In the lead-up to the release of a first-of-its-kind pop rock album from Pope Francis, Owen Steinberger examines the first two singles and whether there’s more to them than the internet memes suggest.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, otherwise known as Pope Francis, is the 266th man to occupy the highest seat in the Roman Catholic Church, and now he is making history as the very first to release a pop-rock album. The papacy’s long-awaited debut record, titled Wake Up!, is coming out on the 27th of this month, to a mixed worldwide response of confusion, excitement and more than a few sniggers at its expense.
Two singles have already dropped in the lead-up to the project’s release date, and the internet has had its typical reaction, immediately drawing sarcastic parallels to this year’s critical darlings, from Kendrick Lamar’s lauded To Pimp A Butterfly to pop favorite, Jamie xx’s In Colour and even to Compton, the first Dr. Dre album in over fifteen years. The album’s divergence from typical Christian music clichés, opting for a blend of pop, rock, and gospel, has led to a surge of excitement; some ironic, some genuine. Wake Up!, this year’s most anticipated release since Drake and Future went diamond, is set to turn heads one way or another.
Its status as an internet phenomenon aside, this album is real. Pope Francis continues to gain favour throughout the Western world, even with those outside of the Catholic faith entirely, due to his free-spirited manner and notably centrist political views. The Vatican is releasing a legitimate rock album, one not limited to Church hymns, with instrumentation beyond choirs and pipe organs – this is surprising, but with a pope like Francis at the helm it is not unbelievable.
“Pope Francis is not involved in the creation of any of the album’s musical elements, as much as many would love to hear him crooning on love ballads or thrashing on a few guitar leads.”
Most of the internet’s overblown reaction to the project can be attributed to misconceptions about the album’s contents. Pope Francis is not involved in the creation of any of the album’s musical elements, as much as many would love to hear him crooning on love ballads or thrashing on a few guitar leads. Instead, recordings of his speeches are built into every song on the eleven-track project, serving as moral and narrative cores for each piece. Wake Up! is less an album by the Pope and more an album inspired by the Pope.
The album’s producer, Don Giulio Neroni, spoke to Rolling Stone about the process of communicating the Pope’s messages in musical form. Neroni considers Francis to be “the Pope of dialogue, open doors, hospitality,” and hoped to create music that embodied that spirit of openness. “Contemporary music” such as pop and rock, as well as some Latin elements, “dialogues with the Christian tradition of sacred hymns,” he said, explaining the method behind the album’s bold mixture of styles. The two tracks released so far, ‘Wake Up! Go! Go! Forward!’ and the mournful ‘¿Por Qué Sufren Los Niños?’ are both intended to showcase how pop music can be used to elevate the Pope’s already powerful words to speak to a greater meaning.
The first of the two, ‘Wake Up!…’, is the most surprising. Blaring, post-rock inspired guitars lead off the track, gliding in over a soft piano melody, which is later backed up by some triumphant horns and rapid-fire drums. Shortly after the introduction, the instrumental hushes and the Pope’s voice filters in, urging his audience to “wake up.” “No one who sleeps can sing, dance, or rejoice,” he says, as the snare drum quietly keeps time and the piano ambles about in the background, the music giving the speech room to breathe. First given at the VI Asian Youth Day at Haemi Castle in South Korea, the Pope’s speech is a call to action for the world’s youth, to not let themselves sleep through life, to not ignore the will of God. The music conveys the urgency of this message, the screaming guitars and horns returning just as Francis calls out “Asian youth: wake up!” Escalating further, some progressive rock-inspired vocals, which are sung entirely in Latin, are brought in to close out the track. This song is intense; it is emotional and affecting, and it is seriously enjoyable.
“‘No one who sleeps can sing, dance, or rejoice’, he says, as the snare drum quietly keeps time and the piano ambles about in the background, the music giving the speech room to breathe.”
The second single, ‘¿Por Qué Sufren Los Niños?,’ takes a more reserved approach. A simple melody, evoked only by a single flute, a modest orchestral string section, and a twinkling keyboard set far in the background, makes room for traditional choir vocals, singing a Latin hymn. The music on this track is not nearly as ambitious as on the previous single, focusing instead on the Pope’s speech, which is quite moving. “Why do children suffer?” he asks the audience, addressing a question which is so often leveled against the devout religious. “Certain realities of life,” he responds, “are only seen by eyes that have been washed clean by tears.” This album promises to be more than just a novelty: the Pope aims to provide insight on greater religious concepts. The song is unlikely to convince anyone that the suffering of children is a ‘necessary evil’, but it does raise a provocative argument nonetheless.
Many will not feel the need to listen to Wake Up! Simply being able to say that the Pope released a pop-rock album and to laugh at how ridiculous that sounds will be enough for most. However, considering the quality of the two songs released thus far, there may be more to this album than an internet meme can accurately convey. When speaking to Rolling Stone, Tony Pagluica, producer of the first single and several other upcoming tracks, described the album as “a very interesting artistic challenge.” Perhaps this is the best way to appreciate Wake Up!, as an experimental effort to blend pop music and Church doctrine in such a way that both elements are elevated. This is a combination which, up until recently, has occupied opposite sides of the political-correctness spectrum and it is fascinating to see the two working together. Whether or not the rest of the album will overcome this artistic challenge is unclear, but even if it fails to do so, it is guaranteed to be an interesting, if slightly bizarre, listen.