Relevant Rock: The Inadvertent Catholicism of Jim James

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Singer/Songwriter Jim James

In a February Rolling Stone interview, Jim James, the lead singer and songwriter of the popular roots rock band My Morning Jacket, had this to say when asked if he was religious: “I call myself a recovering Catholic.”

It’s funny, because ever since discovering My Morning Jacket in 2008, I always suspected as much. Even from a strictly musical perspective, the band has displayed an incredible talent for being “catholic” – able to create songs in a wide range of rock genres. Proof of this is their 2008 album Evil Urges, which mixes psychedelic, Southern, folk, rockabilly, country, blues and even punk elements.

Lyrically, certain phrasings and word choices in James’ songs have jumped out at me over the course of repeated listens, seeming to suggest a familiarity with the sacred. This sacredness is delicately played out in Evil Urges. In the song “Look at You,” his description of a “fine citizen” has the cadence and feel of a hymn: “Look at you / Such a glowing example of peace and glory… glory… glory / Of peace and glory… glory… glory / Let me follow you.” James also has the habit of including theistic references in unexpected places. The object of his love in “Librarian” is described in this way: “It’s not like you’re not trying, with a pencil in your hair / To defy the beauty the good Lord put in there.” Elsewhere, in the song “Remnants,” mystical visions are elicited: “Then I saw a new Heaven / Formed in the bleeding light of dusk / All souls, all faiths / Always we were one.”

The band’s following album, 2011’s Circuital, has a more consistent Southern/roots rock sound. It’s also replete with religious overtones, both subtle and overt. The hypnotic beat of the opening track “Victory Dance” serves as an appropriate template for a hopeful, bird’s-eye view of the world: “Hey there- I’m flying up above / Lookin’ down… on the tired earth / But I can see… I can see potential.” And further on: “Power- hey do you know how it works? / Hey do you know that the meek- they shall inherit the earth?” The album’s title track “Circuital” presents us with spiritual options: “Circuit, connect the earth to the moon / And link our heavenly bodies not a moment too soon / Well you can fling open the windows, or you can board ‘em up / Satan’s jeweled crown or Christ’s humble cup.” The song “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” is a simple, gorgeous ode to joy: “With the sun on my shoulders, and the wind at my back / I will never grow older, at least not in my mind / I feel so wonderful, wonderful, wonderful the way I feel.” A striving for the afterlife concludes the song: “I’m going where there ain’t no police, I’m going where there ain’t no disease / I’m going where there ain’t no need to escape from what is / Only spirits at ease.”

There’s even a pair of confessional tunes about the mystery of youthful misdeeds and wayward passions. “Chalk it up to youth but young age I ain’t dissin’ / I guess I just had to get it out of my system / Oh Lord I’d never do it now / I know what I ain’t missin,’” James admits on “Outta My System.” On the next song, “Holdin On to Black Metal,” there’s a sense of the need to grow out of immaturity: “It’s a darkness you can’t deny, but it don’t belong in a grown-up mind / Distortion finds its place in a youngster’s eyes, coming into life you need its grind / But at a certain point you gotta let it go, or it will cross the permanent threshold.”

MI0003480082In February of this year, James released his debut solo album Regions of Light and Sound of God, a collection of intoxicating, atmospheric songs, sometimes filled with strings and brass instrumentation, while at other times a softly plucked guitar is all that backs up James’ echo-tinged vocals. Among the album’s assortment of spiritual tracks is a starkly Christian song, “All Is Forgiven.” It’s a pleading, prayerful elegy to mercy: “Son of Man, was born in Bethlehem, called God / All us plan same old hallway to man / With words from God / Who said that all is forgiven / All is forgiven, oh Lord,” and later: “Oh show me one true path / That really leads to the promised land, oh Lord / I follow all the wrong dreams / Lost in man’s schemes, oh Lord.”

Despite all of this, James says he is a “recovering Catholic.” He went on to say this: “I’m very spiritual, but I don’t subscribe to any god. To me, God is the place that you go when you’re lost outside of your normal thinking self – it’s this beautiful experience when you’re in love or making love or having a great conversation with somebody that you love.”

Having a Christian background has proven to be a source of embarrassment for other current musicians as well. Marcus Mumford, lead singer and songwriter of the explosively popular folk band Mumford & Sons, grew up in an evangelical Christian home where his parents were the founders and leaders of the U.K. branch of the Vineyard, a movement that practices faith healing. It’s plain to see this influence in his lyrics, which have been described as “persistently God-haunted,” and yet, he had this to say when asked if he considered himself a Christian: “I don’t really like that word. It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like.”

