It’s been a long time since I listened to Larry Norman’s Stranded in Babylon album. It’s a hit you in the face sort of reality check and one of the most fascinating songs is “Baby’s Got the Blues.” If you’re not familiar with it you can find it here on YouTube with lyrics.
Many albums of this era were not simply a collection of songs, the album as a whole was an entity with each song adding a facet to that whole. This was just such an album. As an album it is profoundly Christian although not every song is (outside of the context of the whole album). “Baby’s Got the Blues” certainly fits into this category. It doesn’t even explicitly mention God, but instead uses euphemisms. The bridge is a prayer that begins, “Mercies and angels up above, / Heaven please help the one I love.”
But in the context of the song this sentiment is profoundly Christian if we use the term “Christian” to refer to the actual manner in which we live our lives down in the trenches. In the song Norman is watching “his baby” (wife? girlfriend? sister?) struggle with depression. He has no words to offer her and he has no words to offer God. When life hurts and the heavens are brass, it is often hard to fully believe in a caring God. In those moments it might be the only option to address “mercies and angels up above.”
Paul the apostle also understood this depth of despair. He said that at such times the Spirit “groans” on our behalf. No words here. No words needed. Such a groan no doubt says more than a whole collection of essays. And God hears the groan and understands what it means.
I confess that I despise Christian radio because the station manager – or whoever it is that puts together playlists these days – don’t seem to have the courage to play the music that comes from the trenches. Mostly its worship music. And I would argue that worship music, when that’s all we hear, paints an utterly bleak and depressing view of the world. … Not because the music is depressing but rather because it’s mostly a reminder of how short I fall from that mark set by the perky DJ who is praising God and gloriously happy, no matter what’s happening around them.
To hear a wordsmith like Larry Norman put his finger on the pain that is so deep and so confounding that there are simply no words is liberating in a way an old standard like “I Can Only Imagine” can never be. It’s a reminder that when the Son of God became human he suffered in the manner that humans suffer. His life was not a set of praise choruses! On at least one occasion he told the Father to just remove it all … if it was the Father’s will.
Given the fact that most Christian Contemporary Music is written by praise bands who got their start accompanying contemporary worship services, this sort of “down in the trenches” music is almost non-existent anymore. (No doubt there’s some out there, but it’s quite hard to find.) As a result I find myself increasingly dredging up the old stuff: Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill (the old Randy Stonehill, when he was young and outrageous and hadn’t yet grown into “Uncle Randy”), Daniel Amos, Randy Matthews, etc. In my album collection I had two or three Normans, a Matthews, three DAs, and a couple of Stonehills.
Music streaming services have been a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I am hearing all the other music these folks did (along with other similar artists) that I never heard before because I couldn’t afford all those albums. A curse because I’m not hearing the songs in the context of their albums. I’m missing the gestalt while getting all the particulars.
So for those of you who are ready to move beyond the froth of CCM, I commend to you the above artists. Daniel Amos’ best albums were New Wave which is probably not everyone’s taste. (For instance, “Hollow Man,” on the Doppelganger album features their previous very strange song “Ghost of the Heart” (from Alarma!) played backwards, but with new lyrics over the top. I think it’s awesome … My wife? Not so much. But with that caveat in mind, dig in.
As a special recommendation I commend Larry Norman’s Something New Under the Sun (or SNUTS, as it was lovingly referred to). I love blues and it is, in my opinion, one of the five or six best blues albums ever put together. I love this album so much that twenty five years later, I named one of my dogs Snuts in honor of the album.