Records often become inextricably tied to the place and moment in our lives when we hear them. Music’s power to latch itself on to our memories is truly remarkable: a single song can completely transport the listener back into that mood in ways that mere recollection cannot. They are an easy ticket for re-experiencing the past. But sometimes we associate them with memories that are too painful to confront, and they become unplayable. Listening to records that can arouse such intense emotional memory is a risky business, but it is perhaps that deeply affecting quality that makes music great.
Boy Without God (Gabe Birnbaum) has made one those records, one of those (and we all have our own favorites) that somehow got under my skin and stayed there. The particular moments I associate with it are dark and dramatic, but that’s not to say Boy Without God is a downer. Exuberant and full-blooded, Boy Without God creates music that is so raw that it will undoubtedly hit you hard; in what way, it’s hard to say.
That’s in large part due to his crafting of soundscapes. Boy Without God likes his sound meaty: lo-fi need not apply here. He wraps you in a variety of unusual timbres and creates tension and release by gradually expanding that space. No place is this more in evidence that on “Holy Holy Little Fist”, the no-holds barred opener on this digital 7-inch that showcases Boy Without God at his best: going for broke. Beginning with an arresting organ line and spare drum machine, the song is propelled by layer upon layer of vocals, percussion, a flurry of hand claps, and finally bursts of frenetic horns (all played by Boy Without God himself) that showcase his unique combination of indie rock and free-jazz. Where most rock musicians shy away from such frenetic dissonance, Boy Without God relishes in these moments while using them sparingly to heighten the effect.
“Boy Without God” suggests some type of existential searching, and his lyrics reflect this humanistic outlook in “Holy Holy Little Fist”. “I know fate is a lead coat/weighin on our/silky ties and dead bolts/ all our exoskeletons/ I know fate is lead, molten/pouring into/forms we cannot understand/ guided by our own two hands.” This rejection of fate, this emphasis on the earthy (in the same song he declares, “We are fields of wise goats defecating joyfully”) can be disorienting for listeners used to music drenched in irony and cynicism. But the conviction with which he sings seems to say: so be it. His deep, growly baritone – which he often over-dubs multiple times – recalls Matt Berninger of The National, but that doesn’t stop him from pushing his voice to the upper reaches of his register until he’s at a full out scream. Sincerity is only revolting when it veers into melodrama, and Boy Without God is anything but that.
“If You” is an intimate, hopeful ballad–the yin to the yang of “Holy Holy Little Fist”. Boy Without God adds his distinctive orchestral temperament to an otherwise sparse guitar track, adding smudges of horns and vibraphones to create a warm, welcoming palate. You get a sense of his extreme vulnerability here, but it’s an endearing vulnerability, not a pitiful one. In the same way that Elliott Smith used to turn his sadness into beauty, Boy Without God has a talent for turning his loneliness into something more.
This two track single from Boy Without God gives a small taste of his talent; his other work hints at the epic instrumental genius of Sufjan Stevens but with none of his cringe-worthy sentimentality. With a broader musical palate to work with than most indie rockers and flair for the dramatic, Boy Without God makes music that’s adventurous without being distancing; music that is, in fact, deeply arresting and personal. And memorable.