It’s a fascinating phenomenon, although admittedly not a surprising one, and it deserves some reflection. On the surface, it makes sense that the two spokesmen for My Morning Jacket and Mumford & Sons, two of the most successful secular bands currently on the music scene, would downplay or simply reject any public association with Christianity. With wide appeal comes the understanding that being linked to a religion or political party could be controversial and cause offense, and should therefore be avoided.

And yet, the lyrics remain. In the art form of popular music, the lyrics in a song are immensely important – some would argue they are the most important element. As proven by James’ lyrics, what comes out of the creative process of songwriting can be surprising, even to the artist themselves (as a songwriter myself, I can attest to this). To communicate through art in a truly honest way, a key disposition for the artist is to be vulnerable to the risk of divine inspiration. Out of this vulnerability, the deepest longings of the heart can come forth. When seen in this light, it makes sense that James (and Mumford) continue to mine religious themes – for them, it’s only natural. This honest, creative process and its fruits are an illustration of the natural inclination in all of us to give our deepest desires the spiritual expression they deserve, in spite of our attempts to present appealing worldly personas.

Thankfully for music lovers, what holds true for us holds true for honest songwriters: despite the strongest protests of our minds, our souls cry out for Him all the more.

Dan Hart

By

Dan Hart, a Catholic writer and rock and roll enthusiast. He currently maintains a blog on music at Beautiful Exile.

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  • James H, London

    The strange/tragic thing about M&S (and presumably Jim James as well) is that they owe some of their success to their faith-filled background. Their lyrics have depth and correspond to the cultural patterns in their audience’s minds. Despite that, they’re distancing themselves from it. I suppose it’s everybody’s tragedy.

  • Richard III

    Good lyrics are absolutely VITAL to a good song, and I think that’s contemporary Christian music often fails. The people who make aren’t ashamed of their faith and are praising God, which is very good, but all too often the songs they come up with just aren’t catchy or memorable. Too often, cliches are resorted to, rhyme schemes are obscure or lacking, and tunes are weak and revolve around the same groups of chords as other songs they’ve written. In a word, they’re trying so hard to send a good message that they forget to package it properly with a good tune, good instrumentation, and good, clever rhymes and other lyrical devices, and they’re trying so hard with the message that it can come across as forced.

    According to Bono, the frontman for U2 and one of my favorite songwriters, the desire to communicate a message must be met by an equal and opposite desire not to compromise anything in order to communicate if a song is going to touch people’s minds and hearts. Jim James, Mumford, and every other successful songwriter seem to know that.

    In the end, Contemporary Christian and mainstream songwriters can both learn something valuable from each other. CC musicians could learn to communicate without compromising quality or catchiness, and mainstream ones could learn that a Christian faith is nothing to be ashamed of.

  • JMC

    It works the same way for writers of literature (whether you mean true literature or the pop-culture kind): Sometimes the story takes a left turn you didn’t intend, and then you look at it and can’t avoid seeing the hand of God, so to speak, in that turn.

  • prerealist

    I enjoyed this article and think it’s quite thoughtful. However, I can’t square these two songwriters with the idea of honesty. Mumford clearly states he rejects Christianity. And for James to call himself a “recovering Catholic” is as if he thinks he had a disease. In their post-Christian lives they write about their personal spiritual journeys. Yet both songwriters continue to eagerly mine the rich Christian vocabulary and imagery they got from their Christian upbringing. Is this simply artistic appropriation? Or simply about it not being popular with their fans to identify themselves as Christian?

  • Rosemary58

    I totally agree. They don’t want to associate with the Church but they sure like to drink from the spiritual font that inspires their lyrics.

  • Dan Hart

    Thanks for the responses. I agree that it is unfortunate that these artists are publicly disassociating themselves with Christianity while at the same time “drinking from the spiritual font” – I can see how this seems dishonest.



    However, my goal with this piece wasn’t simply to point out this contradiction. It was to get at the root of why these artists are still drawn to spirituality and sacredness despite the misgivings of their minds. I would argue that the fact that they continue to “drink from the font” is a sign that they are at least being honest during the songwriting process, if nothing else. And I think the fruits of their efforts say more about the power, mystery and mercy of God than it says about the artists themselves.

