The other night, last night as I write this, I woke up with a terrible stomach ache and a paralyzing fear running through my body. No big deal. Happens every now and then. I’m pretty used to middle of the night existential freakouts. It’s not fun to feel like reality is collapsing in front of you while you fall backward into the abyss. But it’s worth experiencing if you get a chance.
At first sniff, you might think that this is exactly how Those Poor Bastards intend to make you feel when you listen to their album, Gospel Haunted. You might not be too far from the truth. But that’s definitely not the entire story.
Though the band is just Lonesome Wyatt and the Minister, the album sounds as though it was composed by an entire demon orchestra. It’s like a country music carnival for an audience of lunatics. It’s so strange that it becomes beautiful, or at least very interesting.
I think you can find the core of the album, the thesis, if you will, in the song “At the Crossroads.” The song is built around distorted acoustic guitar and drums that sound as if they’re being played far in the distance. Then there’s the brooding vocal track that seems disconnected from the instruments, as if the music and vocals have only come together by chance. The chorus goes, “Between good and evil I’ll never choose / If either side wins, I know I’ll lose.” As much as I distrust dichotomies, I think that, considering the heavy religious themes on the album, this song’s chorus is pretty brave. Accepting good and evil, not taking sides, or at least realizing the importance of both to the human condition is almost too much for any traditional church to accept. Come on, admit it, you like being bad every now and then, dontcha? We’re all beasts and angels, at the same time.
The opening track, “Glory Amen” might not sound totally out of place in a Pentecostal church somewhere in Appalachia. Sure, there’s a bit of swearing and the song’s maybe just a bit too sinister and dark, but otherwise it’s a pretty straightforward praise song. I thought at first that it might be intended as ironic but after listening further, I’m not so sure.
I might be fat and maybe enjoy the pleasures of the flesh a little too much, but I swear I feel a certain kinship with poor-folk Christianity. I don’t agree with the theology but I often feel the weary hand of world-rejection on my shoulder. Maybe that’s why I ultimately get a kick out of this music, with all its sorrow and praise and anger and worship.
I’m not sure about Lonesome Wyatt and the Minister’s religious beliefs. In an interview with Jashie P. of the Outlaw Radio podcast, Wyatt said he’d like his views to remain a mystery. Good. As it should be, really. Keep the music and the performer separate, until the music becomes almost a living thing, with an independent soul. Even better, we have to interpret the music on its merits, rather than wondering what the artists’ intentions were.
The song, “The Chemical Church” sounds almost like a sing along in a backwoods bar somewhere. Except it’s pretty much totally against the idea of organized religion. The characters that sing the song call out corporate churches, greed, hatred of homosexuals, and racist preachers. The song takes the position that dogma should never trump spirituality.
Definitely one of my favorite songs on the album is “Wealth is Death.” The instruments are distorted to the point that they all blend together into a unified crunching sound. The chorus makes me pump my fists every time I hear it: “Never met a rich man whose grave I didn’t want to piss on / Never met a poor man whose grave I didn’t want to pray on.” Kind of gives you a giggle at first but it’s sung with such sincerity that you end up taking it deadly serious. I might have been unsure about the level of irony in some of these songs but I’m convinced that “Wealth is Death” lacks it completely. It makes us think of the Jesus story, as told in the four gospels. If I recall correctly, Jesus hung out with social outcasts and lived a fairly pauper-like life. And yet, one of the first things that comes to mind when I think about organized Christianity in the 21st Century is the many far-right Republicans who are part of the evangelical movement. In other words, I think of free markets and greed run amuck. How did this happen? Was Jesus a socialist? Who knows? I hope so.
I think there’s something very destructive in this music, but only in the best sense of the word. The real world becomes distorted and then disappears completely. One is forced into contemplating the abyss, or at least the crossroads. I mean, if love were all it took, we’d all be gods by now.
Those Poor Bastards are part of the new 21st Century blues called gothic country. There are similar bands out there, but I like them the best. It’s the perfect music for a generation that came of age listening to Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails and maybe a bit of Type O Negative but have ripened with age and mellowed out a bit. Or maybe I’m thinking of myself again. Either way, I’m glad we’ve all found a little religion.