Thursday, April 27, 2006

Genesis 18:16-33

Abraham Barters With God for the Souls of Sodom
How to Argue With God and Come Out Ahead

Am I proposing that Abraham really came out ahead in this discussion? Did Abraham “win” this debate with God concerning the potential deliverance of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah? Not hardly, but what I would like to proffer forth is the idea that, because God was so convinced of Abraham’s righteousness and faith, Abraham was allowed to bargain, haggle, and negotiate with God. Abraham and God held an intense discussion regarding who would live, who would die, and how Abraham wanted God to save everyone.

“Abraham does not doubt the existence of God’s justice; he only asks its extent and limitations. The important thing is that he asks altogether and that God does not reject his question out of hand. The Bible thereby makes clear that man may, with impunity, question the behavior of God. Like Abraham, man need not surrender his own sense of justice; he remains free to accept or reject the divine judgment – although he will have to submit to it in the end. Man is not reduced to a moral automaton; his spiritual freedom is preserved.” (Plaut, p133)

Now, I was raised in a church culture that very much believed that only those people who are absolutely snow-white pure in their righteousness and faithfulness will be allowed to talk directly to God. God would listen only to those people who toed the appropriate set of lines, followed all of the rules, never sinned, always believed, and lived seemingly perfect lives. And the sad thing is that similar beliefs aren’t confined to the denomination in which I grew up. Many different wings of a variety of denominations (and non-denominations) propagate such unhealthy lines of thinking, whether through “health & wealth” teaching or through isolationist and overly-exclusionist doctrines of salvation.

However, Abraham’s own lack of belief and ill-timed actions in many circumstances (see Genesis 16) should allay any truth in such claims. God visited Abraham and Sarah several times over the course of their lives, because Abraham, ultimately, had faith in God, not because he did everything right, all of the time. Am I giving license to sin? Am I letting Abraham and Sarah off the hook for what they did and did no do? Not really, but what I am attempting to do is present the grand story of the founding family of the Jews as an example of how anyone can communicate with God, if they believe that God is there and that God does listen.

Reading through verses 16-21, we see Abraham following God and the two angelic beings on their way down to Sodom, as the three visitors began to discuss amongst themselves whether or not Abraham would be told the details of the soon-coming events. God reiterates the promises that have been given to Abraham and Sarah, while stating plainly that Abraham, because of his status in the world (and in God’s eyes), has a right to know what’s about to happen. And what’s about to happen is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their great sin against God, the status of which God’s two fellow travelers are going to ascertain.

“There is a combination of anthropomorphism (God being given humanlike qualities) and theodicy (explanation of divine action) in this story and in the Tower of Babel episode (Gen 11). In both cases, to demonstrate divine justice and fairness, God ‘comes down’ to investigate a situation before taking action.” (Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas; p50)

However, while it not explicitly mentioned in the text, it does seem that Abraham is quite aware of what’s being discussed between the three men. (Berlin and Brettler, p40) Thus, it seems that, contrary to everything you’ve heard about a highly vengeful Old Testament God, it might not be true at all. God allows Abraham to hear the conversation he had with the two men, God is sending those two men give the cities one last look-through, and God quite readily listens to Abraham’s pleadings for the souls and lives of the people of Sodom. (Plaut, p133) Thus, even with a city whose social and religious transgressions were as well documented as Sodom’s, God feels like there might be something (or someone) redeemable about it and their sister city of Gomorrah, a task that God allows Abraham to take part in (Berlin and Brettler, p40).

“Haggling is a part of all Middle Eastern business transactions. In this case, however, Abraham’s determination of the exact number of righteous persons needed to prevent the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah provides a repeated demonstration of God’s just actions. A just God will not destroy the righteous without warning or investigation. Even the unrighteous, in this early period, can be spared for the sake of the righteous. On the other hand, justice is not served by overlooking wickedness. The discussion of the number of righteous people may concern not whether they can balance the wickedness of the rest, but whether, given time, they might be able to exert a reforming influence.” (Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas; p50)

