My friends and I came to admire the singer-songwriter Harrison Lemke after a morning listening-party of his album Fertile Crescent Blues. Over a great deal of coffee, we wondered how anyone not employed to write the sing-along section of a Protestant Kidz TV show could possibly make an album describing Adam, Eve and their immediate descendants. I, at least, had never heard a convincing account of the Patriarch Noah’s post-flood melancholy. Not with a half-eaten muffin in my hand. So we stalked Harrison on Twitter and begged him to ditch the warmth of the Texas sun and take up the post-industrial pleasures of the Rust Belt for a weekend: “Marc Barnes here, part of The Harmonium Project, a bunch of kids trying to revitalize our heroin-y Steubenville, Ohio through the power of music, etc. Want to come play a house show?” To our delight, he purchased plane tickets.
When we asked a friend to play as the opener for the show — Taylor, aka Sam Rockwell Machete Champion, aka America the Robot, nephew to Rob Parissi (writer of the ineffable “Play That Funky Music White Boy”) — I had to give a caveat. Taylor is a brutal songwriter. He describes every other object as a hurting human body. Small towns, old friends, past selves, and present traumas are all beautiful, disemboweled, and usually covered in sores. When the Almighty shows up it’s as a shoddily arranged human artifice, trying to make things better:
I’ve looked into the face of God
but eye sockets were all I saw
lightbulb holes and lightning sparks
an old machine with missing parts
“Harrison,” I told him, “is really Catholic.”
Taylor looked unconcerned. I realized that I needed to clarify the “really Catholic” singer-songwriter — a character that seems to come in four distinct types. On the ground floor, there are the Aesthetically Catholic. They are drenched in the stuff without a particular commitment to its moral or doctrinal imperatives. The Faith is a great wellspring for images, analogies, and album concepts — but don’t expect to see them at Mass.
The second floor houses the Secretly Catholic. They don’t come out and say “Hey, you know what goes great with coffee? Pope Saint Leo the Great.” Their discerning, Catholic fans “find out” that they are Catholic through a preponderance of evidence: The scapular he wore at the Coachella ‘03 + the oblique references to his guardian angel during his sludge metal phase + his oddly remorseful Instagram posts during the Lenten season = Possibly Papist.
On the third floor, there are the Explicitly Catholic. These are volatile people. They usually end up writing earnest, but bad, renditions of Latin Hymns, ditching the songwriter scene to go the full Christian Contemporary or contenting themselves with small, devoted fan bases whose ears do not glue shut at the mention of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Then there are those who seem to attain their natural voice by an excess of Christianity, singing Christ so brashly and explicitly that the problem of “the Christian in the contemporary music scene” rolls off them like water off of a duck’s back. Whether putting Paul’s letters to song, like Half-Handed Cloud, or making folky noise inspired by the Song of Songs, like Even Oxen, or taking St. Augustine’s Confessions as muse, like Sam Rocha’s Late to Love, these writers blast away the drop-ceiling that puts gross limits on what religious heights lyrics are allowed to reach. Too weird to fit the Christian genre and too Christian to be cool, their projects are financial failures that bear testament to the fertility of the faith.
Harrison Lemke belongs in this last category. He is doing the impossible — writing un-ironic, un-edgy songs about Lot and his daughters, the martyrdom of St. Agnes, and Jacob in the wilderness. He screams invective against Satan on a four-track tape-recorder in his room. Not, he’ll be the first to say, because he’s some kind of analog purist: rather, it’s cheap, and computers aren’t fun. The result is a brave corpus of fuzzy, hissing, folk songs that would make Dylan proud, and will probably turn most listeners running in the opposite direction. He’s awful at promoting himself — a rare and comforting trait in a world in which every cobbled pile of junk gets hip graphic design and an Instagram page.
There’s self-reflection in his lyrics (especially in earlier works, like More Postcards from Purgatory) but the trajectory of his writing could be described as a slow, steady removal of the self as the proper subject of poetry — a gradual replacement of the ego with the saints, patriarchs, prophets, psalmists, and the ever-there presence of Christ Jesus. His Song for St. Valentine is a good example:
they left you lying headless on the Via Flaminia,
your blood splayed out in the mud like a crown.
the winter sun pulled back the rain like a bridal veil
as your love-letter unfolded itself on the ground.
The idea that art is “a form of self-expression” has become a dogma that few are willing to question. Art, in this view, is like sex in a liberal capitalist society — an act without objective meaning, beholden to no particular form, which aids the individual in proclaiming and affirming his subjective desires to a consenting audience. Like sex, art is only bad if it is inauthentic; if, instead of expressing the self, it attempts to follow rules, or otherwise conform itself to something besides individual desire. To break from this view requires a minor religious conversion; a Copernican revolution in which the artist begins to believe that he has something to express besides himself.
This is the experience of many converts (and Lemke has confessed the Catholic creed for a year now): The Holy Faith grabs its convert by the shoulders, spins him away from the mirror and shoves him towards an open door. The subversive pleasure of being Catholic lies in ripping off the obligations of individualism — the commandment to be yourself, express yourself, stay true to yourself, and otherwise take your nebulous, shifting “self” as the central nugget of existence. Catholicism stands this law on a pile of straw and burns it as a witch — in exchange for something (or, more to the point, Someone) to sing about.
A dear friend and poet told my wife and I that, if this much-spoken-of and ever-delayed Renaissance of Catholic Art is going to flower, it will only be achieved by those with the humility and sanctity not to care if they are the ones who achieve it; not to care, even, if they receive no historian’s accolade three hundred years later. Questioning the dogma of art as a form of self-expression is a good first step in the creation of a generation of artist-saints who create without counting the cost. Lemke achieves it in his “tape-hiss symphonies to God,” avoiding the grey sadness that the self-expressive carry like millstones around their necks. This turn towards the other frees him to to describe the miseries of Adam and Eve, postlapsarian, like he knows them:
Last night I had the same dream
as every night before:
we were lying under pomegranates
misty-wet and warm
when our old friend cried out to us
in a language I didn’t know;
then the vision tore in two
and then I violently awoke
and saw you breathing softly on the mat
of intersecting reeds,
long hair across your features
all inscrutable with sleep,
and the cave mouth sucked the cold air in
and it filled our little home,
and I hugged myself and trembled
and was utterly alone.
Over some Steubenville takeout, Lemke said that his primary inspiration in writing is myth and epic. Instead of treating human persons as interior, psychological selves who must “express” and “actualize” their hidden minds, epics treat their heroes and villains as clear and distinct objects undergoing some clear and distinct suffering, reacting according to their virtuous or vicious habits and judged according to what they do. This, he argued, is truer to human experience than our modern description of man as his own psychologist, desperately arguing with his own head, hoping against hope to make manifest some obscure kernel of felt presence he calls the “self.”
Between pulling Harrison into our not-yet revitalized Grand Theater, renting out someone else’s house for his show, or going through our Pope Beer while we reviewed our favorite earnest, self-funded Christian recording artists of the 1970’s, he seemed to get the impression that Steubenville life was more magical and bohemian than reality bears out. He mentioned, as we made our way back from a show at a dingy punk venue in Pittsburgh, how amazing it would be if there was a radio station that “just played the Rosary all the time.” This is why I love converts. They see the power in the things that repetition has taught me to sneer at. I turned on Catholic radio. No rosaries at 3 a.m. Just a tired, unironic, Benedictine monk reading from the Gospel of John over airwaves that we rode into the black morning.