Monday, January 29, 2007

A Brief Holiday.

Just a note to say that I’m taking a leave of absence for two weeks. No panic, no problem, as Steve Taylor says at the end of his Liver album; when I return, I’ll no doubt have accumulated a lot of stuff to post, and I’ll probably forget to post it.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Deeply Personal Confessions Only Made Because I’m Sure No One’s Watching.

If I’m not careful, I’ll soon be in a fair way to considering myself in love with Cassandra Mortmain.

For a few weeks in high school, I fancied myself in love with Laura Ingalls Wilder; and I’ve also been smitten by Harriet Vane now and again. But it’s a little creepier this time, if only because I’m far too old to be in love with a (fictional) seventeen-year-old, especially when I’ve been imagining her as played by Georgia Hensley eight or nine years hence.

It only means, of course, that I’ve fallen for Dodie Smith’s writing (as I fell for L. I. Wilder’s, and for D. L. Sayers’s). Still, I’ve been putting off doing any work this evening not only because of the bittersweet ending to I Capture the Castle, but because I feel that simply sitting and reveling in this melancholy mood is exactly the sort of thing that Cassandra would do.

I already use Good heavens! as an all-purpose interjection far too often; now I’m going to be hearing Jenny Agutter’s amused voice saying it every time. Not a bad legacy for a audiobook to leave me.

On the other hand, now I want to get my hands on a first edition . . . .

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Hearing Books.

It happens about this time every year (and probably once or twice more as the seasons change): I sicken of music, whether new — after the first fine, careless rapture of gorging on year-end best-of lists — or old, and I turn instead to a calmer, more soothing medium: the audiobook. I’m in the middle of an orgy of book-listening that may or may not abate soon, although writing about something is usually a good way to kill my passion for it.

I work at a job where I can listen to my mp3 player all day. And I do. Over the past few weeks or so, I’ve listened to C. S. Lewis’s Christo-psychological fantasy-thriller That Hideous Strength — still my favorite of his novels, though its flaws are clearer on every pass; it’s all muddled up with my happy adolescence — Angela Thirkell’s restful provincial-wartime comedy of manners Cheerfulness Breaks In, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles (which are both better and worse than I remember them from childhood), J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (which is very much better), several unsatisfactory BBC adaptations of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels, the undying golden charm of The Wind in the Willows, Lian Hearn’s first novel in the Tales of the Otori series (staggeringly beautiful, and it makes me want to tackle The Tale of Genji again, this time for real), and the stray P. G. Wodehouse story or so. If I still had my Jane Austen audiobooks I’d probably break into them, but I’m in the middle of the next best thing (for a slightly maudlin Englishwoman of a certain age), which is Dodie Smith’s I Conquer the Castle. Something about the wistful, elegaic mood of Britain on the cusp of losing her empire has been seeping slowly into my bones; and tears actually sprang to my eyes simply because Thirkell used the adjective “Edwardian” in the last chapters of Cheerfulness.

Edwardian, whatever it may mean to anyone else, means primarily E. M. Forster to me. Forster is one of my very favorite novelists, from the summery height of the period when to be a novelist still meant something distinct from any other kind of writing, after the Dickensian fat had been trimmed but before Joycean gamesmanship had begun to take over. He could uncharitably be described as Henry James for Dummies, but the meticulousness of his prose, along with the keenness of his vision — and the (perhaps misguided) depth of his sympathy — is like balm to this wounded modern soul. Oddly enough, I’ve only ever read one book of his (A Room with a View), and that only once. All the rest of my encounters with his novels have been via audiobook. Which is of course an imperfect medium (Jenny Agutter’s wild stabs at two separate American accents — for male characters, which is worse — in I Capture the Castle have been causing me to writhe at my desk in agony), but some prose can only be properly appreciated when spoken aloud, as a bird’s beauty is only given shape in flight. Howards End, which has been one of my favorite novels ever since I saw the Merchant-Ivory adaptation as a teenager (Helena Bonham Carter shall ever hold a place in my heart as the first Internet search I ever keyed), I only know as a novel through the medium of Edward Petherbridge’s voice. Which may as well be Forster’s, it fits so well.

