In April of this year Bradley Hathaway posted to his Facebook, “FLESH EATER has 9 tracks. I only really sing on one of them. On the other 8 I do what many have been asking of me for years.” He’s referring to the spoken word poetry that highlighted his early career. His first book and album “All the Hits So Far, But Don’t Expect Too Much: Poetry, Prose, and other Sundry Items” is a collection of energetic, sometimes self – deprecating, always insightful poems about faith, manhood, and hardcore music. So well received was it that he was able to share the stage with hardcore punk groups like The Chariot and Blindside and play numerous Christian music festivals. His following releases, however, reflected a significant shift in style towards the folk indie genre. So, his first spoken word album after four folk releases comes with a lot of expectation to it; are we going to see a return to the slam poetry that characterized his early career or experience something completely different?
The sparse upright bass and persistent cymbals of opening track “Be She in the Spirit” confirms for the listener that “Flesh Eater” is going to be vastly differently than his earlier poetry. Hathaway’s poems are still deeply reflective, but he’s traded in a more conversational, energetic slam poetry style for a more deliberate, simple beat poetry approach. He really wants you to hear him when he quietly says, “Between her legs/is a river/where the sinners go to pray.” The discomfort is purposeful; Hathaway’s candidness is only matched by the religious analogies and images that he evoke, which greater highlight the conflict present between his physical, emotional, and spiritual desires. Track three, “Haunted” is a great example of this, where backed by somber and mournful strings and piano he says “On a cross hang my sins/ on the body of a man innocent/ I see that cross, that man, my sin/ in the shape of her back, in the curve of her hips.” One can’t help but feel the shame he feels when he croons, “I’m haunted/ everywhere I go/ I’m haunted/ Son of Mary, Son of Joe”.
One would think eight tracks exploring the feelings over an illicit affair would grow old after a while, but Hathaway varies the musicianship and delivery in order to keep the back and forth between the physical and the spiritual engaging for the listener. “Naked” is an unrelenting description of urgent lust that builds from sparse, villainous, almost wild west like guitar plucking to a burst of raw desire and ego. The machine whirs and drumming in “Good Friday” syncs with the mechanical description of the futility of sharing Jesus with his lover. And in case you were worried that Bradley has lost all energy in his older years, the screams and wails at the end of “Goddamn” and “He Fucked” will settle your fears. And when he belts on the penultimate track “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, save me from myself./ Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, I love you and no one else” over electric guitar, organ, and choir, I dare you to not raise your hands in reverence towards the sky.
And in a sense, that makes “Flesh Eater” a modern collection of Psalms. Accounts of anger, desperation, and repentance are ripe and frequent in Scripture. Too often, though, these stories and messages in the Bible are undermined by sugar coating them or censoring them all together. Hathaway has created a space to meditate on taboo experiences and find redemption in them. And even more so, he’s done so in an extremely authentic and personal way. The album closer “Penelope”, which is more akin to his folk material, offers somber reflections on the failings of a relationship and one’s life. And whether or not these are biographical accounts, they feel so deeply relatable.
Perhaps that’s a sign of a true artist: the willingness to sacrifice and invest so much of yourself for the sake of human connection and empathy. Additionally, maybe it’s even prophetic. The Biblical prophets were not individuals who predicted the future, but delivered hard truths from God that were often ignored or rejected because of their message and delivery. Let’s hope this one doesn’t get ignored.
Label: Broke Fang
Release Date: April 14th, 2017