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For the last 12 years, the Riverside, California, band Starflyer 59 has carried the torch for the shoe-gazer sound. Led by the smoky-tinged sweetness of songbird Jason Martin, the band has released 10 mostly superior albums of dreamy guitar plus lush orchestration and occasional bursts of danceability, a sound most fully realized on their latest and best, Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice. So why haven't you heard of them? Well, they're an underground band, sorta. They're on Tooth & Nail, a Seattle-based indie. And you wouldn't know it from their lyrics, but they're a Christian rock group.
Being both a secular humanist and a diehard shoe-gazer, I had occasion to test my morals a few years ago at a Starflyer 59 show in a Philadelphia art gallery. Martin didn't then and doesn't usually have a fixed backing band, but instead relies on a rotating cast of backups, and so when I walked in, the whole crowd was sitting quietly and watching a two-man band. I plopped down next to a nice enough looking fellow wearing a blue hoodie, but soon realized that the garment was not advertising the requisite Jersey hardcore so loved in town. It was a "Rock for Life" sweatshirt, featuring a cartoon image of a fetus playing a guitar. I wish I could say that I had at him, but I merely shrank away and smoldered.
Rock for Life promises, in one fan's words, a "positive alternative to Rock for Choice." The campaign's website lists bands down with the cause, including Starflyer 59, and a list of "pro-abortion" bands culled from lists of supporters of progressive political causes such as punkvoter.com, the Feminist Majority, and Axis of Justice. Along with putting on shows and supporting the annual Christian Cornerstone Festival, Rock for Life exists to call fans to action by mailing back albums to artists listed as enemies of their cause. "Who wants to listen to a band that promotes killing babies inside the womb anyway?" the site asks. Besides framing the argument with ludicrous language, the statement also makes the doomed assumption that art must imitate life. That only the truly good should and can make good pop.
Until fairly recently, Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) hasn't managed to affirm that naive logic. During the '90s--gospel, soul, and R&B aside--evangelical Christianity didn't exactly produce a loaves-and-fishes-style feast of talent. Jars of Clay hit, once, but Argyle Park, MxPx, and dc Talk didn't even register among fans of alternative rock and punk. Meanwhile, bands that charted, from R.E.M. to Nirvana, only seemed to reaffirm that the majority of the rock audience swung progressive, or at least believed the low-slung anarcho philosophy of Aleister Crowley's law, "Do what thou wilt." Surely Christian themes rose up among rock overground bands like Pearl Jam or U2, and underground folks like Low or Pedro the Lion, but there was never a sense that their raison d'être was in full or in part about converting withered souls with their hallelujahs.
All of this seemed sound until I heard the Danielson Famile. The New Jersey-based freak folk caravan's beatific praises howl over a clatter of instruments so shambolically, they almost seem to be the work of a cult. Before you even listen you can hear the worshipful shouts in the titles themselves--"The Lord's Rest," "A Meeting with Your Maker," "Thanx to Noah," all written with homespun tenderness and dripping with evangelical fervor. Agnostics and atheists should listen at their own risk; if the words don't convert you, Brother Daniel's rapturous falsetto just might.
Same with Ester Drang, who were inspired by Starflyer 59 to start playing music and who share one member with Danielson Famile labelmate Sufjan Stevens. Ester Drang's swirled guitars and skittering drums sound like Kid A outtakes, making them another great shoe-gazer shadow. Unlike Starflyer, Ester Drang's evangelism lives in the lyrics, thankful for God's grace on "The Greatest Thing" ("You came down as a man/With your purpose as your plan"), and filled with hope on "Is Nothing New" ("I'm leaving the light on to save you/It takes you your whole life through/Just to please you/And I will believe in you/Yes I will walk with you." These lyrics aren't Interpol-nonsense bad, they're preachy, glassy-eyed, and blunt bad, like their '90s CCM brethren. But the thing is, the words can barely be heard beneath the beautiful soundscapes. Either because I try to be tolerant of worldviews that differ from my own or because I'm just a sucker for their music, I love this group despite my suspicion that the band members and I couldn't even be civil. Or it just comes down to basic aesthetics--unlike Rock for Lifers, the most important thing to me about listening to music is that it be good, not good for you.
I take solace in the fact that I'm not alone. Since singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens's 2004 album Seven Swans, debate about the increasing prominence of Christian artists in the indie scene has unfolded in newspapers and magazines and on the internet. Stevens was raised Episcopalian and went to Hope College, a Reformed Church in America school in Holland, Michigan, before moving to New York to study creative writing. His debut, Greetings from Michigan, moved like a collection of Flannery O'Connor stories, dropping religion through characters living on the fringe of the American dream. On Seven Swans, Stevens rewrites her story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" as "The Misfit," strips away his orchestra, and lays naked his faith in passionate words and a raw mix.
The second of his States series, Illinois, presents Christian themes emphatically among lyrics about Chicago politics, race relations, and vicious summer bugs. His work is best when the earthly and the spiritual mix, as on "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.," where his portrait of the serial killer ends with "And in my best behavior/I am really just like him/Look beneath the floorboards/For the secrets I have hid." A frighteningly egoless examination of the darkness within, "Gacy" is Stevens's continual confession lived publicly through song. It is a lesson in bravery, one I can learn just as well without faith.
If there's anything Sufjan Stevens has learned from Christian rock's lectures, or for that matter from 2,000 years of Christian narrative, it's that the best mix of sacred and secular comes by contextualizing lived experience, offering narratives of God's impact on broken lives rather than open-ended invitations to be part of the story. In his songs, the faithful doubt and doubters are not cast aside. There's a place for the dismayed secularist, perhaps even a chance to strike up a chat with a boy in a hoodie about the seemingly irreconcilable gulf between Christian rock's intentions and the alternative nation's focus on resulting aesthetic objects. Now that there's good Christian rock, it's an argument worth having.