the angels sang? But they kept us in a stranglehold, they filled our heads up with fear. And I saw the light in your eyes disappear through the years.” Elsewhere he describes wealthy celebrity pastors who preach wearing designer sneakers as “cheap idols, dressed in expensive garbage” and reminisces about a childhood spent “in churches learning how to hate yourself,” asking, “ain’t grace a wretched old thing?”

For Moreland, Christianity is an oppressive social structure that inculcates fear and shame, extinguishing the light in children’s eyes while enriching its hypocrite leaders. The same people who preach compassion exclude him from their love: “they’re drawing lines in the sand while I’m drowning in the flood,” he sings in 2011’s “Good Book.”

Despite his disbelief and his rejection of and by Christian communities, Moreland is haunted by the faith he left behind. “How am I supposed to believe in justice on days like this, when all I see is emptiness?” he asks in “Heaven.” Only someone desperate or compelled to believe can ask a question like this, with its impassioned desire to find a path to any form of faith, if not in God, then at least in a sublime value like justice. Throughout his career, Moreland is caught between two irreconcilable ways of understanding the world: his devotion to truth is strong enough that he cannot ignore the hypocrisy behind the faith propositions he was taught, while that same devotion to truth, in the face of his yearning for transcendence, keeps bringing him back to faith’s questions and faith’s vocabulary.

In most of Moreland’s work, this place in between faith and faithlessness, love and love’s absence, is a fraught one—in reviews and interviews, his earlier songs are described as “sad bastard music” often enough that the phrase has become a minor cliché. But somewhere between 2015’s High on Tulsa Heat and 2017’s Big Bad Luv, Moreland’s pain seemed to ease; the latter album describes his progression into a kind of joyous and accepting wonder.

The beginning of Big Bad Luv presents the same haunted faithlessness Moreland’s listeners had come to expect: “We’ll open up old wounds in celebration,” he sings; “if we don’t bleed, it don’t feel like a song.” Psychic pain, Moreland insists, is an essential part of art-making, and because of the creativity it enables, is a paradoxically joyous experience.

But as the album progresses, a different outlook clarifies itself. Moreland sings on “Lies I Chose to Believe In,” an elegy for orthodox faith: “I’ll shout it out from the heavens above: … Love ain’t a sickness, though I once thought it was, when I was too surrounded to see.” Before, Moreland longed to break into “the heavens above,” while now, for the first time in his songs, he finds a place within heaven from which he can speak.

On the album’s second-to-last track, Moreland acknowledges the new psychic perspective he has found: “I’m still staring at the sky, like at the start, with all these heavy anchors on my heart…. But they don’t suit me like they did before.” Moreland’s preoccupations—the sky, heaven, that metonym for divinity and transcendence—are the same. Only he himself has changed. Years before, he sang that “you try to get high, but your heart’s too heavy”; now the burdens that once weighed his heart down and made the sky seem infinitely distant no longer fit.

“Latchkey Kid,” the final track on Bag Bad Luv, makes Moreland’s psycho-spiritual catharsis explicit. “I’ve found a love that shines into my core,” he sings. “And I don’t feel the need to prove myself no more. And when I look into the mirror, now I see a man I never knew that I could be.”

Moreland does not explain how this transformation took place. It is tempting, though reductive and presumptuous, to attribute at least part of it to his personal life, including his 2016 marriage to artist Pearl Rachinsky. But Moreland’s transformation is reflected in the form of his music, in addition to his lyrics. Perhaps his continuous creative experimentation enabled a newfound spiritual capaciousness. The relationship between art and life is, after all, dynamic and reciprocal; just as new modes of consciousness demand new forms of artistic expression, so too can new forms of artistic expression enable or incite unprecedented modes of thought and reflection.

Moreland has never been only a country musician, but from his solo career’s roots in folk and alt-country, he has steadily moved beyond any confines of genre. Most notably, his last two albums have included electronic music alongside folk guitar. Synthesized drum beats now intersect with acoustic instruments, sometimes fracturing Moreland’s plaintive melodies and other times deepening them with a steady, contemplative pulse, creating a delicate but also propulsive atmosphere.

