“Where is God, my maker, who gives songs in the night?” Elihu asks in Job 35. Anyone who’s ever been in the throes of a spiritual journey can relate. Music can make sense when nothing else done, and there are songs we can cling to when the rest of the world gets swimmy.
If you’ve ever been in the middle of a faith unmooring — deconstruction, dark night of the soul, growing pains, what have you — then you know how valuable music can be for that season. You can find other artists have grasped the things that fall through your fingers like sand, and can give you anthems that give a language to something you only dimly feel. Sometimes, the music gives voice to questions, letting you know that you’re not alone in feeling the cold hand of doubt. Sometimes, the songs are encouraging, remind you that others have been through this night and come out the other side.
There are lots of ways to go about this but if you’re in the middle of a faith journey right now and need a little soundtrack, here’s a place to get started.
Julien Baker: Little Oblivions
Baker’s most recent album just came out last week, but it added another excellent album to an already robust catalog of honest, heartbreaking songs about wrestling with just what faith looks like in a modern context. Baker tackles tough topics like addiction, sobriety, depression and anxiety, but her background as a Christian hangs over the whole affair like a ghost. She was schooled in the ways of Christian hardcore (she has an Underøath tattoo) but her current trajectory is all her own and will be relatable to anyone who’s spent times wondering just how to engage with the hope you believe in.
Sufjan Stevens: Carey and Lowell
Sufjan Stevens is an old-hand at this genre, weaving his spiritual journey in his meditations on histories both personal and American. But he’s never gotten more honest than he did on Carey and Lowell, which explored the loss of his birth mother with startling intimacy. The album itself follows a journey of grief from opening volley to depth of despair to, eventually, quiet absolution. No matter where you are in sorting through your own feelings of belief and doubt, there’s a song on this album for you.
Vampire Weekend: Vampires of the City
Ezra Koenig looks down over America from a lofty perch, dolling out his observations from a place of certainty. This has led to a handful of great albums but Modern Vampires is the group’s masterpiece and contains the band’s most explicit thoughts on God. “Through the fire, through the flames, you won’t even say your name,” Koenig muses on “Ya Hey.” “Only ‘I am that I am.’ Who could ever live that way?” Is this a statement of belief or doubt? Acceptance or rejection. In Modern Vampires, like many spiritual journeys, exploring the contradictions is part of the process.
noname: Room 25
Chicago’s Fatima Warner first appeared on many people’s radar via her collaborations with Chance the Rapper, but as noname, she charts a very different path than Chance. While he’s all exuberant declarations of conviction, noname is more interested in the tensions, writing a “thesis on colonialism in conversation with a marginal system in love with Jesus,” as she writes on “Self.” Every track on Room 25 is explicit (because spiritual journeys are nothing if not explicit affairs) so be forewarned, but there are jewels here for those interested in the search.
Sleeping at Last: Atlas
The Enneagram is good currency for anyone on a spiritual journey, and Ryan O’Neal has put together one of the best ways to explore it. Atlas is his love letter to the Enneagram. Nine songs, one for each type, each as beautiful and poignant as Sleeping at Last’s longtime fans have come to expect from O’Neal’s orchestral style. You’ll be enchanted, moved and you might just learn a little more about yourself in the process.
Kendrick Lamar: good kid MAAD City
good kid MAAD City wasn’t Kendrick’s first album, but it served as many people’s introduction to the man who has a real claim to being his generation’s best rapper and maybe the definitive artist of the 2010s (and beyond). Channeling the artist impulses of his hero Tupac, Kendrick created a sprawling story of growing up as “Kendrick, aka Compton’s human sacrifice.” The pressure of Kendrick’s peers is set up against his own conscience and the influence of his mother, who spend the album begging him to take a higher road. “Swimming Pools” was a hit that, at first blush, sounds like an ode to getting drunk in the club. But a closer listen to the lyrics reveals an interior Gollum/Smeagol situation in the lyrics, with a devil on one shoulder telling him to “take a pool full of liquor” while an angel on the other pleads “if you do not listen then you will be history, Kendrick!” An important soundtrack for anyone feeling the pull of the flesh and a masterpiece of American music, period.
U2: Joshua Tree
Speaking of masterpieces, the boys from Dublin’s most enduring work remains Joshua Tree. Obviously, it’s hard to go back and listen to U2 with fresh ears after the past decades of U2, but the rewards for those who do so are virtually limitless. From the blinding tear of beauty from “Where the Streets Have No Name” to the shrieking rage of “Bullet the Blue Sky” to the tender yearning of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” this is the original spiritual journey. U2’s unfettered earnestness hasn’t aged well in our modern era of default irony and reflexive sardonicism but, hey, maybe that’s why Joshua Tree is exactly what we’re lookin’ for.
Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book
“When the praises go up, the blessings come down.” With that lyric, Chance the Rapper established a new era in his career: one of unabashed sweetness, wholesome theology and, yes, uncommon talent. After carving a name out for himself with Acid Rap and stealing the spotlight from Kanye on his own Life of Pablo album opener, Chance settled into a wonderful groove for Coloring Book. It’s worth listening for anyone, but especially someone who could use a little certainty in their life. In times of doubt, just listening to someone else sing about their own faith can be helpful. If that person is as good as Chance, that’s just a bonus. Are you ready for your blessing?
Arcade Fire: Neon Bible
“You’re working the church while your family dies!” Win Butler yelps, probably causing many a pastor to promptly burst into tears with recognition. After becoming The indie band of the early ’00s with Funeral, Arcade Fire got even more audacious somehow, earning those U2 comparisons with a lumbering statement on The Problem of Everything. It was a lot but it was on the money for how millennials felt at the cusp of their coming of age, dissecting the ways modern society, consumerism and religion had intertwined at the dawn of the 21st century in a way that wouldn’t leave any institution unchanged. The ensuing years have been kind to their analysis. The band’s solution? “No Cars Go,” which — like “Where the Streets Have No Name” before it — found solace in the wilderness beyond the machine.
Maverick City Music: Vol. 3, Pt 1
We’re big fans of Maverick City Music around here, because this is a group that proves worship music still has places to grow and evolve, both in terms of convicting lyrics and compelling artistry. The chemistry of the band lifts the music higher, leading to a place where relationship, anointing, creative skill and holy calling unite into a spiritual symphony that works for any point of the spiritual journey.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.