Pick of the Week #5
Songs About Religion
By Beppe Colli
Dec. 18, 2020
heavens, now Ian Anderson wants us to think!": This was the title of the
review of the just-released Jethro Tull new album, Aqualung (1971), that (U.K.
weekly) Disc & Music Echo ran at the time: a title that is the perfect
proof of the often uncomfortable relationship between the group's leader and
most of the (International) music press of the time.
album showed the group widening their sonic horizons thanks to the addition of
a full-time keyboard player; while the group's highly skilled bass player was
replaced by a quite mediocre instrumentalist (at the time of his first
appearance, that is, since his progress on the instrument were fast and of a
remarkable quality); meanwhile, a meticulous production work also contributed
to turn Aqualung into a smash hit, so making Jethro Tull into a "first
album's sides were split by topic, more or less, with Side 2 - "My
God" - mostly featuring various arguments about religion (the brief track
titled Slipstream is believed to be a portrait of a man leaving his mortal coil
though a good portion of the press regarded the group's ambitions as ridiculous,
My God - the song had already been part of the group's repertory at the time
when original bass player Glenn Cornick was still a member, and so is featured
as part of the group's performance at the famous 1970 edition of the Wight
Festival - perfected the formula of "soft" and "loud"
passages appearing fast one after the other that required a lot of discipline
and plenty of rehearsal time to work with finesse.
song laments religion becoming an empty ritual, and the personification of the
divine (while for Ian Anderson, whom I remember as a pantheist, "He's
inside you and me"); also a process that has Power using religion for its
song opens with a guitar intro that's quite reminiscent of Balkan motifs,
followed by a deep-sounding, meditative grand piano; then, an episode for flute
and "odd voices", fine work by the electric guitar, and Anderson's
typically nasty, sarcastic vocals (just listen to "(...) As to how he gets
his kicks", immediately repeated as a nastier "he gets his
closing track Wind Up is in my opinion still the album's high point, and first
track Aqualung has maybe been a "radio workhorse" for too long a time
to be really appreciated like at the time when it was still fresh in one's ears,
My God can be defined as the highly celebrated track that one can still
appreciate just as fully and deeply as before.
Richard and Linda Thompson
The Great Valerio
the perspective of the year 2020, the first title I'd suggest as "required
listening" to those still not familiar with the work of Richard and Llnda
Thompson as a couple - also, why not, of Richard Thompson, solo artist - is the
album titled Shoot Out The Lights (1982). An album featuring great songs, where
everything turned out to be just right, showing a greater vocal and
instrumental assuredness, where the arrangements and the "weight" of
the instruments did not overwhelm the vocal melodies.
if one takes the time to look a bit more in the past, there's the great album
titled I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (1974), where Linda Thompson was
already "just perfect", while Richard Thompson was not the fully
realized Richard Thompson yet, when it comes to both his vocals and his guitar
sound, which - while perfect for his role as guitarist of legendary group Fairport
Convention - was not yet as "full-bodied" as needed for his new solo
of the songs will prove to be "classics" - just check the titles: The
Calvary Cross, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, The Little Beggar Girl,
The End Of The Rainbow ("An apex of one's depression"? "Not at
all", said Thompson: "just reality as it is").
remember reading an anthology of pieces of music criticism written by (highly
celebrated fiction writer) Nick Hornby, and the fact of his comparing a track
by Ian Dury (sorry, can't remember which one) and Thompson's The Calvary Cross as
it appears on this album. Nick Hornby argued - this is from memory, OK? - that
the portrait of the Country he lived in as painted by Richard Thompson showed
it in such a bleak, sad, state that "it's not a Country where I'd like to
was a whole series of topics - good and bad fortune, happiness, financial
prosperity - discussed in a fine interview by Bill Flanagan (which appeared in
the mid-80s in US monthly Musician) that Thompson appeared to regard as almost
upside-down, showing that reality as seen through a religious "prism"
appeared to him as being quite different from the "unprocessed"
dimension seen in its secular terms by Hornby.
the exterior signs of his becoming a Muslim - in one of its stricter forms,
Sufism - after the original release of I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight
were nowhere to be seen, Thompson was still a Muslim.
tracks featured on I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight appear to lead the
listener towards the end of the album, which sounds quite austere. Having
already mentioned The End Of The Rainbow, which is sung by Thompson, I'll say
that the moment which is bound to remain in one's memory is the song The Great
Valerio as sung by Linda Thompson in a vibrato-less style, a melody that
appears to vanish in the open air.
up above the cloud/The Great Valerio is walking/The rope seems hung from cloud
to cloud/And time stands still while he is walking/His eye is steady on the
target/His foot is sure upon the rope".
all have beliefs, and it's a modern acquisition that we all have to be
respectful - or at least, tolerant - of other people's beliefs. Which is very easily
said and done if the dimension we are talking about is of (relatively) minor
importance - here a good for instance is the one that pertains to the way we
mix and match the colours of what we wear, or the style and colour of our hair.
