Finally, a post not about Haggard…
Christian references infuse music, but…
By Ricardo Baca
Denver Post Pop Music Critic
Article Last Updated:11/02/2006 06:34:53 PM MST
As Page France singer Michael Nau sings about burning bushes and Jesus rising through the ground on his band’s latest record, “Hello, Dear Wind,” it’s easy to be presumptuous.
They’re a Christian band, right?
Technically, maybe, but perhaps not. As indie rockers from Nau to Sufjan Stevens are proving, that label is slippery – and confusing.
Much of Christian music’s integration into the pop culture mainstream comes via the rockers who happen to be Christian – as opposed to the Christian rockers who wear their faiths on their sleeves and crosses around their necks. Each group of musicians is writing about what makes them tick, but one crafts its art with more subtlety, yet its intentions are never fully hidden by metaphor.
But how does a band choose the path of subtlety over outright preaching?
“It’s a really big choice for a lot of Christian musicians: Are we a Christian band or are we Christians in a band,” said Andrew Beaujon, a journalist and the author of “Body Piercing Saved My Life,” an unbiased look at Christian rock. “You have to make the decision of what’s the purpose of Christian music.”
Is it a conversion tool? Or is it simply art? Indie rockers from Dave Bazan (Pedro the Lion), Jeremy Enigk (The Fire Theft, Sunny Day Real Estate), Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel) and Sufjan Stevens have developed secular followings regardless of their faiths – and it’s not always an easy road with certain listeners turned off by any mention of a god.
Which is where Page France comes in. The Maryland band’s music is soft and sweet, melodic and melancholy, literate and lush – and heavily laced with Christian symbols, ideals and history. When the band plays the Hi-Dive tonight, it will surely play through the delightfully saccharine, xylophone-inflected “Junkyard,” a chamber-pop delight that could be interpreted a number of ways, secular or religious.
But it could also take
Page France’s music is soft and sweet, melodic and melancholy, literate and lush – and heavily laced with Christian symbols, ideals and history. on other tracks from “Hello, Dear Wind” – such as “Jesus” or “Bush,” songs that, while artfully vague, are more pointed references to Nau’s spirituality. Nau admits his writing comes in thematic sets, but insists they’re straight from the subconscious.
“I didn’t write (‘Hello, Dear Wind’) with a theme in mind or an agenda of any sort,” Nau said recently from his home in western Maryland. “It was more of a stream-of-conscious kind of thing. I wrote all the songs in two weeks while we were recording, so I was definitely in the same mindset while writing it all.”
Nau is weary of queries about religion’s role in his music, something that is made obvious by the way he defends his creative process.
“I didn’t intentionally adhere to any theme, and I wasn’t trying to stress any point,” he said, “but naturally, there’s a theme within those songs.”
From “Jesus,” his lyrics are both sweetly naïve and knowingly staunch: “Jesus will come through the ground, so dirty/With worms in his hair and a hand so sturdy/To call us his magic, we call him worthy/Jesus came up through the ground, so dirty.”
As the Pitchfork Media review of the record pointed out, “Nau’s Jesus would rather sing and dance than condemn.” And that childlike subtlety is perhaps what draws secular fans. David Lewis knows these artists’ difficult plights all too well. As director of Riot Act Public Relations and Artist Management, he has worked with Page France and Dave Bazan. He has encountered critical resistance ranging from magazine journalists to his own family.
When Lewis was first working the Page France record, he lent it to his sister Kathryn. “She took it in her car, and she had the prototypical arc where she played it, got past the sweetness, really got into the music and then she heard the lyrics and ‘Jesus came up from the ground,’ and she immediately turned it off,” said Lewis. “She said, ‘It’s not for me – too overwrought with Christian themes.”‘
Her reaction is typical, as the blogosphere is abuzz with baffled music fans debating their stance on the Page France “issue.” But even with “Jesus,” it’s obvious Nau isn’t out to convert anyone; that lack of proselytizing is what often brings fans over the line. Lewis’ sister came to accept the record as great piece of music.
“On some level, those of us who aren’t Christian are so bombarded with images and rhetoric that when we hear the word ‘Jesus’ it has much more to do with a personal motif than it has anything to do with the biblical or Christian right ideology,” Lewis said. “When I see ‘The 700 Club,’ I get really upset because Pat Robertson represents a different side of this. But with indie rock, we can stand to be a little bit more open-minded and listen to things on face value.”
Beaujon said he witnessed the spread of new fault lines after the 2004 re-election of President George W. Bush.
“David Bazan from Pedro the Lion won’t even say he’s a Christian because of what (evangelical Christianity) has come to mean culturally,” said Beaujon. “Part of the cost of the political polarization is that Christianity has become a really loaded term, and it’s hard for people to reconcile the basic fact that rock ‘n’ roll came out of the church.”
Consider the upbringings of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and other early rockers: Gospel music and the Christian church – often a Pentecostal version of it – were seminal influences.
“If this is the environment you come from, and if your faith is important to you,” Beaujon said, “you’re gonna write about it.”
But writing about it puts a musician in a precarious position. Many bands, including The Fray, who hail from Denver and are enjoying nationwide popularity, purposefully avoid religious issues in their music regardless of their devout faith. Other musicians’ message is a baseball bat to the head. Then there are those in the middle – Page France, Stevens, Bazan & Co. – whose moderate approach leaves them scrutinized from both sides.
“Dave Bazan has been pigeonholed, and I worry about Page France in the same sense,” said Lewis. “Here’s a band that makes beautiful music. They’re just being sincere, but when you go into a public sphere, you have to be ready to deal with that.”
Pop music critic Ricardo Baca can be reached at 303-954-1394 or firstname.lastname@example.org.