The Trouble With Art & Faith

I’ll begin with a story.

I listen to a lot of music, watch a fair amount of movies and read books of many kinds. Art, in many forms, is an essential part of my existence. One of the ways I continue to make these pieces come together is by keeping up with what’s next in these areas. I have an app on my phone to track movie release dates, and follow several websites on Twitter to aid in my knowledge of music releases, a list I add to as a band or record label strikes my attention. A band that caught my ears a few years ago was Sorority Noise.

I first noticed them upon the release of their second album, Joy, Departed, via Topshelf Records in 2015, when I discovered the vinyl amongst the stacks at Lunchbox Records in Charlotte, NC. I was still kind of new to the vinyl game, and made it a habit to take recommendations from the staff at Lunchbox and buy something without listening to it. What I heard when I dropped the needle on side A of the album was a deep, melancholy indie rock sound, which immediately appealed to me. Yet in spite of the record’s title, the band actually delivers a fulfilling and ultimately hopeful gaze into the future. The production is warm, the lyrics thoughtful, and it’s an album that sounds best spinning on 12-inches of wax, as cliché as that may sound. I welcomed the band to my list of artists to watch out for moving forward.

In between albums, the band worked on a split EP with The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die and a proper EP of their own entitled It Kindly Stopped for Me, which has to be one of the most heart-wrenching collection of songs I’ve ever heard, so much so that I remember actually shedding a few tears in my car. Its emotional core, while moving, didn’t pull me in like the LP did, mostly, I’d think, because listening to Kindly was almost too emotionally complicated. Then, in early 2017, it was announced that the band was releasing a proper follow-up in March, called You’re Not As _____ As You Think, a cryptic, yet intriguing title. The announcement included a short trailer, where the band fills in the blank with various words, suggesting a very inclusive connection between band and listener; I was going to be able to decide what the blank was for me, a complicated prospect to say the least. A month later, they debuted the first single–and the album’s opening track–“No Halo,” which hinted at a slightly more upbeat Sorority Noise musically, even if the lyrics still suggested similar struggles with loss and deep sadness.

St. Patrick’s Day 2017 was the release date for the record, and I looked forward to listening to it, especially after having read an interview with lead singer/lyricist Cameron Boucher about the themes of the album. Boucher came across as a thoughtful, introspective guy, and I was even more excited to see what the band had developed over the two years between full length albums. The collection of songs was sonically exactly what “No Halo”–and subsequent singles “A Better Sun” and “Disappeared”–suggested the album would be, and to be fair, the lyrics were the kind of emotionally charged, introspective type that I expected as well; still, something felt off.

That’s sort of where the story takes a turn that you might not have been expecting. This isn’t an album review in the truest sense. In all honestly, I haven’t been able to push myself into a second listen for the record, and I’m not sure I’ve fully reconciled with myself the reasons why, although I have my suspicions. The aforementioned interview in Stereogum featured the following back and forth with Boucher:

STEREOGUM: Let’s talk about what has happened in the past year that inspired the songs on the new album.

BOUCHER: The record deals a lot with loss, and dealing with grief. Religion is another big thing. I was raised Catholic, and I strayed away from the church for a while because I didn’t adhere to a lot of the beliefs they had, social-wise. I’ve always been a God-fearing human, though, albeit with whatever religion is subservient to that belief. I became really good friends with Julien Baker, and she’s very vocal in her beliefs. When I’m at shows, sometimes people would ask me about this cross that I wear on my neck, and I would be like, Yeah, literally what’s wrong with that? Because Julien’s so vocal about her belief, and we became really good friends, that helped me to realize that there was value in that. There is a greater thing to all of this, and I think the record is very interrogative towards faith. I’m asking a lot of questions that I don’t know the answers to, and kind of hoping that someone can answer them for me.

I also had some friends take their lives during the past two years, and a lot of the record is based around dealing with their loss and trying to continue my life, and also live my life as a continuation of theirs.

STEREOGUM: Where do you stand with your religious beliefs today?

