ndie rock is waxing theological. Sufjan Stevens opened the door with his crooning tunes sung under the “shadow of the cross.” Mewithoutyou makes the problem of God’s existence the problem of their albums. Now Saintseneca provides a soundtrack for the post-Christian search for the soul.

Their song, “Only the Young Die Good”, reveals their concern. It subverts Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” — which, let’s remember, is a cheery piece about seducing a Catholic girl:

You got a nice white dress and a party on your confirmation
You got a brand new soul
Mmm, and a cross of gold
But Virginia they didn’t give you quite enough information
You didn’t count on me
When you were counting on your rosary

Besides his dubious sacramental theology (if Confirmation gave you new soul you’d be a different being, Billy) Joel’s argument is basic: “Good people die young, so don’t be good.”  Saintseneca inverts this: “If only the good ones die young / I pray your corruption comes.”

That is to say: if good people die young, then I pray that you die. This move is emblematic of the shift in rock n’ roll music. Having grown fat, drunk and depressed in the quixotic attempt at praising sin, it now tends to quietly praise virtue, as in Typhoon’s rallying cry at the end of their epic album White Lighter: “I will be good though my body be broken.”

Saintseneca argues what Socrates argued and Christ afterwards — it is better to be good and dead than alive and evil. Zac Little (bass player and major lyricist) undoes Joel’s scoff at the “brand new soul” by joining in Christ’s scoff at the value we place on the body over the soul. Says Christ:

And if thy right hand scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body be cast into hell. (Matthew 5:29)

Says Little:

If only the young ones die good
I’d pray your corruption would
Slip like a slit in the wrist
Hack the hands, redeem the rest

If not a hope in the hard reality of spiritual existence, what could give a man the courage to pen down such a sweet death-wish — such cavalier encouragement to “hack the hands” rather than give up on goodness. Strange days these, when our guitar-wielding heroes sound like Catholic mystics and our pulpits sound like pulp. But I’ll take something saintly, even if it’s hidden in Saintseneca.

This isn’t to say that it’s all peachy Christianity from here on out. Saintseneca are as anti- as Catholic, as often cynical as saintly. Little makes regular reference to an intimate connection with the spiritual world:

I was always fond of the notion
I was drenched in some spirit ocean
And all my visions merely the symptom of eyes open so wide
That I could peer into the other side

But the child’s sense that there’s more to everything is eventually deemed childish. It’s not that the world argues against a Cosmos that reflects the glory of things unseen. We lose our spirit-soaked selves in a kind of slump. We sigh and slip into the immense practicality of a world that seems to get on just fine without being the emanation of an invisible God. The “spiritual” world takes on an air of the ridiculous:

One day without warning the spirits stopped their warring
The devil ceased imploring
I said banished from my bed
Or had I hallucinated?

Saintseneca sings from the puzzling wound so many of us have in our hearts — a suspicion that the low-ceiling sorrows and joys of the workaday world are all there is, haunted by a childhood memory that cries out otherwise. This is expressed in the paradoxical “Christian” lyrics the band has been praised for, where the psalms and hymns of the spiritual life collide with the disappointments of the material life: “Be thou my vision‘ / ‘Cause I never see nothing,” and “I saw the light /  And I turned it off” and their superbly cynical “Heaven is a chemical / Swimming laps in the bowl of your skull”. Every post-religious schmuck who suffers the memory of a God-haunted world can echo Zac Little:

I was breathing divine wind
I was humming human hymns
I’ll never get over him

Saintseneca aren’t victims to the fancies of free-thought. In this grey and godless universe, they don’t argue that we are free to make our own meaning, nor that the work of the poet, as the pre-Catholic Wallace Stevens argued, is to create a supreme fiction which renders the world livable. Little describes himself as “being on some quest for truth,” a quest which, presumably, bars us from making up our own:

If you find the bones of God
Would you show them to me
Because if it isn’t true
It ain’t worth believing

Between a love for the spiritual world and a doubt that such a thing exists outside of the random swish of brain-juice, what does Saintseneca find worth believing? I could be wrong, but the answer seems to take its clearest form in the song “Falling Off.”

I fell from Heaven
Head heavy with this message
The flesh is your reference
For knowing the soul

What Little expresses — in a neat, almost scholastic conclusion — is a sacramental vision. The body is the site of the soul’s unveiling. The invisible is made present in the visible. This seems to be the answer to Little’s question of whether he’d “just hallucinated” the spiritual world, whether Heaven really is just a “chemical.” The flesh is a reference for knowing the soul — it’s through chemicals, through visual images, through inadequate descriptions, through half-heard sounds, through flesh that we, fleshy animals, get to know God. This is, after all, what the Church has always taught, that God deigned to become flesh, that we might know Him in and through our limited, often-faulty faculties. The complaint that this or that spiritual experience is “just” your brain makes little sense. One might as well argue that the skeptical thought “it’s just in your brain” is likewise — just in your brain. To look for some spiritual experience that does not occur in and through brain-chemicals and nerve-endings is to look for something beside the human to experience it.

Little seems especially apt for this sense of unity of the visible-invisible. He spoke about it in an interview with Stereogum: “it’s interesting to me that people try to reconcile those two worlds, that of the metaphysical spiritual realm and the scientific realm — reconcile, or to try and understand one in terms of the other rather than just compartmentalizing them.”  It’s a tough road to take, avoiding a collapse of spiritual into the material or the material into the spiritual — maintaining the marriage of spirit and flesh that we call the human person. But the sacramentally-minded of us will be listening.

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