There are lots of popular songs about heaven: the heavy metal Led Zeppelin ode to the stairway to; the New Wave Talking Heads one about a place where nothing ever happens; the track by Texican rock and rollers the Lonely Boys who wonder how far way it is; ad infinitum. There may be tens of thousands of heaven songs, and that’s not counting Gospel or Christian Rock or any other genre; I just mean plain old pop rock and country tunes that concern heaven. Terry Allen is the first person I know to ask this musical question, “Do They Dream of Hell in Heaven?” It’s an interesting religious question, and Allen is quite the philosopher on The Bottom of the World as he ponders the meaning of life, sex, and dreams to a sparse musical accompaniment.
As for those in heaven, Allen wonders if they wished they had been more sinful assuming they could repent and be saved just a moment before they died. It’s a version of the question non-Christians ask Christians, and presumably so do Christians of other Christians. It’s the moral equivalent of asking a pacifist what one would do if an evil doer was raping and killing one’s children. There is no satisfactory answer. Allen knows better than to dwell on it. He just puts that out to provoke the listener, and because he worries to himself about what the reply might be.
On songs like this, Allen takes on the persona of a trickster who likes to shake things up. He has an amiable voice and sparse musical accompaniment that he uses to create an air of old-fashioned intimacy as he sings about John Wayne, Ava Gardner and other people and places from earlier eras. The lyrics contain few, if any, contemporary references. The disc is produced by Allen, his son Bukka, and Lloyd Maines, who also contributes pedal steel guitar work par excellence.
The philosophical Texan asks questions such as “Is love just a dream?” and “Why do angels have wings?” as a way of serenely traveling to a dark place. The seemingly gentle questions suggest life is an illusion and that angels are not real. Allen doesn’t tell you that. He asks you, like he’s the voice in the back of your head. Or he’ll show you, as in “Emergency Human Blood Courier”, with anecdotes that may or may not have a purpose or build to an epiphany as much as to note the centrality of blood to our existence in real and metaphorical ways. We are reminded of our physicality and the fragility of life. Spilt blood takes on deep meanings.
It’s been 14 years since Allen released a studio album. He includes a new interpretation of old material (“Four Corners”) and one co-written with Guy Clark about someone shooting his dog (“Queenie’s Song”) and lots of strange new ones that evoke a mythical America where we pass on our demons to our children, see the emotional life of those we love replicated in the cinema, and the bottom of the world is just a short drive away. He may not know where the stairway to heaven is, or what there is to do there, or how far it is from here, but Allen knows the best way to get there is with a full tank of gas in case one wants to take off afterwards.
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