Of course audiobooks have some dispiriting qualities: you can’t simply flip through them as you can with a book, looking for a good passage; you can’t share them with others in quite the same way, quoting passages or simply handing it over and saying, “read this!”; you can’t — or at any rate I can’t — just sit and listen to them without doing anything else, which is why listening to them at work is so wonderful. In fact, my productivity has been up since I gave off listening to music in the past week or so.

I’ll start up again soon, I’m sure, once all the calm, wise mellifluousness has driven me batty; but I still have some Anthony Trollope, Mervyn Peake, and Edgar Rice Burroughs to plow through; and I’ve been contemplating digging into Patrick O’Brian, Elizabeth Jane Howard, and even (may my snobbish twenty-year-old self forgive me) Diana Gabaldon, in this relatively painless way. Listening to an audiobook doesn’t generally commit me to liking the writer, since I don’t generally buy them. (No, you monster of suspicion, I use the local library.) On the other hand, frustration with a needlessly discursive plot can easily set in, because I certainly read faster than any narrator can talk. Of the making of many books there is no end, and listening to them can sometimes seem even more interminable.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Let It Be.

Ours is not to reason why; ours is but to recognize genius when we see it.

(Some context.)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

A Reconsideration.

A recent conversation has reminded me of a promise I made some time ago (#5 in the list) to return to George MacDonald’s book Phantastes and see what I could make of it now, some ten years after my last assault on it left me disappointed and uninterested.

In fact, now I’m not sure I ever did read it. The opening chapter or so is vaguely familiar, but after that nothing rings a bell, and I have no idea why I gave it up back then, except perhaps that it didn’t seem to match my mood at the time. (If I remember right, I was enthralled by the torturous mythology of DC superheroes in those days . . . and it may have been assigned for a class, which is always reason enough to leave a fascinating book unread.) I do know that I read MacDonald’s other fantasy for adults, Lilith, around the same time, and disliked it without being able to say why; probably, I think today, because it operated on a more metaphysical level than I was used to in fiction. I wanted character and action — the stuff of Hollywood movies — and instead got mostly imagery and incident, the stuff of medieval poetry. And I was very young and fairly ignorant.

Phantastes is good, a very great book in itself as well as being notable for the influence it would have on the development of the fantasy worlds of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Its world is not, however, remotely like Narnia or Middle-Earth; it is not, in fact, about a separate world (and the consonant elaborate histories implied) at all, but about the spiritual journey of a single man in Fairy Land. Its real kinship is with books like The Pilgrim’s Progress or perhaps The Divine Comedy, though MacDonald’s theology is more private and speculative than Bunyan’s plainspoken Methodism or Dante’s ornate Catholicism. And he does not force allegory upon the reader, but presents strange, visionary incidents more like the original pre-Malory Arthurian legends, or the kunstmärchen of the German Romantics, or ancient fairy tales of indeterminate origin (all of which are deliberately invoked in the text), and leaves room for those who want merely the splendor of imagery and incident without metaphysical meaning. The metaphysical meaning, though, is profoundly relevant to my experience, and it’s quite clear why C. S. Lewis said that the book baptized his imagination.

The final paragraph, though, violates Chekhov’s law of dramatics (you never show a loaded gun in the first act unless it’s going to go off by the third act) pretty severely: the hero is promised that something good is going to happen to him, and he reflects that of course it is, since even evil is the only shape that good can take at that time and place. Which is either nonsense or very profound metaphysics indeed — but terrible drama. Today, of course, it would be called leaving room for a sequel. I think I’m going to have to re-read Lilith again next.

29 Songs: II. Whitecross “In the Kingdom”

In the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and ninety-one, when Herod was Tetrarch of Galilee—no, wait, that’s a different story.

In the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and ninety-one, when George Herbert Walker Bush was President of the free peoples of Middle-Earth, a boy sat with his sister in front of a very blonde, bald man with gentle eyes and a taste for checkered shirts. He was, they understood, the one who would decide whether they would attend middle school at the Christian Academy of Guatemala. Really, he was just the best teacher in the school, making sure they weren’t horrible kids who would destroy the classroom dynamic; the boy would have him as a homeroom teacher in eighth grade, and then again in ninth grade after his class had driven three successive homeroom teachers from the room in tears or rage. His name was Mister Mutchler, but the boy once called him Papa by accident, which the man charitably did not notice.

The boy was getting longer and his hair was brown now and starting to curl in unpredictable ways; his sister was still fairly blonde, short, and much more at ease in the world. (This was a sore point between them for years; he was ashamed of his poor social skills, and she was baffled by his taking it out on her.) He was quietly dreading going to school here, as he had quietly dreaded everything for the past year: the San Cristobal colegio where he and his siblings had been the only white kids; the language school in Antigua where they had received crash courses in Spanish and in middle-class Guatemalan culture; the move to Guatemala itself.

The boy noticed that even the man’s eyelashes were fair, which gave him an odd look when he blinked; since his face was ruddy and peeling (he’d just come back from vacation and he burnt easily), his lashes were lighter than his skin. The boy thought that he should remember that in case it became a useful descriptive detail in a story he would someday write.

(The boy had decided at the age of five that he wanted to be a writer. Not long after that, inspired by Laura Ingalls’ autobiographical Little House books, he began to describe everything that happened in the third person and past tense so that he could remember it better. After he said something memorable, he would repeat it under his breath, then add, “he said.” He later dropped the “he said,” but continues to repeat himself in whispers to this day.)

School had already started when the interview with Mr. Mutchler took place, because the boy’s family had gone back to the States over the summer to raise money, and their giant orange monster of a Suburban had blown its transmission in Veracruz on the way back. They had missed the first few days of class sitting in a hotel a few blocks away from the ocean and watching TV programs that the boy remembered as promising more sexual thrills than they delivered, while a Mexican shop worked slowly but surely on the vehicle. Even the ocean was disappointing, too choppy for swimming even if any of them had had courage for it; the last time they had been to the beach the boy, his sister and a brother had almost been sucked out to the Pacific by a powerful riptide, and only survived thanks to a fat Guatemalan doctor who would later go to jail for helping to funnel cocaine from Colombia to the United States.

Christian Academy of Guatemala was a small school; the boy was the sixteenth student in his eighth-grade class, which met in a small corner classroom facing out onto the dirty, grassless playing field. The rest of the class did not seem particularly to care that he was there; the brief curiosity aroused by his late arrival soon fizzled once he turned out to be physically unprepossessing and stammeringly inarticulate.

Nate was easily the most powerful personality in the class; a big kid, blond, hot-tempered, and rowdy, he was also one of the most culturally aware, quoting Bill and Ted and Wayne and Garth long before any of the rest of them understood the references, and headbanging to Nirvana before the rest of them had outgrown Stryper. In another school he probably would have been a bully (younger kids certainly considered him one), but the school was too small for the usual hierarchical divisions to solidify properly, and he became instead an graceless leader, half-resented but mostly respected.

Tony was closest to him, a handsome, compact Honduran who resembled a shark when he smiled. He had none of Nate’s joviality but plenty of unfocused anger, and it was probably hardest for him not to be cruel in the exercise of his adolescent strength. This was also his first year at the school.

Brendan had befriended Tony first, which was probably why Tony hated him the most; Brendan was an unapologetic geek, tall, pale and mulleted, a devotee of SeaQuest and Petra, who wore the same denim jacket every day for years and was physically inept enough to be shoved and called gay every day by upperclassmen who later went into ministry with some success.

