Politicians — at least the ones running for president  love theme campaign songs. I don’t know if it’s because they believe they’re a quick way to get a crowd fired up, or if it makes them feel like superheros or professional wrestlers. Whatever the reason, they like playing them when they come out to speak. Sometimes they get in trouble for using songs without permission, especially if their political views don’t align with those of the artist.

Sometimes, the songs politicians pick may reveal something about their personality or their values. A politician who chose the Avett Brother’s song “Ill with want” as their theme would likely get my vote.

The Avetts are one of my favorite bands, hailing from my home state of North Carolina. The guys from Concord have been getting some attention for the past few years, but for a while they labored on while being outshone in the public eye by some of the bands they’d influenced, like Mumford and Sons. The Avetts were raised in a church going family and occasionally still sing gospel songs with their dad and other family members at their concerts or at festivals like Merlefest.

Their lyrics are often evocative, and where some bands and musicians make their case on lyrics that do their best to avoid particularity, the Avetts seem to thrive on it. Rather than speaking about a sort of generalized human experience, their songs convey a sense of solidarity through the shared experiences of specific places, relationships, and events.

Perhaps surprisingly, it sometimes seems they’re channeling Augustine through Americana music. Some of these semi-Augustinian ideas emerge precisely at the moments that the Avetts wrestle with the assumptions of American life, precisely where our politics need challenging.

In “Down with the Shine” they sing:

There’s nothing good because nothing lasts
And all that comes here, it comes here to pass
I would voice my pain but the change wouldn’t last
All that comes, it comes here to pass.

Such lyrics relativize the pursuit of possessions, and even achievement. Their song “Head full of doubt, Road full of promise” includes a verse that could be seen as a critique of partisanship itself, as well as the idea that somehow something outside of ourselves can provide our identity — a totem, to use Walker Percy’s analogy from Lost in the Cosmos — such as a favorite team or a favored political candidate or party:

When nothing is owed or deserved or expected
And your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected
If you’re loved by someone, you’re never rejected
Decide what to be and go be it.

Nowhere, however, is their invocation of the Augustinian spirit more noticeable than in “Ill with want” from their album I and Love and You. I have written about aspects of this song before, but I want to explore it more deeply here. I’ve chosen “Ill with want” because I think it represents the most lengthy and sustained example of a helpful critique of the consumerism — the “affluenza” — of our culture.

Beginning with the first verse, the song pushes back against a number of assumptions held closely by American society:

I am sick with wanting and it’s evil and it’s daunting
How I let everything I cherish lay to waste
I am lost in greed this time it’s definitely me
I point fingers but there’s no one there to blame.

Of course, there has always been a counternarrative to Gordon Gekko’s proclamation that “Greed is Good,” perhaps even more so since the financial crises. And yet, I think we define greed too narrowly. We tend to define it as other people’s problem. People who want “too much.” Surely I could never want too much. But the reality is that our society is in many ways predicated on a certain degree of fundamental greed, a foundational dissatisfaction that we are encouraged to assuage with the latest widget. If I can just get this, then my life will be perfect, I will be attractive, healthy, and my teeth will sparkle in the sunlight that follows me around in the car that perfectly expresses my desired identity.

The impulses and feelings of need prompted by advertising aside, we know that such images aren’t reality. But how often do we recognize or proclaim that the wanting is itself a sickness? That such dissatisfaction, such a call to always live in the future and never the disappointing present, is precisely what prevents us from enjoying the benefits of stability or rootedness, and it  sometimes leads to the wasting away of the very things we know we ought to cherish. And since we are encouraged to lay the blame for negative things that occur at the feet of not having something we deserve, then we are more prone to shirk responsibility and shift blame.  This situation lasts until, for some of us at least, we encounter the reality that there really is no one left to blame for our most foundational problems.

The vacuity of “stuff” as a balm for the soul or psyche is highlighted as the song continues.

I need for something
Now, let me break it down again
I need for something
But not more medicine.

The medicine is ineffective. It’s like a lifelong prescription for a terminal illness, always unsatisfying because what we’re really in search of is a cure. We don’t want or need maintenance, we want and need health.

As William Cavanaugh writes in Being Consumed (2008), 

For Augustine, sin is committed when “in consequence of an immoderate urge towards those things at the bottom end of the scale of good, we abandon the higher and supreme goods, that is you, Lord God, and your truth and your law.”

Augustine writes in Confessions that “I abandoned you to pursue the lowest things of your creation. I was dust going to dust.”

