The Uses of Belief: Susan Werner, The Gospel Truth

By Daniel Garrett

Susan Werner
The Gospel Truth
Produced by: Glenn Barratt with Susan Werner
Sleeve Dog Records, 2007

Susan Werner’s The Gospel Truth is a very appealing recording and it works on more than one level: its songs can be taken as sincere expressions and they can be taken as satirical corrections of ignorant and hypocritical attitudes. Her sound is flawless. And pleasant. I kept expecting an explosion of rage—and that may say something about the kind of implicit tension I sense in such a work, a work that can be read as sincere though it lacks piety, a work that is intelligent in a way that seems—by the very nature of intelligence—to call into question taking anything on faith. I first heard a Susan Werner song a few weeks ago on an independent radio music channel, and I was pleased by the quality of the song—its melody, its intelligence. Susan Werner’s work includes I Can’t Be New (2004), New Non-Fiction (2001), Time Between Trains (1998), Last of the Good Straight Girls (1995), Live at Tin Angel (1993), and Midwestern Saturday Night (1992) The Gospel Truth was inspired first by Susan Werner’s appreciation of the spiritual blues of Blind Willie Johnson and then by Werner’s visit to the Chicago Gospel Music Festival, which led Werner—who had been reared Catholic in Iowa—to visiting churches across the United States of America. Werner has said that she thinks of religious belief and energy as an important force in the country. Susan Werner’s accomplishment with The Gospel Truth is very unusual, so unusual that I hope to restrict my use of the word unusual in the future. Hers may be the most astute act of subversion I have witnessed in a long time.

“Well, I know you’d damn me if you could, but my friend that’s simply not your call. If god is great, and god is good, why is your heaven so small?” says Susan Werner in the song “(Why Is Your) Heaven So Small.” The song is somewhere between bluegrass music and soft rock—with bluegrass one of the forms of music considered an embodiment of authenticity, and soft rock being one of the most popular forms of music—and Werner’s phrasing is lingering and mellow but also clear and firm. These are sounds almost anyone is inclined to like and to trust. There is strength and soul amid the clapping rhythm, chorus, and piano work of “Help Somebody,” a song that advocates going beyond one’s personal well-being and judgments to aid the lives of others, a song of honesty and humor. “I got a roof over my head. What do I do? I go out and help somebody get a roof over their head, too,” Werner asserts. A dramatic piano ballad, “Forgiveness,” is a ballad of philosophical exploration and spiritual interrogation: “How do you love those who never will love you, who are happy to shove you out in front of the train? How do you not hate those who would leave you lie bleeding, while they hold their prayer meeting?” That line of questioning strikes me as very important—as something with which anyone who thinks of herself (himself) as being compassionate or liberal or thoughtful must contend. (It’s funny: many of us find our own rage acceptable, but not that of others, especially not if those others are artists, intellectuals, or public figures. Fear of influence? Fear of destruction? Fear of truth?) How do we respond to those who are not as we are, in appearance or philosophy or status, those who are not like us and do not share our values; and even those whose energies—or worse, whose acts—might harm us? “How do you love those who never will love you,” Werner asks. I wonder, do we have to love them at all? Werner concedes, “I can’t find forgiveness for them anywhere in this, and with god as my witness, I really have tried.”

The song “Did Trouble Me,” about conscience, has charm and candor, and sounds a bit countryish and has nice harmony. Susan Werner’s voice is pretty, tender, and soothing in “Sunday Mornings,” a song about the rite of church-going and the lingering questions of an independent mind, but a mocking humor emerges in “Our Father,” a song in which Werner sings to the deity, “Deliver us from those who think they’re you.” “Lost my religion, or my religion lost me,” she muses in “Lost My Religion,” which has a hushed, light tone, and towards the end of it, Werner quickens the beat.

Love, instinct, doubt, and the wonder of nature: all part of life, all objects of contemplation—do not deny them, do not simplify them, advises Werner. On “Don’t Explain It Away,” Werner’s singing is well modulated, with a nuance that is the exact opposite of what one expects of a rhetorical inclination or tone; and although the album does not sound explicitly rhetorical it is rhetorical. The kinds of questions Susan Werner explores, and the feelings she expresses, and the doubts she acknowledges, create an argument in one’s own mind. The Gospel Truth, a challenging collection, also includes “I Will Have My Portion,” with its belief in eventual good fortune, and a cheery “Probably Not” (“Is there a god above? Is there eternal love? Probably not”), and the unity-call “Together,” with a bonus song—just piano and voice—with a last line: “I would like to think.”

Daniel Garrett is currently a New York resident, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, The Humanist,, Offscreen, Option, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Author contact: or