William Randolph Brafford

William Randolph Brafford is a lifelong Presbyterian and expatriate North Carolinian who currently lives in Brooklyn, where he works for a software company.

A Mess of Help

I remember visiting my friend Dave Zahl once when I was passing through Charlottesville, Virginia. I’d been hanging out in the Episcopal parish house, reading, while Dave was working on something for Mockingbird–the combination think tank, publisher, and conference organization that he runs. At one point, I joined him for an errand: depositing a check at the bank, I think. We rode in his car through the oak-lined streets, and his car stereo pumped a mega-cheesy layer of saxophones, a shuffle drumbeat, and slabs of bright vocal harmony: yes, it was late-stage Beach Boys. I protested, mildly; Dave defended, enthusiastically. But it wasn’t long before we found something we agreed on. Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, maybe. Or Paul Westerberg.

I don’t visit Dave just to nerd out. I know him from a Bible study he ran, which I wandered into at a snobbish time of my life. Dave’s approach to the study let me speak honestly, ask unsophisticated questions, and be clear about my confusions.

I’m telling you about this friendship because you should know I’m not an unbiased reviewer of Dave’s new book, A Mess of Help: From the Crucified Soul of Rock N’ Roll. But I’m also telling you this because the book distills, and brings out the qualities, of this treasured friendship: honesty, sincerity, and a passion for pop music in its simultaneous triviality and depth.

The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys

Let me back up a little bit. A Mess of Help is a volume of essays about rock ‘n’ roll and pop music, with a healthy dose of a kind of Lutheran theology. There are fourteen essays, not counting the introduction, and all but one explore the work of particular band or singer. Some chapters are about the megastars: Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, The Who, the Beach Boys, or the Beatles. There’s a tendency, though, to focus on what most people consider to be the fallow periods of the artists’ careers, like the weird solo projects, the flubbed reunion albums, the album finally released after far too many years of perfectionism and substance abuse have been inflicted on it. Yes, there’s a section on Axl Rose’s Chinese Democracy. Other chapters feature acts with large cult followings, Morrissey and Big Star, etc. Sprinkled among the essays are annotated playlists, too, which are basically mix CDs for the YouTube era, along with track-by-track song descriptions. The book closes with a real monster of an annotated playlist, which doubles as a way to sneak in mini-essays on some musicians who are even more obscure (Bill Fay, John Davis, and Tommy James) among tracks from more famous figures that didn’t fit elsewhere in the book.

And then there’s the theology. The book weaves discussion of theological concepts in and out of chapters structured around the artists. In this review, I’ll take the theological framework—sin, law, grace—and dress it out with examples from the book. So let’s begin at that: the condition of brokenness, failure, and imperfection common to all humanity.

“We are our own worst enemies,” Dave writes, “and suffering, both self-inflicted and otherwise, is the tie that binds our species.” He hears this condition expressed in what I’d call “cry-from-the-heart” rock songs.

Dion of “Runaround Sue” fame was pulling out of a heroin addiction when he recorded the song  “Please Make the Woman Love Me.” It’s hugely fragile, an anthemic prayer for a romantic miracle. Or there’s Pete Townshend’s self-accusing “However Much I Booze,” in which Townshend sings “the truth lies in my frustration” and “however much I booze, there ain’t no way out.” These songs acknowledge a fundamental powerlessness in their singers. And often, the first authentic response to original sin is to acknowledge your emergency, to let go of your comforting illusions of self-sufficiency. The poet of kicking away his own crutches, though, turns out to be Morrissey, the singer and lyricist for The Smiths. Morrissey has a repertoire of works that do so. But even he turns out to be a cautionary tale about the limits of mere self-awareness, untransformed, in a song.

The second concept at play is Law, which, for many Christians, means the impossible demand that we save ourselves from the first concept at play, our sin. Law is an accusatory voice, an impossible standard that generates not peaceful conformance but rebellion, anxiety, shame,  frustration. Now, for most everyone there is a fluidity and a surreptitious nature  to our burdens. In our shame, we often hide what truly bothers us. But if the burden laid on your shoulders is way out in public, on a huge album like Pet Sounds or Thriller or Abbey Road, it’s much  clearer what’s going on.

