A two (or three) part series in which I muse on the Death of the American Idiom in Sodom, South Georgia.
So if Wilco is America's answer to Radiohead, then Sam Beam is America's answer to Bob Dylan. Wait, Bob Dylan's already American. Ok, then, Sam Beam is our generation's answer to Bob Dylan. Not that Bob Dylan needed an answer, or that our generation seeks to rival the hippie generation in any meaningful sense, but the comparison is hard to resist: folkie gone 'lectric, and suddenly Mars Incorporated chocolate company is using Beam (something Dylan only caved to much later in his ironic endorsement of Victoria's Secret) in psychedelic paisley M&M colors. WTF? Beam was supposed to be my own private fantasy, an evocative reminder of my romantic forays as an undergrad. It suddenly became all too clear to me what it was like for Led Zeppelin fans to hear Zep’s music in a car commercial. Suddenly, I felt like my own heart was sold, and I hadn’t even managed to graduate with my Bachelors yet. At least Zeppelin fans got a good 20 or more years to enjoy the music on their own terms—I hadn’t even gotten over that girl yet.
Yet this is our culture today. Before we have a chance to process the events of our lives, companies have somehow slick-wrapped them and are trying to sell them back to us. Beam’s music particularly seems to meet all our needs and deepest commercial desires: romantic, religious, fatalistic. It’s just like Johnny Cash said—the only three things somebody can really write about are love, God, and murder (and don’t forget the tagged-on catchall Life). Everything somehow fits into those three categories. And really, what’s with all that Biblical imagery from Beam, a professed agnostic? In its October cover story, Paste royally botched its chance to answer this question. When they should’ve pressed Beam on his rampant thievery of a system of mythology he doesn’t even buy into, they sit back and mused to themselves, huh, isn’t that interesting?
I had always thought Beam was a Christian, or believer at least on some level, until I read the interview. I was always impressed by what I thought was his deft use of southern culture, particularly the religious icons that populate the desolate landscape of a post-Civil War south. Paste correctly noted that Beam’s musical vocabulary is showing him to be a rival to Jack White (and possibly a willingness to express said vocabulary with greater breadth). It seemed like he really bought into these icons on some level and was using his vocabulary to give voice to those ideas, and that gave me confidence in his songwriting. So what, do I not buy it now? Do I think Sam is an atheist without guts who wants to use loaded imagery without consequence? Maybe. I plan on discussing Beam’s use of Christian imagery in this first part, particularly in comparison to the realm of Christian music. And maybe in that process, I’ll answer my own question. In part two, I plan on justifying Beam’s use of this idiom, and drawing larger conclusions. If I still have more to say (no guarantees either way) I’ll flesh it out in a third (as of yet apocryphal) article. I’ll be building on both Paste’s interview (since I don’t really have the clout to manage an interview with Beam) and Beam’s lyrics.
The fact is that few of Beam’s songs do not mention God or religion in some form, and even songs that don't carry an unspoken religious weight. This is probably because Beam tends to use the same words over and over, continually cashing in on his own recurrent images. God is always a somewhat deistic shape; mothers and fathers are often drunks; there's always beggars, bees, birds, something being borrowed or stolen, and somebody is almost always sleeping. This isn't a bad thing. Whitman spent his whole life continually rewriting the same book, expanding and contracting (more the former than latter). Scorsese has made most of his movies about the same exact people, using the same exact actors, doing the same exact accent. Beam shouldn't be blamed for this. But at least, we say, Scorsese is making movies about people he grew up with on the streets. When was the last time Beam hung out with Jesus the Mexican Boy? Of course Beam has a right to write about these sort of things and use them to his heart's content. And the fact is, I buy them, and then wrestle with them over this sort of question.
Like his use of imagery, Beam’s salesmanship of his own music has been impressive. Initially, he took some self-recorded grainy-chop recordings from his garage and sold them to Sub Pop. He returned with similar studio recorded meditations with his next album and EP, before changing it up and killing all our hopes of complete folk revival with his electric EP. And now, with his latest, he’s even going so far as to channel the Beatles in his pastiche. Beam’s transition has been slow and arguably contemplated. Unlike Dylan’s sudden switch that was intent on confounding everyone who tried to categorize him, Beam’s following, including myself, has largely taken the wait-and-see approach. The question continually looms: what is Sam Beam getting at?
And if we don’t have a clear picture of what exactly Beam is getting at, why do we listen to him in the meantime? I think the simple answer is that we trust Beam. In an era that seems intent on releasing each album as the newest final definition of an artist, Beam seems comfortable taking his time and releasing many of his lesser, more disparate efforts in the form of EPs and singles with little fanfare on iTunes, a medium, which, on some level, I trust for some inexplicable reason (despite knowing I probably shouldn’t). The fact is that Beam himself doesn’t seem totally able to direct his own musings, he can only channel them and record them. And I, for one, have found more religious solace and empathy in Sam Beam's music, than I ever have in the so called "Christian" music that exists today. Beam's music might not contain the theology of "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," but neither does virtually anything produced by the “Christian” market. Actually, Beam's lyrics are more driven by the Bible than those of most Christian artists, who prefer oblique references that they believe cover their inability to write meaningfully about what they believe. This, in part, is why I get so jaded about a magazine like Paste highlighting such an important issue, and then not engaging it at all, letting Beam play it off as process, thinking that the oblique reference is enough to start an errant heart searching for truth.
