All hail the mysterious gap
An appreciation for lo-fi music of necessity
Maybe you grew up listening to contemporary Christian radio in the ‘90s like me, in which case you have definitely heard the music of Rich Mullins, even if you don’t remember his name.
He wrote “Awesome God,” which people still sing as a worship chorus in churches around the world. Kirk Franklin recorded an amped-up gospel version of “Awesome God,” which means that there’s one degree of separation between Rich Mullins and Kanye West. It’s a wild ride of a song, with halfway-rapped verses and a chorus that I’d love to belt out in a room with a proper choir right about now.
Amy Grant, who recorded and popularized some of Mullins’ songs (like “Sing Your Praise to the Lord,” if you remember that one), called him “the uneasy conscience of Christian music.” He sold out concerts in megachurches, but he gave most of his money away and took a salary equal to the average American laborer. He earned the respect of his peers and could have parlayed it into a big-shot Nashville career, but instead he moved onto a Navajo reservation to work as a music teacher and write songs about how Jesus was a homeless guy and God was sort of unknowable. He dressed like a trucker and lived a quiet life, to the extent that he could.
Rich Mullins died in a car crash in 1997 at age 41. He was working on an album called Ten Songs About Jesus at the time, and he had made some demo recordings nine days prior on a microcassette recorder he bought at Kmart.
Rich Mullins is one of my dad’s all-time favorite songwriters, so I knew the whole story as a kid and picked up a lot of my ideas about Christianity and music from his example. While it’s hardly the most notable thing about his life or career, that demo tape was also my introduction to lo-fi music.
The tinny, distorted sound wasn’t a conscious aesthetic choice on Mullins’ part — he planned to record the songs in a studio later with his full band — but the Jesus Record demos, as they came to be known, remain among my all-time favorite musical recordings.
Years before someone turned me on to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, this was the first time I heard an artist strip his songs down to the bare technological essentials. A single microphone, and a crummy one at that, made me feel like I was standing over his shoulder while he banged away on an old upright church piano. I think about those demos every time I listen to the early Bright Eyes bedroom recordings. I also think about them when I listen to the Mountain Goats.
Maybe, like me, you grew up listening to contemporary Christian radio in the ‘90s and took a hard left turn in college — politically, philosophically, artistically — in which case you have probably heard the music of the Mountain Goats.
The Mountain Goats is an indie folk band led by John Darnielle, who sings a lot about the Bible but also sings about possums and West Texas Satanic metal bands and hard drugs and pro wrestling. His 2009 album The Life of the World to Come used a scripture reference as the title for every track and opened my mind to radical and metaphoric possibilities in Bible verses I’d memorized as a child. I worked my way backward from there in the band’s discography and found a trove of older material that Darnielle recorded on a Panasonic boombox.
By the time Rich Mullins’ final demos had come out on compact disc in 1998, the Mountain Goats had released six cassette-only demo tapes and four albums, all recorded with maximum speed and urgency at minimum cost. The sound is rough and raw and thin, and diehard fans can’t get enough of it.
The Mountain Goats eventually moved in a more sophisticated direction, technologically speaking. They recorded proper studio albums.
I have no problem with the hi-fi stuff; it’s what got me hooked on the Mountain Goats in the first place. But a lot of longtime fans rejoiced when Darnielle returned to his roots this year and recorded another tape on that old Panasonic boombox. It’s called Songs for Pierre Chuvin, and he recorded it at his home in North Carolina during the COVID-19 lockdown. He says he wrote the lyrics while reading a book about the lives of pagans after Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire.
He announces the name of the first song before playing it. He flubs some notes and keeps going. He sings like he’s still feeling his way through the songs, because he is. Here’s how he described his process in the liner notes:
I took my old boombox down from the shelf where it sits flanked by brass deities from a former period of my life, and I got a wild idea to stand it on its end to reduce the unpleasant clicking that made it unusable—the hum & grind are one thing, basically ambient noise that adds to the pleasure of the sound if you’re into it, but the clicking I’m talking about developed sometime in the early 2000s and is not a conscriptable effect, it renders the Panasonic unusable.
Unless you stand it on its end, I learned, by accident, one day during the early weeks of the new days ...
