I am currently writing a chapter for a book of essays about McComb and the Triffids, focussing on religion. This is a precis.
Many comments about the Triffids’ music and its appeal have focussed on its peculiarly Australian character. The specifics of David McComb’s imagery and the very fact of his attention to religious questions and symbols sit awkwardly with that assessment. Rather than showing a more typically Australian secular apathy or animus to Christian faith, he employs its trappings powerfully, if piecemeal, in his construction of a world of yearning, distance and hope. And the specific forms that faith takes in his songs are not immediately derived from the religious practices of his own Australian upbringing, but are the product both of the US-dominated popular culture of his childhood and youth, and of the reflections on faith and religion found in a literary canon of European and American, as well as Australian, authors.
The religion of David’s songs is not exactly the “semi-Pelagianism” that some have said is more or less inevitable in the kind of Anglican boys’ school we went to. It is, however, unmistakeably Christian, and far more resonant of edgier forms both of Protestant and of Catholic piety or faith. While it may have been influenced by some childhood familial experience of a Presbyterian Church in suburban
Although the set of religious symbols that appears in his songs does not map clearly onto any one form of historic Christianity, it has some affinity with a trajectory of introspective and somewhat pessimistic thought that can be traced from Paul of Tarsus to Augustine of Hippo, and then through the Reformation to Kierkegaard. This is a Christianity of grace, not works, which may or may not include the trappings of symbol and ritual, but always centres on the need of a broken person for redemption.
This dynamic, so often present in his songs even where religious language is not, defies assimilation to the glib “spiritual but not religious” tag that might otherwise suggest itself for McComb’s ambivalent stance. There is no trace here of the banal “spirituality” of contemporary popular thought, the benign and domesticable reality that makes all quasi-divine; David’s divinity is gut-wrenching, all-absorbing, fearsome, and largely absent.
It is not much like
While eclectic, the recurrence of American mythology in this imagery is striking. The songs, religious in symbolism or not, manage the creation of a mythic American-tinged world that perhaps was only imaginable from
Perhaps, however, the eclectic or imported character of these religious elements does actually not make them less Australian. Debates about Australian values and virtues are a reminder of how banal it is to characterize Australia and its culture solely in terms of what is exclusively or iconically Australian in the view of a few, rather than in terms of the mixture of experiences and influences that actually constitute the eclectic reality of Australian cultural practice. Although David McComb’s religious world seems rather American, it is a sort of
David’s songs are arguably a darker and more pessimistic contribution to a chorus of younger Australian artists and intellectuals who surprisingly, given our secular self-image, find in Christianity rather more than delusion or boredom.