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    Monday, June 16, 2008

    Still I walk in darkness

    Photo by Emiliano Stefanelli

    The first thing you'll probably notice about Daniel Clay is his voice. Crisp and smoky, it has a richness reminiscent of other folk singers like Danny Schmidt or Horse Feathers' Justin Ringle. Throughout The Protestant, it also sounds assured and unwavering, a transmission of the faithful. But on Clay's collection of railyard ballads and backroad hymns, all kinds of doubts sneak in even as his register rises. In the most startling example, he sings, "Though I claim your name, I curse it every day." Though that should sound like blasphemy, Clay's earthy timbre somehow still sells it as devotional.

    Those lines comes from "You Prepare My Way," the best example of Clay's mission. It treats religion not as some paint-by-numbers salvation, but a path equally fraught with challenge and reward. Casting himself as a wayward follower, Clay thoughtfully explores the many contradictions embedded in modern belief. But like his choir-boy delivery, the structure he uses to do this is both surprisingly traditional and thematically ingenious. Guided by a simple guitar strum and a recurring melody, every lyric connects to the next like a psalm or a scripture. His opening verse, "Though I walk in darkness, I will fear no evil.../ Though I fear no evil, I still cry and tremble.../ Though I cry and tremble, I refuse your comfort.../ Though I refuse your comfort, still I claim your name," is an especially poignant look at the contours of faith.

    It's important to remember the second meaning of "protestant" when listening to this album: one who protests. Before Protestantism became the dominant Christian body, it was an alternative, a reformation to the bloat and corruption of Catholicism. Today, in the age of megachurches and million-dollar televangelists, Clay seems to again be advocating a return to deeper, more meaningful purpose. On his most overt confession, the closer "Zion," he sings, "I can see no difference between Christians and consumers,/ I can tell no difference between the preachers and public officials,/ I can see no difference the Bibles and billboards.../ I can tell no difference between my neighborhood and the kingdom." Even at his most critical, he sounds reverent and hopeful that things will change for the better. Whether or not we ascend to heaven, he seems to say, the meek have a lot of work to take up here and now.

    * MP3: "You Prepare My Way" - Daniel Clay from The Protestant
    * MP3: "Zion" - Daniel Clay from The Protestant [Buy it]
    * Website: Daniel Clay
    * MySpace: Daniel Clay

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