The recent release of Adam Arcuragi’s album Like a Fire that Consumes All Before It has raised interest in the popular-musical category of “Death Gospel,” a metaphysically attuned variety of the Americana genre named by Arcuragi.
Death Gospel is not sonically related to “Death Metal” (a heavier Heavy Metal music); nor is it overtly “gospel” music. Arcuragi describes it in a recent Huffington Post interview as “anything that sees the inevitability of death as a reason to celebrate the special wonder that is being alive and sentient. That’s the hope with the songs. . . . It is exciting that we can reflect upon it as intelligent life and do something to make that wonder manifest.”
Arcuragi’s interview attributes little theological import to the gospel portion of his category, noting instead his love of 2/2 time and pointing to a number of historical antecedents such as Claude Ely and Johnny Cash, and more recent–and some might say more “secular”–acts including Neko Case and the Flaming Lips.
Arcuragi is being coy. Death Gospel offers an interesting rejoinder to a culture that denies death and decay, insisting instead that particular individualities require a universal point of convergence; it addresses a generation of young adults (and their elders) who, despite their spirituality and electronic connections, feel alienated from their traditions (religious or otherwise), from their humanity, and from one another. Earlier influences upon Death Gospel, such as Claude Ely’s song “There Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down,” acknowledge death as a common reality, no less than a prerequisite for resurrection.
Hank Williams’s “I Saw the Light” is more sanguine in its depiction of incandescent conversion (“No more darkness, no more night, / Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight, / Praise the Lord! I saw the light”), though Williams is also rumored to have told Minnie Pearl, with tears in his eyes, upon hearing the song on the radio during a late night drive between gigs, “There ain’t no light.” His best gospel songs reflect this ambivalence:In the great book of John you’re warned of the day
When you’ll be laid beneath the cold clay. . . .
Can you truly say with your dying breath
That you’re ready to meet the angel of death?
Death is not the end, though you may come to wish it were. Arcuragi brings Williams’s ambiguity in conversation with Ely’s aspiration.
In the traditional division of Saturday night and Sunday morning as profane and sacred, respectively, in American vernacular culture, Death Gospel (like the blues) dwells—to appropriate Tom Waits’s album title—in the heart of Saturday night. Yet (as Waits, too, would be quick to note), this celebration isn’t simple hedonism. Nor (again, like the blues) does it typify the nightclubs of the damned, the nihilisic entertainment of those who fail, or refuse, to recognize their mortal plight.
Death Gospel longs for communitas that is both facilitated and made more imperative by the Angel of Death: “The black veil descends on all our eyes,” Arcuragi sings in “Parliament of Birds,” marking humankind as “the only animal that knows it’s doomed.” At the heart of Saturday night are the common impulses that move a fractured, alienated, and lonely population: the desire to see the dawn and the fear that one may die alone.
Such a quest is not solitary. It requires love, empathy, and a sense of tradition—a sense of one’s place in a larger human trajectory. NPR’s music critic Bob Boilen describes first hearing Arcuragi and his Lupine Chorale Society live in a small venue during Austin’s South by Southwest Festival: the crowd “spontaneously s[ang], unprompted, the choruses to his songs—songs we’d mostly never heard before.” “Arcuragi,” he claims, “crafts songs of community, with music that binds.”
Still, in one sense the “Gospel” in Death Gospel may yet prove misleading. After all, a tangential compatibility with un-uniquely Christian notions such as community need not prove Christian or otherwise theological in any orthodox sense. Still, as the erotic Hebrew text of the Song of Solomon finds metaphysical resonance in readings of the Christian Bible, Arcuragi’s parables of God-longing and carnal desire are rooted both in Saturday night dancehalls (waltzes and two-steps), and in the Sunday morning harmonic structures of Southern hymnody, reminding auditors that love is strong as death, as cruel as the grave.
Death Gospel offers no assurances. What it holds out for is the possibility that people may, together, be transformed in their attitudes toward living, may love and be loved, and thereby recognize in these fleeting moments of community a measure of authentic existence regardless of what lies beyond knowing. Arcuragi sings: “[I]f it should all be a big accidental / series of collisions that stay glued / at least here, for the moment, there is a difference for we two.”
Auden’s famous imperative—”We must love one another or die”—might be expanded to We must love one another because we’re going to die. That inevitability becomes the tie that binds. Bob Dylan—another Death Gospel antecedent—once claimed that “the message” in his songs is, essentially, “Good luck. I hope you make it.” Arcuragi seems to agree, though with the caveat that whether one makes it or not, the journey should never be taken alone.
M. Cooper Harriss teaches in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech. He received his Ph.D. in religion and literature from the Divinity School in 2011.