Christ would be handsome / Christ would be gross
Christ would buy butter / And make you some toast
Christ would be savage / But Christ would be true
…This is the Ballad of Boogie Christ
My first Joseph Arthur record was his sixth–Nuclear Daydream (2006)–which had the track, an anthem of mine in college, “You Are Free” (“I’m no longer who I was / No longer who I thought I was…I’m not of losing myself / There ain’t no self to lose,” kind of in a hippy-bros-on-the-railroad chant). I’d say it was a good introduction, though I can’t say there’s really any starting point so much as a collage of Joseph Arthurs strung about his career. A songwriter’s musician who has seemed, in ten records in just over 15 years, to continue to operate under the radar despite working with some pretty big names (Peter Gabriel sang his praises 20 years ago, Coldplay sang his “In the Sun” with Michael Stipe, Arthur and Ben Harper are buds through their supergroup Fistful of Mercy), he just released the first of a trinity of albums–The Ballad of Boogie Christ–which was released and paid for by his fans. He’s known for being a Lou Reed-Tom Waits-influenced folk singer-songwriter with a certain inclination towards the psychedelic; a friend of mine went to show where Arthur pedal-looped his melodies while stepping aside to work on a painting towards backstage…
This is definitely there in Boogie Christ, whose Holy-Spirit-themed Part 2 will be released in September, but if the psychedelic is not your bag (and why shouldn’t it be?), hold your horses. The entire collection of songs on this record is a very personal (and highly imaginative) meditation on Jesus Christ-meets-Joseph Arthur. Boogie Christ isn’t Jesus–Arthur made him up–but a kind of caricatured semblance of their marriage. Doing this, Arthur emphasizes the glory of love that envelops man, and the very human sicknesses that enveloped Christ’s suffering.
It’s about somebody that could be enlightened or be insane or could be a mixture of both. It’s sort of oscillating around that theme. I mean, I’m trying to give a well-rounded depiction of a human being that’s somewhat vain-y and somewhat enlightened and just going through the process of life…
“I Used to Know How to Walk on Water” is a perfect example. The chorus mourns the “useless thunder” that now stands in the midst of what was once so transcendent, so “dynamo”. It is a psalmist’s lamentation, a remembrance of and longing for the times of glory, a prayer for help in the time when it is deafeningly absent: “I am here and I am humble / For I know not which way to go”. It is a song of Calvary, too, of death striking the man of God.
I used to know how to walk on water / I could give a dead heart life
I could murder the joy of Satan / And make his mistress be my wife
I would be a dream of cowards / And they would never resemble me
I could see them doubt me under / As I set each one free
Now I just sit and wonder / What illness has befallen me
A sicker mind makes me surrender / To this world of vacancy
“I Miss the Zoo” is his caged bird song. An about-face inversion of “Walk on Water,” Boogie-Arthur here sings from the perspective of freedom, looking back longingly on the days of encagement, of repulsive living and addiction, of drugs and illicit sex and meaninglessness. It was simple then. There’s a feeling of despair, here, with the weight of Christ’s freedom, that freedom comes with it the overbearing power of meaning. And here, simply, there’s the human desire to go back to forgetting.
I miss illusions begging to be chased / Even as they disappear into me (erased)
Until there is no one or nothing but the chase / And a powdery ghost with no face (or faith)
And the woman of my dreams / disappearing without grace
I miss the zoo / I miss the zoo / I miss the zoo
Of course, these are not the answers for Boogie Christ, but the dark depths of his human experience. These are the “Black Flowers” that are “growing to take you down.” Arthur sings, “There’s nothing much for us here / Peace comes in acceptance of this / Old ways break off into new loves / Which quickly reveal themselves as f***ed up as the old ones.” It may sound nihilistic, but it’s not: God’s peace comes in the recognition of and surrender to what’s temporary: the piffling new loves that come and go with our whims. And the One Great Love is the currency from which all others are seen as counterfeit.
“Currency of Love” is the first song cornerstone of the record. It makes sense that the album ends and comes back to it. It is orchestral and swelling, it is not funny, it is earnest and sober. It is one of the only songs on the entire record not littered and complicated with drug references or pimps or crazy nights–it is powerfully one-sided. It is explicit about the love of God that comes from Jesus Christ–not the love of Boogie-Christ, but the love which includes him. This currency is an awkward currency–it’s weaponless, it’s quiet, it’s painful, it makes one a fool before the strongman of the world. But it is all we are trying to find.
I have no real currency / But the currency of love
I have no one to trust / But the Lord up above
I have no one that fits / Like a hand to a glove
I have no real currency / But the currency of love
Lost one more struggle / I broke every rule
To become a monster / In the coat of a fool
Trying to find diamonds / In a world of mud
What else could we want for / But the currency of love?