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6 Timeless pop songs with spiritual themes

Johnny Cash
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These catchy tunes are "perfect'' -- one can't imagine adding another note.

“And music, finished as no music is ever finished. Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.” – Antonio Salieri, describing Mozart’s music in Amadeus

What makes some music seem exactly that perfect — so complete, so “finished” that one cannot imagine adding another note, or halving a beat without destroying the alchemy that we sense within it?

As a songwriter, I know how to compose a catchy hook and resolve a phrase, but I understand that the evidence of truly great music is that it remains fresh-sounding. No matter how often you hear it, the ear is delighted, and both body and soul become engaged. I bet you can name a pop song you think is “perfect.” But in case you’re not sure, here is an example of a perfect pop-song:

A perfect pop song — it engages you from the first piano riff, from the redundant rhythm guitar to the bass line, the lead chord progression, to the perfect vocal.

There are a number of “perfect pop songs” that also have a spiritual edge to them, some obvious, some not so obvious. Here are five of my favorites.

1) Sinnerman – Nina Simone

Sinnerman catches your ear the moment it starts, with a piano looping a lick while a snare drum interrupts it at a frantic pace that takes a few moments to catch up with the piano. From here Simone spins the tale of a sinner who is seeking shelter on the day of judgment, while the music continues to build each verse until she sings — or keens:

I ran to the devil, he was waiting all on that day. I cried ‘power.’

Then the song devolves into a loop of cries of “power,” corrupted by this act; it goes on for almost a minute, emphasizing the gravity of this choice. The song continues with virtuoso piano solos by the “high priestess of soul” played with all the emotion that judgment day would evoke. You can’t not hang on till the last note.

2) God’s Gonna Cut You Down – Johnny Cash

This is the most overtly religious song on this list. Cash tells a story of Jesus calling him to warn the sinners that He will cut them down. Accompanied by handclaps and footstomps that sound nothing but ominous — that’s one menacing marching beat to reiterate the chase and its inevitable conclusion. “You can run on for a long time but, sooner or later …” Cash gives it a wonderfully catchy, cautionary sense of wry weariness. He’s having fun even as he’s describing what cannot be escaped.

3) River of Dreams – Billy Joel

The beat slowly drags us through a mist — that twilight between waking and sleep — and we enter a subconscious nightly struggle to find faith. The hope of finding what he’s looking for brings Joel back to the same river each night that he cannot seem to cross. He just can’t get to the place of faith, and as his descriptions advance, so does the arrangement, continually bringing in more instruments, more churning, chugging percussion that replicate the sense of trying to walk through water, pushing through steady resisting currents, voices echoing him — a call-and-response given an Afro-Polynesian rhythm. He sings:

I’ve been searching for something
Taken out of my soul
Something I’d never lose
Something somebody stole
I don’t know why I go walking at night
But now I’m tired and I don’t want to walk anymore
I hope it doesn’t take the rest of my life
Until I find what it is I’ve been looking for

The prettiest part of the piece is something most people miss. As the song fades, Joel intones a line from the Cadillacs’ classic, singing, “Gloria …” We get a hint there, that Joel himself has hope.

4) Without Love – Ray Charles

The song opens up with Ray Charles singing quietly of his lost love. There’s a piano, bluesy horns in a simple progression, simple as he describes a life that is “barren and bare.” As good as the arrangement is, it’s the vocal that propels and dominates this recording. It slowly builds, becoming more honest about what is missing — “a heart without love cannot live” — until finally Charles is wailing over the band in his tormented pain and grief as he confronts the emptiness before him, claiming:

I have conquered the world
And tell me what do I have,
Without love
I have nothing at all

The song is centered around the idea that love is the only thing worth having. God is love and without God we have nothing as well, though we may conquer the world. It puts us to mind of St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthans 13:

If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal…if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.

5) Where the Streets Have No Name – U2
U2 opens this track with a long intro (thank you, Brian Eno) that almost sounds like a distant organ. It slowly gives way to a beautiful echoing guitar line. It rings like church bells calling until the bass drops in and the beat takes over. Bono’s vocal opens sounding breathless; “I want to run” he sings, but it sounds like he’s already been running for a long time, running fast, toward that chiming guitar. It’s a race, we get it, a race away from the cities full of clashes and neighborhoods clearly marked off, and the exterior and interior walls they create, whether it’s in Northern Ireland, or Chicago, or the outskirts of Paris. It’s a race for heaven, away from all of that, where the streets have no name.

I want to run
I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls
That hold me inside
I want to reach out
And touch the flame
Where the streets have no name

Speaking of which, Bono had a bad bike-riding accident a year or so ago, but he’s recovered. So, yeah … he still hasn’t found what, in “Streets,” he is looking for.

6) Loves Me Like a Rock – Paul Simon

When I was a little boy
And the Devil would call my name
I’d say “now who do
Who do you think you’re fooling?”
I’m a consecrated boy
Singer in a Sunday choir

When Paul Simon released his 2011 album, So Beautiful or So What?, he mused that, “For somebody who’s not a religious person, God comes up a lot in my songs.” The lyrics speak of a strong faith, firmly rooted by a mother’s love, which makes it all to easy to reject the temptations of the devil. Simon compares his mother’s love to the “rock of ages,” which is a reference to the use of “rock” as a metaphor for God, in the Psalms.

 

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