During my first visit to the Louvre, I felt obligated to work my way through the hall that contains the works of the old Italian masters. I'm sure my guilt trip was not the first. My reaction, when faced with painting after painting by the likes of Raphael, da Vinci and other dudes I could list if I wanted to look like a know-it-all, was to be put off by the consistent theme. One can only handle so much dedication to Christianity, I thought.
As I continued down the wall, my stance softened. I didn't become swayed by the subject matter; I felt no sudden acceptance of Jesus Christ. Instead, I figured out it didn't matter what Raphael was painting about. What mattered was that he was so inspired by something that he painted at all.
I'm sure my revelation was an elementary one. If I had taken an art class in well, ever, I probably would have been guided to a similar epiphany. I'm lucky I didn't: There was something very satisfying about coming to my own conclusion about the importance of the passion of the artist, and the relative unimportance of the subject of that passion.
Since my lonely trip through the Louvre, I've become more tolerant of religion's place in visual art, especially as that religion was portrayed centuries ago. Raphael could hardly be blamed for accepting Christianity's fairy tales -- the world was a scary place back then, filled with plagues, ignorance and an average life span that hovered around 35. I would have hoped for life after death too.
Implicit in those ancient masters' work was a sense of confusion. To my untrained eye, religious paintings done centuries ago portray a questioning of man's place in the world; there is very little surety in those works. This is a sentiment I can get behind.
Those questions can be found in music, as well. Great works were done in the name of God. While my family's weekly trips to the Grantville Methodist Church invariably filled me with more questions than answers, the music never failed to impress my developing brain. In charitable moments, I like to think that the music I heard in church was also inspired by a degree of wonder and questioning, as opposed to the bullish confidence found in many of today's zealots.
Unfortunately, little of that spirit can be found in today's popular music.
My lamentation of this situation was crystallized this fall in a coffee shop in Kansas City. I saw a man I vaguely know; he came over and reintroduced himself. He was waiting for someone, so we chatted for several minutes, during which time I learned that he is a DJ. The night before, he'd played music at the after party for the band Brand New, a show I'd regrettably missed thanks to a bout with what was either H1N1 or a strain of Ebola. I asked him if the show had been well-attended. He said yes, that it had looked fairly full. But then he stopped and said, "Are they [Brand New] a Christian rock band?"
Brand New is not a Christian rock band, at least as far as I can discern. The band's lyrics do occasionally touch on questions about faith and the afterlife, but they also touch on date rape and binge drinking. That is to say, Brand New sings about what it is to be alive. (Not that being alive necessarily involves date rape.)
Brand New has long been the subject of speculation regarding the "meaning" of the lyrics lead singer Jesse Lacey injects into microphones across the world. I find this to be disappointing. As I've intimated, I get along with religion like a house cat gets along with a bucket of water, but I like to know that other people are at least considering two sides of the question. But in this day and age of popular music, it would seem that -- when it comes to religion -- you either don't sing about it or you're Jars Of Clay.
Brand New released its fourth studio album, called "Daisy," on Sept. 22. After multiple listens, I've decided I like it; Lacey and Co. have, once again, progressed as musicians. And, it would seem, as humans. In an interview with Spin, Lacey was asked about the band's evolution from album to album. His response was markedly self-aware:
"We literally have a documentation of our lives on record. You listen to our music consecutively, in chronological order, you can literally hear us growing into men.
"And I always say, I'm just astonished at how much you learn as you grow older and how it never stops. When I was 21, I realized that I didn't know anything at 17, and then at 25, I realized I didn't know anything at 21, and now at 31, I realized I didn't know anything at 25. But it doesn't seem to be slowing down. I'm always wondering if when I'm 80, am I gonna be looking back to when I was 75 and going, you know, 'That person didn't know anything'? When does that process of growing stop?"
That growing up can be heard in Brand New's albums. Their first, the almost teenaged-tinged "Your Favorite Weapon," sounds more like their then-peers Taking Back Sunday than it does the band that released "Daisy." The follow-up, called "Deja Entendu," is a vast step forward -- the self-awareness that marks much of the band's later work begins to become evident.
Their third album, called "The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me" (the title of which was inspired by cult hero Daniel Johnston, of whom I wrote briefly in my coverage of Austin City Limits Festival), was yet another step forward and, in the process, spawned one of my favorite songs from the past decade, the incomparable "Jesus Christ." (Which, if you've never heard, is a situation you need to rectify: Brand New's "Jesus Christ", on lala.com.)
"Jesus Christ" was Brand New's most popular single to date, and unsurprisingly helped fuel the "Is Brand New a Christian band" debate.
And now, "Daisy" and another step in Lacey's journey toward 80.
Anytime I listen to a Brand New album, I'm shocked by how much I like their work. Sometimes I think, "Maybe Brand New is actually my favorite band." I have a similar reaction anytime I listen to TV On the Radio, the New Pornographers and Broken Social Scene -- all groups that never seem to make a mistake.
During my first listens of "Daisy," I was afraid Brand New had made its first misstep. But I've come around. In a way, the band has returned to its roots -- there is more screaming this time, and Lacey admits in the same Spin interview that songs from "Daisy" are similar to the first song they ever wrote.
But in the advancement camp rests the fact that the songs from "Daisy" sound more dense, more assured and, if possible, more frustrated with the state of things. (And if that isn't a sign of maturity, what is?)
(For a sampling, try "At The Bottom" here.)
Brand New's music continues to impress me, but not because they are the next Led Zeppelin or the next Weezer. In fact, they're not as easily definable as either of those bands. They don't have a genre: maybe they're post-punk, maybe they're post-hardcore, maybe they're simply (and as I would postulate) rock 'n' roll. I'm impressed because Brand New is willing to put its collective heart on display. It's not easy to let the world in -- to admit that you don't know everything, whether about Ladies' Night at the bar or about religion.
This ability to admit confusion is what makes any forays Brand New might make into religious contemplation palatable. The opposite is what makes standard-bearers for Christian rock unbearable. There's a huge difference between affecting an attitude of "I'm not sure how things work but I'm going to think about it long and hard before I come to a conclusion" and "I believe in God unequivocally and you should too." The first attitude is that of a human being. The second is the attitude of a bully, a moron, or both.
Brand New is not completely unique in its mention of the religious and spiritual. U2 and Bruce Springsteen have done their share of grappling with the Great Unknown. But U2 can't seem to do that grappling without coming off as heavy-handed, and The Boss takes on the issue only rarely.
Of course, other bands make passing references to religion and questions about it. But doing so is a risky proposition. Go to the holy water well one too many times and you risk being lumped in with Third Day and dc Talk. And going once, it would seem, will make DJs of your after party assume that you're a religious band.
In more youthful days, I would have been the first to -- and pardon the expression -- crucify a band for even a passing mention of religion. But after that trip to the Louvre, along with a dash of maturity, my stance has softened. Just as the subjects of Raphael's paintings weren't the most important thing about them, the subjects of Lacey's lyrics aren't the whole point. The point is the commitment he pours into them. The point is the important questions he's asking. The point is that he's not preaching or proselytizing. The point is that he's expressing what it's like to be human and to be wrenched by the same questions that any reasonable human has: What am I doing? Why am I here? Is there anything else?
Because Brand New is able to write songs that express a sense of confusion that should be relatable to anyone with a functioning brain, I've liked almost everything they've released. I hope the trend continues. I have a feeling I'm going to have more questions in this life of mine. It will be nice to feel like someone else is having them too.
Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.