BOUCHER: I’d say I’m like a Christian. I’d say I’m like a Christian — that’s a weird way to put it. [laughs] I definitely believe in God, and I think that has helped me deal with the loss of a lot of my friends, knowing that if I believe there’s still a heaven, then my friends are watching and are still with me. If I believed that they were just rotting in the ground, then it’s a lot harder for me to swallow. That’s where I’m at right now. I’m not overtly in people’s faces about it, but it’s something that I believe myself. I pray when I can and I do what I can. But at the same time, we’re not going to mass on Sundays when we tour, and none of my bandmates necessarily share the same viewpoints that I do, so it’s interesting… But it gives me solace, personally.

I guess I should have led with this, and so I’m guilty of burying the lede a little: I am a Christian and my faith and connection to my church life are important pieces of my life. This complicates some of the relationships with the art that I alluded to at the outset, as I am often attracted to types of art that are more driven by wrestling with weighty issues, by doubt, by darkness and introspection. For myriad reasons, art in the Christian world isn’t allowed to do this, and while I would certainly argue that there’s a need for those of us who believe the way I do to be able to find a solid ground to stand on, it often feels disingenuous to me for people to pretend that life–whether you’re a Christian or anything else–is always sunny and optimistic. There’s joy, yes (and personally I know I could tap into that more than I do), but life sometimes kick the crap out of you, and that’s reality, too.

All this to say, seeing this connection between Boucher and myself created a false relationship. I tend to do this: finding out someone shares my faith, even if the connection feels a little too casual, binds me to them in a strange way. And while there’s nothing wrong with doing this per se, I do think it places unnecessary pressure on the art that person is putting out to fit into the box of my own Christianity, something which is obviously also potentially harmful to me, both as a person and a man of faith.

The reason that I suspect that You’re Not As _____ As You Think proved to be so difficult to me is that it really wrestles with faith and loss and anger at both of these in a way that I found uncomfortable; and frankly I didn’t know what to do with that level of honesty. I’ve never lost anyone that close to me like Boucher has, and I think it’s safe to say that I’ve managed to get through the first 32 years of my life without anything nearing that level of trauma in any arena. The truth is that Boucher’s songs are about more eloquent and sophisticated than most emo bands are capable of: he is reflective and honest, but also seemingly fluid in the way he allows these experiences to shape him. And in fairness, his response to the loss of his friend is exactly how I’d like to think I’d react to the same situation. In truth, there are some difficult-to-swallow moments on the record that challenge my belief, some of which, I might argue, border on bad interpretations of truth or even sacrilege. It doesn’t mean, however, that Boucher isn’t allowed to doubt or feel emotions, and that’s what is difficult about this album. My pushback, I deduce, is more based on my concern that I might not even be as strong or faithful as he shows himself to be, even in the midst of his doubt.

I was recently listening to the Don’t Feed The Trolls podcast, starring Matt McDonald of The Classic Crime and Nate Henry of Sherwood, two bands whose music I enjoy and two men whose opinions I find interesting. Both Matt and Nate grew up in Christian households, from what I can tell, and this, as childhoods are wont to do, shaped each of them in various ways. On “Episode 62: Beauty & The Beast,” the guys discussed the “gay moment” in the recent live action re-telling of the classic Disney animated film, but break the argument down to the idea that people–especially those on the Conservative Right side of American politics–create uproars about things like this moment because it reflects on their own fears. In other words, parents are afraid of the “gay moment” in Beauty and the Beast not only because they have a fear that it will somehow turn their kids gay or something along those lines, but also because it sheds light on something they fear about themselves. I’m not sure if I agree with Matt on this, but it is interesting to consider. I know for sure that we are all capable of sin against ourselves or against one another. I’m also certain that the things that bother me about other people are often the things I dislike most about myself. So it feels like the potential is there for Matt’s point to be valid on some levels; but like I said, the plethora of variances involved complicates the issue too much to narrow it into that level of simplification.

All of this–be it from Sorority Noise, the Trolls Podcast or any other art form that I choose to engage with–is pushback of the highest order. I’m not always sure of where I stand on various social issues, and my dipping toes into various forms of expression, both of the Christian and decidedly non-Christian variety, does impress on me the need to solidify my belief system where it matters; to major on the major and minor on the minor, if you will. So it feels like it doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to always flee that which looks negative from the beginning, because there might always be opportunities to engage in conversations with people who see the world differently than I do. This doesn’t mean I can’t be certain about anything in my life, just that I don’t automatically remove people who don’t possess that same level of certainty.

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