Joel, an adopted Guatemalan with a learning disability and an inferiority complex, became Brendan’s only real friend, but his unquestioned, almost contemptuous mastery of basketball and soccer saved him from any similar treatment. In the absence of any shared culture—inevitable because everyone was from a different church with slightly different theologies, not to mention different geographic locations—sports was the primary way that boys at CAG created identities and found their place in the pecking order. (At least for now; in high school, life would become more earnest and intellectual.) Brendan was unusual in rejecting sports altogether, for which he himself was rejected.

Scott excelled at sports, but he was also more kindhearted and reflective than just about any other male in the school, and would be the class valedictorian five years later. It was Scott who said the first kind thing to the new boy, and it was Scott, the following year, who gave him outright the Whitecross tape.

So I take that back. There was one shared culture: Christian music. (Not entirely shared; Nate and Tony had nothing but contempt for the stuff, but then their parents had MTV.) But the Christian music that was admired was nothing like the Christian music the boy was familiar with. He had grown up with a taste governed by his mother and a cousin for whom Barry Manilow represented edginess. Petra was only a rumor, a source of heavy-metal unease (all hard rock was associated with Satanism in the boy’s childhood), when the family moved to Guatemala. But the boys at CAG not only listened to Petra, they thought they were kind of wussy. (Except Brendan. But then he was kind of wussy.) Whitecross was the fresher, edgier sound, the Rolling Stones to Petra’s Beatles, at least in the tiny enclave of Christian Academy of Guatemala’s eighth-grade class. And they actually were heavy metal (Petra was generally closer to Journey or Toto, although their guitars could get loud), though still highly processed and pop; Dio is probably the closest reference point.

But the song that we all knew, that somehow made the album acceptable even for people who vaguely associated loud guitars with evil, wasn’t heavy metal; it was a soaring anthem in the “We Are the World” mold, although less cloying and with an acceptably technical guitar line from one-time guitar-hero contender Rex Carroll. It was called “In the Kingdom,” and the album was named after it, and the video was on in the afternoons when the local music-video channel played Christian videos.

The chorus:

We’re alive, we are strong
We’re a nation, we belong
Let us all stand together in the kingdom
No more darkness, no more night
We are children of the light
Let us all work together in the kingdom.
Not exactly Joni Mitchell, but its lunkheaded directness appealed to kids raised on lunkheadedly direct worship songs. There is a half-memory of singing it in chapel; Scott played bass and Joel played electric guitar in the school’s rock band in high school. And it worked as a worship song, or at least the chorus did. The verses were a little too, er, timely.

Saw the headlines just the other day
Said the wall’s coming down
Said the peace is just a breath away
One world, one voice, one happy family
Yeah, that’s what the world believes
The wall is the Berlin Wall, of course, and the One World proposals being made in the giddy days following the USSR’s dissolution were regarded with fear and suspicion by the evangelical Christians who made up everyone the boy knew. American Christians probably paid more attention to these proposals than the American left did, ignoring the fact that it was absurdly impossible; the Antichrist is said to rule the entire world in the book of Revelations, which meant that uniting the world under a single government would be playing directly into his hands. If the Antichrist was going to rule the world, he’d have to work for it.

Read my Bible just the other day
Said the kingdom’s coming down
Jesus said the kingdom is just a prayer away
One Lord, one God, one faith eternally
Yeah, that’s what the church believes
Christian Academy of Guatemala was what’s known as an MK school: everyone there was a missionary kid. Their parents’ missions were all different (and even sometimes contradictory), but they all accepted the principle that the evangelization and conversion of non-Christians was the most important work in the world.

In five years at the school, the boy probably studied the Great Commission more than any other piece of Scripture, or indeed than any concept at all. He can still quote it from memory: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And behold I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (That’s the King James Version, more or less; he’s read, studied, memorized, and taught it in three or four different translations.) The boys’ own parents were not really baptizing anyone in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; his father taught construction skills to teenage boys at an orphanage, and his mother coordinated and translated for American medical teams who would go into the highlands and offer free medical care for anyone who came to the temporary clinic. One controversy in class (there were many over the years; several of the boy’s classmates loved arguing, even for things they didn’t really believe) was over whether ministering to the physical needs or the spiritual needs of the world’s poor was more important. The teacher, by the way, argued for spiritual needs, and frankly condemned the conversionless model of Mother Teresa. His mother’s medical missions never once occurred to the boy during these arguments.

