From “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” to “Devil in the Blue Dress,” religious imagery has always been part of rock music. To some extent it’s almost unavoidable since much of what rock tries to do is make sense of complicated life circumstances. Alternative music, in particular, has some great examples of songs that deal with religious and spiritual themes, or at the very least play off of religious religious imagery.
The template for this sort of thing was probably U2, a band that never made any bones about the religious foundations of their songs. U2 used religious ideals to make sense of drug addiction, suicide, terrorist attacks, religious doubt, pop culture materialism, racism, and, over the course of almost 40 years, more themes than I really have time to outline. The thing they did so well was not to be ridiculous in their art—their songs aren’t religious propaganda, but they are deeply socially and spiritually engaged.
The devil has always gotten his due. The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” was like an expose of some of the historical visitations of ol’ Lucifer. Keith Richards once famously said that the song was not devil worship, as some had claimed, but instead a way of exposing the devil and thus taking away some of his clandestine power. The Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” seems like a semi-resigned song about how making a deal with the devil might just be easier than trying to be good all the time. But it has a line about being “trailed by twenty hounds,” which seems like a reference to Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail.” Of course, Johnson is considered to be the father of blues music, but he didn’t get that way until, according to legend, he went down to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for being made the best blues singer around.
In the 90s, alternative artists found religious anti-themes to be useful. Alice in Chains, for example, sang “Heaven Beside You” about the challenges of keeping a healthy relationship, especially when there’s “hell within.” Or in “Man in the Box,” Layne Staley belts out “Jesus Christ” which is then followed by Jerry Cantrell’s less intense “deny your maker.” The theme, though, is the man in the box begging for salvation: “Won’t you come and save me.” Pearl Jam, NIrvana, and Soundgarden both picked up on Christ themes, too. Pearl Jam’s “Tremor Christ” is confusing as heck. On the other hand, Soundgarden’s “Jesus Christ Pose,” in addition to highlighting Chris Cornell’s wailing voice, takes a stab at rock stars who portray themselves as persecuted by their fame, specifically Perry Ferrell of Jane’s Addiction. Most ironically of all, Kurt Cobain took an old campy gospel song and turned it into a typically disinterested ditty with “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam. From the way he performs it, it’s pretty obvious he’s not bothered by that fact.
Spiritual and religious language have provided some of the best language for describing romance. For that one doesn’t have to look any farther than HOzier’s “Take Me Church,” which is certainly not about going down to the altar but engaging a very different kind of worship. Bishop Briggs does something similar with her song, “Pray.” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (covered famously by Rufus Wainwright andJeff Buckley among others) is probably the best example of a song that mingles religious and sexual imagery almost seamlessly.
It seems to me that religion and music makes sense together. Both richly enhance the other when it comes to expressing big ideas. It’s hard enough making sense of life without trying to compartmentalizing spirituality apart from rock, or vice versa. Who’s to say that the muse who inspires the art that the best musicians produce doesn’t also go by religious names?