Dave discusses the pressures that the Beach Boys or Michael Jackson or Paul McCartney put on themselves as an analogy for the more shadowy laws that the rest of us struggle under. It helps that these artists’ struggles were eventually filtered through the sieve of genius. I was amazed at how directly certain songs addressed the weight of past successes. This is especially true in the cases of Brian Wilson—who, Dave observes, cataloged on Pet Sounds with brutal honesty a series of compulsive psychological evasions—and Michael Jackson, whose 90s work becomes frighteningly revealing as soon as you assume that he actually means everything he’s saying: “I can’t take it ‘cause I’m lonely,” “when you’re alone and you’re cold inside,” and “stop pressuring me!”

There are a few figures who seem to have escaped from the Law by a path of self-negation. “The tempting response to the law is redoubled self-assertion,” Dave writes at one point, “but the only honest one is humility.” So we have George Harrison, who seemed to find a good-humored way to shrug off his history as a Beatle and follow his own musical and spiritual path. We have Scott Walker, a pop star whose experimentalism derailed his career until he learned how to bury his ego and follow only his muse. And sometimes even Morrissey wanders into this category.

But it’s not clear if we can actually get to this kind of humility of our own power, which brings us to the third concept in play, Grace. Dave defines grace as “love in the midst of deserved judgment.” Apparently Stuart Murdoch of the band Belle & Sebastian wrote a movie that is nearly a thesis on grace in pop music; this book’s description of the movie is more than enough motivation to watch it. Many of our tortured pop geniuses only manage to hint at the full power of grace: The Who in the garbled last verse of “Who Are You,” or Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac singing that “love runs deeper” on a recent solo album, or David Bowie’s thankful, prayerful “Days.” There’s a lot of “vague uplift” in pop music, which can be a form of self-assertion or self-delusion, but Dave’s selections for the closing annotated playlist prove that he’s got an ear for authenticity when it comes to redemption.

Elvis Presley, Jailhouse Rock

Elvis Presley, Jailhouse Rock

I don’t mean to give the impression that the book is just a treatise. Humor and passion practically drip from the pages of A Mess of Help. Love of paradox is said to be Lutheran trait. You’ll find it here, especially in an amazing essay that rediscovers the bizarre Elvis movie Change of Habit in all its kitschy glory. Dave writes, “Elvis Presley was not ridiculous, then amazing. He was both at the same time.” Dave’s collection of bizarre Elvis anecdotes is rivaled only by his collection of bizarre Brian Wilson anecdotes, like the one where Wilson tells a reporter something amazing and profound about God’s love as the power behind the universe, and then totters off into the kitchen to squirt Reddi-Whip into his mouth.

I also don’t want to miss the theme of identity. The one essay in the collection that’s not about a specific artist is “Confessions of a Former Music Critic,” in which Dave considers how often our tastes in music are weaponized for games of social status. It’s hard to keep the things that have become part of your story from becoming standards by which you judge others. Often, what was initially joyful and freeing—finding emotionally stirring music—becomes a part of a rat race of insiderism and “cool,” in a way that’s weirdly parallel to how Axl Rose’s initial bout of creativity and joy curdled into decades of control-freak obsessiveness and paranoia.

How can we be free to enjoy good things without assuming the burden of being people who always like the Right Things?

It’s not that I wouldn’t quibble with any of what’s in this book. I have some reservations. One of the annotated playlists is all ABBA songs that didn’t make the singles collections. I listened all the way through and, well, I’m still not an ABBA fan. Lyrics that Dave describes as “slightly comical,” for example, the line “when fate reared its ugly head and took my dog Clown” in Rod Stewart’s “Blind Prayer,” I hear as unlistenably silly. The brilliant “Big Star Talks to God” essay takes a potshot at Calvinism; I’d personally want to speak up for the Reformed. But these are all things I’d much rather hash out over drinks, inconclusively, than dive into in print.

big start

Big Star

But is theology “really there” in the songs, as the book claims? You might say that Dave is reading things into the music that aren’t actually there. True, this is a danger in criticism, but it usually comes in two forms. Either someone examines something superficially, misses its ironies and subtleties, and declares it to support something they already believe, sort of like when Ronald Reagan used Bruce Springsteen’s lyrically bitter “Born in the USA” as a patriotic campaign anthem. Or someone starts finding hidden meanings in something they’ve paid way too much attention to. What’s going on here is different: Dave Zahl believes something about the fundamental truth of reality, and he believes that these artists also see that reality, to various extents. One can acknowledge the partial view form a particular song, and still look through that song to the world beyond, in other words.

So when Dave looks at pop music, he can see deeper truths of suffering and struggling, and of love and forgiveness, “the tragedy of human life and its possible redemption” in the words of those singing. Pop music, on its own terms, is often an ephemeral pleasure, but A Mess of Help shows us how to look at it and then through it to things that really matter, the words that could be, in so many songs, a message from outside our narrow selves, from someone who loves us.