But the shared belief was that it is the duty of Christians to bring about God’s kingdom by preaching to and converting the rest of the world. How this dovetails with the idea that the world was drawing near its end was once explained to the boy like this: When Christianity has been heard, understood, and either accepted or rejected by everyone on the planet, then the apocalypse will begin.

Heard a newsman just the other day
Said a war was coming down
Said destruction is just a breath away
One world, one war, one awesome tragedy
Yeah, that’s what the world believes
Ah, those foolish non-Christians (read: liberals), believing starry-eyed in some unattainable world peace but—contradictorily—in deepest despair because wars and other evidence of man’s inhumanity still exists. The military action that would be branded the Gulf War was naturally current events, but it meant little to the boy and his classmates, who weren’t even living in the country that was waging the war. Iraq existed largely as a laborious pun in service of an unfunny, usually racist joke then prevalent; the punchline was “I rack, I ran.” (To rack was once-popular slang for the most painful, and therefore the funniest, thing that could happen to a young male.)

Another debate, the following year: which public figure is the Antichrist, Saddam Hussein or Bill Clinton? Argued in all seriousness, with Scripture quoted to prove both sides. This teacher leaned towards Clinton, but sensibly refused to commit himself to any definitive interpretation.

Generally, though, the school was agnostic on the question of war; it was an acceptable activity because people fought wars in the Bible, but the romance, glamour, and poetry of war was never encouraged, perhaps because all romance, glamour and poetry were faintly disreputable.

Heard a preacher just the other day
Said God’s glory’s coming down
Just as the waters cover all the seas
One King, one crown, one reign forevermore
Yeah, that’s what we have and more
Whitecross’s singer, Scott Wenzel, has gone up an octave, and is shredding his throat in a fair Axl Rose imitation; it works well as an emotionally dynamic device. The simile, of course, is straight out of the Bible—usually the only excuse for poetic imagery in Christian pop.

There was no middle eight, unless you count a dramatic pause before the chorus plunged forward yet again.

It was at the Peri-Roosevelt that the song came home to the boy, or at least that the emotional swell of it matched up with an emotional swell in his hormonal development. He wasn’t listening to it, it was just playing in his head, and tears started to his eyes and a lump grew in his throat as he thought of everyone he knew, his family and the guys at school and the people back in Phoenix and thousands—millions—of people all around the world, whatever their differences and agendas and problems and failings, working together in the kingdom.

The Peri-Roosevelt was a mall just off the Periferico, a narrow highway circling Guatemala City; his family went there to eat at Taco Bell after church every Sunday, a way of visiting the States (CAG’s preferred diminutive for the home country) without abandoning Guatemala. The layout and structure of the mall is still buried deep in his subconscious, a place of American and European beauty and richness (especially the cool creamy smell of the Parma dairy store where they bought ice cream) in a poverty-ridden, diesel-choked, and ineffectually fecund country. He stood on the high concrete walkway with railings painted turquoise and purple, outside the food court where his family was still cleaning up from Taco Bell, and in the middle of helpless capitalism—it was rumored that the mall was built by drug money, and most of the businesses were American or European—he was choked by a vision of unity (“spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners” —THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS) and cooperative joy that owed more to imagination than to his certain knowledge; but then he was so sheltered that imaginative interpretation was nearly all he did know. And still perhaps is.

Years later he would choke up while singing Tom Booth’s song “We Are One Body” as he swayed in shouldered unison with some fifty teenagers and young adults around a Catholic altar in another country, for much the same reason. But this time the uniting bond was less vague than “the kingdom,” and he thought he understood better what the purpose, need, and substance of the unity was. But that too is another song.

(“In the Kingdom” at iTunes. In the Kingdom at Amazon.)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Little Late, So What?

