The Sexual and the Sacred: Bradley Hathaway’s Flesh Eater

The Sexual and the Sacred: Bradley Hathaway's Flesh Eater

Micah Wimmer

Executive Editor | Social Media Manager at Christianity Now
Micah Wimmer is a writer whose work has appeared on Oakley & Allen, Nieman Storyboard, and the Shocker. A recent graduate of Claremont School of Theology, and an avid NBA fan, he lives in Akron, Ohio, with his two cats.

After bursting into public consciousness over a decade ago as the poet who never read poetry, Bradley Hathaway has transitioned into one of the best songwriters of the past decade, and certainly one of the most underappreciated. His three records and one EP since committing to songwriting have been masterpieces in miniature, showcasing a unique voice and viewpoint ― one that is spiritually inclined, yet never shying away from the travails that come from being deeply invested in working out one’s salvation with fear and trembling in a world that is not often favorably inclined to such a task. His fourth full length record, FLESH EATER, is a further musical and lyrical development from Hathaway, his starkest and most confrontational record yet.

Sex is everywhere on this record. Every single song either describes someone having sex, thinking or fantasizing about sex, or remembering a previous sexual encounter. It is graphic in unconventional ways, describing the encounters artfully and dispassionately rather than explicitly; I sincerely doubt I will ever hear a more simple yet evocative description of receiving fellatio than “She’s on her knees, but I ain’t.” And while most of the sex described seems transactional, these lyrics, so artfully rendered, treat the topic with respect, while simultaneously, through their unblinking gaze, capturing it in all its concrete messiness and explicitness. It’s a very, very fine line, but one that is walked assiduously throughout.

“Naked,” more than any other track, shows how we unfortunately tend to prize the sexual as the manner of connecting with another rather than one way among many of doing so. The first verses recount a number of ways that the singer has seen this person ― bowing their head to pray, drinking a Coke in the summer shade, dancing to unheard music ― but there remains a desire to see the other nude, misled by the idea that this will allow them to know one another, failing to realize that, in those moments already recounted, he has already seen her naked, perhaps not physically, but in a number of ways that may be even more revealing. Yet there is nevertheless an apocalyptic tenor to the song, displaying a sense of urgency that is unsettling, as he sings of the possibility that “the sun could explode and the earth catch fire.” On a previous record, Hathaway sang of his desire to get naked with his listeners, but in that instance it was metaphorical, conveying the yearning for communion, for knowing one’s hopes, dreams, and self as purely as possible. Here, that mystical desire has vanished, becoming something merely carnal, and the shift is deeply affecting in a way that discomforts, prompting the listener to question just what it means to know another in their nakedness or for them to be naked themselves.

The instrumentation of this record is consistently sparse, although it never feels lacking. “Penelope” features only an acoustic guitar, “Good Friday” and “Nathaniel” have only percussion backing Hathaway’s voice, while “God Damn” relies solely upon an electric guitar. There are also unique elements here that have never been featured in Hathaway’s work before. For example, the bass playing on “Be She In the Spirit” sounds jazzy in a way that has no precedent in his discography thus far. And the percussion, particularly on “He Is Behind Her” echoes the unique rhythms featured in the work of someone such as Tom Waits, yet in a way that does not seem deliberately experimental, as the listener wonders how the backing could be anything else for it fits so perfectly. While the instrumentation may seem too minimal to those who miss the ornate soundscapes that permeated 2009’s A Mouth Full of Dust, the simplicity here is not a regression, but a refinement, a focusing upon what is most important ― the stories being told and the manner of their delivery.

The final track, “Penelope,” comes closest to what listeners expect from Bradley Hathaway as it consists solely of his voice and the plaintive strumming of a few simple, yet suggestive, chords. It, like every other track on this record, takes the concrete details of a particular life and shows their universality. The song begins by the narrator passing by a creek where he and a past lover had sex, and the memories stir up a combination of longing and regret within that unsettles. Regardless of whether you have made love with someone by a creek, the feelings of walking past such a place have been felt by us all in one way or another. It reminds one of Glen Campbell’s “Galveston” as Campbell’s narrator thinks back to the beaches that he and his lover once ran upon ― struck with the certain knowledge that these moments cannot be recreated ― struggling to come to terms with the fact that the past is fixed and binds us in ways that we cannot foresee but can only cope with. For Hathaway though, this loss is not the last word. While the first verse is concerned with his memories of the past and the things he wishes he could say in the hope of making things right, the second focuses on what is and what lies beyond all else. While this narrator recognizes a “badness” in himself, this is surpassed by the “goodness in this world.” He sings that ”the Lord is on his throne” and that sure belief offers a solace that cannot be manufactured, but is nevertheless fully felt as a reality more certain than the contingencies of life. People come and go, love is felt and lost, but the unvarying presence of the divine undergirds all these happenings, adding a touch of the sacred to them all.

The sacred and the profane on this record, and in our lives, are not separate spheres that operate on parallel paths, two worlds with only intermittent contact with one another. Instead, they are overlaid upon one another, perpetually interacting. In fact, this seems like a better way to think of spiritual warfare ― not as a supernatural conflict between angels and demons that we cannot witness with our own eyes, but rather as the conflict between the flesh and the spirit described by St. Paul and so many others since. What is most remarkable here is the sympathy that Hathaway has for the characters outlined in these songs. While a more obtuse or moralistic singer would take these lyrics and sing them in a way that condemns these persons, seeing them as hypocrites unable to stifle their sensual urges in order to actualize their spiritual longings, Hathaway realizes here that life is not simple enough for him to pass such judgment. We often fail to live up to our best hopes for ourselves, but this does not make us hypocrites ― it makes us human. We often either hide our faults out of fear of what others will think, or we hide our greatest ambitions, scared we will be called to live up to them, and Hathaway, through his lyrics, is able to capture both aspects of this conflict equally well by showing these characters’ greatest desires as well as their greatest regrets. Flannery O’Connor, in the introduction to her debut novel Wise Blood, comments upon her main character’s inability to rid himself of his belief in Christ, a figure that haunts him throughout the book. She writes that for her readers, she imagines his integrity lies in his consistent attempts to distance himself from this figure, but that, for her, his integrity is found in his inability to expel the call of the divine from his being. I imagine that Hathaway may say something similar about the figures he sings about here.

FLESH EATER is a great record, but one that many may have a hard time fully appreciating due to both its thematic bluntness and the often severe music accompanying several of its tracks. Yet those who listen deeply, allowing themselves to connect with the figures Hathaway sings about ― letting the insights he delivers condemn and convict them ― will be irrevocably impacted by it. The struggles he sings of are universal, applicable to all, as we wrestle with our worst impulses and the desire to overcome them, while also giving in more than we would like. With FLESH EATER, Hathaway has again reestablished himself as one of the most gifted songwriters working today, creating a record that is arresting and moving, sacralizing all that it sees.

Listen to the album here: