Pick of the Week #5
Five Songs About Religion
By Beppe Colli
Dec. 18, 2020

Jethro Tull
My God

"Good 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.

The 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 division" band.

The 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 behind).

Even 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.

The 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 own ends.

The 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 kicks").

While 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

From 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.

But 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 dimension.

Many 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").

I 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 live".

There 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.

While 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.

The 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.

"High 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".

Missionary Man

We 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.

A 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.

But what happens if one finds a "messianic" type of person as one's spouse?

That's 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.

A 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.

"But there's just one thing/That you must understand/You can fool with your brother/But don't mess with a missionary man".

The 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.

"He said: 'Stop what you're doing/Get down upon your knees/I've a message for you that you better believe'"

And here the digital delay goes:

"Believe, believe, believe, believe..."

Dire Straits
Ticket To Heaven

Whether 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".

This 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.)

Singing "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).

An 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.

In 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.

Ticket 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.

Those 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.

But 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.

Ben Folds

Once 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.

Maybe 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.)

Perfectly 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 clothes.

The 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.)

The 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 Jesusland".

Beppe Colli 2020

CloudsandClocks.net | Dec. 18, 2020