I don’t know if I believe in God.
It’s a little weird to type that sentence—I’ve certainly never done it before, and having spent all of my pre-college education in Catholic schools, I’m frightened to even consider that out loud. Sometimes I feel like a fraud, like I’m actively ignoring that religions are just stories that we tell ourselves to metaphorically illustrate a moral code. Other times, I am so enraptured by the world’s mysteries and beauty that I can’t help but be swept along by the thought of some grand design.
To put it simply, “If I Believe You” is a gospel song about not having any faith. Perhaps more accurately, it’s about living without faith through times of pain. The song’s main lyric feels appropriately like a plea from the Book of Job: “If I believe you, will that make it stop?” Vocalist Matty Healy approaches his own lack of faith with something resembling a tremble, turning over in his bed alone with a God-shaped hole in his heart. It’s one of many themes on The 1975’s second album, an audacious and intimate record that’s my favorite of the year by a wide margin.
Lyrics this overtly earnest could easily come off as cloying, but the song’s carefully crafted musical arrangement underscores the theme with assurance. You can hear this care in the perfectly placed flugelhorn solo, which creates some badly needed space and extends the song length from a traditional ballad into something much more ruminative. You can hear it in the plucked harp strings, which turn the song’s coda into something so tactile that you can practically touch them. Every flourish is thought out, visualizing an empty room that has something else there.
My favorite technique on display is in the innovative way the band records the song’s gospel choir. At first, the extra voices are there to traditionally reinforce the chorus, and it sounds great in an ’80s balladeer kind of way. But then the band samples that recording and chops it up, manipulating these swelling voices to create something truly otherworldly. Listen at 2:20, when it feels as if the heavens are literally opening up while Matty approaches the song’s climax: “And I had a revelation: I’ll be your child if you insist. I mean, if it was you who made my body, you probably shouldn’t’ve made me atheist.” It’s like someone turned on a light.
I don’t go to church often these days. When I do go, my favorite moments of every mass are the minutes after receiving communion. I always do the same thing: return to my pew, kneel, and put my face in my hands. In the quiet, I meditate on the dreams I want realized for others, on the people I miss, on the way the world is and how it could be. And in those moments, I don’t feel like a fraud; I hope that someone is listening, and solace takes me like a wave.
That same yearning is what I’ve found here. This is what prayer sounds like.
Play this song: In the dark, when you’re not sure what you need but know you need something.