The Faith of Bemis

This post originally appeared on thepaintedman.com a few months after the release of this gem from Max and company. The album still gets serious heavy rotation on my car stereo and wherever else I feel like listening to it.

Say Anything

Max Bemis, the lead singer of the alternative rock act Say Anything, spends the duration of his Say Anything’s most recent release demonstrating maturation, growth, and a rediscovered spirituality through primarily autobiographical lyrics about his journey. Like his previous albums, Max continues to focus on himself in his songwriting process; however, unlike previous albums, Max’s lyrics demonstrate introspection and optimism rather than self-deprecation and harsh criticisms of… well, just about everything. While on the surface an album including tracks with titles the likes of “Hate Everyone” and “Cemetery” sounds like an extension of Max’s hate and angst, the lyrical content and focus demonstrate a step towards something much deeper. Focus on self does not have to be vain; in this new self-titled album’s case, that self-centered songwriting style can actually be a vehicle for change and living a much more fulfilling life.

What does Max believe about religion, spirituality, and what life is all about? Previous albums certainly are influenced by Max’s Jewish identity (a primary example: “Alive with the Glory of Love” was inspired by the love of his grandparents, Holocaust survivors) The article about Max on wikipedia states:

Max’s current religious beliefs are somewhat of a mystery; Say Anything drummer Coby Linder has said that Max is now a Christian, a fact that Max confirmed in a MySpace Music interview though he then identified himself as being Jewish in a Metromix interview that took place soon after.

The easy explanation here is that Max still embraces his strong Jewish heritage, but also has accepted the basic tenets of Christianity, like Messianic Jewish congregations and the group known as “Jews for Jesus”. Whether this assumption is correct or not, I cannot confirm, but during a session with Alternative Press recently, Max discusses his tracks one by one, very willing to describe himself as “very spiritual” and mentions that songs on Say Anything demonstrate his views on the afterlife, God, and the world.

Based on Max’s own words, it seems the best way to understand Max’s newfound spirituality, or at least newfound lyrical focus on his spirituality, is to look at the songs’ lyrical content and what Max says about these songs individually.

The first track, entitled “Fed to Death”, brings the new focus of the songwriting into the spotlight without wasting any time. In the AP article, Max said about “Fed to Death”:

Ironically, this is the first song I wrote for the record, and it also became the first song on the record. It’s pretty much a statement of purpose about what I think is wrong with the world or what is worth fighting against in the world. It covers two aspects: one is someone who is irresponsible and the other is one who claims too much responsibility and is obsessed with power. Both of which I think are two things wrong with society–people who do those things.

This is one of the tracks that isn’t exactly autobiographical, which is a difference in writing style off the bat, but the lyrical content is what is intriguing here. The first verse is about a man who feeds his son to death and refuses the blame and the second is about a power hungry individual that misappropriates Jesus Christ in order to use His image for selfish goals. This second verse references a “man from Nazareth” that the “fools at war pervert”. He goes on to talk about branding Christ’s image to mugs and t-shirts.

Max Bemis

The track is our first introduction to Christ on the album, but by no means the last. In fact, the very next track, “Hate Everyone” concludes with Max stating that he is “down with JC”, an obvious reference to the same man from Nazareth that he talks about in “Fed to Death”. This reference to Christ still being his friend is not the whole picture of what the song is about, Max explains the track:

The entire album is a narrative and each song tells a different part of a certain story: the result of recognizing what is wrong with the world. It’s a feeling of anger, and when you experience this anger, it surfaces at first as this irrational stupid hatred of everyone and everything. This song is about that emotion. That’s why it’s kind of tongue-in-cheek. I wrote this song going through that exact period myself and I was kind of waking up about how I was living my life in a negative way. I started to see the bigger picture a bit more, and it was very depressing and it affected me greatly. I felt like I hated everyone this one particular morning when I wrote the song, and I started to work my way past it. I believe it’s an important stage in human evolution for each person to have this feeling and work through it.

While Max doesn’t reference Christ in his explanation, it’s hard to deny the reference in the song. He also wraps the song up by singing, “That’s why I’m a humanist.” To fully understand the overall message of the song, perhaps it’s necessary to understand what humanism is. Stripped to its core, humanism is a philosophy where the primary concern and focus is human dignity. The declaration of being a humanist in this song could be read several different ways. It is safe to say that he doesn’t subscribe to humanism in it’s full fledged religious form, both because he does not capitalize it and his other references don’t match up with it. As the track is early on the record and he is describing his own journey, he could be referencing a Marxist type of humanism that focuses on the alienation of people; however, what seems altogether more likely is that when coupled with the fact that he is “down with JC”, we are looking at a Christian version of humanism.