But if what we argue about pertains to the most fundamental aspects of our
life, and our guiding values, and those rules that regulate our practical
conduct, one's being "indifferent" would imply that those values we
believe in are of minor importance for ourselves, which is an impossible
position to live by.
distinction that can be of help is the one between beliefs based on facts that
are verifiable and an object of rational examination, and those that rely on
tradition and on "revealed truth", a notion that by necessity goes
hand in hand with the figure of somebody who is recognized as being the
official interpreter. It follows that legislating that people get a vaccine
that is scientifically thought to limit the spread and the damage of an
epidemic is quite different from the practice of infibulation, as dictated by
one's cultural heritage.
what happens if one finds a "messianic" type of person as
what happened to Annie Lennox, Eurythmics's more "visible" half, in
mid-80s. And I'm certain that, though a certain respect is a given when it
comes to the matters of the heart, somebody - in primis, her accomplice in
music, David A. Stewart - tried to sound the alarm.
title such as Revenge - this is the name of the album Eurythmics released in 1986
- and a song called Thorn In My Side say a lot. But not as much as the title of
the song that starts the album: Missionary Man.
there's just one thing/That you must understand/You can fool with your
brother/But don't mess with a missionary man".
song video - a sinister-looking laboratory, alembics, snakes, Lennox's leather
clothes - is a good intro. But the music is more than enough, straight and
explosive, with a harmonica solo, soul eruptions (Joniece Jamison on vocals),
"Grand Canyon" drums (as per the custom of the times), and Annie
Lennox sounding angry and combative.
said: 'Stop what you're doing/Get down upon your knees/I've a message for you
that you better believe'"
here the digital delay goes:
believe, believe, believe..."
Ticket To Heaven
a song mirrors the beliefs and the personality - not the "persona" -
of the person who sings it is a quite complex issue. What is certain is that
for many years now we face this "cultural invariance": that while
audiences are willing to accept the fact that an actor can be a completely
different entity than the ones s/he portrays on the big screen, the same is not
true when it comes to those who sing. Hence, surprise; and, in some extreme
instances, fury, when one discovers that "it was not true".
topic can be considered as "open" when it comes to the majority of the
songs recorded by Dire Straits, as written and sung by the group's guitarist
and leader, Mark Knopfler. (Who for a long time has been an admirer of singing
"in character" as performed by Randy Newman: an artist he has
collaborated with, and whom he produced.)
"in character" is what Knopfler did while performing Dire Straits'
biggest hit, Money For Nothing (a song whose video is surely remembered by
most, with its pioneering use of computer graphics).
album that proved to be the last released by the group, On Every Street (1991) features
(at least) two songs that are sung "in character": My Parties and
Ticket To Heaven. While the former is a pleasant, joyous, moment (more similar
to the music and attitude of Steely Dan, and especially, Donald Fagen), the
latter proves to be the more interesting case by far.
cases such as this, the usual strategy is to present the character of the preacher
as a liar and a crook who gets rich at the expense of the faithful - I seem to
remember a song by late-period Genesis, Jesus He Knows Me ("He knows I'm
right/I've been talking to Jesus all my life", quoting from memory), and
the video of the Ben Folds song I'll talk about in a short while employs the
same strategy. Instead, here Knopfler creates a portrait that's more ambiguous,
and much more stimulating artistically.
To Heaven speaks with the voice of its main character, a man of poor means who
sends what he can to somebody who wears a golden ring, in order to save
children in a poor Country.
elements are in a way more than enough to see this man as he probably is: a
"sucker", somebody with not much intelligence who's bound to be
exploited and taken for a ride.
the music - so different from the dry "sneer", though at times
affectionate and in the end often compassionate, employed by Ray Davis - engulfs
both the singer and the listener in a soft light which proves to be of great
comfort. The song's rhythm and chords reminded me of "bajon" (does
this word still exist?) from the era of The Drifters and Up On The Roof, with
George Martin as arranger and orchestra conductor (the album was recorded at Air
Studios, London) and a piano motif by Alan Clark that's memorable in its simplicity.
upon a time I would have started this piece by saying "It's an open
question how much of Ben Folds's work is yet to be (re)discovered, and what his
real chances of being successful, given today's conditions". But even his
own autobiography, published last year (which perfectly succeeds at the
difficult task of being revelatory and reticent at the same time), officially
announces that the artist sees himself as being well out of creating "music
for the mating age", the only question left to answer is how much music
yet-to-come we have lost.
the perfect point to begin asking this question is the album titled Songs For
Silverman (2005), which I'd call Folds's best if one has to consider the quality
of the featured songs, the musical performances of those involved, the quality
of the recorded sound, and the clarity of his compositions. (The album
featuring the collaboration of Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue,
released in 2010, has to be judged on its own terms.)
assisted by a rhythm section that would have deserved more glory - Jared
Reynolds on bass, here complex and with much fuzz sustain; and Lindsay Jamieson
on drums, here played brushes, in a measured performance - also by violin and
cello, piano, and a fine mix of voices, Jesusland is a "country &
western" tune wearing with great assurance Elton John's piano ballad
title of this song comes after those 2004 US Presidential elections that stated
the difference between the "Unites States of Canada" (meaning, the
"progressive" portion of the North American Continent), and "Jesusland"
(meaning, the more "right-wing, culturally backwards-looking", part).
(Interested readers will easily find the whole story by typing
"Jesusland" on their preferred search engine.)
song travels across a territory where traces of economic depression and huge
disparity in the distribution of income and chances for advancement are quite
easy to see. Somebody walks (there's maybe a link with Joan Osborne's famous
song, One Of Us), there's much commercial use of religion in order to sell
things, and "Crosses flying high above the malls/Along the walk/Through
Beppe Colli 2020
| Dec. 18, 2020