Christian pop is unrelentingly cheerful.” That was Leah Libresco's conclusion when she analyzed the frequency of positive and negative terms (“grace” vs. “sin,” for example, or “love” vs. “fear”) in Billboard's Christian pop top-50. Grace and love and life and light are all great things. But if your soul needs a smoke break from the endless Christian pep rally, a lay-me-down instead of yet another pick-me-up, Harrison Lemke's beautiful new album Fertile Crescent Blues is what you're looking for.
Fertile is an album of nine songs inspired by the Book of Genesis. Lemke, an independent musician in Austin, TX, recorded the album in his duplex, and he plays all the instruments. It's an intimate recording, heavily influenced by artists like Sufjan Stevens and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. (Lemke's voice, a reedy instrument made for anger and surrender, takes about as much getting used to as Stevens's and Darnielle's.) Lemke's characters serve God—most of the time, anyway—even when they really don't know what it would mean to trust Him.
The album starts off with “Garden Incident,” and already Lemke's lyrical talents are obvious. Blossoms from the fateful apple tree fall “like lace onto your shoulder”: the first clothing, in response to the first shame. “The world was turning inward”: not a bad description of the Fall, the collapse of love into self-will. And yet even in this story of betrayal there's a startling swerve. The song is just Lemke and his guitar—until suddenly, after the Fall, the tambourine and harmonica come in, a flowering of sound. Even in exile, outside the Garden, there is a promise.
Promise is at the heart of some of the most powerful songs on this album. The heartbreaking, resigned “Sister Song” finds Leah—but also perhaps any of the misfit women of Genesis, the “handmaidens” and “harlots,” the ones who weren't supposed to be the story—lamenting,
I am a detour
to a promise
whose fulfillment is upon us—
it's like watching myself disappear.
“Yisra'el” is a dark, ragged hymn from Abraham, talking to God the way you'd talk to your unreliable little brother:
I'll raise you a pillar,
build you a shrine—
if you just show up on time.
Lemke's harrowed voice, the weary absurdity of his “Fa la la la, la la la!” chorus, express the patriarch's helplessness in the face of the inscrutable, unimaginable God of Love. His faith becomes something he needs to “confess”: He doesn't know why he obeys God, any more than you do.
Most of these songs are extraordinary. “Fertile Crescent Blues” is Adam and Eve as the Lockhorns (or, more obviously, the Alpha couple from the Mountain Goats' Tallahassee). All the elements are familiar from other indie music—the rhythm with which Lemke moves from angry yelling to soft, image-rich tenderness, for example—but you know, sometimes things are popular because they work. Lemke explores our parent couple's bond, and the way it leaves them utterly alone. Every married listener will wince in recognition. Lemke's voice is especially thin here; you'll get used to it, which is one of the themes of this album anyway.
“Enoch” starts with shimmering, melting guitar lines, unsettled; and more unsettled once the sharp silver planes of the harmonica come up through the guitar. This album is full of unexpected little summaries of the Old Testament, and here's one:
It goes to show,
it goes to show—
you can fill a leaky vessel
but it won't stay full.
The Book of Genesis is a story of creation ex nihilo that rapidly becomes a story of entropy. The system cannot generate its savior.
“Sodom Valley” is Genesis as post-apocalypse tale. Or, really, a series of post-apocalypses. Flee the flaming sword, build a city; watch the city burn, flee the smoking ruins; build a city. It opens with a mournful and menacing guitar: promising something bad. And then the high-lonesome harmonica comes in, and the horror lyrics start, the “two awful visitors” with “their faces on back-to-front.” Nothing good will come of this.
There are a couple weakish spots. “Evening in Nod” made no impression on me; “Brother Song,” which closes the album, is a countrified tune that seemed a bit lightweight. But overall Fertile is a deep Biblical meditation expressed through utterly satisfying feel-bad indie music.
You can listen to the simple, haunting “Sister Song” for free here—with its soft ending, “I can bear you sons,” as close to redemption as these people will get in their lifetimes—and buy the album here.
Eve Tushnet is a lesbian and celibate Catholic freelance writer. She studied philosophy at Yale University, where she was received into the Catholic Church in 1998. She writes from D.C., and has been published in (among others) Commonweal, First Things, The National Catholic Register, National Review, and The Washington Blade. Eve blogs at Patheos.com.