What follows is one of the most curious conversations between a human and God ever recorded in a religious text. Compare Job’s talks with God to Abraham’s – they are quite different in that Job talks to God as any confused and bewildered believer might when faced with hardship and trial. He begins by speaking reverently to God (Job 1 & 2), rails against God (Job 31), hears God chastise him (Job 38-41), and returns again to his reverence at the end of the book (Job 42). Throughout this chapter, Abraham and God, on the other hand, debate the future of the two cities as nearly equals. Now, Abraham doesn’t believe that he’s equal to God – his tone and verbiage explicates the fact that he knows that he is talking to God, and not another human being. (Berlin and Brettler, p40) However, it is quite evident that Abraham has no problem telling God exactly what he is feeling, what he is thinking, and what he thinks God should and should not do.

“Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25, ESV)

Verse 25, in many ways, is the fulcrum of the whole conversation, for, by appealing to God’s own sense of justice and mercy, Abraham is seeking to save the whole of Sodom on behalf of the few righteous inhabitants who are still inside the city. Abraham is fully aware that the city has transgressed mightily against God, and deserves their punishment, but hopes to make God see that the righteous people inside the city don’t deserve punishment. (Plaut, p133) Furthermore, by looking at verse 27, Abraham continues with the debate, but does so by stating blatantly that God really doesn’t have to listen to Abraham, since Abraham is “but dust and blood” (ESV), though he employs such self-deprecation in an effort to not have God ignore the pleadings of a mere human. (Alter, p82) Over and over again, Abraham hopes to see the salvation of the righteous in Sodom, no matter whether or not it’s merely his nephew, Lot, and his family or whoever it might be inside that city.

From there, Abraham begins to barter with God concerning the souls and salvation of the city of Sodom and Gomorrah, working God down from the initial 50 in verse 24-26, down to 10 in verse 32. He does so slowly, with precise increments, knowing that there would be no other way to “talk down God” in terms of how many righteous people it would take for God to spare the two cities. God doesn’t respond to Abraham with counter-offers, just with a brief acknowledgement that the current offer being made by Abraham will suffice to avert the destruction of the two cities. God and man are embroiled in a classic bartering conversation, a scene straight out of any Middle Easter bazaar or flea market transaction across the American South. (Alter, p82) However, the whittling-away undertaken by Abraham concludes at 10, since “Abraham realizes he dare not go any lower than ten, the minimal administrative unit for communal organization in later Israelite life.” (Alter, p83) To further supplement the reasoning by Abraham’s cessation at 10 people, another source states, “They [the rabbis] set ten as the minimal number for communal worship.” (Plaut, p133)

In general, the whole interaction, I feel, was quite a brave and noble proposition for a human to undertake, since most of us only argue with God over our own selfish desires and personal sin natures. Now, one could argue that Abraham is just looking out for Lot and his family, even though they are never mentioned in this discussion, since Abraham has rescued Lot from a grave and deadly situation in the past (Genesis 14). However, taking Abraham’s words of reverence and respect towards God into account, it would seem he is fully aware that God knows of Lot’s status as citizen of Sodom. So, to believe that Abraham was acting selfishly would be to denigrate the character of Abraham and the lengths that Abraham would go to in order to secure the deliverance of the entire city.

However, throughout all of this, God knows that there are only 4 righteous people in all of Sodom and Gomorrah – Lot, his wife, and their two daughters. One then begins to wonder why God allowed Abraham to continually petition God’s decision to destroy the cities if God knew that Abraham could never go low enough to actually save the cities. If Abraham would never go below 10 people, and there were only 4 righteous people, what was the purpose to God listening to Abraham? Couldn’t God have said, “Listen up, Abe, old buddy. I’ve promised you many things – a child, your status as the father of a great nation, your presence and wealth throughout this region. But there’s just no point in arguing with me here – there are only 4 decent people in those 2 cities, not enough righteous to ever hope to prevent Me from punishing the rest of them. I’ll find a way to save Lot and his family, but there’s not much else you can do here. Go home and make a baby with Sarah.”