Christian humanists are many and well-known: Kierkegaard, TS Eliot, Thomas More, Pope John Paul II and, contemporarily, Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis. The primary belief of Christian humanists is that human freedom and individualism are imperative to the understanding of God and Christ. In his own words, Max was “waking up” from a feeling of anger manifested as “irrational stupid hatred”, which is a form of that alienation Marx talked about. He says that he worked through this feeling and went on to say, “I believe it’s an important stage in human evolution for each person to have this feeling and work through it.” This is essentially the same emphasis on freedom and individualism that Christian humanists emphasize.

After only two tracks, the listener is already given an intense insight into the psyche of a man going through a journey of spiritual maturation and personal growth. This would be enough to conclude that Max, indeed, believes in Christ, but he continues to dwell on these themes as he pushes forth.

The third track, “Do Better”, essentially contemplates becoming a better person through soul-searching. He begins the song:

Life is a not a spark in space, an episode of Will and Grace, controversial yet mundane. Debrah’s messing with your brain. Even Scientologists know there’s more to all of this. You search the ruins for trap doors. Wonder what you’re put here for.

The classic question and the premise of all religion and faith is essentially, “Why are we here?” Max contemplates this same question, but before even mentioning that he wonders why he’s here, he outright denies the plausibility of life simply being without meaning. Max clearly states this when discussing the track:

It’s about the ability every human being has to fulfill his or her potential. It doesn’t mean we can all be godlike, but we can do better than how we tend to do. Once you realize that, you have a lot more options open to you as a human being.

Max’s focus is still on the Christian humanism elements of human freedom and individualism here. He notes that we can’t be God, but focuses on the fact that we can be better people. While Max is not blatantly Christian here, the song and discussion of the song certainly ring with the same tones that prominent Christian humanists have shared in their tomes. In fact, later in the song he laments about how those failing to “do better” are “guiding Satan’s steady hand”. A vital component of Christian humanism is the focus on God guiding oneself while still exercising one’s individualism; whereas, pure individualism without the guidance of God is identical to Satanism in it’s purest form.

Later in the album, Max’s language becomes overtly more “Christian” in tone. In “Mara and Me”, amidst lines where he is choosing a new path and way of life, he sings “New Heart. New bones.” It can be no mistake that Max chooses words used in Christian circles that are most often used in describing conversion. In this songs conversion experience, he also notes standing in opposition to Satanic elements, referring the “blood of Mr. Crowley” before noting that he stands “opposed to the chaos [they] choose”.

Sacramental language is very prominent in “Death for My Birthday” and “Ahhh… Men”, specifically in reference to the sacrament of the Eucharist (or communion). In “Death for My Birthday”, Max sings, “My blood with hydrate you all. My heart will be your meal.” In “Ahhh… Men”, Max again directly references the Eucharist, “Still I’m just a sperm begat from your love, basking in the bread, the blood of your dove.” These songs not only display this sacramental language, but also are extremely spiritual songs all around.

Of “Death for My Birthday”, Max says:

This song is another example of something I find inherently wrong with society and it comes from a different place. I’m a pretty spiritual and religious guy–not traditionally religious by any means–but very cerebral. One of the things that is promoted in spiritually is this understanding of death being a kind of gate to another world and that life isn’t the only thing that exists in the life of your soul. Life on earth is only one part of it, but I think there are people who become obsessed with that notion. I’ve even been guilty of that at certain moments, but I’m a pretty live-in-the-moment kind of guy. Some people forget that life is important and their fascination with death or the idea that it will take you to a perfect place keeps them from living their life as if it’s their only life. This song is about someone who drifts through this middle-of-the-road life and never really feels emotions strongly or is thankful for what they have because they’re so focused on the notion that they will eventually die. They believe this life doesn’t matter because it’s all temporary, and I completely disagree with that. I believe in the afterlife and that earth is only one perception that we will be experiencing for a certain amount of time, and that there’s more to it than that. I think that you have to love it for what it is and treat it as the most important thing in the world.

