I love music so much that I listen to more of it than I can probably really process. I know that doesn’t make sense to a lot of people, but to those who understand, they understand wholeheartedly. I check out most of the “buzz bands,” and I honestly like very few of them. I check out as much as I can (on a budget) that’s recommended to me by people I trust. I give a lot of music “quick listens,” that is to say, I’ll listen to the whole album, if there is one (yes, I still listen to whole albums and think that music thrives best in that context, but that’s probably thoughts for another post) a couple of times and if I don’t sense something there, I move on.
I’ve come to the point in my listening habits, tastes and preferences that I know what I will like, what will stick with me over the long-haul; albums that will become part of life. I’ve developed the sense to know who to take recommendations from (even if the album doesn’t immediately strike me) and what albums to “bear with.”
But as a follower of Jesus, I find myself sometimes torn. I find myself dramatically drawn to music that other Christians might find questionable. I don’t listen to music that is in any way anti-Christian, but I am sometimes moved by music that may have a questionable word or album cover, not because of those things but because of the music itself, what it conveys and how it connects.
Enter Josh T. Pearson. Pearson fronted the one-(double) album wonders Lift to Experience. Their one (double) album is a concept album (which I normally shy away from) about Armageddon in which Texas becomes the new Jerusalem and the three band members are appointed as God’s messengers. Yes, I know, it sounds lame, but the album works with surprising surprising charm and power. Because of the album’s many biblical allusions and semi-religious content, it was tagged by some as “Christian rock.” But because it actually rocks and contains references to drinking, smoking and at least one appearance of a questionable word, it was not embraced by Christians. There are traces of Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Explosions In The Sky and even Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine, but it is not post-rock or shoegaze. It’s more than that.
The album was widely heralded by critics. Allmusic says: “What could have been a tiresome exploration of awkward religious theories is instead a spellbinding journey into the heart of human emotion and guitar dynamics.” Pitchfork writes: “The music is supple, and often absolutely inspiring.” The band toured widely in Europe but disintegrated shortly after the album and tour, the band’s members disappeared, leaving a perplexing cult-favorite album in their wake.
After a decade away from the spotlight cleaning toilets and apparently going through a lot of heartache, Pearson returns with an album called Last Of the Country Gentlemen (beware, there are two covers to this album, and one is better than the other. I actually got the album not knowing about the other cover but that’s not the point). At only seven songs, the album is nearly an hour long, with four tracks clocking in over the ten-minute mark.
The album is largely just Pearson and his guitar, though Dustin O’Halloran makes an appearance on some sparse piano accompaniment and Dirty Three‘s Warren Ellis (that’s a lot of beard between the two of them!) adds a bit of violin. It is admittedly a heavy listen, chronicling heartbreak (Pearson went through a divorce and an extended bout with depression) and wrestling with faith. “Sweetheart, I Ain’t Your Christ” laments our tendency to look for salvation in relationships while “Sorry With A Song” wonders how to best apologize for hurts, knowing that, in the grand scheme of things, a song is worthless in the wake of a failed relationship.
The album is heavy, slow, quiet and heartbreaking. The early reviews are nearly unanimous. Glorious Noise begins their review by asking: “How do you grade a perfect album? More to the point, how do you review an album so remarkable that its perfection will ultimately turn most listeners off?” Louder Than War says: “Josh T. Pearson’s debut solo album is a solid gold classic. No debate, take it or leave it.” Drowned In Sound gave the album 10/10 stars, concluding their review with: “rarely has something so physically fragile sounded so mighty in its emotional resonance. A truly magnificent record.”
The album is indeed brilliant. It is raw and honest, almost to the point of being voyeuristically (I don’t think that’s actually a word?) uncomfortable. You can heart the hurt in Pearson’s voice and you can feel the weight as he sings. It’s nothing new to explore heartache in music, but rarely has it been captured so powerfully.
But, the album also presents many Christians with some difficulties. After all, one version of the album cover shows Pearson cradled against a woman with an open vest. The album contains several curse words and openly wrestles with themes of love and redemption. This alone will keep many Christians away. But, I often wonder, in our attempts to keep ourselves “unstained from the world” (James 1:27), do we somehow minimize the pain of this life? Do we lessen the impact of art? By telling someone like Pearson (or Mumford and Sons on their track “Little Lion Man” for that matter) that certain words are “off-limits,” have we changed the very emphasis they were trying to make, the raw emotion they were channeling?
Pearson’s music forces Christians to consider the role of language in not only art, but life. In order to truly see the light, we must also be able to see the darkness. A movie like To End All Wars helps us see the beauty of redemption by first showing us the brutality of depravity. And yet, many Christians simply wrote it off because of language and violence. Yet, how should we address the hurt and destruction of sin? Is there a time when brutal language is necessary?
For many Christians, the discernment criteria of music, art, movies, etc. has simply become whether or not it is “family-friendly.” That is, if I can’t watch/listen to something with my children, then it must not be OK for Christians in general. But if this is the case, then we would need to severely sanitize the Cross, the center-point of our faith. Oh, wait, that’s exactly what we do. Somehow, we have understood Philippians 4:8 to mean: “whatever is warm, fuzzy, encouraging and safe-for-children, think about these things.” But good art forces us to challenge this cultural assumption and ask better questions of life.
Pearson’s album is not for everyone, and some people will be turned away by the language. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a powerful piece of music forcing us to stare pain in the face and wonder what’s on the other side, and if we’ll ever make it through.
Here’s Pearson with O’Halloran performing “Country Dumb:”
Here’s Lift To Experience performing “With Crippled Wings” in Paris, 2001: