“If you have become a convenient conduit for sorrow and you suddenly are happy, that doesn’t necessarily make the people who are listening likewise so happy, because they still have their struggles that they’re dealing with.”
Jim White has been trying to come to terms with his region and his religion for a good long time, and those who have tuned in to his first three solo albums have been privy to that strange and honest struggle. He’s gone about it in the best possible way — with an offbeat sense of humor and without the kind of grab-you-by-the-throat self-seriousness into which the subject matter could easily descend. And just as he’s never tried to hide the existential thorns jabbing him in the side, on his new album he makes no effort to conceal the fact that he’s found a relative calm.
It’s called Transnormal Skiperoo because, as he puts it, “That’s how I feel.” (For White, closing in on his 51st birthday doesn’t preclude using made-up words.) “It’s a lot more grown-up than my other albums,” he reflects. “My other albums were about ‘Why am I here and what am I doing?’ and this one is about ‘Well, I’m here — how do I make this work better?’ And sometimes it’s ‘I’m here and I’m enjoying this, in fact,’ whereas before any sense of the sublime was always veiled in sorrow.”
A lot has happened since those “other albums” White refers to. He got married, had a second daughter, and moved into a fixer-upper in Athens, Georgia. “I had to do all these kind of grown-up things that in prior epochs of my life would have probably rankled me pretty bad,” he says. “It didn’t really bother me too much this time around. I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘I’d better get in my car and drive away.’ I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, ‘I’d better re-sand that floor.’ It’s good not to have that feeling that you have to run away all the time.”
To look at the short story in the liner notes of White’s 1997 debut (The Mysterious Tale Of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus) or the lyrics of “God Was Drunk When He Made Me” (from 2001′s No Such Place) or “Combing My Hair In A Brand New Style” (from 2004′s Drill A Hole In That Substrate And Tell Me What You See), you’d think he was trying to point out God’s or Jesus’ tragic flaws. And he sort of was.
There was a portrait of Jesus with the eyes hopelessly askew, a drinking problem that repeatedly clouded God’s judgment, and a reference to “God’s crooked smile,” all manner of cockeyed images that show how well White paid attention to the jagged characters with which southern author Flannery O’Connor purposefully and brilliantly jarred her readers.
It might sound like he’s just being silly or flippant, but it’s really a very serious enterprise. He’s taking artistic license with theology and poking holes in the kind of seemingly airtight religious teachings — those espousing “an exclusive God that you can only get to by this one particular path” — that made him want to flee Pentecostalism in Pensacola, Florida, three decades ago. And he’s doing it as much for his own benefit as anyone else’s.
“I don’t really care anymore about people’s religious expectations of me, or believe their rhetoric regarding the route to God,” White says. The sheer size of his existential questions — which he summarizes as, “What is my place on this earth, and what about the issue of God and things beyond seeing?” — make them damn near impossible for him to put out of mind.
“I remember when my last album [Drill A Hole] came out,” White says. “I just felt like I had hit the ball out of the park in terms of what I wanted to accomplish. Rolling Stone reviewed it and they said, ‘Well, Jim White’s back, and he’s asking the same questions again.’ And I thought, ‘Well, Sting’s back and he’s singing about love [again]. Nobody complains about that. So why is it so bad that I’m asking these questions?’ I guess people don’t want to be reminded of them nearly as much as they do that Sting might love them.”
White has done his share of spiritual and geographical roaming. When he was 5, his family moved from California to Pensacola, a no-frills Florida panhandle town that has weathered hurricanes and intense Pentecostal fervor (during the mid-’90s Brownsville Revival), and is part of either the Emerald Coast or the Redneck Riviera, depending on who you ask. White didn’t want to trade southern California for the roughness of the south, so he clung to his “southern California ways” (i.e. “polite manners and good diction”) for a time. “Over the years I slowly assimilated,” he recalls. “I remember the first time I said ‘y’all.’”
He unknowingly stumbled into an evangelistic Christian church camp at age 8. “Theoretically that’s when I got saved,” he says. “My middle-class Presbyterian mother was greatly distressed by my conversion and sudden references to Jesus.” At 15, shaken by an overdose and two friends’ drug-related deaths, White sought out the intense, ecstatic spiritual experience which Brownsville Assembly of God — the same church that later erupted into a revival — had to offer.
His involvement with Pentecostalism lasted for several years, until something in him stretched to the breaking point. “I had sort of nervous breakdown in 1980 and fled the church and the south,” he says. After that, he did some modeling in Europe, surfed professionally, drove a cab in New York City, and studied film at NYU.
He returned to Pensacola just after the release of Wrong-Eyed Jesus in 1997. “I started just feeling an ache for home and did the math and said, ‘Well, there is no place that’s gonna be home — what’s the next best thing?’” he says. Not long ago, he and his family crossed over the state line into Athens, Georgia.