In Search of Christian Music That Doesn’t Suck

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We surely can’t be the only ones who suppressed a shudder when we saw the title of My Morning Jacket songwriter Jim James’ new solo album: Regions of Light and Sound of God. As it turns out, the title doesn’t necessarily mean that James has gone born-again on our hellbound asses, but either way, we have to admit that our reaction did rather have us reassessing our own prejudices: would James going all Christian necessarily mean that the resultant album would suck massively? We have to say that the answer is probably no — some of our favorite songwriters have addressed matters of faith over the years, after all. And so in payment for our, ahem, sins, we’ve put together a collection of Christian music that doesn’t suck. (Spoiler: sorry Creed and Christian hardcore fans, our charity only goes so far.)

Violent Femmes — Hallowed Ground

Gordon Gano’s faith was something of an issue for the early part of Violent Femmes’ career — atheist bassist Brian Ritchie and drummer Victor DeLorenzo were uncomfortable with including overtly Christian songs on the band’s records, and their classic teen-angst debut was entirely devoid of such tracks. By Hallowed Ground, however, Gano had won his colleagues over, and the album included several songs that addressed Christian themes. And it has to be said that those tracks were pretty great, their slightly unhinged exuberance forming quite the contrast with the bleak subject matter of the album’s non-Christian material.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — The Boatman’s Call

Cave’s relationship with the Christian faith has been a constant theme throughout his career — his lyrics abound with portentous Old Testament imagery, and even the Bad Seeds’ name is taken from the Bible. Cave said in his 1999 lecture “The Secret Life of the Love Song” that “though the love song comes in many guises… they all address God, for it is the haunted premises of longing that the true love song inhabits,” and The Boatman’s Call finds him exploring that idea. This album starts with the startling declaration that “I don’t believe in an interventionist god” — surely one of the most attention-grabbing opening lines ever — but the 12 songs that follow find Cave wrestling with both love and faith, a combination both compelling and moving.

Gillian Welch — The Harrow and the Harvest

On a similar note, some of Welch’s most powerful vocal performances have come when addressing matters of faith and matters of love, and often both in tandem. The Harrow and the Harvest is her personal The Boatman’s Call, an album where faith oscillates between being a source of comfort and a source of torment — and never more so than in “Tennessee” (above), a song that unites both concerns in the memorable line “It’s only what I want that makes me weak.” Sigh.

Al Green’s gospel records

They didn’t call him The Reverend Al Green for nothing, y’know. Green’s spiritual epiphany was catalyzed by a horrible incident in the mid-’70s, when his girlfriend doused him with a saucepan of boiling grits before committing suicide with his gun. He was ordained as a preacher shortly afterwards, and for the next decade or so, he devoted himself more and more to gospel music. And whatever you think of his faith, his voice is just as uplifting and beautiful as it was on his more secular classics.

Daniel Johnston — Yip/Jump Music

Without god there can be no devil, eh? Johnston’s struggles with his demons have been well-documented, and while they’re undoubtedly rooted in his schizophrenia, their manifestation seems very much influenced by his Christian faith. What to make of this — and, indeed, of Johnston’s music in general — is entirely up to you.

Sufjan Stevens — Seven Swans

Stevens is indie music’s most famous Bible-wielder — the nature of his faith inspired much debate before he came out and said explicitly that he was a Christian, and still continues to do so (and his Christian output recently inspired one of Stereogum’s gloriously wonkish Deconstructing features.) Stevens himself has often been at pains to disassociate his religion from his music, but it’s hard to take such declarations at face value when he makes records like this. Seven Swans is a collection of Bible-inspired stories, and the fact that it’s both über-Christian and really rather good gives lie to the notion that religious music necessarily has to be awful preachy bilge.

Spacemen 3/Spiritualized, generally

Is Jason Pierce actually a Christian? No, we’re pretty sure he’s not. Does he use a whole shitload of religious imagery in his lyrics? Why, yes indeed. Pierce’s holy trinity of lyrical obsessions — namely love, heroin, and Jesus (with a lot of fire thrown in for good measure) — have characterized his music for the best part of 25 years, and he’s also not averse to making judicious use of a gospel choir. He’s well aware of the power of the imagery he uses, of course: “As you have a conversation about Jesus, you know you’re talking to him about how it is to be fallible and question yourself and your morals,” he told Pitchfork last year. “When I sing, ‘Help me, Jesus,’ you know I’m not asking for help fixing the fucking car.”

Pedro the Lion — Control

David Bazan’s largely innocuous music has always been disproportionately controversial — his albums inspired a sort of ongoing internecine Pitchfork review war, wherein pro-Pedro types dispensed glowing reviews that chided colleagues for slating his work, and vice versa. Fundamentally, the subject of contention always appeared to boil down to Bazan’s faith, which is a shame, because he’s never come across as overly evangelical, and his lyrics always extended well beyond simple Bible-waving.

U2 — Under a Blood Red Sky

It’s perhaps not entirely coincidental that October, U2’s most overtly Christian album, is also arguably their biggest stinker, but then, it’s not entirely their fault that it sucked — Bono’s lyrics were stolen halfway through recording, and the music is very much the sound of a band still finding its sound. The album’s best songs are better appreciated on this live record, which is bookended by their two most overtly Christian tunes (“Gloria” and “40,” the latter borrowing lyrics directly from the Bible.)

Faith +1 — Faith +1

Come on, now — how can you deny an album that includes such favorites as “I Wanna Get Down on My Knees and Start Pleasing Jesus” and “The Body of Christ”?