And I don’t type that to be facetious or irreverent, but who hasn’t thought this when reading/studying this passage? But when I think through this whole discussion here between Abraham and God, I can’t help but wonder what God’s point is, what God’s hoping to teach Abraham and any future readers/hearers of this story. And then it hits me – God desires to communicate with us, purely and simply. God wants humanity to talk to their Creator, not out of selfish desires, but out of love – love for God and love for their fellow human. Abraham’s haggling with God is a wonderful example of this, as Abraham is looking out for others, and doing so while respecting, reverencing, and loving the all-knowing and just God that he serves faithfully. Does this mean that God was being insensitive to the righteous people who were in Sodom? Not at all – why else would the Lord’s two fellow travelers be going into Sodom if not to save Lot and Lot’s family from the city’s impending doom?

Thus, this passage loses its status as one that gives license to only the purest and most faithful to communicate with God and gives rise to a belief that anyone who has a righteous request can come to God with their appeal. It is not the petitioner who has to be righteous, but the petition. We are made righteous through faith, just as Abraham was made, and not because we have done certain acts and abstained from others. God desired to listen to Abraham because Abraham’s request was worthy of being heard, as it showed forth Abraham’s character – a character full of mercy, justice, and love for those same attributes in his God. Thus, we, as heirs and adherents to the faith of Abraham, can offer up similar supplications to God, behaving not as if we are some type of political lobbyist petitioning the Congress, but admitting our incompetence and “dustiness” to our Saviour, knowing that God wants to hear us talk and loves it when we think about someone besides our own selves.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Flailings of some sort

He rushed up to the door,
banged upon it,
tried to knock it down.

His knees crashed to the floor,
hands to eye sockets,
as again he's thrown himself to the ground.

Frantically waiting
is his S.O.P.,
coupled with an outburst at the peak

Of a mania that's fleeting.
He has no peace;
he's doing his best to merely believe.

But up he rises again,
a bit bruised up,
eyes all red, hurting, wet, and sore.

Then he gives the merest grin,
hands a-tremble,
trying to find his center once more.

The door starts beating,
quite quietly,
fear strikes his sensitive nape.

The boards now squeaking,
his heart a-thump,
tongue wagging, his mouth all agape.

The walls closing tightly,
pupils all wide,
feet frozen with no idea of what to do.

Seeing is believing,
or so he's thought,
although he's learning it's not always true.

Copyright 04/24/2006

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Another Great Event in the History of American Foreign Policy

Hello, faithful readers. Welcome to another installment of this blog's commemoration of "Another Great Event in the History of American Foreign Policy!" As usual, a brief recounting is provided here with links to other sites whose scope and availability of information is more extensive than mine. Besides, why would I want to summarize the great content present at these sources just to placate your laziness? Go read!

And now, the news....

April 15th - 19th, 2006 mark the 45th anniversary of the generally accepted days that comprise the timeframe for the infamous Bay of Pigs Invasion, where JFK's administration collaborated with Cuban exiles and refugees in an attempt to attack and overthrow Castro's government in April of 1961. The invasion and attempted coup were a distastrous failure, contributing to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and 40+ years of perpetual fits of intense paranoia between America & Cuba (not to mention the embargoes that led to the scarcity of Cuban cigars).

Thank you again for visiting us today. Come back again soon for another episode of "Another Great Event in the History of American Foreign Policy!"


Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter Sunday
(a poem & song)

Easter Benediction

upon Golgotha
(where the trees hung still)
our heads slumped and swayed
to three strikes and a jab,
yes, they nailed Him down
pierced, and crowned
this unruly king of the Jews.

orphans of light
you gather tomb-side, teary-eyed calling:

"Have you seen the One?
Who warmed our hearts,
with simple truths and purest love --
Have you seen our Lord?"

He is not here!
His forgiveness eyes opened,
threw off tomb's stone shroud,
stood up against sorrow and fear,
knocked death off its throne
and went on to the city ahead of you.

Hail our Messiah!
Conqueror of death,
rises over this third morning
splices sky into light ribbons
beaming over all that is new -- He lives!

yes! He lives and His name is Love,
(and this Love endures without end without end without end)

dear people, Praise your God!
for if you followed Him here,
you will follow Him there --
forever-renewed in His forever-world!

May the Lord ever be before you,
within you, reaching out to all the world
through you,

Go in celebration, go in peace, He is risen!

