Wednesday, May 11, 2005


God lives in America.
After considering the overall ruby shade of our great country from the last Presidential election results, there's no doubt that He plays a great role in our politics and our lives. Church attendance is at an all time high, while, paradoxically, in Europe, it's at an all time low (perhaps they have better coffee and therefore have less to pray for). And as proven with the recent success of the multiple Christian Rock tours, bringing 80,000 holy adolescents to a barren mud-field to headbang for Jesus, the Lord is on the mind and as well as on the iPod.

It seems odd to consider Jesus as a musical inspiration when you realize that he's neither a girl that broke some guy's heart nor an addictive drug that the songwriter can't break away from. Jesus is sometimes a point of controversy, sometimes your homeboy, and for many, the example of how to conduct your life (on the rare occasion, his image can even be found on toast). Throughout the history of rock, though, there has always been two ways to approach the "son": one is with reverence, like the music of Sufjan Stevens who sees Jesus as his co-pilot, and the other is with jabbing irreverence, as heard with Ben Folds, who considers Jesus to be a passenger just riding alongside with the rest of us in Business class.

With their respective new releases, Folds' Songs for Silverman (not to be confused with the Jason Biggs/Jack Black disaster "Saving Silverman") and Stevens' "Illinois," both musicians capture the essence and spirit of America in all it's broken and confused religious glory, or lack thereof. On the standout track, "Jesusland," Folds swoons his glorious layered harmonies over biting, editorialesque lyrics conjuring a conversation he would have with Jesus about the bereft condition of his modern-day disciples. "Down the tracks beautiful McMansions on a hill that overlook a highway/with riverboat casinos and you still have yet to see a soul," Folds sings in his near-falsetto, coping an angelic sincerity. The drum brushes gallop alongside the prancing piano making this into a dance song for people who like Gershwin.

Ultimately, Silverman is a fine album but not Folds' strongest. It seems that Folds has decided to tone down his humor and as a result, comes off as occasionally schmaltzy. But defiantly and laudably, song after song, the Chapel Hill piano man ignores all trends, writing music that could have just as easily fit on the radio in 1978 when songs were dripping with honey and cynicism was nowhere to be found. "Give Judy My Notice," "Landed," and "Trusted" each tells a narrative of a broken man with seeminlgy insurmountable emotional issues to resolve. And with his distinct and sweet harmonic instincts, Folds always fools you into thinking his music is upbeat but don't let the geek-drenched irony confuse--with his recent realization that faith alone will not get you through life, he's just a scared as you are.

Illinois, Stevens' second album in his 50 States series is a potent masterpiece. Like Folds, each song tells the story of a character confronting his or her personal conflict and questioning whether there is a larger encouraging answer to this metaphysical journey we call "life." One song ("Casimir Pulaski Day") is about cancer and prayer; another is about a mass murderer and the ability of the average person to relate to one ("John Wayne Gacy, Jr"), whereas a third is about Superman, or Jesus--the intention is confusing. Stevens can be either literal or metaphorical. He keeps us guessing like that and he's still not telling (in interviews, he tries to answer religion-centric questions ambiguosly). Lyrical interpretations aside, Illinois is a wonderous album full of Broadway-production gospel, distintive and festive instrumentation (yes, there are sleigh bells on "Praire Fire..."), orchestra-folk that pierces and penetrates like the bittersweet moments when you realize that all will be okay and also not okay at the very same time. While the album may seem long (at 22 tracks and 79 minutes, Illinois is an experience) it's sensational throughout, a sublime effort that never falters. Sufjan's gentle and tender voice is both soothing and seductive, perfectly suited for this godly album.

Ben Folds and Sufjan Stevens, two exemplary and prolific musicians, are both songwriters and narrators. An anomaly in a world of unsubstantial lyrical content and sometimes random word associations. They are like great authors of post-modern literature; Folds acting as a Jonathan Lethem, getting his dork on while frosting it with a heightened vulnerability. Stevens, reveling in an awareness of mortality, religion and technology, positions himself as a devout Don Delillo. Two men, out of time, making music that captures the essence of our country today when God is both everywhere and nowhere.

One questions, the other praises. But ultimately, both acknowledge the presence.


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