The finest indie-pop album of 2006 was not released in the United States (though it’s scheduled for this year; but really, thanks to Soulseek every decent record has a worldwide release) — but, no, it wasn’t released in the UK either. And it’s not Scandinavian, German, Japanese, or Brazilian. It was recorded in Nashville, and released in Mexico, and I found out about it thanks not to Pitchfork or an obscure mp3 blog, but to that old gray lady of stuffy whitebread journalism, the New York Times. The album is called Blanco Fácil, and it’s by a dude who calls himself Chetes. Which is a nickname (it means “cheeks”) he acquired as a kid; his real name is Gerardo Garza, but no one calls Sting Gordon Sumner, so never mind.

Tagline (EMI Latin, feel free to use on promotional material): Do you like the Decemberists, Belle & Sebastian, Ryan Adams, and the New Pornographers, but wish you didn’t understand what they were saying? Have I got a record for you.

Actually, if you happen to understand Spanish (I do) the lyrics are good too, poetic without being pretentious, and constructed without thought of easy translation into English — which, since Spanish is rapidly becoming the second language of the United States (suck it, xenophobes), is fine. If you don’t happen to understand Spanish, just pretend it’s all very romantic and philosophical because that’s what Spanish sounds like, and you won’t be far wrong.

Mexico’s not usually thought of as being a hotspot of global pop music the way Japan, Brazil, Sweden, India, and even Mali (thanks, Damon Albarn) are; and no, Chetes doesn’t really draw from any traditional genres like norteño (the country & western of Latin America) to forge a new, exciting Mexican form of pop; he just does the old, exciting Anglo-American form of pop better than anyone else has done it for quite a while. He namechecks the Beatles and the Beach Boys like every other good indie kid, but sounds more like, well, like Wilco (whose drummer produced the album). And the accessible, lovelorn Summerteeth version of Wilco, at that.

I’ve had the album on my mp3 player for a while, but for one reason or another never got around to listening to it until today. And hot damn it’s good. Check it out.

Monday, January 01, 2007

29 Songs: I. Michael W. Smith “Lamu”

We are to picture our hero at nine years of age, just beginning to leave behind the towheadedness of childhood and enter into the more sober dull brown of youth and adulthood. (Gray, at the time of this writing, is still some distance off, but one or two advance scouts have been spotted in the territories.) He would repudiate the notion that he is an ordinary boy, but in photographs and other forms of memory-jogging, he looks the part. Perhaps there is some small awkwardness in the way he bears himself or interacts with the world — he has never been graceful — but he is slender, and unselfconscious, and can fit himself into quite remarkably small spaces.

He is a reader. That is his identity, the first (and often only) thing outsiders notice about him, or at least speak to him about. He’s shy, but has not yet embraced shyness as an identity, simply preferring the companionship of books to people, especially people he doesn’t know. He takes books everywhere he goes, and one result is that his memories of reading are quite varied: Bunnicula is the back of an old pickup truck parked in front of the Tucson house, Heidi is the lower branches of a mulberry tree in the front yard of the Phoenix townhouse, The Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics is the great big lichenous rock under the oak in front of his grandfather’s house in Yarnell. And Five Children and It is a nighttime softball game at a public park; his father is playing with a group of guys that were either from work or church, he can’t remember at this distance. It is a long and boring game and he has not yet learned the rules or rhythms of sports; he wanders off and reads on a jungle gym in the dim light that reaches from the field.

On the way to the game, and possibly on the way back, the cassette in the minivan was Michael W. Smith’s The Big Picture, and it is new and wonderful and strange music to the boy, and his head is full of it as he reads; not the words, which he would memorize later on many subsequent listenings, but the thick, urban, synthesized sound of it, a sound which he would later be able to identify as mid-80s, a sound the roots of which he would be surprised, later in life, to identify in Thomas Dolby and the Buggles and Van Halen and Gary Numan and the Cult.

