“There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.”
—Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
The first CD I ever owned was a two-disc Contemporary Christian Music compilation called WOW 1999. On it, “Deeper” by English rock band delirious? rocked harder than the rest. The band’s bestselling single off the album King of Fools (1997) in their native UK, the song was likewise their biggest hit on US Christian radio. With its textbook nineties Britpop sound—jangly guitars, a bouncy bass line, and a catchy melody delivered with Martin Smith’s trademark gummy English vowels—“Deeper” is a little triumph of pop songcraft.
My mom didn’t like the song because of the word “stupid” in the second verse: “I wanna go deeper, / but is it just a stupid whim?” I thought her aversion to the lyric was a stupid whim. I kept my headphones in, rebellion thrilling up my spine.
Hearing “Deeper” was a meet-cute—like locking eyes across the room with the only tattooed kid in the youth group. But I fell in love with delirious? because of “The Mezzanine Floor,” the opening track on 1999’s Mezzamorphis. A portmanteau of “mezzanine” and “metamorphosis,” the quirky title announced the album’s theme: a chronicle of a band between levels, in the middle of a fundamental change. But it wasn’t love at first listen.
I press play. Hands screak over guitar strings, quiet and tuneless, like a sonic mistake. Mildly overdriven guitars crunch suspended chords and stop almost as soon as they’ve begun. I’m sure the CD was scratched at the factory. But before I can reach the stop button, the guitars steady themselves, as if they’ve acquired sea-legs, over a gently rollicking midtempo beat. The mix is strangely chilly—bass heavy, mids scooped, highs flat and crystalline. The guitars stop again, and I realize it’s intentional, this stuttering start-stop rock: the sound of a band unsure how to begin. When an electronic warble doubles the guitars, unsettling their familiar timbre, my stomach goes queasy.
Things only get weirder from here. The bass pops and slaps Motown-wise; strings add wings; slide guitar cries; electronic burbles and bleeps muscle their way ominously into the sonic foreground; Martin screams “And I’ll get to heaven . . .” and the song falls apart like some ill-fated early flying machine. Martin ends the song mumbling “. . . through the sinner’s door” over the slide guitar’s broken whinging.
A second later, the growling industrial power-chords of the second track, “Heaven,” hit my ears. I turn off the stereo.
I couldn’t listen to the album for months. Then I didn’t listen to anything else for years.
Mezzamorphis was the first work of art that challenged me. And not only challenged—it shocked me with a rush of strong, apparently negative emotion that, after a period of recovery, I felt I had to have again. And again and again, like an addict’s high. It was the first artwork I encountered that felt inexhaustible. Its intricate nooks and crannies of sound asked me to listen obsessively. And I did. I wove its songs into the texture of my life over a period of years: when I left small-town West Texas and moved to a Dallas suburb where I attended a middle school as big as some of the towns I’d lived in, and when I returned to a village on the dusty plains. “The Mezzanine Floor” woke me up each morning; “Bliss” pumped me up before Pony League baseball games; “Blindfold” voiced my first creeping religious doubts; “Kiss Your Feet” gentled me to sleep at night. I needed something stable yet uncertain, fractured yet familiar, a vessel complex enough to pour puberty, anxiety, disillusion, dissolution, desire, doubt, and faith into. And this album, this band, was there for me.
This kind of experience—a prickly revulsion that births deep desire—intrigues me. Finding it in such unexpected places as the sanitized world of so-called “Christian music” fascinates me even more. I’m tempted to call it an aesthetic conversion experience. The head-trip Mezzamorphis gave me sounds a lot more like the harrowing God-encounters of the Bible than the gentle spiritual lift offered by radio stations peddling the “positive” and “encouraging.”
In the book of Acts, for example, the risen Christ blinds St. Paul, plating his eyes with scales. He shuffles in darkness for days, unable to see the world as he had seen it before, yet barred from the bright new vision of the Damascus road. The time between my first listen to Mezzamorphis and my following obsession with the record felt something like that: I couldn’t yet stomach the raw sonic reality this album had disclosed. But I couldn’t listen to the same old Christian-radio stuff my parents had raised me on either.
