Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
Getting to interview somebody like Craig Finn should be a journalist’s dream gig. The Hold Steady frontman is hyper-literate and bookish and effortlessly funny. He just released his first solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes, and it’s exactly as good (maybe a little better) as the frothing-at-the-mouth critics say it is. There’s just one small problem. The album is also very, very religious. And for some reason, this makes me anxious.
“So … ” I tell Finn, trying to find a way to broach the subject. “There are an awful lot of Jesus shout-outs on this record.”
Finn laughs, which I take as a good sign. Maybe we’re on same page. But then he waits for me to ask an actual question. And that’s when I realize I’m in over my head. If I was talking to the Pope, this would be easy. “So you seriously believe in original sin? That’s fucked up, dude.” But with Finn, it’s like finding out that a close friend thinks he had stigmata once. How do you ask the things you want to ask without being a dick?
So I tell him a story. I tell him how, just a few days ago, I was driving through Burbank in a rented car, singing along to his record with all the windows open. I came to a stoplight somewhere in the middle of “New Friend Jesus,” and while I’m waiting for the light to change, I’m singing at the top of my lungs, “Got a new friend and my new friend’s name is Jesus!” And I realize, the guy in the next car is staring at me. Not with derision or anger. It’s bemusement. It’s the smile you give to a puppy who loses his footing on a newly-mopped kitchen floor. He thinks I’m adorable. Because he’s pretty sure he just caught me jamming out to Christian rock.
“And you don’t want people thinking you listen to Christian rock?” Finn asks.
“Well no, because I’m not listening to Christian rock,” I protest. “You don’t think it’s Christian rock, do you?
“I wouldn’t call it that, no.”
“How do I explain to people who want to preemptively judge me for liking ‘New Friend Jesus’ that it’s not Christian rock? I mean, it’s got funny lyrics, but it’s not necessarily a jokey song, right? It’s not something you’d find on a Dr. Demento record.”
“No, not at all,” Finn agrees.
“But without fail, songs with earnest expressions of religious conviction, particularly about Jesus Christ, make me cringe like I just caught my parents dry-humping.”
“You’re being serious about Jesus, or at least the characters in the song are. Is it satire? Or cultural commentary? Or something else I’m not thinking of? How is it not an Amy Grant song?”
Finn gives me a perfectly intelligent and well thought-out response. (“I’ve always been attracted to the human elements of Jesus,” he says, in part. “Not the superpowers but the actual human part.”) The problem is, I’m asking the wrong questions. I’m not really interested in his interpretation of “New Friend Jesus” or any other song on the album. I don’t know that it matters whether he was being ironic when he wrote lines like “Jesus is a judge and he’s kind and he’s just/Forgives us for our avarice and lust.” The bigger question, at least for me, is why his religious songs make me so uncomfortable?
The most obvious explanation is that I’m not religious myself, so all that spiritual voodoo just gives me the heebie jeebies. But I’m not gay and I can listen to David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” or Pete Townshend’s “Rough Boys” without getting creeped out. I can listen to the most violent, mean-spirited hip-hop songs about killing people for sport and still be like, “Crank that shit up!” But without fail, songs with earnest expressions of religious conviction, particularly about Jesus Christ, make me cringe like I just caught my parents dry-humping.
“I was talking to a guy over in England,” Finn tells me. “And he suggested that maybe people are able to swallow my Jesus stuff because I’m also talking about people throwing up and doing drugs and waking up in the gutter.”
There’s probably some truth to that. Finn keeps the religious stuff diluted. It’s not front and center, like Bob Dylan in his Born Again phase, but just another part of the lyrical landscape, like all the rest of Dylan’s songs. Still, every time Jesus shows up in one of Finn’s songs, it’s like a 40-year-old guy showing up at a college keg party. I’ve been to many Hold Steady shows, and I’ve seen it happen every time they play a song like “First Night.” When Finn is shouting about booze and shady drug deals, the crowd shouts along with every verse like it’s written on stone tablets. But when it takes a left turn into spiritual territory — “She cried and she told us about Jesus” — the shouts get suddenly muffled. The pumping fists become nervous glances at their shoes or fumbling with cellphones.
Growing up, Finn tells me, the only music he listened to that was overtly religious was probably the Violent Femmes. “Especially their second album, Hallowed Ground,” he says. “Gordon Gano was someone who sang about religion where it didn’t feel forced. I was like ‘Hey, this guy’s really cool and a great songwriter.’ I couldn’t always get what his take on Jesus was. One song he’s talking about Jesus walking on the water and the next it’s, you know…”
“Appalachian babies being thrown down wells.”
“Exactly, yeah. It’s either ‘let’s build an Ark’ or-”
“I want to bang black chicks!”
“He never really stayed on message. But even with all the weirdness, I think there was a sincerity. That’s what fascinated me about Gano. He seemed to have a loving relationship with Jesus.”