When asked to clarify the “meaning” of “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child”, Isaac Brock once said, “It’s not true. He had a brother” .
The guy doesn’t like interviews, sure. Still, it’s a dumb question. Songwriters, more than artists in any other medium, are forced again and again to expound upon the meaning of their works. Does this line of questioning indicate something about our attitudes toward pop music? Do we, even after all this time, not trust pop music to speak for itself? Are we anxious that, ultimately, pop music is devoid of any real insight or grand artistic sentiment, unless its purveyors can somehow point us—outside of the songs, themselves—toward the light?
Whatever. If it’s anyone’s, it’s our job—not the artists’—to write about what it is that songs, or paintings or films or sculptures or buildings, communicate to us. “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child”, for its part, is one of the more opaque tracks on The Lonesome Crowded West (what to make of those lines about “internet cash”?). The emotional tenor comes through, per usual, strong enough: anger, frustration, a nihilistic twinge of humor. Musically, the song indulges Brock and co.’s taste for Americana. Modest Mouse had already broken out the banjo and fiddle for earlier songs like “Mechanical Birds/Make Everyone Happy”, and the band will go on to do it with more frequency, tossing in some New Orleans-style brass, on later tracks like “Satin in a Coffin”, “The Devil’s Workday”. and “King Rat”. Here, Brock abuses an acoustic guitar while guest musician Tyler Reilly lays down a suitably country-fried fiddle accompaniment. These stylings never seem mere affectations—Brock’s already established his blue-collar voice with enough authority to warrant the experimentation, and the thin layer of grit that spreads itself over the recording doesn’t hurt, either.
Lyrically, Brock threads together depiction of Jesus Christ as a serene figure in an otherwise blatantly aggressive world: “Well, Jesus Christ was an only child / He went down to the river and he drank and smiled / And his dad was oh-so-mad / Should’ve insured that planet before it crashed”. Brock’s suggesting that Christ couldn’t do his job as a redeemer—God would’ve been better off to take out a life insurance policy on his creation. For a writer famously toxic toward organized religion, it’s interesting that Brock generally avoids typical anti-religious shock value in his lyrics (hello, Metal Section at Your Local Record Store). Instead, he opts for a strangeness in his lyrics that begs for further attention in order to parse out his implications.
Yes, he’s still spitting the words with due venom. He’s sarcastic and biting, and the song ends with the Father swearing that he “Should’ve killed that little fucker / Before he even had”. “Before he even had” gotten the chance to live, one assumes. Brock’s overextending himself here, protesting too much and losing the subtlety that make the other lyrics here compelling. Nevertheless, when he finishes the track by screaming, “I know now what I knew then / But I should’ve known then what I know now!” it’s hard not to be struck by the visceral punch of his voice. There are different ways to be forceful, after all.