We’ve tussled here about the possible merits of Mumford & Sons, and discussed other albums from the Christ-haunted section of the indie music world. There may be enough of these artists now to constitute a tradition or subgenre: heartfelt guys with sincere guitars, aching and unslaked souls whose faith is found in silhouette, in the negative space which remains despite everything they’ve lost. Youngest Son, a project of heartfelt/sincere Chicagoan Steve Slagg, has two new albums which describe Christian mourning—the doubt of grieving Christians as well as their faith—with emotional honesty and a tuneful, memorable pop sensibility.
Full disclosure: On Youngest Son’s first album, “Pigshit and Glowing,” there’s apparently a song sort of partly inspired by some of my writing. I haven’t listened to the album yet, mostly because that seems weird, but my personal awkwardness shouldn’t stop you.
The new releases are a full album, ”All Saints Day,” and a companion EP which you can download for free, “All Souls Day.” The free download will give you a taste; I’d be surprised if you don’t think the full album is worth paying for.
The voice is usually my stumbling block with indie music. Slagg is closer to a Sufjan Stevens quaver than the angrier, jabbing yowl of a John Darnielle—his voice is light and whispery, more like a lily than like a kick in the teeth. If you’re okay with that, though, the music is very smart. It’s well-structured; the fevers break right when you want them to. The intertwining of men’s and women’s voices against a background of buzzy instruments often reminded me of the Young Marble Giants. The piano often recalls hymns; at other times, as in “Quiet Revival,” the piano runs like streams of water (salt water), searching, zigzagging, as the strings and percussion come in.
The lyrics are not quite so hymnlike: They’re more like the things you think in the raw blank space around the words of the hymns. “Though I am nothing / You leave me all these little things.” (Lots of these “you”s start with a capital Y.) “We had a quiet revival where the church burned down / Pallbearers shuffled their feet across the ashy ground.” “A potluck feast of the Lamb, we ate with gritted teeth.”
Despite the familiar structure of the music, the lyrics can be agonizing: “There’s a hole in the sky where his body should be / There’s a hole in my arms where his body should be / There’s a hole in the ground.”
“Faith” retells the story of Peter getting out of the boat to come to Jesus: “Alex tried to swim in the presence of his God / but the lake, it changed its mind,” as the song hangs on a thin violin thread, “and Alex drowned. / So Jesus dragged the lake / With his strong right arm / He pulled Alex out of the water”—and Slagg’s voice is just so broken here, full of unshed tears. Then the very next song is called “Baptism Liturgy,” and women’s voices give it a traditional, down-by-the-water feeling, but the lyrics are shadowed by the song which came before: “Wade into the water, little brother. / Don’t be frightened, little brother. / Don’t be scared if the water is over your head. / The day of the living is coming… but today, today is the day of the dead.”
Brother is the endearment that comes up again and again in these two albums; they tell the stories of brothers taken away too soon. As well as adding to the indie hymnal, Youngest Son is adding to the death-haunted literature of friendship.
“Wake” offers an elegy in the subjunctive tense, the counterfactual: “Tonight, love, you never were alone. / Tonight, love, we all answered the phone.” It’s sinister and sad, good for fans of Martin Tielli. There’s regret here, acrid self-reproach, and not solely the pure sorrow which suffuses the rest of the songs.
I don’t have “criticism” of these albums exactly. There are things missing which I like in my music, but that’s a statement about me, not about Youngest Son. I like more (deserved, hard-earned) guilt and more sin, more grubbiness, more of the sordid Cainery of our lives. More of that acridity. More David, I guess, less Job. But obviously Job is the story of our lives some of the time.