Albums Worth Listening To. Daniel Amos, Motorcycle

19 Jan

Ok, so I’m starting out my albums list with a (*GASP*) Christian album.  Ok, before you close this blog forever and seek out a Pixies album or something, just give me a listen.

Daniel Amos is not Christian contemporary in the way you know it.  In fact, if I was running a record store in 1994 I wouldn’t put it in the Christian section at all–they simply don’t sit well next to Amy Grant or Petra or whoever else.  Unlike those bands, Daniel Amos is almost completely uninterested in preaching, or changing your beliefs at all.  Nor are they a worship band.    What we get here is an extremely smart, extremely brainy band wishing to express their philosophical beliefs.  (OOOOH that sounds worse.  You’ve gotta understand how GOOD this band is to be able to say this.)  Also Daniel Amos is pretty critical of mainstream religion for its exclusivity and closed communities.

Motorcycle is influenced by late 60’s psychedelia fed through 90’s production.  You’ve got mellotrons and shiny beach boys melodies and sound effects making a sort of dense fever dream influence by Dante, C.S. Lewis, and Frederick Buechner.  Their language is dense with a lot of word play, moving from Dylanesque rants to Lewis Carroll poetry to Haiku-like beauty.

So we open to the sounds of horses hooves and a harp:

Theirs is not a world where if you just love God hard enough life will be wonderful.  Take the first song “The Banquet at the World’s End.”  It’s an invitation to the end of the world basically, but the song, as happy (almost loony) it sounds has a bunch of people who are severely damaged being the ones who are left.  “The bride and the groom dance on club foot lane at the banquet at the world’s end.”  Yes, the idea is that Christ has come back and the meek inherited the earth, but the meek are really the meek, the ones who society has completely turned its back on.   Naturally the rich and “high class” choose not to attend.   Also, while this is a song of celebration, this is the beginning of an album that questions the idea that simple salvation, like joining a club, will solve anything.   The tune itself is very Pet Sounds.

We next follow “Traps Ensnares” starting with a verse “and He committed Himself to no man because  He knew what was in the heart of man.” It’s a quote from John, where Jesus is at the height of his popularity just before the crucifixion, and he did not trust public opinion because it is unstable (very smart.)  The song becomes a stream of consciousness litany of harms people can do upon each other over a singing choir.  Then stops quite abruptly.

Our next stop in this mystery tour would be “Hole in the World.”  An apocalyptic landscape with broken glass and lace curtains where everyone believes in god.   It ends with the singer crucifying God, and laying in the dark with broken legs waiting for a hand in the dark.  See what I mean by not being praise music?  To Daniel Amos God is not just in joy, but also pain, and spirituality is not a simple a to b progression.    The tune reminds me of the intro to “Gimme Shelter” for whatever reason.

“What’s come over me” is the weakest song on the first half (though probably the one most people would have liked the most at the time.)  I find it to be a sort of head-bobby I love God and God’s world song that’s a little simple compared to all that’s come before it.  (Although it’s interesting here that they say that God is not just in beauty but also in estrangement and in failure and pain and struggle.)  I guess after a beginning, I find this song to be an interruption to the theme of spiritual complexity, defamiliarization, and struggling with reductive reasoning.

Then we get “Buffalo Hills” a song about a little league baseball game, but through alien eyes.  The song is absolutely haunting in lyrical intensity:

Snap shot, visible sign
Spirit moving, bending the grasses
Runs free down the chalkline
Child of Wonder
Long legs.  Lashes.

The whole song is like that lyrically, sung with dreamlike clarity and a sun-drenched somewhat menacing guitar hook in the back.  At the peak of the song they break into what I can only describe as a Beach Boys influenced chant that is perfectly surprising, perfectly beautiful.

Finally we end the first part with “Guilty” a song asking a woman for forgiveness and wanting to be taken back.  Though he wants her to absolve him as well, which is a bit much to ask some woman to do.  This song suffers the most from sounding like the early nineties, very grungy, not bad, it builds up to continued pleadings that rises to a scream.

The second half begins with “Motorcycle” a Penny Lane sounding piece with riding a Motorcyle is a metaphor for life (and the idea that we might crash at any time.)  “We’re heading for the very same dead-end, stop-lights and crash sights and meeting again.”    There’s a sense of recklessness here (with all the near crashes and moving fast and such), but they’re going places.

We now go into Abby Road territory with several songlets hooked together–“Wonderful” a Lullaby celebrating the beauty of nighttime, and simple beauty.  We segue into the song “So Long” which is just a pleasant instrumental piece with so long sung over certain parts.  Short but pleasant.

Then we go to “My Frontier” which sounds like we’re at the gates of Dante’s hell.  There’s screams in the background and the singer talks about a place “where would be believers beat ploughshares to spears”  and he wants the sun to go down and kick the world apart.  Here, the frontier seems to be the place of strong emotions and threat.  The pain is at a peak, and hope seems to be running low.

“Grace is the Smell of Rain”  The best song on the album, and that’s saying a lot.  After the pain in the last song, we get to a more realistic view of heaven on earth than the Banquet.  The people in this song are just as damaged, but healing because the rain falls upon everyone.

 There’s old sleep in our eyes
and deep thorns in our sides
but old dogs learn new tricks
when the rain is falling
By the bottomless lagoon
a drunkard’s dancing in the moonlight

The song breaks into a sort of frenzied jam that ends up chanting “Motorcycle” reminding us of the theme.  The next song “Noelle” I read in the notes is by the lead singer’s daughter.  It’s basically building an ideal world free from harm for her.  “And I’ve prayed her into a dream where it all turns out quite well and the weather’s fine and the church bells chime Noelle, Noelle, Noelle.”  The thing is he knows this is a dream…

…unlike in “Wise Acres” which is basically against the modern church being so closed off and rewriting history to fit in with their exclusive surroundings.  Change scares them, as do differences, so they condition people to survive there and only there.  We end covered up in a layer of fuzz guitars and distortion.

Finally we get to the song “So Long Again” which is the point in the album where Alice wakes up (if we were to use a Wonderland theme.)   The imagery is hopeful and bright (an angel laughed beneath a weeping willow).  Then falls into a very gentle version of Motorcycle ending with “might not even be remembered on a motorcycle” fading into chimes and bright sounds.

Let me tell you, this album is one of the best of any kind, so tightly built and so honest in its feelings, I highly recommend it whatever you believe in (or don’t).  This is not a Christian album, it’s a human about universal human struggle with darkness and pain, and the little things that lighten our loads on the way, set in a dreamscape that will hover for days.  But listen to the whole album, the sum is MUCH greater than its parts here, and there’s no way to appreciate this piecemeal.

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