AL GREEN WAS a born pastor, an Arkansas church kid raised in a family so devout they threw him out at 16 after his father found a Jackie Wilson record the young singer had smuggled into the home. This war between secular and liturgical music raged in Green throughout his early-’70s hot streak, until the scales tipped in 1974, when his sometime girlfriend, Mary Woodson, doused him in boiling grits in the bath and shot herself. By 1976, Green had renounced secular music and become pastor of a Memphis Baptist church. Bob Dylan had a silver cross thrown his way by a fan at a San Diego gig late in his 1978 world tour. Instinctively, he picked it up. Ill in Arizona the next day, he put the cross around his neck. His next three albums—1979’s Slow Train Coming, 1980’s Saved, and 1981’s Shot of Love—explored spiritual themes and Christian eschatology, to what critics considered to be diminishing returns.
There comes a time when musicians devote themselves to big questions, where the biggest question of them all rears its head. Sometimes, mercurial ones whose work views the world from a birds-eye perspective see purpose and intent behind the rhythm and balance of human life. Some take to calling that intent “God.” Inquisitive ones might go long, poring over readings as one might sponge up culture on a trip to another country, as Dylan did in an intensive three-month Bible-study course in the late ’70s and as Kanye West has this year, meeting with pastor Adam Tyson to flesh out questions of faith that have informed his art since “Jesus Walks.” West’s new album, Jesus Is King, turns sharply away from the druggy, horny moods of The Life of Pablo and Ye, but can music’s biggest ego be tamed?
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November 11-24, 2019