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10 Biblical Indie Albums


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.

1. Daniel Higgs 'Say God' (2010)

Daniel Higgs 'Say God'
Thrill Jockey

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.

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2. Gowns 'Red State' (2007)

Gowns 'Red State'

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.

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3. Maher Shalal Hash Baz 'Return Visit to Rock Mass' (1996)

Maher Shalal Hash Baz 'Return Visit to Rock Mass'

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.

4. The Mountain Goats 'The Life of the World to Come' (2009)

The Mountain Goats 'The Life of the World to Come'

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.

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5. Neutral Milk Hotel 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea' (1998)

Neutral Milk Hotel 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'
In a decade defined by sarcasm and irony, Jeff Mangum's full-blooded, full-bodied cries of "I love you Jesus Christ" rang out profoundly in the '90s. He wasn't swearing, either: Mangum seeing, in the King of the Jews, a pure spirit whose teachings had been sadly corrupted over the passage of time. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea isn't a work of 'spirituality,' as it were, but it's undeniably spiritual; a mad marriage of nightmare imagery, marching-band pomp, circus kitsch, and obsessions over Anne Frank that amounts to something singularly human. In the years since its release, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has become its own minor religion: Mangum an indie-rock prophet whose every verse has, since, been examined by those in search of enlightenment.

6. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds 'Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!' (2008)

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds 'Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!'

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.

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7. Page France 'Hello, Dear Wind' (2005)

Page France 'Hello, Dear Wind'
Suicide Squeeze
"Praise to you, praise to me," Michael Nau sings, mid-Hello, Dear Wind, and the 'you' ain't just his congregation. Nau isn't a preacher for the converted; instead, he's practicing the kind of all-inclusive, weirdos-welcome, loving-the-dissidents-too faith that befits an indie-rocker. Merely 21 when he authored Page France's first record, Nau borrowed from the marching-band knees-ups of Neutral Milk Hotel and The Decemberists, but nixed the haunted nightmares of the former and the ye-olde kitsch of the latter for a feeling of bona fide thanksgiving. There's a sense of innocence in the LP's bible-studied joy, and each of Nau's subsequent records —both as Page France and Cotton Jones— have found him drawn further into the eerie, elusive, and ephemeral.
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8. Palace Brothers 'There is No-One What Will Take Care of You' (1993)

Palace Brothers 'There is No-One What Will Take Care of You'
Drag City
As teenager, Will Oldham had a plum role as budding preacher in John Sayles' motion-picture Matewan. By the time Oldham released his first LP —the 1993 Palace Brothers album There is No-One What Will Take Care of You— he sounded ever more like a preacher, albeit one grown a little more world-weary and filled with questions. From the opening sermon "Idle Hands Are the Devil's Playthings" to the tragicomic "(I Was Drunk at) The Pulpit," Oldham sings, in his cracked country croon, a conversational give-or-take with God and his followers; delivering tales of failings and blessings, sin and redemption. With plentiful organ on board, sometimes the things sound like hymns, too; never moreso than in the humble, spiritual, poignant "O Lord Are You in Need?"
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9. Sufjan Stevens 'Seven Swans' (2004)

Sufjan Stevens 'Seven Swans'
Sounds Familyre

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.

10. The Thermals 'The Body, The Blood, The Machine' (2006)

The Thermals 'The Body, The Blood, The Machine'
Sub Pop
The third album for lo-fi Portland punks bordered on rock-opera, with leader Hutch Harris authoring a dystopian portrait of the USA as war-mongering, oil-guzzling, vengeance-minded military state. The Body, The Blood, The Machine was pretty blatantly a satire on the Rumsfeld regime, but its attack on the Christian Right certainly isn't some work of simple sacrilege. Instead, Harris's Orwellian work posed timely questions about the state of American culture; pointing out the self-serving hypocrisies of so-called Believers by examining their actions in a biblical context. Drawing heavily on the stories of the Good Book, Harris sees evil in the hearts of neo-cons, drawing the darling parallel between 21st century America and Sodom & Gomorrah.
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