The outlaw love and godless gospel of roots rocker Rodney DeCroo

1 Posted by - May 25, 2015 - Reviews, Sound

Rodney DeCroo’s latest album, “Campfires on the Moon,” reveals hidden faces. I’ll say more about that in a moment.

“Campfires”, released by Tonic Records, is DeCroo’s seventh album (eighth if you count his 2012 spoken word album “Allegheny”, and you probably should).  Its gentle tempo is a noticeable departure from his previous musical works, which combined his signature lyrical depth with palpable anguish and anger. Those albums were well-received, and deservedly so, but he has achieved something remarkable with this new compilation, and that’s where my comment about hidden faces comes in.

There’s a medical condition called “prosopagnosia”, or face blindness. People with the disorder have a hard time recognizing the faces they see. Facial recognition is tricky business: a prosopagnosic can see the stubble on a man’s chin or tell the color of his eyes, but has difficulty organizing the myriad ever-shifting features on his moving face into a clear gestalt, an organic pattern distinct from every other facial gestalt in the crowd. On the street, a prosopagnosic can easily confuse strangers for lifelong companions.  It’s a kind of visual interpersonal analogue to tone deafness, and it’s a starting point for understanding the impact of DeCroo’s music.

From a philosophical perspective, faces aren’t confined to human heads: they exist whenever complex, dynamic, and meaningful patterns are expressed over time. Like human faces, our lives are best thought of as temporal-spatial gestalts, as organic systems that exist across time as much as they do across space. You can call that gestalt a “soul”, but it’s really just another kind of face, in this case the face of a human lifetime, the unique, infinitely complex, and ineffably mysterious shape of a personal history.  While the inability to recognize a face upon a human head is mercifully rare, existential prosopagnosia is a pervasive condition: precious few of us can easily recognize this deeper, subtler face. That’s a problem, because if you can’t see a life as a gestalt, as a face, you can’t see its humanity and you’re alienated from its life-sustaining dignity. These faces are beautiful because they reveal the impossible depth of the human condition as it’s incarnated in singular individuals. Art, at its best, helps us achieve the rarified perspective necessary to catch a glimpse of this beauty.

RDC_Campfires-on-the-Moon_1500x1500_RBGThe ability to recognize this kind of face is a developmental achievement, an emergent property of countless biological, psychological, and social variables kaleidoscopically interacting across time. Like all developmental potentials, it’s vulnerable to violence. Violence—real and vicious and commonplace violence—betrays our potentials, it degrades the emotional harmonies necessary for love and community into a debilitating pandemonium. By disorganizing our minds and hearts, it blinds us to the beauty of the human face. If there’s a core audience for DeCroo’s work, I believe it’s those whose lives have been blighted by violence, the kind of violence that can condemn people to poverty, prison, and the streets, and that can condemn them to spiritual prosopagnosia.

“Campfires on the Moon”—the song as well as the album—speaks most clearly to people whose potentials have been starved of oxygen, who see their lives as humiliating pornographic caricatures of what should have been. He’s singing for a multitude the world prefers to ignore.

And my God, he gets the job done.  Listening to DeCroo’s songs, the face—the genuine face, the face of the much-abused and much-abusing human lifetime—is revealed: broken machinery is reconfigured into vital living flesh. DeCroo has always been a masterful songwriter, but in contrast to his previous albums, in “Campfires” he achieves his purpose with unyielding tenderness. This album isn’t just a piece of art, it’s an act of mercy.

Speaking of God, DeCroo’s work is ill-suited by labels such as “Alternative,” “Country,” or “Folk”: this is godless Gospel music, and I’ve never heard anything else like it.  If you dig down beneath all of his other musical and poetic influences, and there a lot of them, you will find the traditional Gospel music of his childhood, the violence that killed the image of the deity it praised, and the dark-night-of-the-soul mystery of outlaw love and grace that has run through this tormented man’s life ever afterwards like a river of molten adamant. These songs are spirituals.

DeCroo is a poet, and as a poet he knows that our lives are deeper than ourselves. Because human lifetimes, like every other phenomena in the universe, emerge out of the deep structure of reality, they connect us to the ultimate. A lifetime’s face is, in this sense, a mask worn by eternity. That’s what DeCroo is singing about in songs like “Sparks in the Rain”: “They say behind beauty terror awaits/The voice in the whirlwind that seals my fate/Gives no quarter it shows no remorse/It tears you down it silences force/Oh my love/What a strange disguise/Oh my love/Lift up your eyes”.

Genuine spirituality, spirituality that earns its street cred through courage and fidelity during long years of fear and abandonment, doesn’t seek to escape or save the world. Instead, it tries to restore our capacity to perceive and rejoice in reality’s terrible depth and significance. It distills clear-headed compassion and wisdom from brutality and hatred: in some strange way it helps us gaze upon our own faces without recoiling. If there’s a better word than redemption for this process, or for the point of songs like “White Circles” and “Young With You”, then it’s never been spoken.

So, yes, I recommend this one, and no, DeCroo doesn’t mention the word “prosopagnosia” even once, and I guess that’s to his credit, too.

Rodney DeCroo is on tour across Canada in May / June 2015. For details, tour dates and locations check out rodneydecroo.com

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