The Varieties of Religious Experience in Indie Rock

[Special supplement: RD’s first religion/rock playlist, here.]

Religion has returned to the arts, philosophy, politics, and, by extension, the news media that reports on them. More broadly, contemporary Western societies may have entered a period of what philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls “post-secular,” which is to say that, in a sense, religion has been there all along. If philosophers, politicians, and artists want to talk about religion, fine—but for God’s sake, alt-rockers too?!

Alternative rock, with its default anti-establishment stance (whether feigned or forthright) has not been the typical go-to place for sincere religious music. That may be changing. Though stylistically diverse, several recent releases show a unique motif: treating religious histories and sacred texts as fonts of wisdom, experience, and poetry. This is no Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), nor could the singers and songwriters be accurately defined as faithful, but it is music of faith—if only because the musicians give voice to pain, doubt, and survival.

A Mix of God and Monkey

Mystical theology is one source for sonic and lyric inspiration. Dark Night of the Soul is a musical collaboration among Danger Mouse and the late Sparklehorse, Vic Chesnutt, along with punk legends Iggy Pop and Frank Black (who was himself influenced by Christian folk rocker Larry Norman), The Flaming Lips, Suzanne Vega, and filmmaker David Lynch, among others. The title (as many RD readers will recognize) is taken from the work of sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, who spoke in negative theological terms about the “guiding dark of night,” a “night that can unite.” Only by wrestling through the painful dark night can the healing light of day be found.

It is not always clear how mystically contemplative the Dark Night artists are, but the struggles with pain and suffering and a search for liberation are shared across the centuries. Iggy Pop’s contribution to the album is a song called “Pain,” which tells us, “Justice, religion, and success are fake/ And the shiny people stink/ Pretty creepy, pretty funny/ I’m a mix of god and monkey.” Such lines are challenging in light of the suicides of both Mark Linkous (a.k.a. Sparklehorse) and Vic Chesnutt, whose own struggle with pain and redemption is a story worth telling in itself.

Lose Yourself…

Indie favorites Arcade Fire have also looked for inspiration in the negative, black mirrors of mysticism, conjuring something of St. John, but also perhaps the Sufi mystic, Rumi, who pleads to “Lose yourself… then you will see your own light as radiant as the full moon.” Their summer 2010 release, The Suburbs, continues the negative theology already begun in Neon Bible and Funeral (e.g., “Black Mirror” and “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)”). Frontman Win Butler comes from a Mormon home, and his struggles with religion are clear. The doubts are expressed in “City with No Children,” a place that is “A garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside/ Of a private prison.” Even so, the struggles found therein are a struggle with, and not a flat-out rejection of, religious life.

Apart from the mystical connections, the band The Mountain Goats have consistently invoked religion in unorthodox ways (previous releases bear titles like Heretic Pride and Satanic Messiah) while their latest, Life of the World to Come, names each song after Bible verses, poetically riffing on the themes found in the ancient text. Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, for example, is re-imagined in the track “Gen. 3:23” to be about someone nostalgically returning to a house he used to live in. Cynicism is left aside, but it’s not Bible-thumping either. The myth becomes personal. There is some genuine searching here, with the Bible as a literature that can be sifted through for inspiration. Lead singer and songwriter John Darnielle has discussed his Catholic upbringing, and his continued Church attendance, as well as his visits to ISKCON services to chant Hare Krsna—making for an uneasy faith.

Of course there are plenty of ways religion has been referenced in mainstream and alternative pop music over the years. Madonna’s songs are a veritable history of world religions in a kind of pop/wiki way: from the controversial Christian connections in 1989’s song “Like a Prayer” to her later dabbling in Hinduism and Kabbalah. U2’s Bono has continually offered earnest, albeit questing, Christian concerns in lyrics stretching from the 1983 track “40” (based on Psalm 40) to The Joshua Tree’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (“I believe in the kingdom come…”) to 2009’s “Magnificent” (a loose redo of the Magnificat).

Other alternative bands display a proclivity for blasting theism and religion, as in the case of Greg Graffin, frontman for Bad Religion, or XTC’s notorious 1986, “Dear God” (“You’re always letting us humans down”). While still others have played off the religious-cultural milieu for purposes of hilarity, such as the experimental band King Missile’s 1990 album “Mystical Shit,” which included songs like “Jesus Was Way Cool” (since he “could’ve baked the best cake ever” and “danced better than Barishnikov”) and “Holy Heavy Man” (with his penchant for hamburgers). 

Singing in the Choir 

But the religious references in recent alternative music are different from all that. Here are well-respected alternative musicians finding resources for dealing with the struggles and joys of life in traditional religious terms. Religion is a resource, not to generate sellable lyrics, but to generate tactics for living life, and then to sing about that.

Such music also stands in sharp contrast to the mammoth Christian Music industry. Apart from the presumed faithfulness of CCM artists (backsliding is bad for record sales) and general lack of piety among indie-rockers (yes, I’m generalizing), one key difference is that these new indie rockers see the divine as immanent. In CCM, God is sung about as being “up there,” and those listening will raise their arms skyward to indicate the distance. The new music sees a quasi-mystical immanence in the everyday. On their new album, Scottish favorite Belle and Sebastian sing “I’ve seen God in the sun/ I’ve seen God in the street.” Lead singer Stuart Murdoch has talked about his lack of interest in CCM, yet at the same time finding himself in church on Sunday morning, singing in the choir and being moved by the experience.

At long last, perhaps, the texts and traditions of religion may finally be approached without embarrassment or irony in a post-secular culture. And indie rockers, and the fans that hear them, gain another resource for the vicissitudes of living.  

May they still not find what they are looking for.  

S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. His recent books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World and Blasphemy: Art that Offends. His most recent book is A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects, from Beacon Press. He is co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief.