by carl wilson

I Don't Want to Get Adjusted to W.'s World

jesus_bush.jpg
This week's column tosses off a few choice curses for the faith-based presidency and gives thanks and praise for those who sing god's protest songs (Iris DeMent, Buddy Miller) and twice as much for those who locate their faith in "the reality-based community" (The Ex, The Mountain Goats). Check it.

GOSPEL MUSIC FOR THE BRAVE

Overtones
by Carl Wilson
The Globe & Mail
Oct. 30/04

'Faith-based" has been one of the shibboleths of the era since George the Younger started pimping it as the cure-all for social services in his first election campaign. Joan Didion debunked it then as code written for market-fundamentalist hypeware: As cooked up in conservative think tanks, "faith-based" translates into "let them eat Salvation Army cake."

But the term kept metastasizing over the last four years, until in the delirium of the current U.S. electoral contest, the word FAITH -- spelled out in Hollywood-sign-sized letters alongside Puritan preacher John Winthrop's shining city on the hill -- seems to swim above us in the clouds, a gigantic hanging chad about to fall, guillotine-style.

With one side of the political spectrum having pitched its tent on God like an oil driller on a wildlife refuge, opponents of the Bush administration begin to accept their lot is to be cast out of the ranks of the righteous. As a result, like many nonbelievers, I find myself increasingly irritated with religiosity, though I know you can't fight intolerance with intolerance.

The new Iris DeMent album comes as a blast of oxygen into this moral smog. Lifeline is the first disc in eight years from a country artist whom no less than Merle Haggard has called the best singer of her generation. The Way I Should in 1996 provoked controversy with protest songs such as Wasteland of the Free, directed in part against the first Persian Gulf war but also against "preachers dealing in politics and diamond mines."

When the current Iraq conflict began in 2003, DeMent told a live audience she could not bring herself to sing, a gesture that drew vitriol from talk-radio hosts and death threats in the mail.

This year, though, she's putting out an album of gospel hymns. And I'm sure it's no coincidence that it is being released on election day, Nov. 2.

DeMent grew up in a large, strict Pentecostal family from Arkansas, singing sacred music in church and at home. "I never had that 'born-again' moment," she says in a moving interview with David Cantwell in the latest issue of No Depression, the alternative-country magazine. "It was just the environment I grew up in."

She broke with the church and now considers herself a sort of agnostic Christian. "When I think of Jesus," she tells Cantwell, " . . . I think of the human struggle and of someone who is a good example of how to make it through. So when I sing [in Lifeline's opening track, I've Got that Old-Time Religion] that 'I'm glad Jesus came/ Glory to his name,' I mean it."

Lifeline is a tribute to the formative songs DeMent says she returns to for comfort in troubled times: She has struggled for years with writer's block, so she is singing these songs instead of her own. DeMent sings with the full-throated twang of white Southern gospel, an oboe-like timbre with which she can pierce all emotional defences and leave you weeping like a child. And she delivers the likes of Hide Thou with Me and God Walks the Dark Hills with a new, mature command.

The one song she did write here, He Reached Down, recounts the stories of the Good Samaritan and of Jesus defending an adulteress from stoning -- a Jesus who was no scold or holy warrior but a healer of the outcast and the impoverished. The song insists on the humility appropriate if everyone is equally a sinner.

The White House remix of the Hallelujah Chorus tends to drown them out, but DeMent's is not the only voice in this dissenting choir. Nashville singer Buddy Miller has put out Universal United House of Prayer, whose refusal to separate divine love from the human kind makes it one of the most effective protest albums of the year, built around a forceful country-soul cover of Bob Dylan's With God on Our Side.

Such singers can serve up a moral conviction startling to those of us who hail from the Universal Mixed-Up House of Ambivalence. It's a refreshing reminder that the Christian duty of care can be expressed as a passion for social justice and conscientious pacifism.

I am reminded of my misgivings, though, when DeMent sings the hymn I Don't Want to Get Adjusted to This World: The religious always have an out that makes even matters of life and death petty by comparison. I do want to get adjusted to this world -- and elect well-adjusted leaders to help me adjust it in turn -- because this world is all I think I've got. The course of events in Iraq is what happens when a guy with his eyes on the heavens figures he doesn't have to sweat the details.

That makes me part of what a Bush aide infamously called the "reality-based community" -- people who base their ideas on observing and analyzing what's actually happening. The administration's perspective, he said (he said this!) is, "We're an empire now. . . . We create our own reality."

This is faith-based the way The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was "based on a true story."

So as Tuesday's judgment day draws nigh, I'll also cock an ear to some music that invests its faith in reality. Over a quarter-century, Dutch anarchist punks the Ex have done their best to get adjusted to this world with dogged curiosity about all its cultures. Their recent double CD Turn includes Huriyet, an Eritrean independence song from "an area . . . where Christians and Muslims have been living in peace together for centuries."

In the Ex version, hard-chopping electric guitar meets steady hand claps and a lilting chant by percussionist Katherina that's somehow both rousing and implacably calm, celebrating what the Eritreans achieved without erasing the pain endured. The title means "freedom" -- this is what it really sounds like when it's on the march.

And Against Pollution is one of a couple of tunes that flirt with redemption at the end of We Shall All Be Healed, a song cycle about a tweaked-out gang of drug addicts by inspired North Carolina-based songwriter John Darnielle, who records under the nom de band the Mountain Goats.

As the cryptic ballad snakes along its six-stringed way, the singer finds himself saying the rosary in a church, "'cause something just came over me." What's driven him there is his part in a liquor-store shooting, and the eerie way everything around him seems to be rusting when there's never any rain. He has a vision of "the last days," in flashes of sunsets and stars, when "We will . . . see ourselves for the first time / The way we really are."

Darnielle's anxious tone intimates that this is as much threat as promise, and there is always a surfeit of excuses, faith or no faith, not to look ourselves full in the face. If you can summon the raw nerve for that -- as Darnielle does, as does Iris DeMent's unstoppable voice -- does it matter whether you name it a revelation or a reckoning?

cwilson@globeandmail.ca

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