After Paul’s blindness was healed, as he confesses obliquely in his zany, unhinged second letter to the church at Corinth, he eventually rose above this mezzanine floor and got to heaven, where he saw and heard things beyond his power to tell. An encounter with a troubling work of art—a work that escapes your language, that testifies to a world beyond your experience and maybe even your existence—can echo, however faintly, Paul’s celestial itinerary. Listening to a CD can be an Event to which one ever after bears witness.
So let me bear witness: no album or band has more deeply influenced my idea of what art in general and music in particular can be and do, and how that connects to spirituality. This long unsettling moment of encounter is behind everything I’ve done, not just as an amateur guitarist and songwriter, but also as a writer and a scholar of literature and religion.
Surfing the web as a teenager, I stumbled upon T. S. Eliot’s modernist epic The Waste Land—a tenuous mosaic of fragments spanning languages, religions, and centuries—at roughly the same time I discovered internet pornography. Eliot’s difficult yet alluring poem awakened first revulsion then desire, much like the porn did. But delirious? got there first. Listening to Mezzamorphis taught me how to read The Waste Land, showed me that what I experienced initially as repellant and forbidding I might later come to find essential. That a work of art complex enough to lose myself in would also be one worth finding myself in—over and over again.
I didn’t just lose myself in Mezzamorphis; I passionately identified with the British band themselves, tracking their every career move. Acquiring the internet—56k dial-up—enabled my transatlantic fandom. This was the Web 1.0 era of homespun fan-sites, before MySpace and Facebook standardized online expressions of musical love. I trawled the band’s official site and fanpages for news of what they were up to. I followed tour blogs and read countless fan reviews of concerts I would never see, imagining how my favorite tracks would come to life onstage. Meanwhile, online stores allowed me to import the band’s UK releases months before they hit the shelves in the US and without tampering from Sparrow Records, the band’s stateside Christian label.
For middle-school me, the internet opened a crucial space for self-fashioning. And delirious? scaffolded the self I built. Even Mezzamorphis’s high-tech cover art—infrared images over a blue background, faint architectural diagram lines tracing all around, like nodes of warm human life connected by cold strands of code—seemed like a picture of the World Wide Web. In sixth grade, I began to sign the letters I exchanged with my best friend “d:man,” after the band’s chosen “d:” abbreviation. My first email address was “gloing12929,” a reference to the band’s recently released Glo album. When I made the jump to webmail, I was “dman12985,” an address that incorporated my fandom and my football jersey number—obviously, the two most important things about me. I joined a delirious? fan forum, and people who had no idea I existed—d:fans from Britain, Germany, France, and Australia—took up serious real estate in my daily thoughts. I became infatuated with an English girl through the sheer force of her words about our shared fanaticism—a flirtation that lasted exactly one furtive, awkward email exchange. Once I moderated a memorable mock-fight between Americans and Brits over the relative merits of iced and hot tea.
As I got to know the band online, I came to think that one inestimable advantage the UK gave artists of Christian convictions was its lack of a full-fledged Christian music industry vacuuming up and commodifying, in the name of ministry, all spiritual talent. (Which reminds me of theologian Karl Barth’s quip: “Why is the church so quick to muzzle anyone who displays conspicuous intelligence by making him a leader?”) A Christian band that wanted to reach a wide audience in the UK had to forge into the mainstream. From their humble beginnings as the house worship act of a youth revival meeting in the past-its-prime seaside town of Littlehampton, England, delirious? had come to jockey for stardom.
The UK music press gave Mezzamorphis good, if brief, notices, but BBC Radio One refused to play their songs. Two singles cracked the Top 20 briefly, then tumbled. Meanwhile, delirious? suffered a backlash from mystified core Christian fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Mezzamorphis offered intricate soundscapes and personal expression. Where did the worship go?
Mezzamorphis’s fourth track, techno-rock banger “Bliss,” incarnates the tension between the band’s church roots and pop ambitions. The first verse ends with a cheeky turn:
Rock ‘n roll is everything
Everything to a lonely man
And never will I bow to you
It’s not quite clear to whom this ultimatum is delivered. “I’ve traveled all this way for just one kiss,” Martin sings just before these lines. “Is it bliss? Is it bliss? Yes it is.” The kiss imagery tantalizingly suggests betrayal of their Christian roots—and refuses to apologize for it. The chorus repeats a single line with almost petulant defiance: “I’m not backing down.” Certainly the band were criticized at the time for selling out on religion to buy mainstream success. “This might look to you like betrayal,” they seem to say. “But it’s really faithfulness to our vocation.” As an earlier master of Christian-secular paradox, the French writer Charles Péguy, once said, “The honest man must be a perpetual renegade, the life of an honest man a perpetual infidelity.”
delirious?’s style gave me the idea, in inchoate form, that pursuing an authentic spiritual-aesthetic life might unsettle the stable coordinates of those very realities—namely gender and sexuality—that political Christianity was supposed to secure.
The second verse of “Bliss” switches gears, apparently addressing God:
Take me to the place
Where eagles fly
Where my love for you
I never can deny
Early on, I scratched my CD right at the word “eagles.” The obstacle felt strangely right: like in the opening bars of “The Mezzanine Floor,” there ought to be a hiccup at this moment, a stutter that interrupts the expression of this pious wish. The scratch sharpened my concentration on this track—if I fast-forwarded at just the right moment, I could jump over the scratch and keep listening. But if I missed it, I’d have to start the song over and try again. Listening tensely, finger poised over my stereo’s control panel, I came to know every texture of this recording.
In the bridge, guitarist Stu G grumbles an impossible prayer:
Keep my feet on the ground and my head in the sky
I love you more than I can say
And I won’t change my mind on the choices I’ve made
These lines don’t ask for relief of the mezzanine condition—whether to return to the comforts of churchly service or to win popular acclaim at any cost. Rather, they pray to be kept in the middle. Maybe “I’ll get to heaven,” eventually, “through the sinner’s door,” but in this earthly life, the only life we know, there is only the mezzanine floor.
This song, and this album, taught me to take the betweenness of a radical middle, with its perpetual renegadery, as an aesthetic and spiritual ideal. Refuse to settle for mediocrity; mainstream recognition alone can validate your quality, because the church is only too willing to celebrate substandard artistry. At the same time, refuse not to be taken seriously by mainstream authorities when you stay true to your religious roots. If you’re catching flak from both sides, if you’re screaming “I’m not backing down” at the church and at the world simultaneously, you’re probably doing something right.
delirious?’s next album, Glo (2000), was a bewildering disappointment and a stunningly mercenary calculation, a churchy appeal to the base to shore up sales after Mezzamorphis’s lackluster performance with everyone but music critics.
But in at least one way, Glo pushed boundaries further than Mezzamorphis did: the band’s aesthetic. Not their musical aesthetic, but their image, their appearance. The promotional photos for Mezzamorphis are very Beatles for Sale—grimly serious, with lots of cool jackets in dark tones. But Glo was a horse of a different color: neon colors, to be exact. The UK cover has the band in bright rainsuits (Martin’s is a stunningly ugly pink) against a sheer white background. The US CCM release wisely focused the cover design on a neon sign instead. In the video for “Everything,” released to US Christian radio, the band jam in a warehouse. Fires break out; sprinklers come on overhead. Huge splashes erupt at every thwack of Stewart Smith’s drums. The band are wearing leather, surrounded by flames, and dripping wet. The heavy-metal look couldn’t be more ridiculous, because “Everything” is the most innocuous little poppy love song to God. Is it camp? I dunno. Camp and worship make strange bedfellows.
I attended my only delirious? concert during the Glo period, at the gargantuan megachurch Prestonwood Baptist in Plano, Texas, a Dallas suburb. The band opened the show with “God’s Romance”: “Feel his pleasure, we are God’s romance,” Martin sang over bright guitar riffs and fuzz bass. “We’ve found Jesus, he’s our great romance.” He wore a skin-tight long-sleeved top emblazoned with a pop-art portrait of a woman’s face. (You can see it in the band’s clever video for “Waiting for the Summer.”) Later, he came out in a pair of self-described “lunatic red, flowery trousers.” Camp and worship: strange bedfellows.
