I had just purchased Guster’s new record, Easy Wonderful, at my local FYE when I turned the CD over and read the back cover. Some of the song titles caused my eyebrows to scrunch.
‘Stay With Me Jesus’ … ‘That’s No Way To Get To Heaven’ … ‘Jesus And Mary’ … ‘Jonah.’
For those who don’t know, Guster is a pleasant, tuneful alt-rock-pop band that’s widely known for replacing drums with bongos — and whose members are three Jewish guys who met in college. The latter fact has perplexed many fans and critics who’ve bought their latest album. Has Guster gone Christian? Even I wondered that, too.
And Jesus, was I wrong.
Before I explain why, it’s important to point out that Ryan Miller, the band’s lead singer and lyricist, studied religion at Tufts University in Boston. Even before this record, he’s dabbled with religious imagery in his songs — like ‘Eden’ … ‘All The Way Up To Heaven’ … ‘Jesus On The Radio.’
On this record, though, it’s much more present. So much so that Miller has been asked about it frequently in interviews — as if he has to defend himself.
Theology has become such a sharply polarizing topic in music. It seems to fall in one of three extremes: You can either delve deep into God with Christian music, rail against God if you’re a mainstream artist or ignore it altogether. But the moment a pop-rock artist mentions God, they’re either — shock, horror — suddenly a Christian act. There’s little room for in-between.
But the in-between is where many people fall. I spent the first 18 years of my life raised in the Mormon church. But around my 18th birthday, I started to view the church as a cult of fear. One of my fellow teenage church-goers wasn’t allowed to watch TV — and he was told the ‘Macarena’ was sinful. That scared me more than what a pastor would preach from his pulpit. I eventually leaned toward a much more moderate approach. I can’t prove God. I can’t prove the afterlife. But I am open to the idea that some of those notions may exist. I’ll just have to wait and find out.
I also believe that the Bible isn’t strictly a book of truth or a book of falsehood. It’s a book of stories. Of parables. As such, it’s a rich topic for writers — whether they’re religious or not. Religion is a tree-like topic, twisted with countless diverging angles.
Take ‘Stay With Me Jesus,’ one of Guster’s new songs. On the surface, the lyrics seem gospel-like:
In 1959, two cars collide
Nine in the crash and one survived
You stayed with me Jesus — yes, I testify
You flew down from heaven to keep me alive
1985, I missed a plane
Which then disappeared, never seen again
You came to me Jesus, stood right in my way
You flew down from heaven to save me again
But really, Ryan Miller is trying to provoke thought: Yes, one person was saved, and they believe Jesus was the reason. But what about the others who died? Why didn’t Jesus swoop in and rescue them, too?
Another track, ‘Jonah,’ uses the Bible story of a man trapped in a whale as a metaphor for adversity. Another track juxtaposes Jesus and Mary against Romeo and Juliet. And why not? Whether Jesus and Mary were really divine doesn’t matter. Aren’t they characters worth exploring whether we believe or not?
Religion is too diverse, too deep, too complex a topic to be cast into extremes. Writing about it doesn’t have to be an act of faith — it can be a way to record our observations, skepticism, confusion, fear or even hope.
In the end, artists should always be looking for new ways to write about old things.