The literary critic Harold Bloom famously wrote about the anxiety of influence, the struggle of poets to reconcile the impact of their predecessors with their own sense of originality. On his new LP I Won’t Answer, released on sister labels PIPEANDGUN and Communicating Vessels on July 22, local singer-songwriter Noel wrestles with his Southern Baptist upbringing and the task of updating traditional gospel blues to modern standards – and he succeeds at every turn.
“I needed to sort of excavate my past, having been raised Southern Baptist,” Noel – full name Noel Johnson, formerly a member of the White Oaks and the Great Book of John – said in an interview. “So I started thinking about the very best elements of the music that I’d been exposed to as a result of that, and lyrically, I wanted to be able to sort of look at the relationship of an individual to God as its own subject matter, as opposed to being ‘Christian music.’”
That Southern Baptist perspective is filtered through the tales of characters caught in moments of terror, reckoning and resolve. The sum total presents I Won’t Answer as a worthy successor to the works of the Louvin Brothers, Alabama songwriters who contrasted the white-hot righteousness of divinity with the absolute corruption of the material world.
According to Johnson, the genesis of the album’s sound came from exploring the question, “What would it sound like if Beck recorded an old Woody Guthrie song that captured the view of fire and brimstone religion?” Working from some demos, Johnson and producer Armand Margjeka molded the largely unformed songs into chiaroscuro soundscapes that combine a modern, genre-busting sensibility with the folk influences of populist music and spirituals.
That aesthetic feels most immediate on the album’s standout title track, an undulating, relentlessly catchy declaration of faith. “The Lord came to me in blindness and appeared to me in flames,” the narrator sings, and now it’s time to “Say I’m sorry to my parents, say I’m sorry to the board; I’m sorry, John D. Rockefeller, Mr. Henry Ford.” The outside world may not understand the narrator’s newfound sense of purpose, but then again, he doesn’t really care to understand the outside world, either.
There’s plenty of satirical humor woven throughout I Won’t Answer, but the world the album inhabits is intense enough to evoke the bleak wastes of Cormac McCarthy. The production style – made even more effective by the involvement of engineer Darrell Thorp, a three-time Grammy winner who’s worked with Radiohead, Beck and OutKast – is full of strings, horns and foreboding synths, creating a sonic enormity that hints at empty space more than lushness, and which makes the most of Johnson’s deep, haunting voice.
Even if the album’s message is ultimately uplifting, its tone draws directly from an Old Testament world of fire and blood, “the perfect world of crime and suffering.” Take this litany from “Black Oil White Bread,” for instance, a screed against the short-sighted greed of the powerful: “Well Jesus said…kill your greed, pluck out the eye, cut off the hand, eye of the needle, woe to rich man.” The true ideology of those who ignore those strictures, he sings in another song, is to “Burn the new world and curse the old.”
Organized religion, as Johnson found in his own upbringing, can present more of a hindrance than a help. “We envy the sacred and emulate the profane,” he sings on “Crime and Religion,” noting that both of the titular industries pay.
“Once you have your connection with God – whatever that may be, and whatever words you use, if you use words at all – nobody can tell you what that is,” Johnson said. “No matter how much you’re struggling with yourself, you’re never really lost. And maybe being raised in a really religious way convinced you you were more lost than you really were.”
That idea underscores the fact that amid the stories of depravity, selfishness and illusion, there’s still a great deal of hope in I Won’t Answer. “I feel about as low as any soul can go and still be saved,” Johnson sings on “Lost in Love” — the melancholy opening track of the album, which premiered on The Huffington Post — encapsulating the album’s juxtaposition of sadness and optimism in a nutshell.
The gorgeous “Lord Look After Me,” one of the last songs written for the record, expresses that duality with cathartic sincerity. Representing the album’s dynamics in microcosm, the song begins in desperation and dissonance. “I am wild and my heart can’t be trusted – my radiator’s busted, Lord, look after me,” Johnson sings. As additional voices sweeten and stabilize the song, he continues, “I am fire spreading by the wind, the fields are all in cinders, Lord. … Lord, come down again; I am dyin’ to make you my friend, but death is not the end, Lord.”
Johnson rightly takes umbrage at being labeled a Christian musician, since his music is more concerned with giving a voice to lost sheep everywhere, no matter how dire their circumstances may seem, than it is with his personal affirmation. Years of searching brought Johnson to his truth, and he clearly takes intense solace in it, even in the face of the deluge.
“What are you worried for?” the final words of the record ask. “It’s just the end of days.”