I officially gave up on religion as soon as I was able, which is to say as soon as I moved out of my parents’ house; in reality, though, I had abandoned faith in a higher power years before that, as a teenager. While most of my family (immediate and extended) found strength and comfort in faith, I saw little but the hypocrisy of those who espoused faith, taught faith, encouraged me and others to live a faithful life, but who were really only interested in exerting power over an unthinking flock. I endured the entreaties of too many of that kind to count, and have been aghast at how this lot has slithered its way into public life, into political discourse, to the point that it’s likely impossible that a public official can now win elected office in the U.S. without some profession of faith in a protestant God. This disgusts me in ways I have trouble articulating (and I’m pretty good at articulation).
I do, however, appreciate certain expressions of artistry influenced by the faith of the artist. The overpowering voice of Mahalia Jackson and the stalwart harmonies of the Blind Boys of Alabama make me wish I could buy into the gospel of which they sing. Kathleen Norris’ work in the Nineties connected the austerity of monastic life with the gorgeous expanse of nature around her, and I loved those books. I enjoy viewing and reading about Buddhist and Hindu sculpture, whose beauty I find breathtaking. And where would discussions of Baroque painting be without Caravaggio or Rubens or Bernini, whose works were steeped in religious imagery?
That said, I’m not certain about how to respond to the new record by Krishna Das, which was recommended to me by my Popdose colleague Ken Shane. A Heart as Wide as the World blends rock influences (percussion, guitar, classic rock choruses) with the call-and-response chanting associated, as I understand it, with Indian kirtan-style devotional music. If you enjoy kirtan and/or practice Bhakti Yoga (the Hindu yoga of devotion, to which Krishna Das has dedicated the greater part of his life), or perhaps another variation of the Hindu faith, you may very well enjoy this record.
I just don’t get it, though. I mean, in my head, I understand what’s going on here. The bulk of each song is given to Das chanting brief lines, which are repeated back to him by a chorus of voices. This call and response is repeated over and over and over and over and over again. And over and over again. Das occasionally pauses the chant to sing a lyric in English, usually a verse or two, before the chanting begins anew. Occasionally, he will begin a track with an English song, then segue into a chant, which then takes over and proceeds, over and over and over again, for several minutes. And by “several minutes,” I mean six, seven, eight minutes. Ten or eleven minutes. The shortest of the album’s seven tracks is seven minutes and change long; the longest song is double that, one of four that clock in at ten minutes or more.
Yes, I understand why the song structures are what they are. Chant is intrinsically meditative; the point is to relax the body and focus the mind on a single central reference point. If one is meditating while listening, this stuff is perfect. If one is, say, driving a car while listening, it’s not so great. The first time I listened to A Heart as Wide as the World, I wound up fighting off the urge to nod off at the wheel; had to switch the CD to the first Boston album, to perk myself up. Went from “Shiva Puja” to “Smokin’.” ‘Twas more than a feeling, indeed.
That’s not to say there’s nothing on here to recommend. “Narayana/For Your Love” employs a steady backbeat as the basis for the song’s ten-minute exploration, centered around the word Narayana, a common name and reference to Vishnu, the supreme god of Hindus. Das craftily weaves in a verse from the Yardbirds classic “For Your Love,” bizarrely connecting Keith Relf with Vishnu for all eternity.
Das imbues the title track with a typically heartfelt vocal. A passionate piece of good ol’ fashioned yearning for a lover gives way to another chant, this one “Shree Raam Jai Raam Jai Jai Raam,” a popular wish-fulfilling mantra that Das chants at first alone, then with other voices, before giving way entirely to those voices. The song as a whole is a thing of beauty.
In all, though, I found Krishna Das’ music a little too far out of my wheelhouse, though I’m confident there is a considerable number of devotees who will find it as inspiring and comforting as I’m sure it is intended to be. Like the faith of my youth, though, I am insufficiently moved to pursue it further.
Thanks to Ken for bringing this one to my attention. Next week, I’m skipping my usual “Death by Power Ballad” column, because I can’t say no to middle-aged, pseudo-soulful caterwauling in concert.