Christian music is all he has ever known, either the worship music which he hears live in church, strummed by cheerful men in beards and slacks, or the Christian pop on the radio, on records, and increasingly on cassettes as his eighteen-year-old cousin, who lives with them, expands her musical horizons from Barry Manilow and Barbra Streisand to include Steve Camp, Second Chapter of Acts, and Michael W. Smith. It’s her cassette that’s in the minivan, and four or five years later he will ask her to mail it over two international borders so he can hear it again.

The Big Picture was released in 1986, and in the larger arc of Michael W. Smith’s career, it represents an anomaly, an attempt at au courant hipness and youth appeal that he would soon abandon for the more predictable and safe adult-contemporary market. He notched a couple of low-level hits on secular radio, but soon retreated back into the comforting, undemanding arms of Christian bland-pop, applying his talent for orchestration and urgent melody to easy sells like worship music or Chicken Soup for the Soul-themed albums.

But for a nine-year-old who had never heard of U2 or Prince, let alone Hüsker Dü or Run-DMC, Michael W. Smith was as hip, as exciting, and even (on some level) as dangerous a music as he’d ever heard. Heavy guitars were vaguely identified with the devil, but on this album shiny hair-metal guitars wailed, screeched, and soared, especially on the second side, which got heavier and heavier until “You’re Alright,” the self-esteem-anthem closer, was honest-to-goodness hard rock — even heavy metal, in a glossy Judas Priest kind of way.

The gloss was how he got away with it, of course. There wasn’t a single dark crunchita-crunchita on the album; guitars only played lead, not rhythm, and studio synths and big echoing drums did the rest. And though the cover of the album was a trippy floating-head-and-picture-frames montage, Smith’s own photo showed a pleasantly dorky young man (who looks not unlike a bearded, tease-coiffed Chris Kirkpatrick) in a floridly somber silk shirt; this was not a threatening dude.

Which doesn’t mean that it’s bad, soulless music; in fact, it’s quite accomplished, especially the multifaceted, complex arrangements (a classically-trained pianist, Smith started out as an arranger, studio musician, and songwriter for the likes of Amy Grant; his first album was tentatively titled The Michael W. Smith Project) and the colorful, immediate kaleidoscope of sounds. He’d studied his Trevor Horn and his Brian Eno; and of course, the vast majority of his youthful evangelical audience could be relied upon not to know where he got his ideas.

The nine-year-old boy had no idea, but he did know that the music was surging and shining, a perfect correlative to this sultry urban night in 1987. Looking out of the tinted windows in the back of the minivan and seeing streetlights reflected on chrome and the flash and twinkle of headlights, stoplights, even a star or two between the fathomless black shapes, listening to the music made him feel grown-up and sophisticated, off-balance but in motion. And though it rarely mentioned the name Jesus or said anything explicit about God, a well-read, highly-churched nine-year-old could easily parse the Christian message in every song.

Almost. The opening song on the album became a source of fascination for him. It was called “Lamu,” and in the song Lamu was the name of a tropical island where the narrator attempted to escape from the bustle and social inhibitions of civilization, only to find that conscience and a moral sense were still with him regardless of how far he tried to run. Years later, the boy would write and perform in skits with the same basic message, and in hindsight it’s obvious that the island was a metaphor for the various forms of escape — drugs, alcohol, sex — which pastors, youth ministers, and parents have always attempted to dissuade teenagers from. But he was a literal-minded boy, and the opening verse,

Here we are on a boat out on the sea
Off the coast of Africa
Heading for peaceful shores in a nest of strangers
To an island hideaway

with its specificity of detail (and brazen non-rhyme), made him wonder if perhaps it was based on an actual incident, some kind of attempt at a real-life Fantasy Island gone horribly wrong. Like Lord of the Flies, only he wouldn’t read that for another seven years. There was even an hint of sex in the song, though the reference was of course negative. But on the whole the song struck him as being unusual, even daring, for a Christian pop song. He was pretty intimately familiar with Christian pop songs, and (ironically, considering the frequency of parables in the Gospels) they were almost uniformly blunt and unsubtle about their message; Smith’s allegory of conscience was a window, even if a small one, into a wider, more unpredictable and artistic, world.

