The Common Good
December 2010

Rough, Mystic Beauty

by Richard Vernon | December 2010

Say God: Songs and Poems of Daniel Higgs. Thrill Jockey.

Lungfish is a legendary band from Baltimore. The band's distinctive sound builds on post-punk roots and leans heavily on Krautrock-inspired repetitive, loping guitar figures. A commanding and charismatic stage presence, front man Daniel Higgs cuts an impressive figure, part aging biker, part Moses. He is balding, massively bearded, heavily inked (he has another career as a tattoo artist), and armed with a voice that can soothe, berate, cajole, growl, and squawk.

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The band's critically acclaimed records may well be great (and a handful certainly are), but easy listening, they ain't. Nonetheless, when I listened to Higgs' recent solo album, the double CD Say God, the listening experience was so intensely saturating, aggravating, and beautifully disconcerting that I found myself turning to Lungfish for light relief.

Daniel Higgs is a Christ-haunted mystical poet whose lyrical and spiritual preoccupations parlay into gospel-infused mantras that both revel in the glorious immanence of a loving God and impart an apocalyptic flavor of Old Testament prophetic terror. On Say God this is incarnate as a hodgepodge of studio and live recordings. Some songs are composed almost entirely of repeated phrases -- "Holy Bible time!" "Say 'God,'" "Hoofprints on the ceiling of your mind" -- that slide kaleidoscopically around each other over the accompaniment of wheezing drones from harmonium or shruti box. Leavened with the occasional aside to the audience, in whose discrimination and spiritual good sense the ever uncynical Higgs seems to place great faith, these are the songs that are hardest to bear on first listen, and become the most richly rewarding with repeat listens.

Other songs are simple, beautiful instrumentals showcasing Higgs' banjo prowess. These too play with gradual change and apparent repetition, again to powerful effect. Say God is a marvelous record in every sense, and although (like most great art) it demands some effort and attention, it will (like most great art) reward those efforts with something holy and transcendent.

Richard Vernon is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York.

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