  • Richard III

    I have to agree with you here, Dan, because although I am honestly not familiar with the music of Jim James, My Morning Jacket, or Mumford & Sons, I’ve noticed this phenomenon a few Sting songs, but never knew quite how to describe it until now.

    Sting was born and raised Roman Catholic and is currently agnostic (how, when, where, and why lost his faith, and what his thoughts and feelings on this subject are now I do not know), but he’s not afraid of occasionally singing an openly religious Christmas Carol or “drinking from the font” for some of his own compositions.

    The best example of this is 2009′s “If On a Winter’s Night” album. Only 2 of the 15 tracks are original compositions, but the remaining 13 are a variety of lesser-known carols ranging from the 16th to the 19th or early 20th centuries, and 6 of them are not just explicitly religious, they’re explicitly Christian, and they’re not just explicitly Christian. They’re explicitly Catholic. “Gabriel’s Message” is more about the 1st Joyful Mystery than the 3rd, but it mentions Mary and (obviously) St. Gabriel. “The Burning Babe” is St. Robert Southwell’s poem literally jazzed up. That is, it’s given a jazzy tune and orchestration, but not a single word is altered. The other 4 songs are “Balulalow”, “Cherry Tree Carol”, “There is No Rose of Such Virtue”, and the classic “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”.

    Sting’s most religious-minded original composition is probably “Sacred Love” from the 2003 album of the same name. The subject of the song is given no name other than that of the song’s title, but all the saints, angels, and stars up in heaven are cited as honoring her. Another song from the same album, “Dead Man’s Rope” is about a sinner on the verge of despair who is redeemed and it is the saddest and most moving song I know.

    Thanks so much for this article, Dan, and thanks for giving voice and form to something I had witnessed but could not bear witness to until now.

  • Rosemary58

    The artists cannot separate their efforts from who they are. They cannot be honest and dishonest at the same time without appearing to be hypocrites.
    Instead of skirting the issue, they should either dive into the deep or leave the pool area but not bask in the sun at the vineyard where others are deeply committed and working so hard to tend the Lord’s vines.
    Sorry about all the metaphors but my grown daughter’s favorite is, well, do it or get off the pot.
    Either you are committed to something or you are not but you can’t be both committed and not committed at the same time. Don’t throw Christians a bone and at the same time assuage your conscience and still sell records.
    What are the fruits of their efforts but money?

  • Dan Hart

    “Either you are committed to something or you are not but you can’t be both committed and not committed at the same time.”

    But isn’t this a description all of us at some point or another in our lives? I think everyone has the right to express their hearts desires, no matter where we are in our spiritual journeys – even fallen-away rock stars. Who knows where their spiritual journey will take them later in life.

    “What are the fruits of their efforts but money?”

    The fruits of their efforts have provided me with inspiration and catharsis through the music and lyrics. I can attest to many friends who have experienced the same.

  • Dan Hart

    Thanks for the kind words, Richard! And thanks for the thoughts on Sting- I am also a big fan of his.

  • Rosemary58

    Every choice is a commitment. Even ambivalence is a commitment. You and others may find inspiration from the lyrics and that is fine. That has been my experience also. Finding inspiration is not the issue.
    The problem here is when the composer of the lyrics that have a spiritual nature openly does not subscibe to the sentiments expressed or to the source of those sentiments – in this case, the Christian faith. That is what I find contentious.
    If Mumford and James had said they appreciate their Christian roots and find them inevitably a part of their work, that would be beautiful – and honest. But they give the impression that their baptism embarrasses them but the faith sure makes for great lyrics.
    How they can appropriate the words of faith without bothering to venture more deeply into what they mean seems hypocritical to me or, worse, a type of willful ignorance, considering we are in the Great Information Age. If you think that’s okay, Dan, I wish you well. To me, it’s kind of like someone telling you they sort of love you but, um, well, maybe.

  • Richard III

    Maybe the fact that these and some other songwriters make so much use of religious imagery is a sign that their faith isn’t 100% gone. Yes, they could do much better by acting on and believing in the Source of their imagery, but perhaps their songwriting will cause them to seek more deeply, and maybe even to regain their faith or inspire listeners to seek, convert, revert, or reinvigorate the faith of their listeners, like Dan said. Pray for Mumford and James. Maybe all they need is a little spiritual push to seek deeper.

  • Richard III

    You’re welcome and thank you also. :-)

  • Richard III

    And what is/are your favorite(s) of his songs? My favorite solo song is “We Work the Black Seam”, and my favorite of his songs with the Police is “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”.

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