Apart from one attempt to communicate this feeling to a friend, who only looked at him strangely, he never really told anyone how much he liked the album. Michael W. Smith was a girls’ musician, mostly — at least everyone the boy knew who liked him was a girl — and his nerdy good looks, oversensitive nasal voice, and shiny pop instrumentation (especially on every other album besides The Big Picture) weren’t very manly. The boy knew, as if by osmosis, that boys were supposed to like heavy sounds and threatening postures, and Michael W. Smith was pretty wimpy, even (though it would be five or six years before the boy knew what the word meant) faggy.

(About a decade later, the boy would wonder if he was perhaps gay, but the simple test of thinking about naked women convinced him otherwise. Still, he was grateful that he hadn’t grown up in public schools, where his physical awkwardness and slightly feminine tastes would have exerted more social pressure to — he still wasn’t very knowledgeable on this point — make him gay.)

But that was okay; the boy didn’t have many friends who could make fun of him for listening to what he liked, and he listened to The Big Picture frequently, especially the first side — he was still a little scared of the second side — which, in addition to “Lamu,” contained the anthemic (and actually very good) “Wired for Sound,” the sensitive plea for virginity “Old Enough to Know,” the Jesus-comes-to-a-Springsteen-song “Rocketown,” and the huge, “you can make it if you try (but stay Christian)” title track. It was the sort of album that parents were supposed to give to their Depeche Mode-listening teenage kids to show them that hey, this God stuff can be cool and arty too. Apparently it wasn’t very successful; Smith’s next album was much less outré, and then he did a Christmas album (a superb Christmas album, but a Christmas album), and it was all downhill from there.

Or maybe it was just that the boy was growing up and learning more about the world and listening to many different kinds of music by then. But that’s another song.

(“Lamu” on iTunes. The Big Picture at Amazon.)

29 Songs: A Preface.

I turned twenty-nine two days ago. Neither congratulations nor sympathetic awws are in order; I only mention it because it was a catalyst for what I’m going to be posting next, over the space of probably the entire year.

I’ve talked a lot about music on this blog, and shown myself (I hope) to at least have a grasp on the many different styles, histories, and cultures of popular music. One kind of music which I haven’t really mentioned is the kind I grew up listening to, and which still makes up a slight part of my listening habits: Christian pop. This can be defined as non-worship music sold in specialty Christian stores (or through specialty Christian catalogues), music which takes the form of current (or past) pop music, but whose lyrics tend to deal exclusively with spiritual concerns, usually in a very overt, unsubtle manner.

What I’m going to attempt to do over the next year is to present autobiographical essays stemming somehow off of particular Christian-pop songs, one for every year I’ve been alive. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to detail each year of my life — and it certainly won’t be in chronological order — but 29 is a nice random number, and enough of a challenge to keep things interesting.

These essays are going to be fairly long; the first one is five pages in Microsoft Word. (Oddly-formatted pages, but still.) They are also probably going to be fairly revealing; it’s the nature of the form, and while I said I wouldn’t talk about my personal life on the blog, they’re not really blog posts; they’re essays posted to the blog, and which I hope someday to collect in a more permanent form. To that end, they’re also going to be more properly-written and better-edited than anything I’ve posted so far. I hope.

Unlike with my 60s and 70s song projects, these won’t be the only things I’ll be posting to the blog. Blogger’s updated version allows for groupings of posts by label, and I’ll trust to that form of collation for anyone who wants to read only the essays — or, just as likely, anything but.

Finally, although the essays are about Christian songs, I’m not going to be watching my language or keeping unchristian ideas out of my prose; part of the point is to look at my past with the rather jaundiced eye of my present. And there’ll be lots of references to the wider world of music and culture; this is written for a non-Christian audience, though Christians (i.e. everyone I know in real life) are of course welcome to read it.

And I think that’s all I need to say about that.