How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
Let’s start with the obvious: Wilco’s lyrics can be weird. Cryptic, even. But I find them endlessly intriguing. They remind me of something Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: “Nobody … ought to read poetry, or look at pictures or statues, who cannot find a great deal more in them than the poet or artist has actually expressed. Their highest merit is suggestiveness.”
I don’t think Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics are arbitrary or empty. The more time I spend with his writing, the more I sense themes emerging. Sometimes I’ll find exciting implications on the first listen; sometimes a possibility ambushes me long after I’ve given up trying. The joy is in the uncertainty.
I’m thinking about this as I listen to “The Joke Explained,” the third track on Wilco’s new album Star Wars. I’ve been playing this record a lot, and I’m willing to bet that by the end of 2015, this will be the only Star Wars that I find supremely satisfying — full of immediately exciting sounds and intriguingly suggestive details that keep me coming back for more.
The oft-repeated line in this song — “I cry at the joke explained” — might be a wink from the songwriter, a way of saying, “I hate explanations, especially when it comes to my own lyrics.” Tweedy sounds like a man who loves mysteries, who doesn’t want them solved. He likes surprises.
(In fact, Tweedy told Rolling Stone that he picked the title Star Wars and paired it with the painting of a docile cat for the album cover because “It just makes me feel good. It makes me feel limitless and like there’s still possibilities and still surprise in the world, you know?”)
If I’m on the right track with my interpretation of “The Joke Explained,” then it would seem to harmonize with themes that are emerging for me from all over this fantastic record. The cosmos is confounding — and glorious that way. What a joy it is to be gobsmacked by glory, to be made small by immensity, to be caught up in awe.
And what a joy it is then to participate in all of that with the miracle of our own surprising creativity.
* * *
Star Wars begins with a brief instrumental blast of noise titled “EKG” — sheer sonic dissonance that makes the subsequent songs emerge as unlikely evolutions of order and beauty.
I don’t claim to understand the lyrics of Track Two — “More…” — the album’s first actual song. But the chorus — “More than I have / More than there is / More than exists…” — reminds me of that dreamy refrain from Roxy Music’s pop anthem “More Than This,” which brought out the pathos in Bill Murray during Lost in Translation’s karaoke scene.
The two verses are challenging, but intriguing:
The first one references the birth of a “shallow tribe” and a “kid counterpart.” It could be a reference to the fact that Tweedy’s been singing with and performing with his son Spencer under a reasonable moniker — Tweedy. (Their first record, Sukierae, was released to high acclaim in 2014.) Maybe father-son kinship is on his mind in this stanza.
But then, he shifts the line opening “Ah” to a negative “Nah” and adds “He hollowed out his heart” and “…now he wants / More than we have….” Sounds like the kid might have ambitions of his own, like he’s setting out in search of whatever is next.
The second verse tells a whole new story:
Ah sewer watch was shown
Ah only 10 episodes
Ah it’s everything I feel
Ah in a mask of mirrors…
What to make of this? Here’s a wild guess. What comes to my mind is how I feel after binge-watching cheap TV. Perhaps “Sewer Watch” is the fake name of a fake series? It reminds me of so much lurid and disposable entertainment. And “only 10 episodes” sounds like a frequent complaint from binge-watchers. The strangest shows can inspire passionate followings and leave ‘em wanting more.
Whatever — the song leaves me with a familiar sense: I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. But the music doesn’t feel hopeless — in fact, it feels hopeful. The singer sounds convinced that there is more out there to find, more that is worth striving to know and apprehend.
* * *
“More…” is followed by a sort of reversal: After expressing the insufficiencies of relationship and experience — we can’t be enough for each other, and consumer culture can’t be enough for anybody — Wilco turns the gaze of their second track skyward.
And as they do, things take a wild turn: “Random Name Generator” rides a riff that’s absolutely ebullient, hook heavy, buzzy — even bouncy. Wilco haven’t sounded this giddy in a long time. They’re excited and having fun.
As mechanistic as the title sounds, “Random Name Generator” goes for mystical sentiment. It opens with lines that sound like classic American nature poetry, finding the sublime in worlds of weeds and stars:
Com’on listen to the weed whistle way
I belong to the stars in the day
I ran away eternal instigator
I was cold
I remember the Milky Way why
I belong to the stars in the sky
Random name generator
Asserting that he belongs to the created world, the singer casts himself as a runaway. But what did he run away from? All kinds of confining systems, societies, and structures come to mind, but the song refuses to define them.
