In 1966, when asked by a reporter why an atheist filmmaker would be interested in a directing a sensitive and straightforward portrayal of the life of Christ (The Gospel According to St. Matthew), Pier Paolo Pasolini could respond only be reframing the question. “If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief,” he said.
This quote has resonated with me, for my own reasons, ever since I first became aware of it. The humility and humanity embedded in Pasolini’s film made it the standard against which I have judged most (if not all) other attempts by atheists to engage explicitly religious themes in works of art. If an electronic album by a largely unknown Berlin producer inevitably fails to meet that standard — or even begin to approach it — that’s perhaps part of the point. Spirituals is an LP drenched in postmodern irony. Traditional Christian lyrics are delivered in multiple vocal styles ranging from Chipmunks (“All Around Me”) to fake parody funk (“The Right Thing”) to actual choirs (“Though the Darkness Gathers”), all against a complimentary musical portmanteau of skittering beats and guitars and strings sliced up and subjected to various degrees of manipulation, sometimes left sounding relatively untouched and organic, other times recalling something like Prefuse 73 (and especially the Prefuse/Books collaboration). Guido Möbius reduces everything — musical instruments, the human voice, Christianity itself — to digital bytes to be fucked with at will.
This results in one or two genuinely compelling tracks. “Babylon’s Falling” loops, time-stretches, and layers the vocals to create an eerie soundscape somewhere between chant and drone, with tabla-like backing and pure electronic effects fading in and out. “The Reign of Sin”, while a lesser effort, does settle into an enjoyably hard-edged funk groove that would not have sounded out of place on a mid-1980s Cabaret Voltaire record. But, even here, full enjoyment means divorcing the songs themselves from their (deeply unsatisfying) context — and this is where questions of religious authenticity become unavoidable. The press release for the LP states that “texts from traditional gospels” have been utilized on six of the nine tracks. “Without knowing the originals Guido Möbius gave these lyrics new melodies and used them for his own purposes. This poaching on forbidden terrain was a special joy for Möbius the atheist.”
What makes this such an exceedingly weak armature upon which to hang any sort of artistic expression is the simple fact that nothing about this “terrain” remains even remotely “forbidden” in 21st century Western culture. (Even if the United States represents a special case in this regard — itself a highly doubtful argument — then it should be remembered that the vast majority of this artist’s existing or potential fan base resides in Western Europe.) The shift from a Christian society, once the mainspring of civilization, to a fundamentally secular one — along with the great works of modern art that may have helped pave the way for it — occurred before Mr. Möbius or anyone who consumes his product were born. Thus an album like Spirituals breaks no new ground; it provokes no thought that any sentient first-world being has not already experienced by age 13; and it says nothing that has not already been said a million times, despite having nothing in particular to say.
The same press release goes on to add that Möbius was seeking something authentic, “with no trace of irony”, but by the end of the album any such assurances are bound to ring hollow. Seconds after the final track fades to a close, irony is all that remains in the listener’s consciousness, and the aftertaste is a bitter and unpleasant one.