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.”
In 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.