My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
And by night, but find no rest.
It sounds familiar at first, like an old Gungor song. The guitar plucks sentimental notes while a violin glides along. The melody is something like a sun rising in spring—sweet and slow. Then, after a minute or so, the sleepy instrumentals fade into the background while Hollow Wood sings:
We have one hundred years filled with pain and fear
Open the door and “oh my God” I scream
It’s a horror scene, white walls, you and me
Open the door and “oh my God” I scream
I’m not sure they know why they’re saying it, “oh my God,” but every lyric around that phrase feels like filler. And I know when I listen to the song I want to shout it with them, like “oh my God” has been sitting on the tip of my tongue, burning in my chest, and I just didn’t know it. Frankly, if I didn’t have neighbors, I might open the door one morning and yell it into the sky. It might feel liberating, like skinny-dipping in the Pacific or popping a balloon.
What the song “Oh My God” thrives on, what it vibrates with, is the power of the ancient phrase itself—a cry for help sent out into the mystical unknown. Hollow Wood could have just yelled with no words at all and driven towards a similar frustration, but it would have been missing the “oh” of surprise, the affectionate “my,” and the personal “God.” I think the phrase is born out of frustration, when we feel like worms, not humans, and need to turn towards something greater.
Most of the song is an instrumental build. Indie-rockers love the instrumental build. But instead of an epic Sigur Ros inspired swell, Hollow Wood relies on melodic repetition and a ceaseless snare to build tension. The tension builds and builds and builds, till it breaks, a brief pause, and when they kick back in I don’t need lyrics to hear it beating in my heart: “oh my God.”
Andy Hull, singer of Manchester Orchestra, is the son of a pastor. If his later album, Simple Math, is any indication, that relationship is a deep source of tension in his life—not just his relationship with his father, but his father’s relationship with God, and Andy’s relationship with God. Struggles with faith are a present theme throughout much of Manchester’s catalog. Whatever happened in his childhood has left a desire that manifests like a wound.
“The River” is a conversation with God; one last plea. The lyrics are tense, filled with religious imagery, desire, and disgust. They are also plain and tired, affected by years of doubting and struggling.
I think I know you best when I sleep
I think I know everything
Put on your headphones and listen to the way he sings that line. Do you believe that Andy thinks he knows everything, or do you hear his uncertainty? He comes off as confused about himself as he is about God. And that confusion drags and drags, leading to a rupture in the ballad-like form—the guitar explodes into an uncomfortable, single-note throb, and Andy yells:
Oh, God, I need it
So let me see again
Take me to the river
And let me see again
Oh my God
When he finally says it, “oh my God,” I get this feeling that the whole song has been building up to that one line. Tortured, personal, desperate—like a Psalmist crying out for help. And unlike Hollow Wood, Andy means it personally. I hear whispers of David’s Psalm: O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer.
The song’s final “oh my God” is so raw that Andy’s mike strains to record it. It’s the loudest cry for God I’ve heard in a song, and more affecting than most worship music I hear on Sunday mornings. David’s cry must have sounded similar.
It feels strange, given the gravity of its content, to remark on how beautiful this song is. But it’s true—from the first note, this song captures the feeling of grief and loss. The piano in this song sounds like a mother crying, and the guitar her tears falling on the floor, while Sufjan tenderly tells the story of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. His sparse lyrics, every word, are a punch in the gut:
They were boys
With their cars
Oh my God
The way Sufjan’s voice touches those words, “oh my God,” is startling. Immediately, I understand the families and friends who lost their boys. I feel it. It lingers in my thoughts long after the song ends. I wonder what God’s grief sounds like.
More unsettling is the way Sufjan takes all that pent up grief caused by Gacy, built gently and carefully in just a few minutes, and turns it to himself:
And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid
These last lines change the way I look at Gacy, the way I look at Sufjan, and the way I look at myself. Grace vibrates in those lyrics—forgiveness, too—and still, grief and sadness permeate. So I wander back to that first “oh my God,” and realize it feels the same when I look my own failings.
It’s Godly, this complex weave of feelings. God must feel all of this and more in his love. He must, or, oh my God, I am lost.
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD.