Or: Parker Millsap’s broken hymnal.
In his famously autobiographical first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, James Baldwin draws from his Pentecostal upbringing to conjure the Holy Spirit himself (itself?) for a kind of reckoning: The book is both immersive and critical in its portrayal of American religion, so vivid that you can’t read it without hearing handclaps and sweet mumbled hosannas in the back of your mind while you read it. It’s a grand wrestling with Christianity as Baldwin sees it—and the verdict? It’s complicated. He doesn’t flinch to paint religious faith as a hub for all manner of hypocrisy and abuse, and yet the book is no New Atheist dismissal: Baldwin writes with an insider’s understanding of how church goes down, and his criticism is both sharpened and restrained by his genuine engagement: He is respectful enough to address faith on its own terms. There are strange things happening in the book that any person of faith would chalk up to the groaning of the Spirit, and Baldwin never says that ain’t so. In his later collection of essays The Fire Next Time, Baldwin says this: “The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs—as who has not?—of human love, God’s love alone is left.” This is not an endorsement of Christianity nor even of theism so much as an admission that, when life strips all else away from us, there is some sense of the sublime that we cannot shake; a ragged figure moving from tree to tree in the back of our minds.
Singer/songwriter Parker Millsap was also raised Pentecostal, and on his second album, The Very Last Day, he conjures a reckoning of his own: A set of songs that paint religious faith as pained and often hurtful, songs that are critical but not exactly dismissive; songs that flee from faith like Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes, only to return to its myth, its language, its ritual. This is not a religious album, except insofar as song itself is a kind of liturgy, but it does suggest how saturated our culture, our geography, and our very souls have become with the stuff; it illustrates O’Connor’s distinction between that which is Christ-centered and that which is merely Christ-haunted. There is a burning intensity to it that leaves the listener’s face ashen and soul shook when the thing ends; a purposefulness that more than makes good on the promise of his fine debut, Parker Millsap. The album is a lean 35 minutes in duration; like A Love Supreme, its brevity seems a function of its vigor. Anything more would almost be too much a shock to the system.
The holy ghosts raised up here aren’t all Christian ones, either. On the opening song, “Hades Pleads,” Millsap catches the last train to Hell, the Lord of the Underworld shoveling coal into a pitch-black engine even as he wraps his other arm around the woman who would be his queen. Country-blues music has long sustained an interest in locomotive energy and train-track rhythms, but Millsap and his band seem like they’re always on the verge of careening over the rails. The song huffs and chugs and spits out tar and smoke; Millsap and his drummer trade off on sound effects as the engine rattles down to the netherworld and threatens to fall apart at high velocities, and a high and lonesome fiddle cuts a jagged path through ash and fire. Like James Brown or Tom Waits, Millsap is a singer who can summon the strange magnetism of preacher, shawman, and carnival barker all at once; here he inhabits the role of Hades as a ravenous predator; hell has no fury to match his animal lust and rampant desire. The whole song is a seduction, a dark undercurrent: “I’m gonna take you to my garden of screams/ Down in the belly of my voodoo machine… I’ll give you anything you want pretty girl/ You could rule over the underworld.” And then he pants like a dog. It’s a pagan love song, but also a song about temptation, corruption, and giving in to the darkness. Or, like U2 once sang, how love is blindness. The band builds into a steam engine moan; it’s such a scream.
By contrast, “The Very Last Day” is a fevered vision of nuclear holocaust: “I wanna feel that great atomic power/ When it yields that final fiery shower/ Ain’t no shield can save you in that hour.” The song peels and scrapes and Millsap sings it like he’s a main possessed. He’s got an appetite for destruction; it’s the end of the world as he knows it, and he feels fine: “You know there ain’t no reason/ Being so afraid/ You can try to hide/ But it’s gonna get you anyway/ When I see that cloud/ Gonna sing out loud/ Lift my hands and say/ Praise the Lord/ It’s the very very very last day.” The song disturbs, but doesn’t let you look away. Here’s an apocalyptic hymn—with the fiddle plucked, an organ blaring, the rhythm lurching and creeping—that builds like the best gospel music into hoops and hollers, a swell of spirit. It’s also a Rorschach test—a song about joy in the face of doom, or perhaps about the nihilism, the dismissal of this-world stuff, that religious piety can breed. However you take it, you can’t dismiss the way it shake the rafters and twists your own face toward the fiery blast of the final days: What are you gonna do when all of this starts to burn? It’s a fair question, and Millsap isn’t the first singer/songwriter to pose it, not even this year. His album of eschatological boogies comes shortly after Birds of Chicago counted down to the final hour on Real Midnight; Paul Burch made a frenzied dash toward his final curtain call on Meridian Rising; and Margo Price sought in vain to wrestle free from the cruel “Hands of Time.” Even Lucinda Williams’ thoughts turned to dust—her very body to ash and clay—as the ghosts of her past showed up like hellhounds on her trail.