I WROTE A SONG EVERY DAY for the next ten days while reading A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, starting with “Aulon Raid” and working in exactly the style I used to work in: read until something jumps out at me; play guitar and ad-lib out loud until I get a phrase I like; write the lyrics, get the song together, record immediately.
It’s not exactly a topical record for a global pandemic, but it was born of the necessity of its time. The Mountain Goats had to cancel shows, and Darnielle and his coworkers needed money to live. He dedicated the album to his bandmates and road crew (“pagan stowaways in a supercathedral world,” he called them). It sold out almost instantly on tape and somehow reached No. 152 on the Billboard 200 charts.
Imagine my delight when I learned that John Darnielle is a Rich Mullins fan. He said so in a 2016 interview with Christianity Today, and while he didn’t specifically mention the Jesus Record demos, I couldn’t help thinking of the connection to his lo-fi material.
He did mention a song from the Jesus Record, although it’s not clear if he meant the Rich Mullins tape demo or the posthumous recording by Amy Grant and the Ragamuffin Band. Either way, it’s a gorgeous song and Darnielle says he used to listen to it every day during a rough patch in his life:
If you know these Rich Mullins songs, like “Nothing Is Beyond You,” Rich Mullins confesses to his doubt and fallibility constantly in a way that a lot of [Contemporary Christian Music] people don’t. A lot of CCM people, they want to present themselves as models, or if they say that they’re fallen, that’s all they say: “Oh yes, I’m fallen.” Rich Mullins, like specifically, identifies his own ignorance, our own inability to comprehend things further, things that are beyond us. “Nothing Is Beyond You” is this incredible confession. I used to listen to that one every day.
You should go listen to the song on Youtube or wherever you can find it, but I’ll skip to this section about the struggle to box the god of the universe into church dogmas, which really is unusual fodder for inspirational Christian radio:
‘Cause nothing is beyond you,
You stand beyond the reach
Of our vain imaginations,
Our misguided piety
I’ve been trying to understand what I love so much about the sound of tape demos by people like Darnielle and Mullins. The pat answer, I guess, would be that a bare-bones recording connotes authenticity. But that’s not quite right — a lesser artist could record a song to tape and make it pretentious; performative lo-fi production can itself be a crutch of the insincere or untalented.
I think it would be more accurate to say that these recordings capture a sense of humility. I’m hearing an artist shortly after inspiration strikes, from whatever mystical plane, rushing to capture it before it’s gone forever. I’m hearing something imperfect but earnest, released to a critical world without the benefit of a big studio budget.
There is a time and a place for expensive art, but there is also beauty in the widow’s mite. I can appreciate a gourmet meal just as well as a tomato sandwich on Wonder Bread.
High-dollar studio equipment is meant to be transparent, giving the listener the crystal-clear experience of live music without static or interference or muddled notes. The crappy microphone on a boombox does the opposite, hovering over the mix like a droning instrument. It also gestures back to older concepts in art: the grace notes of a skilled pianist, the craquelure of aging paint varnish, wabi-sabi or the acceptance of imperfection in Japanese aesthetics.
I was reading the other night how Plains Indians in the late 19th century made visual art on paper financial ledgers after the U.S. government killed off the buffalo they once used for hide canvases. Some artists painted representational designs to celebrate successes or to record atrocities, while others used the medium to paint abstract geometric designs. Scarcity created a medium and people created the art and the result is transcendent (and ongoing).
I don’t ever want to romanticize scarcity. But I do want to celebrate good art made on the cheap, with the materials immediately at hand, in the heat of inspiration. I want to sing these lines in a room with friends when we are able:
Change will come
Stay warm inside the ripple
Of the Panasonic hum
And it roars
Headed somewhere better
If I have to crawl there on all fours
Those lyrics come from “Exegetic Chains,” the final track on Songs for Pierre Chuvin. You can buy a digital copy of the album on Bandcamp.
The image at the top is a ledger drawing from c. 1880-1881. Wikipedia offers the following description: “A ledger drawing by Lakota Sioux Chief Black Hawk, depicting a horned Thunder Being (Haokah) on a horse-like creature with eagle talons and buffalo horns. The creature's tail forms a rainbow that represents the entrance to the Spirit World, and the dots represent hail. Accompanying the picture on the page were the words ‘Dream or vision of himself changed to a destroyer and riding a buffalo eagle.’ ”
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