 

This Saturday night William & Dave had the opportunity to chat about the book in person at The Olmsted Salon. Listen to the interview here. 

Grace & Other Precious Remedies

There’s a new album out by The Welcome Wagon, and it’s called Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices. The music is all written by Thomas Vito Aiuto, who plays guitar and sings on the album. The other half of the band is Vito’s wife, Monique, who sings and plays harmonica. It’s probably worth mentioning at the outset that Reverend Aiuto is the pastor of a Presbyterian church in Brooklyn, and those of his parishioners that I’ve met call him Vito.

The album’s style runs the gamut from the jaunty, up-tempo folk-rock of songs like “I’m Not Fine” and “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” to the meditative, down-tempo folk of “My God, My God, Parts 1&2.” When Rev. Aiuto puts someone else’s words to music, he chooses from four centuries’ worth of English-language hymns and religious poetry. When he writes his own lyrics, he writes about the gifts of friendship in times of trouble. There’s also a gentle cover of The Cure’s silly-sweet love song “High” on the record, original melody intact.

If you heard the Welcome Wagon’s first album, Welcome to the Welcome Wagon, this one has simpler arrangements and keeps the vocals front and center. Sufjan Stevens, a songwriter and composer well-known in indie music circles, produced Welcome to…, and he once explained that he meant it to be kind of “community theater,” where a bunch of noisy happy people are corralled into putting on a rollicking show. This time around, producer Alexander Foote treats the album more like a film: again, a lot of people pitching in to help, but if they’ve done their jobs you won’t notice them because you’re absorbed in what they’ve captured.

The Welcome Wagon – Would You Come and See Me in New York from Asthmatic Kitty on Vimeo.

Now that the capsule review’s out of the way, I’d like to tell you about some interesting things I’ve noticed on the album. Not having read the book from which The Welcome Wagon got the title of this album, I’m not sure exactly what the “precious remedies” in question are, but grace, praise, and church together make a pretty good start on a list.

Grace

The Welcome Wagon sings about our need for grace. The album’s first song, “I’m Not Fine,” is nearly as concise as possible on this subject. Over a punchy setting where the guitar and drums hit twice on the first beat of the measure, Rev. Aiuto sings: “I’m not fine, and you’re not fine, and we’re not fine together dear… I told you I was sorry, are you sure that it’s enough?” This is repeated, and then we’re left hanging for a few more bars as the guitarist takes a solo. Even mutual recognition of not-fineness (or, as the theologians say, “sinfulness”) doesn’t solve the problem. But the band drops out again, and then Monique Aiuto sings gently those centuries-old words of comfort: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.” Though the comfort is real and the hope is true, it’s not the end of the song. The original verse returns, and the problem of sinfulness and the hope of redemption exist as countermelodies. Isn’t this familiar from real life? And all this in just two and a half minutes of power-folk-pop.

I’m also impressed by how The Welcome Wagon handles John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIX,” eight lines from which give the lyrics for “My Best Days Parts 1&2.” John Donne was a poet and clergyman who lived around the same time that Shakespeare did. Though he wrote some stunningly bawdy poetry when he was a young man, he also wrote some of the most vivid poetry of the Christian life that we have in English. In this particular sonnet, Donne wrestles with troubling shifts in his day-to-day attitude towards God.

 

The Welcome Wagon’s song starts with a haze of synthesizer, before Reverend Aiuto’s melody enters and tiptoes carefully along a tricky chord progression. The words are: “Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one.” It’s a lovely melody, but the situation is precarious both musically and thematically, and the wandering melody invites our attention to the individual words, and helps us meet Donne’s strange language halfway. Though no one today would say “inconstancy unnaturally hath begot a constant habit,” one of us might say at any time, “I’m so consistent in my inconsistency.”

But after this section, we move suddenly to the rock-and-roll drums and the electric guitar riff of Part 2, and John Donne’s pentameter locks in over the beat in a way that makes it sound almost modern. For most of Part 2, Vito repeats the line “those are my best days, when I shake with fear.” Do you know what he means? I think I do: the days when I feel weak and needy are the days when I have the truest view of myself. And that’s where grace finds us. As the old hymn says, all the fitness He requires is to feel your need for Him.

