Listening to Evan Bartels (backed by his band, The Stoney Lonesomes) on his stellar debut album The Devil, God & Me calls to mind the words of his fellow Nebraskan Matthew Sweet, “I cannot understand my god/I don’t know why it gets to me/One day my life Is filled with joy/And then we find we disagree”.
At times, invoking the spirit of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska or Johnny Cash’s rendition of Nick Lowe’s “The Beast In Me”, Bartels’ characters in songs like “Demons”, “Two at a time”, and “The Devil, God & Me” struggle with their addictions and sins, acknowledging their own state of depravity while at the same time demanding that God explain why he let them come to this state. “On the day that I meet Jesus/I’m gonna look him in the eye/say, my list it’s a long one/could you take ’em two at a time?” says the long-haul trucker popping pills to stay awake.
Taken as a whole, Bartels channels a world-weariness in his characters. “These cigarettes are gonna kill me/and Lord I wish that they just would” says one man, and yet he still strives for love and happiness. “Oh death, you can come for me/but oh, Death, you can’t comfort me” says another and begs the devil to let him be, wishing he could start over again and praying to Jesus for grace to show that there can be life for those like him.
Above all the pain and despair, however, something else on this album shines through: hope. As you listen to the album you can hear the hope of redemption just within your reach. You can hear it in Bartels’ soulful raspy voice and in the clear tones of the piano, and in the joyous jangle of the guitars; “Can you feel the fire/burnin’ like acetelyne/right through my prison walls?”. Despite the brokeness of the world, you know it is possible to overcome our human flaws and even to celebrate them. And the man who says that death can’t comfort him ends by saying “Oh death, I will conquer thee”. In the words of one of the best of Bartels’ songs, “Hallelujah, Amen!”.