Punksters and non-punksters alike will be able to relate this one by Cole Hartin:

I’ve always had something of a penchant for punk rock. Anything gritty, really. This eventually extended itself into post-hardcore. It’s kind of a guilty pleasure, though. I only listen to it once in a while, after sneaking glances over both shoulders, to make sure nobody is looking at my iPhone. I do feel a smug sense of pride in my curated list of higher pop: Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, S. Carey, Novo Amor, Julien Baker, and the like. But my love for Say Anything, Blink-182, and Brand New…I’m less proud of this. Plus my wife hates it.

Anyways, I dove pretty deeply into some more recent punk albums last year when I started running more regularly. This itself was something I did for survival, to manage the stresses of life, and to fight my fears of getting fat. But as I listened to these more aggressive voices, I felt conflicted. Because in many of these bands, the themes and lyrics are often debased. For example, take this verse from Say Anything’s “Kall Me Kubrick”:

This song makes me feel like I’ve had a smidgen too much tequila
You’re really not supposed to chase poison
With four full-on Red Bulls!
I’ve never done crystal meth but I imagine this is what it
Feels like
Oh my God, I’m going to flip out
Oh my God, am I gonna choke and die before I even meet my daughter?
Slaughter anyone who understands
I don’t need your helping hand
To my manager and fans: this is the gist of who I am

As you can see, this is pretty sad, depressing stuff. Human flailing, nods to consumerist brands, self-questioning, hatred, anxiety, etc., etc. It really is drivel at its finest. The whole album Hebrews by Say Anything is filled up with this kind of dark, self-loathing anguish. It is difficult to listen to in some ways, offensive in others, and yet I’ve been drawn to it again and again.

Running, for me, has always been a kind of prayer. The first few minutes are always hazy, uncomfortable, and full of distractions. But after a while, when I fall into a steady pace, the fog clears from my mind, and thoughts come and go while me heels pound the concrete. It’s not really a directed form of prayer, like the kind I pray from the Book of Common Prayer; nor is it quiet, focused contemplation. Rather, it’s a kind of unconscious processing that happens almost on its own. When something important comes to mind, I utter a prayer (out loud) or hold onto the thought for a while and mull it over.

This state has been the best way for me to engage with difficult music. Admittedly, I think part of it is the loud drums and fast pace. My body seems to fall into the rhythms of the music I’m listening to without much effort.

But there is something else, too. This dark music puts me in touch with the darkness inside of myself. I think this can be a dangerous thing for people, if left to oneself for too long, where the darkness becomes a kind of fixation leading to self-pity or self-destruction. But, on the other hand, it can also be very sobering. Artists like Say Anything are crude communicators, but this edgy medium is especially poignant for the kind of message that they are able to speak so truthfully: We are all debased, sick, and twisted in ways most of are embarrassed to talk about. We’ve become accustomed to confessing our sins with polite voices, by naming them generally (I confess I have lust in my heart, or I gossip, or I’m proud) or we soften their sting with little justifications (I’ve treated my family member terribly, but to be fair, they often deserve it).

It’s always painfully refreshing then, like ice cold water splashed in one’s face, to hear someone speaking so honestly, like Max Bemis, the mastermind behind Say Anything. It’s one thing to admit to self-indulgence, for instance, but that doesn’t quite capture our reeking depths the way these words by Bemis do:

Tiny man, chubby man
A trembling, scruffy, lazy man
Sculpting with my puffy hands
An idol to my pride’s demands
Tonight, a need to be redeemed
I’m in the nude, inhaling ice cream
Talking to my dogs

The image Bemis gives us here is a richer, less sanitized picture of what sinfulness feels like. In this case: self-hatred, mixed with our odd idiosyncrasies. And while this image is banal, Bemis touches on more serious problems. In the track titled “Push,” he tackles the horrors of the holocaust and his struggles with Scripture, all in what feels like a stream-of-consciousness reflection on his daughter’s birth. Bemis recalls his wife saying, “Absent Lord, put strength in me,” as she passes through the pains of labour.

And this is just the kind of line that gives voice to why I love this vulgar music: It not only puts me in touch with the darkness inside of me — what I as a Christian name “sin” — but because it reminds me that for all of my pretensions to wellness, naming my darkness allows me to call out to God in just this way. It reminds me, too, that in a world filled with people who sense God’s absence, the pains of life — whether labour pains or others — may cut through their thin unbelief when, seeing their own darkness, they too can all out to God.