Max states here that he believes that life on earth is, indeed “only one part of it” but he explains that the fascination with life after death can be altogether too prominent in religious circles, notably in Christian circles. While someone who is suffering will move on to a “better” place, being overly focused on the spiritual neglects ones humanity. This is a very important notion to Christianity. Over focus on the spiritual borders on Gnosticism, a belief that we are divine spirits or souls forced to live in an imperfect fallen world. Gnosticism neglects the human aspects of life, in fact, so-called “Christian Gnostics” deny the humanity of Christ and boil him down to being a strictly divine being. This notion destroys all meaning of the Incarnation, which is central to the Christian faith.

In this song, Max deconstructs the Gnosticism that has crept into the modern church. In the same way that his other songs asserted a very Christian humanist view, his explanation of this song confirms that in his outright assertion that life on earth matters. This is essentially the opposite of existentialism and an extensions of the opening lines of “Do Better”. Max is proclaiming that this life has purpose.

Of “Ahhh… Men”, Max explains:

Basically, I wrote this song during a moment of clarity and I think it’s the most spiritual song I’ve ever written. It’s probably one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written. It illuminates how I feel about the universe and spirituality, and the evolution of the soul and the collective evolution of everyone’s souls. It is sort of a hymnal; it addresses how I believe that everything in the universe and other universes and parallels and dimensions are all united. It’s kind of like one giant organism that I worship, and I call it God, but someone might not necessarily refer to it that way. But I tried to illuminate my religious and spiritual views and how they pertain to the overall record. This song shows the shift I had gone through in becoming one with this thing again, after years of being completely cut-off and feeling less important than it. True love is the best example of the presence of something bigger in this life, and I wanted to show specifically how I see the afterlife and God. I wanted to show people who have an aversion to being spiritual or religious that it isn’t simply a crazy notion, but involves science and logic and reason. The way it’s explained in the song is that all of the physical things fade away; there will still be spiritual matter that will continue to persist in a way we cannot perceive it. There are things in life we cannot explain or I believe you can’t explain with physics.

The song is one of a very real and practical spirituality, a spiritual life described as what is real rather than what is high and lofty (as so many others often tend to explain their faith). Metaphors and similes abound, but the message is quite clear… God is real and, to Max, that’s simply undeniable.

I conclude this look at the maturation and spiritual growth of Max Bemis through his songwriting on Say Anything with a look at his relationship with his wife, Sherri Dupree. This cannot simply be overlooked, as it seems a key component in Max’s journey described on the album.

Max Bemis Sherri Dupree Wedding

True, he references Sherri as an angel from heaven in the final bridge of his love song to her, “Crush’d” (“Did it hurt when you fell from heaven, girl?”). However, this isn’t the song that is most illustrating of Max’s love for Sherri or her importance in his journey. “Cemetery” sound essentially like a song where Max attributes his entire new life to Sherri, perhaps affirming the claims that she is an angel in “Crush’d”. Max explains:

This is a song about death and how love relates to death, and the fear of death. It’s kind of about how finding love alleviated my fear of death or my fear of growing old. It was a statement of recognizing my soul’s link to Sherri’s. It’s about how when you really love someone and it’s deep in your soul, after you die the soul endures and that love will burn on. If everything was stripped away and I had to answer after I die–consciously affirm the most important thing in my life–it would be Sherri, the defining thing in my life.

He opens the song referencing Hell as a “cemetery deep below the sea” where there is space “reserved for fools like [him]”. He proceeds to explains, however, that through the love of his wife, he can be saved, singing, “We’ll ascend to someplace way up high.” The song wraps up with Max and God face to face and God asking what got him through life to which Max sings (to Sherri), “If he asks me, it was you.”

Through this entire album, Max explores life through portraits, mostly of himself, that illuminate the journey of a man who began somewhat lost and ended up discovering love, faith, and an understanding that he can be and will be a better person. Inspiring and powerful, it is safe to say that whether or not Max calls himself a Christian, a Jew, or a humanist, he embraces life and his wife. It is also safe to say that this journey is not over.

thepaintedman
Justin has been running websites since his first Geocities site in 1994, but only did he ever start covering anything of substance years later. After he stopped regularly running local concerts in Northern NJ and the greater Philly area, he knew he needed to step up his writing game if he expected to continue to get free music to listen to. He writes regularly here, a bit less regularly at Cinapse, and on occasion at Cinepunx. He previously wrote for several other sites, but he forgets some of them and others no longer exist. He likes music, film, the Philadelphia Eagles, talking about Criminal Justice, reading Intelligence Report, and his family... not in that order. His beautiful wife is far more talented than he is and his kids far more adorable... and crazy. He also likes to ramble... on... and... on... and...
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