It says something terrible either about me or about Christian music today that a confessed agnostic tells me more about my faith than the faithful. And what does that say about Beam’s lyricism? Is he really an agnostic? Beam’s music demonstrates one thing clearly—great art is not rigged. Beam says he wrote much of The Shepherd’s Dog out of some disillusionment with the current politics of America. But one doesn’t listen to this album and come away screaming profanities about George W. Bush. Nor does somebody come away agnostic. Any good artist must realize that art transcends its own inspiration, that it is greater than the sum of its parts. So because Beam seems to express a genuine interest in faith at times (in a truly meaningful way, as opposed to CCM-approved expressions of “faith”) does not cancel his agnosticism. In fact, it gives breadth to it, the same way Derrida’s admission of constant prayer and his acknowledgement that belief and disbelief are on the same continuum gave him an authority he did not have before. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to hear that CCM has actually led people away from faith following the basic syllogism: if these people consider themselves of God, and God is the definition of beauty according to them, then why is this so ugly? Most CCM is, at best, self-contradictory. At worst, it’s offensive and gives non-Christians a very good reason to mock Christian “culture.”
So what is it in Iron & Wine’s music I find so entrancing? Well, when Christ does come back, I do think there’s a very good chance he might find me at a poker game, burning the midnight oil with a pint of Guinness and fifty bucks on the line. Or maybe it’s the fact that Beam’s own agnosticism seems to express the trepidation with which I approach my own beliefs. This is not to say that I don’t hold my beliefs with conviction. The opposite in fact, my own beliefs inspire trepidation. The fact is that it scares me when Rich Mullins turns on the smoke machines in “Awesome God” and sings about the absolute power of God. God’s justice is always a double edged sword. As Paul makes clear in his epistles, the law only serves to show how dead we are. The law is an object of wrath. And God’s absolute power in contrast to my absolute deadness is a scary thought. There is no escape. It’s this very tension that Beam calls forth in his song “Sodom, South Georgia.” In it, a father is dying, a child is being born, and the whole town is couched in bizarre (but stunningly clear and even coherent) imagery. Even still “all dead white boys say [and “white tongues hang out”], ‘God is good.’” This particular chorus rings out the seeming cognitive dissonance of the Christian faith (and the sometimes bitter lack of understanding even its adherents have to it): that God is good despite his agency (even if indirect) in pain and death. There are echoes of Sufjan’s God-monster from “Casimir Pulaski Day” here. Belief in the Christian God comes at a bitter price: the acknowledgement that we must simply nod our heads at the pain of the world, and even still, acknowledge God’s role in it (if only by his existence as a just being). It’s something Beam understands better than most Christian ministers, and obviously, it’s its own reason for Beam’s agnosticism. Really, who wants to believe in this? Beam seems to be asking. It’s a damn good question.
Forget what I said about “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” Beam is dealing in some harsh theology here. Consider what St. Paul said in Galatians, chapter 3 (vs. 21-22): For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. Beam acknowledges (at least metaphorically) that Jesus is coming back, and that, in some sense, He will save us. But where does Christ find us? At a poker game, of course. If anything, the reasons for not believing in Beam’s music are the Christians themselves. How many CCM songs are there about that? Not too many last time I checked. We do have a few sayings we throw around now and then, like “so heavenly minded you’re no earthly good” to gently chide ourselves, but then again, we also throw around phrases like “God is good” without really considering the (earthly) ramifications of it (namely, that are a source of evil). If Christians want to be a city on a hill, particularly in the arts, we need to be the ones who talk about the difficulty of belief, not agnostics. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say that—agnostics clearly have a difficulty with belief. Beam is honest enough to dialogue with that which he has difficulty, not marginalize it. Therefore, let me rephrase, Christians need to have the same honesty that Beam has, not simply close our minds to the difficulties, which, whether or not we like it, most Christian music does.
And in closing this first part, I’d like to anticipate a retort I can hear from the wings already: art is also about praise, in addition to reflection. Indeed it is, but part of praise is reflection. One of the loveliest (and most unique in comparison to many writings) things about the Bible is the way it will suddenly break into ecstatic praise for God, whether it is in the midst of a theological discourse in St. Paul, or a reflective psalm by King David. The Bible shifts seamlessly from one genre to another (where do you think Whitman learned to do it so well?). Praise is couched in reflection, and vice versa. They are inseparable. Similarly, Beam (whether he means to or not) does the same thing in his song “Sodom, South Georgia,” a song that encapsulates commentary, reflection, and praise (even if it ironic from Beam’s perspective). This particular point hints at something I’m going to comment on in part two: great art is not rigged. Aren’t you interested? (Say yes.)