Praise

If you’re a fan of the “Praise and Worship” genre or you’re the sort of person who checks liner notes obsessively (I’m only the latter), you’ll notice that “Remedy” is The Welcome Wagon’s arrangement of lyrics by David Crowder, who’s the leader of an acclaimed Christian praise band. By recording this song, The Welcome Wagon has opened up space for comparisons and conversation, and the lesson is, I think, double-edged.

The Welcome Wagon – Remedy from Asthmatic Kitty on Vimeo.

First, there’s a lesson for people like me, who may find ourselves being snobbish or condescending about music that means a great deal to many people. These lyrics are lovely, and once again tell the story of grace in a way that’s concise and immediate. The facts of the situation: “Here we are, the bandaged and bruised, awaiting a cure… here you are, our beautiful King who brings us relief.” And the response is to gather together and rejoice in the gift of grace: “We lift up our voices and open our hands to cling to the love that we can’t understand.” If I just heard the original, I’m sure I’d miss the beauty of this.

But the second lesson cuts the other way. I may be pulling this out of the air, but it’s interesting to me that Aiuto’s arrangement drops Crowder’s bridge from the song. Here’s the text that’s not in the Welcome Wagon version:

Oh, I can’t comprehend
I can’t take it all in
Never understand
Such perfect love come
For the broken and beat
For the wounded and weak
Oh, come fall at His feet
He’s the remedy

Notice that this is the only section that uses the first person singular, the only place that says anything about “I”. In the verses and chorus, the song talks about “you” and “we” in an explicitly communal confession. This bridge shifts the focus noticeably. My question is: does the Welcome Wagon lose anything in the story by leaving this out? I don’t think so. In fact, to me there seems to be a danger in building individual psychological responses into our common worship. Speaking very much from experience, it’s a loneliness of a high degree to see yourself as the only one in the crowded stadium who can’t feel what he’s supposed to feel. I can confess the facts — “I’m a sinner, He’s the savior” — but I often find myself unable to become the “me” that praise and worship songwriters portray in their songs.

Or perhaps there just wasn’t a melody that fit this bit of text. I’ve been known to overthink things before.

Church

As I listened to this record more and more, it starts to strike me as a blending of two other albums that have meant a lot to me. First and somewhat obviously, there’s Seven Swans, Sufjan Stevens’s album of songs inspired by Bible stories and/or Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. In terms of melodies and musical style, it’s got a lot in common withPrecious Remedies. And you’d expect this, because Precious Remedies is dedicated to Sufjan Stevens. The second album is Rich Mullins’s A Liturgy, a Legacy, & a Ragamuffin Band, an effort by Mullins and his friends to write a pop album that brought together elements of formal Christian worship and songs about secular life in a unified whole. It’s an ambitious album, trying to at least suggest the sweep of American experience, and the “Liturgy” section is a real success.

Precious Remedies is a little less grandly conceived — The Welcome Wagon isn’t trying to wrestle down the whole complicated legacy of the United States — but it does a similar thing in drawing together Christian worship and the day-to-day, particularly in the remarkable sequence of songs on the second half of the album centering on the communion hymn “Draw Nigh and Take the Body of the Lord.” The music for this song is remarkable. A little skip in the time signature sets the song apart from the normal four-four and waltz beats on the other songs and maybe accounts for the tingle this song sends down my spine. A clarinet wanders around on this rhythm, suggesting an awed walk to the altar rail. “Draw Nigh” is preceded by a hymn of hope and followed by a hymn of celebration, which leads to a very straightforward and joyous benediction: “God Be with You Till We Meet Again,” in a really bouncy pop arrangement that makes you want to dance your way out of a sanctuary and into the afternoon sunlight.

All of this evokes Christian communion’s way of being at once mysterious and everyday. The album begins with a series of songs confessing human sinfulness and hoping for salvation, and also adds songs about friendship, hinting at the ways in which we can pass peace (so to speak) to each other in response to grace. In the communion song, all those threads somehow weave together. But it’s at heart a folky song, so that on some level it’s also utterly familiar. Again, isn’t this like real life?

Until We Meet Again

I’ve been thinking about art-for-art and art-for-life recently. There’s art that challenges your idea of what music can be. This kind of music is exciting, and gets accolades from critics. But there’s also art that is good because it fits well in the context of a life. Though Vito Aiuto isn’t a virtuoso songwriter like Sufjan Stevens or Rich Mullins, he’s very good, and I think he, Monique, and their band of collaborators have given us an album that will give a measure of comfort and help on the journey of faith, on the quest to live in the light of grace.

This review was originally published at Mockingbird. Visit their site for publication, conference information, and online resources.