This week I was caught completely off-guard by the release of Paul Heslin and Reuben Ingall‘s split Eden Again. Paul (Melbourne) and Reuben (Canberra) are both wildly prolific musicians and both emerged from the Canberra experimental scene of the 2000s, so the idea of the split wasn’t especially surprising. The format (VHS cassette and digital download) is unusual, but well in keeping with both their love for supposedly obsolete formats: Paul has previously released an EP on 3.5 inch floppy disk, and Reuben is an active advocate for the CD single. Even the concept, on paper, seems quite straightforward – Paul and Reuben processing and treating a selection of christian videos and music from the 1990s. What I wasn’t expecting was the result. Over six tracks, Eden Again captures some of the cartoonish images associated with evangelical christianity (smiling white longhaired jesus, westboro baptist church protests, tv ministers), it warps and destabilises them (chops, screws, sets to blistering breakcore beats) and in doing so it reinvests them with something real.
The tools with which Paul and Reuben approach their material are not unfamiliar. It’s been a few years since Ghost Box and Oneohtrix Point Never and Konx-Om-Pax et al set up shop, and before them all Boards of Canada, and I have always appreciated the ways in which these artists have recontextualised and destabilised old footage to creepy and unsettling effect. I’m not trying to suggest that Eden Again is a technical achievement above and beyond anything that Hauntological music has achieved to date, but that I’ve never seen it used with such purpose.
What I mean is that whereas a lot of Hauntology draws on familiar nostalgic footage from our various childhoods (depending on your generation) and draws out the weird, the broken and the frightening elements contained within them, Eden Again starts with nostalgic childhood footage that has genuine significance and evocative power to begin with. Whether you’re a christian or not (and going to a fairly lightweight anglican school, I was only fleetingly exposed to this stuff), you can’t look at this footage without thinking how it has been given to children to help them understand God. It’s not a BBC tele-drama or an episode of Baywatch, these clips and snippets were how some children (maybe you, maybe not) came to grips with their spirituality and the concept of a higher power. From the beginning, then, Eden Again is treading in emotive territory.
The second observation I have to make is that this is far more than the irreverent pisstake it could have been. This is a bizarre and unusual depiction of evangelical culture, but it’s not a haphazard sledging. Each one of these six tracks unflinchingly questions and challenges its source material, but not in a dismissive way. In fact, more often than not, the work feels like a more intimate and personal confession of spirituality than most CCM artists you hear on christian radio. Reuben explains that the record’s title refers to the search for ‘a simpler life, of re-attaining something perfect or unsoiled in my mind’. Whereas so much christian music is based around evangelism first and foremost, Eden Again has an honesty and openness that revitalises the material it employs.
Reuben’s Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! gears up as if it’s about to sling a whole bunch of testosterone-fuelled powerchords at you, and then drops the tempo right down and gives you a swathe of young christian popstars and an array of ethical dramas as delivered by puppets. The messages are contradictory, confusing and THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT YOUNG CHRISTIAN KIDS ARE ATTEMPTING TO ASSIMILATE IN SUNDAY SCHOOL EVERY WEEK.
Paul’s Le Meme Monde is a haunting breakcore ode set to a selection of visions of Jesus, followed by bursts of images from the Westboro Baptist Church. The line between conviction and prejudice is no thicker than the drop of a heavy backbeat – question everything, question everything, don’t put your faith in prophets unconditionally, or else you could be grinning the same unearthly grin the Phelps’ clan wear while they hoist GOD HATES FAGS banners.
Reuben’s Who Do We Think We Are lines up an array of televised ministers delivering straight to camera addresses swirling over a chopped and screwed morass of gentle CCM. Slow it down, open up some space, and the music carries so much more weight and impact.
Paul’s Lambs and Sheep, with its smears and trails of glitch forming one glacial onslaught, is even more laden with heartache. Shots of Marjoe Gortner are slowed down to an almost unberarable crawl, and the boy preacher seems to surge towards the camera as he vows to punch the devil’s lights out. The final shots, of the couple pronouncing their wedding vows while Marjoe stares wide-eyed towards the distance (where his mother was waiting and watching), are more affecting than I’m used to with this sort of abstract soundscape.
Paul’s Abstinence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder captures the awkward presentations of young men and women in a selection of abstinence campaigns targeted at teenagers. The chopped-up rhythmic vocals and the lurching presenters carry the message ‘It’s Worth Waiting For!’ in a way that is more punchy and vibrant than the original could possibly have been.
Reuben’s Almost Eden Again captures the full cartoonish glory of christian TV’s representations of Eden, with brightly-lit Adams and Eves stumbling around garish studio settings. If this was made with the express intention of mockery, it would be too easy – the filmic versions of Genesis are unsophisticated and dated – but re-edited together, redolent with colour, slurred by VHS glitch and soundtracked by Reuben’s soft vocals re-working and expanding the country ditty ‘It’s going to be Eden again’, the scenes take on a desperate sincerity. This might be the only way that a media-saturated audience in 2011 can properly appreciate and comprehend the weight of the story being told – through the slow, yearning drift of glitch. If Abstinence is the record’s single, Almost Eden Again is the centrepiece.
If you are a christian, I believe this is way more than a jab at some of the lightweight representations of your culture in popular media from the last 20 years – these videos have resonance and weight. They are not just gag reels because they are in no way simply funny. Nor are they obvious critiques. For sure, putting Marjoe Gortner in a clip is obviously not showcasing christian evangelism in its finest hour, but that’s what evangelism did back in the 1950s. That was real and it meant something – and if you can’t connect to and relate with that, then you’re ignoring a pretty significant part of christian culture.
I’m not trying to argue that this record is a work of christian evangelism – what I’m saying is that it’s a piece of religious, spiritual art. It’s possibly the most coherent and well-formed statement I’ve ever seen from the world of video remixing. It’s christian in content and themes and it’s not a misguided jab from outside the culture, nor is it trying to cherry-pick evangelist culture for compromising images to satirise it. It’s using evangelist pop culture as the raw material and framework for a much deeper and more sincere view into religion.
It might jar with you. It might not wash in any way. But I contend that this is every bit as powerful a window into genuine religious feeling as Sufjan Steven’ Michigan. Christian music promoters and critics are often conservative and cautious of following trends in art and music. The result is the typical stereotype that CCM is five years behind the ball. At the same time, young christians are a part of contemporary culture – they go to the same schools, see the same TV shows and hear the same radios as their secular peers. They are trying to connect with Jesus here and now, not back in 2006.
They’re not going to hear it in Jars of Clay. They’re not going to hear it in Skillet. They’re not going to hear it in TobyMac. They’re not going to hear it in the Barlow Girls. They might hear it in the scorched beats and skewed videoscapes of Eden Again.