Copyright -- Kelly Hall, 04/16/2006

Christ the Lord is Risen Today

Verse 1
Christ, the Lord, is risen today, Alleluia!
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth, reply, Allelua!

Verse 5
Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!
Our triumphant holy day, Alleluia!
Who did once upon the cross, Alleluia!
Suffer to redeeem our loss, Alleluia!

By: Charles Wesley -- props to songwriters who put real content in their songs....

Saturday, April 15, 2006

"Beautiful, Scandalous Night"
(a song for Good Friday)

Go on up to the mountain of mercy
To the crimson perpetual tide
Kneel down on the shore
Be thirsty no more
Go under and be purified

Follow Christ to the holy mountain
Sinner, sorry and wrecked by the fall
Cleanse your heart and soul
In the fountain that flows
For you & for me & for all

At the wonderful tragic mysterious tree
On that beautiful scandalous night you and me
Were atoned by His blood and forever washed white
On that beautiful scandalous night

On the hillside you will be delivered
At the foot of the cross justified
And your spirit restored
By the river that pours
From our blessed Saviour's side

At the wonderful tragic mysterious tree
On that beautiful scandalous night you and me
Were atoned by His blood and forever washed white
On that beautiful scandalous night

Go on up to the mountain of mercy
To the crimson perpetual tide
Kneel down on the shore
Be thirsty no more
Go under and be purified

At the wonderful tragic mysterious tree
On that beautiful scandalous night you and me
Were atoned by his blood and forever washed white
On that beautiful scandalous night

By: Steve Hindalong & Derald Daugherty (of The Choir)
The copyright is there and not mine.
Don't steal from great musicians.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Grit That I Can't Remove
(a song for Maundy Thursday)

Sunbaked skin
Cracked and bruised
from many miles
of walking
from many miles
of just living.

They aren't pretty
Not even close
but they are
still mine
and still you
say come
and still you
say come.

I don't know why
I can't figure you out.
You say that my feet don't matter,
and it's my heart that does,
though my beliefs have gone south.
Just approach.

Dirt gets everywhere
Even in tiny crevices
from all of my
long nights
from all of my
long trials.

Stress breaks the skin
The cuts get infected
I can't keep my
feet clean ('cause)
I can't reach to
wash them.

And I can't say why
I won't try to figure you out
You say that my feet don't matter
and it's my heart that does,
so I believe through my doubt
and approach.

Copyright 04/13/2006

Monday, April 10, 2006

Proof that indie rock snobs DO have a sense of humor....

Straight from the lovely people at Pitchfork Media, we have the ultimate indie rocker/folk singer version of PUNK'D! And the best part is -- it's Pitchfork that gets punk'd. It's wonderful. Read through the first article, then the second, and then laugh along with me!

And for those people who actually ARE interested in how my personal life is going, an update of sorts will be coming soon.

Sufjan Stevens + Rosie Thomas = New Album, Baby

Matthew Solarski reports:

Ah, springtime. It turns the world of indie into a freakin' love-fest, drawing artists to one another like bees to flowers. To make music, naturally. And sometimes...other things.

The latest salsa-hot collabo comes courtesy of lovable former Sub Pop songstress Rosie Thomas, who has recruited two fellow lovable, wholesome folkies to spruce up her latest batch of recordings. The boys in question: Sufjan Stevens and Philly singer-songwriter Denison Witmer.

The trio shacked up at Suf-jeezy's pad in New York City for three days, ate junk food, had pillow fights, and wound up recording some Thomas-penned songs on Witmer's laptop. According to Witmer's blog, Rosie played classical guitar, Sufjan plucked banjo, and Denison rocked the electric. All three sang.

In an email to Pitchfork, Thomas said, "[Sufjan and I] both decided that it would be refreshing and fun to just record some songs together on a whim and we did. The songs came out so good that we decided to finish the project this winter, and what I hoped would be an EP surprisingly turned into a full length." For the winter wrap-up, Rosie enlisted Witmer to add instrumentation and engineer.

"It was all a very organic process," mused Witmer via email. "The three of us have toured together a lot in the past, and I'm sure that had something to do with planting the idea in [Rosie's] mind. She (well, all of us) just wanted to have a fun, stress free, relaxing time recording with friends. As far as I know, that's our only real agenda at this point."