I came home with a signed poster, having shaken hands with the band’s five members. (I smudged Martin’s signature on my way out of the church, which gutted me a bit.) Those flowery pants were front and center on the poster. I showed it off proudly. That’s what they look like? I got asked. The unstated implication was, Don’t they look kind of, well, gay? I always shrugged and said something about their Britishness. I didn’t have any other men to look up to with feathered, frosted hair, floral pants, and frilled shirts. And I didn’t have any other spiritual models who spoke of Jesus with such evident desire. But I grew to love frisson of queerness in the band’s style. I’m not speculating about the sexuality of any its members, of which I remain agnostic. (Martin and Anna Smith have six kids.) I’m saying, rather, that delirious? gave me non-normative models of masculinity.
In these small ways, delirious? led me into a different sort of betweenness. Other Christian bands talked about being singled out for their evangelical faith and/or its political concomitants (dc Talk’s 1995 rap-rock classic “Jesus Freak” is Exhibit A here). delirious? were different. Their very style gave me the idea, in inchoate form, that pursuing an authentic spiritual-aesthetic life might unsettle the stable coordinates of those very realities—namely gender and sexuality—that political Christianity was supposed to secure, at least according to the loudest and clearest voices in my religious circles. They seeded in me a sense that following Jesus and making art might take me well past the edge of “normal,” and that it would be a good and joyful thing to go there, into the middle, the mezzanine.
In June 2001, delirious? dropped “Waiting for the Summer,” their first stab at the UK singles charts since February 2000’s “It’s OK” had hit number 18. I ordered the two single discs from an importer and waited anxiously for them to arrive, and for the summer sun to shine on delirious?’s ambitions.
By the time I received “Waiting for the Summer,” it had already failed to crack the UK Top 20 or get picked up by BBC Radio 1. The band cancelled plans to release a second CD single ahead of the album, which they titled Audio Lessonover?, a sardonic anagram of “Radio One Loves Us.” When my imported copy of the album showed up, it carried the sad and unmistakable savor of the might-have-been.
A couple of years earlier, with the release of Mezzamorphis, radio people had told the band they could be successful if they just dropped the God stuff and sang about girls. “Waiting for the Summer” attempted to call this bluff. But it just wasn’t a good song. It lacked the emotional intensity that made their God-songs magic. Audio Lessonover? has more human-to-human love songs on it than any other delirious? release. But almost all of them fall flat.
In their songs, the band always sounded much hotter for Jesus than for their wives. On King of Fools, they sang to God without blushing, “Today, we’re going all the way,” imagining an intimate spiritual consummation. The elegantly simple chorus of Mezzamorphis closing track “Kiss Your Feet,” riding a cresting wave of guitar feedback, asks and answers “Isn’t he beautiful? / Yes, you are beautiful.” On Glo, between gauzy curtains of synthesizer, Martin longed, “Who is this stranger in my life? . . . Beautiful stranger, be my life . . . I love you . . . I adore you.” On 2003’s World Service, he would wail, “You’re all over me / I’m all over you / You’re everything I wanna see.” When I later encountered John Donne’s poetic prayer to be “ravished” by God in order to be “pure,” I knew how to read it. I’d had those feelings before, listening to delirious?.
By comparison, “Waiting for the Summer” sounds saccharine, innocuous. Or consider “Take Me Away,” Audio’s scrubbed second single. A minor-key jam driven by a catchy Rhodes riff, it bristles with melodic hooks. “I’m in love with a girl,” Martin intones in the first line, breaking the first rule of writer’s workshop: Show, don’t tell. “I’ll sing it loud, sing it ‘cos I’m feeling proud / Of love, oh yeah, this is love.” He sings like he’s trying to convince himself. Has anyone in love ever actually said, to themselves or anyone else, Oh yeah, this is love? A closer look at the lyrics reveals that the “girl,” the she/you of “Take Me Away,” sounds a lot like . . . Jesus. She walks on waves, exorcises demons, takes “me away to a higher place,” and shows “me the way to a higher grace.” Whatever eros the song musters seems to be a sublimated form of spiritual longing.
