Every poet —be they old-fashioned penman or rogues wielding guitars— has a biblical phase. Whether believers or atheists, and be it a career-long exploration or a one-off concept-album, women and men are drawn, time and again, to the Bible. Its tales of vengeance and virtue, its fables and its follies, its imagery and theme. And, of course, to the undeniable cultural persistence of these words. Below are albums steeped in biblical reference, but, more importantly, they're albums that attempt to have a near-biblical heft in and of themselves. Be they works of devotion, catharsis, satire, or sacrilege, each is united in its grandeur and ambition.
Daniel Higgs, the one-time poet out front of Dischord hardcore combo Lungfish, has been exploring some serious theosophical terrain since his old band went on hiatus in 2005. A series of solo works have been strung along incantation and transcendence, drawing from hymnals, sermons, ragas, mantras, and myths as Higgs walks through works steeped in repetition. They're poised in some bizarre mid-point between performance-art, devotional, psychedelia, and outsider art, but 2010's colossal, 80-minute double album Say God makes his works seem purely religious. Opener "Hoofprints on the Ceiling of Your Mind" plays, literally, like a sermon; 14-minute closer "Christ Among Us" is, with just banjo and vibrato voice, a work of astonishing power and terror.
As Judy Berman's 2009 essay for The Believer, 'Concerning the Spiritual in Indie Rock,' incisively attested, the one-and-only album for haunted LA noise/folk/psychedelic duo Gowns wasn't just a concept album about life in a Red State, but a pilgrimage into its wilderness. Future EMA dame Erika M. Anderson grew up in South Dakota, and its cultural wasteland —looming as symbol of the George W. Bush era— is the desert through which the album's haunted hymns stalk. The songs play as a kind of spiritual quest at the end of the world, from the near-death soliloquies of "White Like Heaven" to the brutal Rapture of "Fake July." You could never confuse it for a Christian record; instead, Red State peers into the dark heart of Evangelical Middle America.
3. Maher Shalal Hash Baz 'Return Visit to Rock Mass' (1996)
Maher Shalal Hash Baz are one of music's strangest cult acts: an ever-evolving ensemble of Japanese mystics playing a series of tiny tunes in willfully-naïve, ramshackle fashion. Often, the players outnumber the seconds in their compositions, a school-band vibe reigning as tubas and euphoniums and percussion all clatter in barely-rehearsed awkwardness. Oh, and their leader, Tori Kudo, is a Jehovah's Witness whose lyrics are almost entirely cribbed from the Bible. Long before being discovered by Western audiences, MSHB knocked out this colossal triple-album, whose sheer heft —83 tracks, over three hours— plays as a grandiose display of faith. Sitting down to Return Visit to Rock Mass is a little like reading an entire Gospel.
John Darnielle has never written about himself, the longtime Mountain Goats leader preferring, instead, to author characters and place them in narratives. As storyteller, it's no surprise that Darnielle has long been drawn, as confessed 'fan,' to the Bible. The 12th MG LP, The Life of the World to Come, is wholly inspired by readings, with the gently-delivered, Owen Pallett-orchestrated tunes wearing that inspiration on the album sleeve (tracks include "Philippians 3:20-21," "Deuteronomy 2:10," etc). Of course, these aren't songs of praise, but examinations of faith. It's not surprising that Darnielle, whose massive discography is a work of blue-collar toil, stumbles upon the uniting theme of what "God's work" may, for each individual, actually be.
Nick Cave's career has been knee-deep in the bible. Back in The Birthday Party, Cave was drawn to Old Testament vengeance, which mirrored his band's nihilist, apocalyptic music. In the Bad Seeds, he became more of a New Testament guy: those philosophical post-scripts mirroring his middle-age ruminations. For many, Cave's preacher persona peaked with his piano-balladic set of spirituals, The Boatman's Call. But a far more interesting biblical Bad Seeds joint is 2008's Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, a playful piece of storytelling on lyrical par with Hal Hartley's movie The Book of Life. Here, Lazarus is back from the dead amongst the New York night-life, with the brassy bombast and faux-showtune vibes neatly dovetailing with the Birthday Party's masterwork, Prayers on Fire.
Where most of Sufjan Stevens' albums have been of a more secular subject matter —see: his historically-minded 'State' LPs, Michigan and Illinois— the overlooked and occasionally-maligned Seven Swans boldly laid his faith on the table. Here, Stevens presided over a suite of songs united in theme: the religious imagery and allusions to biblical texts not a study-group celebration of scholastic aptitude, but a series of examinations on his faith; weighing up his life, as lived. Stevens sounds like the opposite of the self-satisfied Christian; humble, reflective, unsure, touched by a sense of genuine wonder. There's no flag-waving, just tunes concerned with what his belief may actually mean, and how it intersects with his existence.