Millsap and his band take their cues from the twitching energy and holy-ghost fire of Pentecostalism, too. They crack jump blues and rockabilly wide open here with incendiary dust-ups and electric raves. This is traditional music played with knowledge but without reverence; old forms reanimated to cling and clatter their way through the present day. Much credit goes to Gary Paczosa for producing this set and capturing its ramshackle energy and its addictive mayhem. Listen to how “Hands Up” chugs along to a steady rock and roll beat that sounds increasingly like it can’t be contained within its narrow framework—and then it just explodes! Listen also to how Millsap sings himself hoarse on the album’s one cover, Rev. Fred McDowell’s standard call-to-arms “You Gotta Move.” Sam Cooke remade the song as a jitterbug and Aaron Neville as a hymn of adoration, but Millsap’s harmonica-led and fiddle-adorned version is closer to the Stones’ druggy crawl out of—or perhaps back into—the pit of hell… only his voice, bent toward Pentecostal ecstasy, makes it sound more like a possession, a speaking in tongues.
Even the songs that are less explicit in their use of religious imagery wrestle with the darker side of faith, perception, and control. “Pining” is a jaunty love song, once more in the “Love is Blindness” vein. The narrator here could be a fool—or then again a Holy Fool: “Maybe I’ll have to walk through the fire/ Balancing on a razor wire/ But I ain’t afraid to weep/ I ain’t afraid to suffer/ I ain’t afraid to be a fool to be your lover.” It’s another Rorshach test—a song of unrequited love and unconditional affirmation; a song about delusion. The final line smuggles in some real, open-ended darkness: “There’s nothing I’m certain I wouldn’t do.” And then there’s “Jealous Sun,” a glorious and wistful bit of finger-plucked folk; paganism returns in the song’s personification of the sun as a kind of heavenly lover against which the narrator is no match: “Jealous sun he walks right in/ Like the place belongs to him.” It’s a song about time and its tricks: No act of love or devotion can stand up to an endless wave of tomorrows: “I have tried to show him you’re all mine/ I’ve cast stones/ I’ve begged, I have cried/ But all my pleas fall hollow.”
“Hands Up,” a stick-up tale, sets the scene masterfully, in the school of John Prine, Guy Clark, or Joe Henry. “Easy or hard, kid, it’s up to you/ I don’t wanna be here any more than you”—and then it takes off. The narrator has a pistol hidden in his pocket, and the song mirrors that coiled malice, that phantom energy that becomes realer and realer as Millsap’s voice rises and the sawing fiddle starts burning. Again it is hard not to think of O’Connor’s Hazel Motes, a war veteran who sees the face of inhumanity and returns home hell bent on running from the Lord. Millsap’s narrator has seen war’s traumas, too—“It’s hard to keep a job when you just can’t pretend/ That you never heard a body bag zip over your best friend”—but he returns home looking for salvation; the thing is, Jesus doesn’t show up on time, so the guy goes on a crime spree. The song breaks down any concept of good guys and bad guys; evil becomes something any one of us is capable of, given sufficient reason and the right opportunity.
The showstopper, though, is “Heaven Sent,” a letter home from a gay son to his evangelical father. It’s caustic and confrontational; it’s uncomfortable. The words seethe with righteousness and smolder with rage, but the rage masks real hurt—“I just want to make you proud/ Of the kind of love I’ve found/ But you say it’s not allowed.” The song doesn’t try to give both sides but it does offer the respect of real engagement; only someone who knows something of Christian theology from the inside could have written this: “Papa, you’re the one who taught me/ That by his stripe he sought me/ And with his blood he bought me.” Then comes the big question: “Daddy you’re the one that claimed/ That he’d love me through the flame/ Now why can’t you do the same?” The drums roll like thunder in the background, and you just wait for the heavens to open.
The Very Last Day dances with demons and wrestles with angels; what there isn’t any room for is apathy. And so it becomes its own kind of wilderness confession, its own hymn to humanity, set in a world where strange and awful things happen every day. It establishes Millsap at the front line of young singer/songwriters—an artist with fire in his bones and his own stories to tell. This one testifies plenty.