NPR recently posted a short note about Edinburgh-based Dan Willson, also known by his band name, Withered Hand, saying that Willson is a former member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses but that he had “drifted away” from the church to start making his stylish, folkish pop music filled with images of spiritual displacement and longing, and especially the dynamics of human relations, rich as they are with confusion and compulsion and unresolved conflict. Drifted away? From the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
Then I remembered a scene from Kyria Abraham’s insider and funny book, I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing (Simon & Schuster, 2009), a scene about the author as a young girl finding her mother sitting on the kitchen floor, in a trance, with a hammer in her hand and a shattered vinyl record of the soundtrack of “Fantasia” (1940), Disney’s animated classic with a memorable bigger-than-life soundtrack, including a version of “Night on Bald Mountain” by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). Mussorgsky’s tone poem turned classical composition is crafted out of Russian legends about a witches’ sabbath on St. John’s Eve. Filled with gossip and conjuring and dark mischief for the whole family, with a full-walk-on part by the big evil one himself, Satan, “Night on Bald Mountain” was a crowd pleaser. That offending Disney record found its way into Abraham’s devout JW household because she and her mother loved “Fantasia.” Only later did her mother discover that it contained an evil piece of demon music. Get a hammer! That’s how things leave a JW’s home.
Although Willson left the JWs early in his life, as a boy, it clearly remains something of a big deal. It’s not a small matter, leaving a religion-based cult that imposes strict social adherence to hierarchy, literal interpretations of scripture, and universal obedience for all, including children. Leaving such an all-encompassing community leaves its mark on the departing individual.
The whole exiled JW thing can be used as a kind of handy (but certainly not exclusive) navigation device to some of the images in Willson’s lyrics. Nothing brings the rebel clarity and focus like a precise cultural obstacle from which to rebel. Nearly every song on “New Gods” (2013), a record that carries both the Rough Trade and Slumberland Records imprimaturs, weaves melody and language that straddles secular as well as religious pathways. For example: “We could kill our friends,” and “Here I stand hand in hand with the nameless one” (“Horseshoe”); “I try to picture the creator” (“Love Over Desire”); “Like I was born again,”“Better the devil you know,”and “The Gilded Palace of Sin” (“King of Hollywood”); “Waiting in line for the prophecy,” “Proclaim the end is nigh,” and “Sinners say what?” (“California”); “I never said I was good/How after all these years of life/Slipping into a new line” (“New Gods”); and “No fiery light in your brow, “No mountain in your palm,” and “To everything there is a season/Under heaven” (“Heart Heart”). There are many more. These songs are filled with scriptural tie-ins, as well as universal doubt, some guilt, and just a little bitter reflection.
Mastered at the mighty Abbey Road Studios in London, this is a beautifully crafted (in every way), career-defining record. It’s a shining example of the power and reach and universality of the singer/songwriter genre. These 11 songs speak to many universal themes, not just those I’m reading as influenced by a JW exit. So there’s much to enjoy without worrying about “religious songs.” There’s a coming of age vibe to many of the songs, such as “Between True Love and Ruin,” “Not Alone,” and Black Tambourine.” Willson isn’t old, but he’s also not a boy any more. He’s a father and has experienced love and loss, including the death of a friend his own age. Some reviewers have written about Willson’s sense of humor in his songwriting, but I didn’t experience “New Gods” as humorous. Most of the material on this new record feels introspective and melancholy to me. Life is what makes art. A life open-heartedly lived is what makes one person’s art and story universal. This is the second full-length collection from Withered Hand. It’s a powerful beginning to a career that will certainly continue to reflect on the unbelievable believable in all that we do, out here among the un-anointed.