Rosie echoed his sentiments: "Somehow along the way the very thing I loved became more about touring and record labels and record deadlines and ordering tee shirts on time and press releases," she observed. "It was almost as if the business side of things took over the passion side, you know? And I desperately needed to work on something that brought me back to my core.

"Working with Sufjan reminded us both of how we used to love to write for our own sense of well being, not by any other expectation."

Since Thomas is no longer signed to Sub Pop, there's no word yet who will put out the joint recording or when the adoring masses can hear it. "Perhaps," suggested Rosie-- who also has plans to record with Iron and Wine's Sam Beam sometime soon-- "it will end up being a record we give to our families for Christmas."

And that's not all Rosie and Sufjan have been collaborating on, as the two lovesongbirds are having a baby together. Serious! For once, Pitchfork is not joking.

"Sufjan and I are also expecting and that is something we both are beaming about," wrote Rosie. "Life is good."

Awwwwwwwww-- I mean, congratulations! And somebody please phone the Guinness Book, as the world is about the embrace the Cutest Kid Ever.

And the conclusion to this great story....

Sufjan to Deliver New Album, Not New Baby

Amy Phillips reports:
Folks, we've got good news and bad news.

The good news: There's a new Sufjan Stevens album coming out!

The bad news: Sufjan and Rosie Thomas are not having a baby together.

Actually, on second thought, it's all good news. While the progeny of Sufjan and Rosie might have theoretically been the Cutest Kid Ever, raising a child takes a lot of time and energy-- time and energy that could be spent writing songs! Since Sufjan's got 48 more states to go, and Rosie has all sorts of projects in the works, we're glad they will be focusing on birthing musical offspring, rather than the crying-and-bedwetting kind.

So what's the explanation for this whole crazy mess? Well, it seems that Rosie and her and Sufjan's friend and musical collaborator, Denison Witmer, decided to pull a prank on Pitchfork and poor Sufjan. We fell for it-- hell, our information came directly from the source (Rosie), was corroborated by a close friend (Denison), and even Sufjan's publicist was being slippery about it. On second thought, maybe a publicist being slippery isn't that out of the ordinary. We feel a bit silly, but think the whole thing is pretty hilarious-- and we're still confused about why this particular story would be harder on us than it must have been on Rosie and Sufjan.

Yesterday, two weeks after the rumor was floated, all three came clean.

"I kid around so often, I forgot that some one might take me seriously," Rosie wrote in an email to Pitchfork's Matthew Solarski, who originally reported the story. "Suf and I are good buddies and I just meant it in good fun."

"The response from friends and fans has been so great, it made me actually wish I really was pregnant and I swear I got so convinced myself even that I thought I was starting to experience symptoms of morning sickness. I'll be sure to thank everyone who has been so very sweet and make sure no one feels duped. I really am very sorry, please forgive me, it was all meant in good fun I swear. Please tell people if they still want to bring diapers just to make sure that they are adult size."

Sufjan issued the following:

"First of all, I would like to thank everyone who called or sent notes of congratulations about the news of my baby. I am so proud.

"Secondly, the baby is a hoax. I had nothing to do with the baby hoax. I was as shocked as everyone else about the baby. Matthew's story was so convincing I almost believed it myself.

"Thirdly, something you need to know about Rosie is that she's really weird and she's really funny. So it's no surprise that she could pull this off, this imaginary baby. But the fact is, Rosie is not carrying my baby. As far as I know, we spent quality time in the studio, not in bed. If Rosie's pregnant, it's not my baby. Maybe it's Denison's baby. Maybe it's an alien baby. I don't know. All I know is that the baby is probably going to grow up to be a clown, or a mime, or a bassoon player or something funny like that. Most babies come out crying, but Rosie's baby is going to be born laughing its butt off."

Denison added, "Rosie, Sufjan, and I are constantly joking with each other. The recording was a circus to say the least. There was more laughing than recording. It's been this way with us since the day we met.

