Sacred and secular love
by James M. Manheim
"You know, Jan," the president of a Christian record label once complained to Detroit-area songwriter Jan Krist, "if you would just mention Jesus in your music, we could all make a lot of money." Instead, Krist parted ways with the label, and the only time Jesus gets mentioned on Krist's current album, Wounded Me, Wounded You, comes when she compares herself with a southern acquaintance who "sings about how he was raised / Singing songs of Jesus' love, living in a state of grace." Krist, on the other hand, comes "from the north, up near Detroit, Michigan / And I have struggled all my life, living in a state of sin."
Krist's music has affinities with that of Sam Phillips, who once sang that "I need love, not the political church." In one song she even lists someone who "prays to God / That his kingdom come" right after someone who takes a life or buys a gun. Love, usually imperfect, is her most common topic. "We all fail at love," she sings, "and that's just the simple truth." Once in a while, she comes up with a straightforward and powerful romantic image, such as "two hearts clicking like a hundred clocks."
God isn't mentioned much, either. Yet Krist hasn't renounced Christian ideas. All of her music has a spiritual undertone, and one way she weaves Christian themes into her music is quite unusual in the historical scheme of things. Reversing a practice used in music for centuries, going back to Johann Sebastian Bach, that appropriates music of secular passion to describe religious feeling, Krist sometimes uses religious concepts to describe love relationships. "Judgment Day" has the flash, crash, and thunder appropriate to its subject: "I can go to hell, that's what you say. / Here we are: Judgment Day." Her view of love's inherent imperfection always seems tinged with the idea of original sin.
Krist writes about a variety of other topics as well. She's
one of just a few songwriters to explore the emotions that follow a death, and she conveys a sense of the dissolution of society that's all the more unsettling because of the plain, middle-of-the-road quality of her music. The pace of many of her texts slows down when the song's chorus begins with some kind of maxim or emotional truth, driving it home compellingly. And like Bruce Cockburn, she's not afraid to try a genuinely mystical lyric now and again.
But it's Krist's general religious outlook, diametrically opposite to the Christianity-as-cudgel ideas of the moment, that is most unusual. Wounded Me, Wounded You opens with "St. John Reads the 21st-Century Want Ads," another song that slips a religious framework into everyday experience. One of the want ads reads, "Man with money and axe to grind / Will use violence to speak his mind." And the response in the song's chorus concludes with "The best thing I can do right now is to love," with some of the refrains adding the word "you" and others leaving it off.
Jan Krist is at the Ark on Thursday, May 6.
[Originally published in May, 2004.]