It’s no coincidence that the great romance of my delirious? fandom coincided with the bewildering years of puberty. Middle-school kids are invariably enthusiasts of some stripe. delirious? was my perfect obsession because their songs of spiritual longing burned as hotly as the strange bodily urges now running loose inside my skin.
If in some measure I parlayed my burgeoning sexuality into musical fanaticism, that’s not the whole story. Listening to delirious?’s music also provided me a way to discipline my desires, to transmute my lusts into love for God. I’ve always thought the Freudian idea of sublimation gets off on the wrong foot by implying that the transformation of desire is somehow inauthentic. But authenticity is the wrong question if you take God’s desire for his creation, and ours for him, as metaphysical bedrock. Tunneling down through any attachment to created things to its kernel of errant God-love isn’t deceptive, then. It’s a way of acknowledging the ontology of desire.
The transformation of eros along these lines is well-documented in the history of Christian spiritual discipline. In the twelfth century, for example, St. Bernard of Clairvaux found himself welcoming veterans of the Crusades—men experienced in both sex and violence—into the monastery. How to train these worldly souls in holiness, how to lead them to the love of God? According to the religion scholar Talal Asad, Bernard decided “to court danger in order to overcome it.” New monks would be “thrust into ambiguity and contradiction” because “the danger of sensual desire could not be dealt with directly by simple rejection.” These rough ex-soldiers could not become imaginary virgins. Instead, Bernard counseled his novices to re-read their sexual memories as imperfect icons of their desire for God. They had settled for delight in created things outside of a divinely-approved vocation, and that was sinful. But the desire itself was good at the core and could be re-directed towards its divine source. Listening to delirious?’s song “Investigate” as a pubescent kid with internet access to girlie magazines worked in something like the same way.
I just called the Glo album a bewildering disappointment, and on the whole, it was. But I forgave everything for “Investigate.” A searching update of Psalm 139, the song is built around a simple yet mysterious bit of acoustic guitar finger-picking. It begins as a prayer to be utterly known and made pure:
Investigate my life and make me clean
Shine upon the darkest place in me
To you my life’s an open book
So turn the page and take a look
Upon the life you’ve made
Haunted by my heart’s dark places, newly vulnerable to illicit desires that felt all-but-uncontrollable, and unwilling to talk about this with anyone who could help me through—anyone but God, that is—these lyrics were my heart’s ease. The song’s chorus, built around the wish to “fly away,” gave voice to my longing to escape from myself.
But as Asad wrote of St. Bernard’s regimen for novices, this was courting danger in order to overcome it. The four-minute space-rock odyssey that ends the song builds and builds and builds through flurries of scales to higher notes and greater intensity until finally, with a cathartic gasp, the song breaks and eases to a spent finish. Usually, this provided a backdrop for my spiritual travail. But once, in the middle seat of our minivan on a long trip to somewhere, I turned my attention away from the sparse lyrics of the song’s final movement and let “Investigate” soundtrack a sexual fantasy. I don’t remember what I thought about; my casuistical brain usually invented scenarios that let me off the moral hook, such as I was forced to have sex with this beautiful woman who abducted my friends in order to distract her while they escaped.
I climaxed just as the guitars did, and plunged immediately into a vat of self-loathing. After that, I couldn’t listen to “Investigate” for months; I had salted the soil of my favorite song. When I finally did come back to it, a mushroomy whiff of bodily failure seemed to creep into my nose each time I listened.
I suppose you could dismiss my youthful love for delirious? as the predictable result of undersexed and artistically-starved precocity encountering something interesting for the first time. And you wouldn’t be wrong, exactly. You’d just be missing something. Their songs showed me a way of being in the world: a way of ambition and uncertainty, of worship and desire, of faithfulness and renegadery. Almost twenty years on, I’m still here on the mezzanine floor, stumbling around, looking for the sinner’s door.
Jonathan McGregor’s work has appeared in publications including Image Journal, Journal of American Studies, and Ruminate Magazine. He teaches writing and literature at the US Air Force Academy, where he is a poetry editor for War, Literature, and the Arts. He was a founding editor of The Spectacle.