"Pitchfork is always humorous in your writing... so we figured if you can dish it, then you can take it in good fun. I mean, out of any website to joke with, I personally think Pitchfork is the one who can successfully laugh at yourselves about it and still be taken seriously when you write other important news. That's a good thing."

Aww shucks, thanks, dude!

ANYWAY, let's get back to the truly exciting matter at hand, namely, the new Sufjan album.

Last night, Asthmatic Kitty announced that on July 25, it will release The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album. The disc collects material originally written for Pitchfork's favorite album of last year, revisited by Sufjan in late 2005 and early 2006. It includes three versions of standout track "Chicago", songs concerning Saul Bellow, Ann Landers, Adlai Stevenson, and Henry Darger, and musical contributions from drummer James McAlister, trumpeter Craig Montoro, singers Shara Worden and Katrina Kerns, and, of course, Rosie Thomas.

In typical Sufjan fashion, the tracklist is an adventure unto itself:

01 The Avalanche
02 Dear Mr Supercomputer
03 Adlai Stevenson
04 The Vivian Girls Are Visited in the Night by Saint Dargarius and His Squadron of Benevolent Butterflies
05 Chicago (Acoustic Version)
06 The Henney Buggy Band
07 Saul Bellow
08 Carlyle Lake
09 Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in His Hair
10 The Mistress Witch From McClure (Or, The Mind That Knows Itself)
11 Kaskaskia River
12 Chicago (Adult Contemporary Easy Listening Version)
13 Inaugural Pop Music for Jane Margaret Byrne
14 No Man's Land
15 The Palm Sunday Tornado Hits Crystal Lake
16 The Pick-up
17 The Perpetual Self, or "What Would Saul Alinsky Do?"
18 For Clyde Tombaugh
19 Chicago (Multiple Personality Disorder version)
20 Pittsfield
21 The Undivided Self (For Eppie and Popo)

In related news, Asthmatic Kitty (which Sufjan co-runs), recently signed the Canadian band Shapes and Sizes. Their self-titled debut album arrives in stores July 25, the same day as The Avalanche. Shapes and Sizes also have a split 7" with the Weird Weeds due out August 8 on Asthmatic Kitty.

As far as we know, no members of Shapes and Sizes are pregnant.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Hammer Falls

Personal politics aside, especially regarding how you see/view/partake in the US political spectrum, this man's resignation is news in general.

However, if you'd like to be a bit partisan today (or maybe you're just a proponent of ethical behavior from our elected officials), join me in celebrating as The Hammer leaves the toolbox and gets shoved in the junk drawer.

And yes, I realize how biased that last sentence sounds. So, if you're offended, just indict me.


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

In the Name of Love!

Regardless of his poor historical recollection, Bono's intent in the song "Pride (In the Name of Love)" was spot-on in its portrayal and presentation of the message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And, with that in mind, in memorial of the 38th anniversary of MLK, Jr's assassination, I would like to provide for your reading and educational pleasure this article, courtest of Wikipedia. Below is an exerpt from the article.

Read, learn, and enjoy learning. And if you know what "poor historical recollection" I'm talking about, comment and let me know. There's a prize for the first correct response!


"Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929–April 4, 1968) was a Baptist minister and American political activist who was the most famous leader of the American civil rights movement. King won the Nobel Peace Prize before being assassinated in 1968. He is the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1977, King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by Jimmy Carter. For his promotion of non-violence and racial equality, King is considered a peacemaker and martyr by many people around the world. Martin Luther King Day was established in his honor."

Am I tormented and ringled?!?

Again, courtesy of Pitchfork Media, more love for the greatly-loved. Tell me, do I have a problem?

Ringleader of the Tormentors
[Attack/Sanctuary; 2006]
Rating: 8.0

"I am a living sign," Morrissey sings on "Vicar in a Tutu", from the Smiths' 1986 apex, The Queen Is Dead. If the words evoke Morrissey's dual personae as myth and mythmaker, their religious overtones are a subtle reminder that he's also a never-quite-recovering Catholic. Though his 1990s relocation to Los Angeles, the sunny center of 20th century glamour, elicited little surprise, his recent move to Rome seems even more natural: There, the Pope of Mope can reel around the fountain of both Occidental culture and inexpiable guilt.

