Steve Slagg – Strange Flesh
With an album as layered and personal as this, a listen of Strange Flesh demands my full attention.
Strange Flesh is Steve Slagg’s reckoning with living as a gay Christian in the US. I’m not speaking politically; I’m speaking within the context of everyday life. All of the struggles Slagg writes about on the record point to a larger reckoning with life in general. Faith. Love. Death. The everyday mundane.
I was eager to listen as Steve Slagg used to record under the moniker Youngest Son. It was a calming record that helped shape the early days of this blog.
I’ll be transparent here; being a straight Christian man, I know there’s a lot of nuance in this record that I’ll never fully understand. Hence, I was a little tentative when approaching this album for review. I hold generally conservative theology and interpretation of Scripture; however I also feel the Church as a whole has not done a good job loving the LGBTQ community well. I wanted to be honest in my response, yet authentic and sensitive, handling a delicate subject; especially when that subject is the songwriter wrestling with his own sexuality in the context of being a Christian in the evangelical church.
So it’s with all of these things in mind that I listen to Strange Flesh.
Slagg sings softly, with a voice that often lilts. The mood of the album and the lens I would suggest people view this record is the following stanza from “What I Need”:
When I drink this wine
I don’t believe that it’s really for me
When I touch your body
I feel like a fraud
Cause I am, oh my God
What I need are your arms around me.
I’ll say that if you’re a Christian, and you’ve never felt that sentiment above, ever, you’re either lying or in the minority. Feeling unworthy is a part of the human condition. But when it comes to something that is the core of who you are, that adds another layer that I can’t relate to. And I’m not supposed to, probably. I can hear that in Slagg’s vocals; his voice cracking with emotion.
Another moment that hits me square in the feels (as the kids say) occurs in “A Thousand Tongues.” Slagg reflects on the deaths of his grandfather and father, painstakingly painting a picture of those visceral last moments. He then wonders,
I wonder if my lover ever lingered in the same way
Would I have the strength to care for him?
Speaking of my lover, would you have kissed him like a son?
Or, scared and angry, would you have pushed us both away?
I just asked Mom, but she just can’t say
I can relate to the mom and the son here. I don’t always know what to say, but I also desperately want love and affirmation. I can only pray for God to move my heart in the right direction (no matter what role I’m in) and trust that there will be grace for the areas in which I screw up.
There’s a lot more I could unpack with the lyrics and stories themselves, but I wanted to take some time to focus on the music.
The title track is airy and lighthearted. It seems like it acts as a hook of sorts to pull the listener into the rest of the album. Slagg is conscious of the fact that the album is heavy at times and that the arrangements should have variety and some pep to keep the listener engaged. The staccato, light piano playing is a playful way to kick off the album. I admire the guitar-work here as well; Lee Ketch does a masterful job complementing the mood.
I should mention at this point that I also attended Wheaton College, where Slagg attended undergrad. I recognize many of the names in the album credits, even if we didn’t really hang out. Jonathan Badgley I recall from a talent show, performing John Legend’s “Ordinary People.” All the folks have played roles in the development of Slagg’s story, and each person lends their own layer to the story and sound of the record. I have to give kudos to the melodica and accordion use in “Blessed Assurance”; two instruments that often are musical punchlines are used in poignant ways here.
“Dismemberment Song” is an epic of sorts that makes use of the principle of keeping the mood varied. Slagg’s vocals move toward falsetto without being overly dramatic. I find it significant that Slagg credits his friends and colleagues with some of the more straightforward, common instruments while he takes on some of the “quirky” ones. It shows camaraderie to me and adds depth to the storyline. It all comes together neatly in this song where we hear some choir harmonies.
Strange Flesh touches on something that is common to everyone—that we all have our own battles to fight and our own “strange flesh” we were born with to come to terms with. I carry convictions that seem to conflict with others’ stories at times, at least on the surface. But it isn’t always my job to tell them my convictions. Sometimes I just need to listen. The right conversations will happen in due time.