What it does tell us, though, may be all we need to know. Consider what the singer is running toward: “I remember the Milky Way why,” he sings. “I belong to the stars in the sky.” He’s compelled by cosmic mysteries, and by a sense that he belongs to that great celestial dance. Perhaps he’s running from anything that would kill that sense of wild amazement. Whatever it was that he left made him feel “cold.”
And it is in this context that he mentions the titular “Random name generator.”
Is the universe just a machine that produces arbitrary stuff? I don’t think so. This song’s celebratory sound seems to counter any suggestion that “randomness” of the universe is dispiriting to him. The constant surprises generated by the cosmos seem inspirational: “Narrator Mr. narrator,” he sings, “I want to name every new born child….” It’s like he contains within himself something of that same creative flame-thrower that threw him out into the universe in the first place. Like an excitable atom (or Adam?) he wants to start naming things — even re-naming himself.
Note how much he relates such creative activity with the miraculous:
I change my name every once in a while
A miracle every once in a while
I am the flame, a flame creator
Random name generator
Among these miracles are the occasional meaningful connections that contradict any suggestion of an empty existence.
I kind of like it when I make you cry
A miracle every once in a while
* * *
These are the songs that lead us up to Track Three: “The Joke Explained.” He’s set the stage with an expression of desire to know more than the world has offered. Then he’s begun to find that “more” in a state of awestruck bedazzlement before the glory of the cosmos. Now, he brings us into an intimate dialogue. These could be lines sung from one lover to another about the void between them, a space that keeps them strange to one another.
I never held your gaze
I never know my place
I stare at the eyes staring at my face
It always ends in a tie
There is no knitting the divide…
A troubled marriage? Maybe. But there are lines in this song that also suggest the singer could be offering up a prayer — a confession from an uncertain believer to a mysterious Maker. Having established this sense of the unknown, he then declares, “I cry at the joke explained.”
He doesn’t want the gap closed. He doesn’t want certainties resolved. Something dies if that happens. Tweedy has frequently expressed distrust and even defiance in his references to theologians and religion. “They don’t know nuthin’ about my soul,” he sang on A Ghost is Born. But don’t call him an unbeliever. In fact, this song implies that a full resolution of the Great Mystery would rob him of the opportunity for faith:
Ah but if I had known
If I had known
If I had known
I would have never believed
Then comes the most directly religious language of all:
I never knelt at the news
My parrot perished in the pews
I climb back into the yolk
I find myself underlining my suspicion that this could be a song sung by a generation of believers who are deserting a disappointing church, who have stopped “parroting” the answers they’ve been taught, and who are out looking to be truly born again.
And the way it is played, with playfully buzzing guitars and ascending flourishes that sound hopeful and even jubilant…this is not the song of angry rebels or unrepentant prodigals, but of believers content with — even excited about — uncertainties. The answers don’t come easy, but they can wait.
* * *
Those are the lines that are on my mind this Sunday morning as I park my car and enter the sanctuary. I can’t wait to get inside. I’m grateful for a church that savors mystery. And I’m feeling thirsty after a week of unfulfilling tasks and dissatisfying encounters.
I want more than I have. I want more than yet exists.
Inside, I cross myself in reverence for the mysterious names of the Creator, the Flame, the Cosmic Name Generator. And I bow to receive the infinite mysteries of the sacraments.
Sometimes, the liturgy can feel like nothing more than “parroting in the pews.” But if my posture is correct — if I bow in reverence, or gaze upward in awe before sacred mysteries — then I can feel a miracle every once in a while. If I can resist the impulse to make God explainable, and if I can humbly remember that he will always have more glory to reveal, then I can go on being exhilarated by the great “What if?” of God’s grace.
So far as these tenuous lyric interpretations go, I think I feel some kinship with the singer. In Track Four — “You Satellite,” my favorite song on the album — I’ll sing along with him: “I’m more moved by the maybe.”
We’re seekers. We’re invigorated by mysteries and inspired by strange disturbances, by the intuition of something being revealed in the cosmos. When we attend to the glory made manifest throughout creation, we find a similar impulse of creativity responding within ourselves. A force awakens.
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