From humdrum towns to giddy London, from Sunset Boulevard to the Eternal City, this living sign signifies, first and foremost, himself. Ringleader of the Tormentors is a new Morrissey album, not a new Morrissey; attempts to wring autobiographical revelations from its lyrics are easy, but ultimately futile. Accusations of self-parody, after losing their sting sometime around "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now", remain apt but, in Morrissey's case, often irrelevant. On his eighth solo album, the enigmatic warbler again sounds contradictory notes on love, death, the divine, and the despised. All that's really changed are his collaborators-- Ennio Morricone, T. Rex/Bowie producer Tony Visconti, guitarist/co-songwriter Jesse Tobias-- who trade the televised-car-chase production of 2004 comeback You Are The Quarry for a sound more akin to the glam-rock crunch of Your Arsenal.

Rapturous self-torment-- particularly the chasm between love's possibility and its unrealized fulfillment-- was always the defining condition of the Morrissey experience. For Morrissey's narrators, love and death are two levels of the same double-decker bus-- a theme made explicit on lead single "You Have Killed Me", a strapping rocker reminiscent of "Irish Blood, English Heart". With Hammond organ syncope and Morricone strings, trembling ballad "Dear God, Please Help Me" likens lust to "explosive kegs between my legs," while decorous torch song "I'll Never Be Anyone's Hero Now" places "my one true love...under the ground." As Moz idol Oscar Wilde put it, "Each man kills the thing he loves." Moz's interests were eloquently foreshadowed by another Catholic artist, Jean Genet, whose 1943 novel Our Lady of the Flowers laces its gay protagonist's exaltation of a beautiful male murderer with references to the Church. Likewise, Mel Gibson's 2004 The Passion of the Christ isn't just about homoerotic S&M.

The famous mind/body dichotomy from "Still Ill" tellingly neglects the soul, but Morrissey still can't escape what he's called "inbuilt guilt." Even "Dear God, Please Help Me", Moz's most emotionally beguiling song in years, grows ambivalent at the moment inattentive critics have cited as the singer's coming-out: When Morrissey sings, "Dear God, did this kind of thing happen to you?/ Now I'm spreading your legs/ With mine in between/ Dear God, if I could I would help you," is he addressing a lover, or a loving deity? On "You Have Killed Me", which contains some of this infamous celibate's most candidly sexual lines since Meat Is Murder-era B-side "Stretch Out and Wait" (or at least YATQ's "Come Back to Camden"), the man who ostentatiously forgave Jesus two years ago "for all the desire He placed in me" slyly concludes, "There is no point saying this again/ But I forgive you."

Even when contemplating mortality, Morrissey remains enamored of youth. A children's choir guests on multiple tracks, including fast-paced single candidate "The Youngest Was the Most Loved". Their immature voices bestow hair-raising pathos upon a refrain almost too self-evidently jejune for the middle-aged Moz to sing alone: "There is no such thing in life as normal." The choir returns for "The Father Who Must Be Killed", an equally energetic knife-attack on a stern stepfather, which ends in eerie laughter. Elsewhere, Morrissey marks the passing of time more keenly, with even more overt auto-plagiarisms. "It's the same old S.O.S.," he concedes amid the Roman rain, midtempo groove, and orchestral crescendos of the epic "Life Is a Pigsty". "Even now in the final hour of my life/ I'm falling in love again," he adds, subtly acknowledging that love is not as new to his music as recent press has implied.

Morrissey's poignancy, in his best solo work as in his vivid Smiths prime-- what critic Simon Reynolds once called "a piercing beauty, or a sweet ache"-- often inflames the exhilarating terror of loneliness just as it elevates the sensations of love through comparison with Moz's unrequitable romantic perfections. The complicated gender roles, the ubiquitous allusions, the games of irony, art, and style serve equally to ignite a listener's curiosity. Ringleader of the Tormentors is, rather than the now-anticipated letdown, another fitting heir to that legacy. The living sign again: "This one is different, because it's us."

-Marc Hogan, April 4, 2006

Sunday, April 02, 2006


Here's a more recent article on Jill Carroll's release. I'm going to be posting my thoughts on this whole scenario soon, hopefully....