It has been quite a long time since I considered myself a religious person. In high school, for a while anyway, I found myself fascinated by Christianity. Driven by what I now realize was mostly a combination of guilt, superstition, and marginally obsessive tendencies, I would read the Bible and pray every night, hoping to find some kind of connection to the supernatural. It was a weird and, in retrospect, somewhat embarrassing period, but one that nonetheless left its mark on my psyche for the decade or so that followed.
I've since settled on a somewhat ambivalent view of religion. In many ways, the passion and unselfish love it can inspire is captivating, beautiful in its innocent reverence. The idea that there is some perfect being watching over us from a promised land of unimaginable beauty is comforting, at least on the surface, and can offer hope in even the darkest moments. On the other hand, those positives can never be wrested from the simple fact that most major religions are, across the board, repressive, exploitive, and marred by centuries of senseless violence. So how do we reconcile the two?
I raise this question because The Ascension of Slow Dakota, the debut album from its titular subject (aka P.J. Sauerteig), is steeped in the imagery and language of Christianity. Multiple tracks reference Biblical characters, while others resemble sermons, delivering spoken-word parables with little to no instrumental accompaniment. Yet still, after more than three weeks of listening, I can't decide if this is a straight-faced religious album or merely an inquisitive exploration of the beauty that even an inherently flawed belief system can produce.
At the same time, it's clear that Ascension is a treatise on what it means to be an artist. The first line of the first track—a predominantly spoken-word piece that sets the tone for the record—reads like a prologue, a self-aware framing of the work. The English narrator speaks of a competition among the angels to write a song that will be played in heaven for a thousand years, yet one angel laments to him that she can't come up with a piece of her own. The speaker jots down a melody for her to use, but when she returns, she apologizes and tells him that it wasn't chosen as the winner.
"'There is nothing to be sorry for,' I said, taking her hand. 'For the Creator Himself has heard my music. And so, you have given me the greatest gift of all: a thoughtful listener, even one who rejects me. This I prefer even to careless ears who may love me.'" It's an apt opening to an album that feels profoundly, intentionally flawed, in the image of the great lo-fi musicians from whom Sauerteig likely draws some inspiration.
Slow Dakota's sound, though, isn't typical of most lo-fi music. There are no fuzzed-out guitars, no bluntly mundane lyrics, and most of all, no sense that he's making something rough around the edges just to show that he's too cool to care. The instrumentation is largely poetic and grand, invoking orchestral swells on some songs, a subdued acoustic guitar on others, and even the occasional dulcimer. There's also a sincerity to the lyrics and their delivery that suggest Sauerteig's genuine devotion to his faith—or, under another interpretation, his desperate need to find it.
The latter reading is given some credence by a number of tracks, though none more than "I Am Held Together." It's a piece I've written about before, remarkable for its two-part structure and cathartic, achingly beautiful climax. But more importantly, it's one of the few songs on the album that lacks any overt reference to religion. It speaks instead of a desperate, depressed protagonist (or two, as it's a duet) who questions whether their Lexapro prescription is keeping them from seeing the world as it really is.
It's this grounded, frankly bleak chapter in The Ascension of Slow Dakota that makes the album much more than a simple exaltation of God or Christ or what have you. It's an admission, as far as I can tell, that the artist himself harbors a plethora of doubts—about his faith, about his musical ability, about the reasons behind whatever suffering he may have endured in his life. And those doubts leave room for a distinctly undogmatic approach to religious thinking.
I could spend pages delving into the intricacies of Slow Dakota's lyrics and songwriting (my copy of the album came with an annotated manuscript, complete with suggested Bible verses scrawled in the margins), but what I'm much more concerned with is its raison d'être as a whole. A central question of the album, as elucidated by tracks like "A Competition," "An Exile's Theory," and "A Mistranslation," is whether an artist can ever truly achieve perfection, and if so, whether the cost of doing so is too great.
Riddled with homages to great creators, heavenly and terrestrial alike, The Ascension of Slow Dakota never really seems to settle on an answer. "Melville went mad writing Moby Dick," we're reminded, among other stories of troubled or suicidal novelists. And yet, here we are, left with some of the greatest works ever scrawled by human hands. Was it worth it?
Perhaps it takes an album like this, one that is deeply and unapologetically imperfect, to assert our freedom from such impossible standards. When Sauerteig's voice wavers or simply fails to remain in key, when the mixing on "The Magi Visit Farmer Lee" is slightly jarring, when the genres switch from ukelele folk to synth pop without warning, we're not meant to view it as a mistake, or even a self-deprecating stylistic choice. Rather, it's a defiant statement that one can create great art without obsessing over minutiae.
For someone like me, who has long been a cynic when it comes to religious faith, it's a refreshingly creative use of that language and structure. And given the earnestness with which Sauerteig seems to have approached this project—a project that is thoroughly intricate, heartbreaking, and true to himself—I think it's one that deserves your ear as a thoughtful listener.