Tornado of Testosterone or Punching Bag?Featured, Music — By Anthony Easton on September 21, 2012 at 7:00 am
One reason I am a queer theologian is because I am interested in how bodies work in space with other bodies. Now this might mean sex, and it might mean family — or god, or church, or communion. I can cage to the fact that my continued interest in country singer Josh Turner comes from this place, because of how his body (for “body” also read “voice/songwriting”) is entangled with the conventional bodies of wife and family, and the ways in which all this fits with his theology.
There is some sex on Turner’s fifth album Punching Bag. There is always sex on Turner’s records, but it is the most conservative sex — sex between husband and wife. Culture never thinks about this sex, aside from sitcom jokes about lack of sex and Republican talking points which make it the only option on the table. Turner’s sexuality not only legitimizes the expression “making love,” it sanctifies it. In Turner’s music, the love of the marriage bed becomes the love that makes a family, and the love of a family is the love that makes community, and this community rewards an evangelical understanding of the divine, and is itself rewarded by a patient G-d.
When Turner talks about making love — or hints at making love — he talks about the whole gamut of possibility. The album starts with an introduction by the famous WWE/Boxing announcer Michael Buffer, who establishes Turner’s masculinity, that he is a “tornado of testosterone”. This introduction is promptly countered by the song “Punching Bag”, which celebrates Turner’s resilience — a resilience that could be mocked as masochistic, rather than the aggressiveness you’d associate with someone overflowing with testosterone.
“Punching Bag” is the first track, but there is nothing else so aggressive in this album. Its earnestness suggests that the idea of him as a masculine ideal doesn’t exist. He is part of a community — so in the exceedingly tender ballad (and the first single) “Time Is Love”, he tells his friend that he cannot spend time with him. Not only would he rather spend time with his wife; she is “where he wants to be” and “loving her is a good problem to have” — and (in one of those perfect country music details) he’s “been saving up for a big screen TV / But I’ll spend it all on a wedding ring.”
That material sacrifice for a larger devotion means that he is not alone. Turner’s bass-baritone could easily indicate isolation (and in “Cold Shoulder”, he indicates that he knows how to play that trick), but in his best work, when he drops that baritone as low as it goes — the growl that sounds like car wheels on a gravel road — he subverts that isolationist instinct. You can hear it on older songs like “Your Man” or “Haywire”. He does it again here in a few places — in the overly literal “Deeper Than My Love”, whose lyrics are a passel of clichés, and whose simple instrumentation never rises above cliché. But he makes perfect use of that voice in what may be his masterpiece — the chilling “Pallbearer”.
This is where community and isolation function as competing powers. It is a place where I never thought Turner could go — where his optimistic American Christianity is abandoned. (Even his breakthrough hit “Long Black Train” was about people being redeemed.) With help from Marty Stuart and Iris DeMent, he sings about the loss of a partner, and about how this loss is like being buried alive — not just dying, but having the graveyard dirt piled over you. The collapse of a sexual relationship is like being abandoned by God, and with his understated singing and a Stanleyian bluegrass spirit, his conservative communitarian ethic becomes haunted.
That the next song “For the Love of God” is more cheerful and equally bluegrass, a subtle critique of capitalism that reinforces the divine, suggesting that he cannot go too far into the darkness. Turner loves his wife, he loves his children (his toddler is featured burbling on one of the tracks), and he gets pleasure not from drinking (which leads to a child being killed by a drunk driver) or fooling around, but through a divinely inspired, historically informed, profoundly earnest and intensely loving relationship with his wife. This is a pleasure that inspires his music, and his band’s music. During the sprightly last 30 seconds or so of “Love of God”, the disciplined band sparkles with the improvisational freedom their discipline allows — and that 30-second segment, with no lyrics, is the best example of Turner’s entire worldview.
This is a Josh Turner album, and if you like Josh Turner albums, you know what that means. It’s better than the last one, but if you know the singles you’re lucky, because at least two of them are the best work of his career. But if I can return to a personal note for a minute, what makes me return to Turner, song after song and album after album, is the idea that a straight boy who loves Jesus and makes love to his wife is so earnest, so caring and so devoted, can make work of such erotic and spiritual candor. Turner’s candor must be common in certain places and in certain communities, but it is a candor that evades my understanding. In this evasion his work becomes a kind of exoticised other, but an exoticised other that, in my darkest moments, stabilizes and welcomes me. Turner’s worldview is so clear and precise that it would seem to isolate conflicting worldviews, but his performances, songwriting, and persona indicate the exact opposite.
It would be interesting to see a Baptist review the album — someone who is married and has children, who loves his wife and children, who considers that love an example of his love of community and God — just to see how much I am projecting. But you have me and my oblique angles and invasive biography. I hope Turner’s God can forgive me.