The problem with such desires is that they are never satisfied, as pale imitations of what we actually need. What we cannot achieve in kind or quality we strive to achieve through a quantity and diversity of lesser goods or even vices. The consequences, if we care to observe them, pile up:

I am sick with wanting and it’s evil how it’s got me
And everyday is worse than the one before
The more I have the more I think I’m almost where I need to be
If only I could get a little more.

The chorus gets at the deleterious effects of this unmoored desire: it has us, and it fosters behavior that, in our saner moments we would likely find despicable:

Something has me (something has me)
Oh something has me (something has me)
Acting like someone I don’t wanna be
Something has me (something has me)
Oh something has me (something has me)
Acting like someone I know isn’t me
Ill with want and poisoned by this ugly greed.

That’s a sentiment I have a hard time imagining at a Donald Trump rally — or at any other, to be honest. But the problem isn’t with them (the last politician to speak so clearly to such issues may have been President Carter in his much maligned “Malaise” speech). They’re only doing what they believe they need to, whether their deepest desire is to represent us, or just to get elected. Either way, it’s quite an indictment. There is a prescription though. If we’ve been pushed into acting in a way that belies who we know and want ourselves to be, reasserting that foundational identity must be possible somehow. Here, I think the song strikes the most distinctly Christian tone, getting at the distinction between true liberty (libertas)  and simple choice (liberum arbitrium):

Temporary is my time, ain’t nothin’ on this world that’s mine
Except the will I’ve found to carry on
Free is not your right to choose
It’s answering what’s asked of you
To give the love you find until it’s gone.

I’m not saying by this that the Avett Brothers are presenting Christian teaching in their music. They are — or a number of them are — Christians who make music. I have no idea to what extent their faith informs the message of their music. Which is fine. When Christians make art, it is often better if the influence of their faith bubbles up from within the art, rather than being imposed upon it, as a sort of separate standard. Other songs by them, such as “Me and God,” display some thinking about the nature of God — specifically, where God is to be found — that I wouldn’t necessarily put in a theology paper. But of course, it’s a song, an enjoyable one, and not devoid of truth simply because it does not give a robust description, or couch its imagery in caveat after caveat.

What I am saying, is that the imaginations of the Avett brothers, in order to write these songs, have clearly been sown with the seeds of Christian thinking, of a variety that is particularly needed as a critique of the inclinations of our culture, particularly our politics. I am thankful that there are people within our culture making winsome critiques such as these, and if a politician were ever to pick a song like “Ill with want” as their campaign song (assuming they’d ever get permission to use it), I might grumble that they’d tainted one of my favorite bands, but I’d probably vote for them.

In the end, who we vote for, and who we elect as a society, may not be the most important thing, but it does say something about how we see ourselves, and who we want to be.

 

“Ill With Want”

I am sick with wanting
And it’s evil and it’s daunting
How I let everything I cherish lay to waste
I am lost in greed this time, it’s definitely me
I point fingers but there’s no one there to blame

I need for something
Now let me break it down again
I need for something
But not more medicine

I am sick with wanting
And it’s evil how it’s got me
And everyday is worse than the one before
The more I have the more I think:
I’m almost where I need to be
If only I could get a little more

I need for something
Now let me break it down again
I need for something
But not more medicine

Something has me (Something has me)
Oh something has me (Something has me)
Acting like someone I don’t wanna be
Something has me (Something has me)
Oh something has me (Something has me)
Acting like someone I know isn’t me
Ill with want and poisoned by this ugly greed

Temporary is my time
Ain’t nothin on this world that’s mine
Except the will I found to carry on
Free is not your right to choose
It’s answering what’s asked of you
To give the love you find until it’s gone

I need for something
Now let me break it down again
I need for something
But not more medicine

Something has me (Something has me)
Oh something has me (Something has me)
Acting like someone I don’t wanna be
Something has me (Something has me)
Oh something has me (Something has me)
Acting like someone I know isn’t me
Ill with want and poisoned by this ugly greed
Ill with want and poisoned by this ugly greed

Writer(s): Robert William Crawford, Scott Yancey Avett, Timothy Seth Avett

 

 

Jody Howard‘s other posts may be found hereThe featured image is William Blake’s The Temptation and Fall of Eve; it is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

Father Jody is a priest in the Diocese of Tennessee, where he serves as rector of St. Joseph of Arimathea Episcopal Church in Hendersonville. Ordained in 2006, Fr. Jody is a native of Asheville, North Carolina, and a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Asheville, and the University of the South School of Theology.

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