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‘Usurped arts’

Karen Peris and Edwards (Photo illustration by Krieg Barrie)

‘Usurped arts’

Two new albums express Christian belief—if you listen closely

Play the latest albums by the Innocence Mission and Wovenhand’s David Eugene Edwards for someone who doesn’t speak English—someone, in other words, oblivious to what’s being sung—and he’ll probably tell you that the two have little in common.

One of them, after all, is loud, dark, and turbulent; the other quiet, luminous, and peaceful.

But even if your hypothetical listener were an English speaker, he’d probably miss the albums’ profoundest commonality: Christian faith. The reason that he’d miss it is that both Edwards and the Mission’s Karen Peris deliver their lyrics in ways that require an uncommon degree of patience and concentration.

Edwards’ album is called Risha (Glitterhouse). It’s a collaboration with the co-billed Einstürzende Neubauten bassist and guitarist Alexander Hacke, who has described Risha’s music—accurately—as a combination of electronics, ethnic instruments, and “overdriven guitars with Oriental rhythms and scales.” (He left out American Indian motifs, but maybe those qualities are just illusions arising from the song that alludes to the Kiowa Five painters and the song that alludes to parish chiefs.)

If you think that those ingredients sound like a recipe for a reverberant din, you’re right. And a lot of the time that din submerges much of what Edwards, occasionally suggesting latter-day Scott Walker, carnival-barks forth, leaving the words to rise fitfully to the surface like a drowning man fighting for air.

When they do break through, though (or when listeners read along with the lyric booklet that comes with the album’s physical editions), they reveal the same obsession with explicitly Scriptural imagery that has gripped Edwards ever since he emerged as the leader of the gothic-Americana outfit 16 Horsepower in the 1990s.

Some of Edwards’ obsession is curiously numerological. In the runaway juggernaut “All in the Palm,” Edwards emotes about “eating [one’s] fill” on a “holy hill” and repeatedly cites the “12 and seven” baskets used to collect the uneaten scraps following Christ’s feeding of the thousands in Mark 6 and Mark 8 respectively. In “The Tell,” a pun-filled stream of consciousness (that includes “bull rushing” and “bar nun”) culminates with repeated references to “70 times seven.”

Edwards’ spiritual orientation is easiest to make out in the relatively quiet tracks “Lily” and “Triptych,” the former combining language from the Song of Solomon and Psalm 139, the latter from James 1, Genesis 3, and the Lord’s Prayer. His artistic philosophy, on the other hand, comes through most clearly in the final line of “Helios”: “All the arts are dark.”

“The arts are just a part of [the world],” he told an interviewer last year. “They are not something separate and holy. But the Lord has usurped art and music and literature, and everything else, on our behalf, because of who He is.”

Karen and Don Peris, the husband-wife duo at the heart of the Innocence Mission, might not agree about the darkness of the arts, but even as A&M recording artists in the ’90s, they never shied away from letting their music reflect “who He is.”

Their new album’s title is Sun on the Square (Badman), the sibilant alliteration and visual imagery of which betoken the delicately wrought folk textures of the diaphanously ghostly songs therein. Its 10 songs read and sound like childlike meditations on kindness and the ultimate “healing” awaiting those held in God’s arms.

As with Edwards and Hacke’s Risha, however, listeners will want to consult the printed lyrics. Now as ever, Karen Peris’ gossamer soprano voice and dreamy enunciation combine to create a first impression that’s more impressionistic than expressive.