Consider “Generational Dust,” one of the best songs on his recent album. It opens with minor chords on acoustic guitar and piano, followed by a progression of three major chords that never finds a definitive resolution. Subtle, synthesized percussion soon kicks in, clinking and pattering like a rainstick in slow motion. The effect is a curious kind of static dynamism, less a linear progression than a musical spiral traveling upward and downward at once. As those same chords cycle beneath an elegiac melody and the percussion builds to an almost-danceable beat, elegy gives way to exultation. No, it doesn’t give way: this is an elegy expansive enough to hold the exultant, and an exultation honest enough to embrace its opposite.

Many fans of Moreland’s more traditional Americana were dismayed by his recent electronic turn. But even in this, Moreland draws on a rich lineage of country musicians who have stepped beyond the genre’s boundaries, such as Gram Parsons, whose audacious fusion of blues, country, and rock in the late 1960s created a capacious new genre he called Cosmic American Music.

In its ability to combine seemingly opposing musical legacies and techniques without flattening their differences, Cosmic American Music represented a messianic vision of healing and unification. In the words of scholar Michael Grimshaw, “Parsons’ mission was the creation of a new way forward, a way to musically heal the separation and increasing divisiveness of late-modern life…. The aim was to bring together the past with the present and provide a musical and cultural point of epiphany, an American gospel of popular music in which both (latter-day) ‘Greek and Jew’ could be remade anew. To do so, Parsons reused the language and rhythms of country, played them through the language and rhythms of rock, and in himself attempted the incarnated embodiment of a musical and cultural reconciliation.”

Moreland’s recent fusion of country, rock, folk, and electronica enacts and incarnates a similar reconciliation, as his lyrics describe that reconciliation’s theological stakes. It is the reconciliation of what is irreconcilable: belief and disbelief, God’s presence and absence, the possibility and impossibility of love. Through his career, Moreland has crafted a unique body of music grappling with the aftermath of faith in Bible Belt America.

The concluding, title track on his most recent studio album, 2022’s Birds in the Ceiling, presents this plainly: “Celestial bodies beam down on casinos; our fathers still cling to their obsolete ethos,” Moreland sings. His music is capacious enough to place the celestial body and the casino together, and to name an obsolete religious ethos alongside the post-faith religiosity to which it leads him.

But what, exactly, can such a post-faith religiosity consist of, after it stops defining itself by its fundamentalist Christian roots? The final verse of “Birds in the Ceiling” offers one answer: “Let a bird be a bird, let a train be a train. Let the sky be the sky, let the rain be the rain. Let a curse be a curse, let a blessing be a blessing. Death alone is certain, but life is a beautiful question.”

This, at last, is Moreland’s hard-earned gospel. Let creatures be exactly what they are, with no anguished yearning for some idealized beyond or shameful sense of their own sinfulness. Simple existence is transcendent enough. The sky does not need to represent an unattainable, supernal reality; it is enough for it to be exactly what it is, in its own beauty and fullness. Absolute answers to the questions of faith and doubt are impossible, because nothing but death is absolute, and this understanding offers the possibility of liberation.

The off-rhyme of blessing and question here argues implicitly for the similarity of questions (not answers or creeds) to blessedness. For Moreland, after suffering for so long from the agonizing questions of how to find faith and love in the aftermath of a traumatic, fundamentalist Christianity, this rhyme enacts a graceful reprieve. No answers to ultimate questions are necessary or even helpful, because the questions themselves—how to live, and what to believe in—are, like the sky and rain, infinite in their own beauty.



Daniel Kraft is a widely published poet, essayist, translator, and educator. He lives in Richmond, Virginia, and works as program manager for Yetzirah, a nonprofit supporting Jewish poets and Jewish poetry.




Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

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