Last year, prior to his much-ballyhooed popemobile tour of America, Pope Francis delivered a fiery speech at the International Drug Enforcement Conference in Rome. Despite peeving America’s conservatives with his more progressive views on climate change, gun control, and—to a degree—homosexuality, the white-robed capo di tutti capi of the Roman Catholic Church is more Reefer Madness than Dazed and Confused when it comes to the Devil’s Lettuce.
“The scourge of drug use continues to spread inexorably, fed by a deplorable commerce which transcends national and continental borders,” Pope Francis declared. “Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called ‘recreational drugs’ are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce desired effects.”
Perhaps the 266th Pope should’ve made a stop-off in Colorado on his Serfin’ USA tour, where the economy has flourished thanks to legalized weed, but regardless, it’s more than a little strange that one of the world’s premier hallucinogen-shamers just dropped a trippy, experimental prog rock/pop album that all but requires drug accompaniment.
The pontiff’s Wake Up!, not to be confused with the excellent (and diametrically opposed) Rage Against the Machine song of the same name, was released by the imprint Believe Digital on Nov. 27, and is being pushed by the PR company Girlie Action—which typically represents indie acts like Cut Copy and My Morning Jacket. They also rep Pussy Riot, which is pretty damn ironic given how the punk rebels were thrown in the slammer. And, since the Pope knows better than to compete with popular music’s titans, his debut LP comes sandwiched between the blockbuster releases of Adele’s 25, which sold an unreal 3.38 million in its first week stateside, and Coldplay’s A Head Full of Dreams. We could collect the tears produced by these two releases and end the drought in California.
Then again, if you’re expecting a Christian album that’ll have you hands-up-and-weeping like those late-night Prosperity Cloth commercials, Wake Up! isn’t it. From the swirling ’80s synths of opening track “Annuntio Vobis Gaudium Magnum!”—the intro to the Habemus Papam!, naturally—it’s clear that this enterprise is going to be one weird mindfuck. And those synths soon give way to ethereal Gregorian chants and snippets from Pope Francis’s speeches.
With 11 tracks, the Pope-goes-pop album is a unique compilation comprised of spoken word excerpts of the Pope’s speeches from March 2013 to January 2015, delivered in English, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, accompanied by a diverse array of musical arrangements. The project was presided over by Don Giulio Neroni, who served as its artistic director, and co-produced by Tony Pagliuca, a former member of the ’70s Italian prog rock band Le Orme. Other contributors include Giorgio Kriegsch, Lorenzo Piscopo, Mite Balduzzi, orchestral director Dino Doni, and Giuseppe Dati, a composer who’s collaborated with Depeche Mode.
Sadly, any images you have of the Pope strumming a guitar in the studio sans zucchetto, cigarette dangling out of his mouth, will remain just that, as the Pope didn’t so much as hit a cowbell on the album. Even so, the whole endeavor provides for one of the year’s more bizarre listening experiences.
There are woodwind instruments aplenty on “Salve Regina,” whose opening notes sound like a bastardized version of the Bond theme, while the climate change anthem “Cuidar el Planeda,” which translates to “take care of the planet,” features the soaring vocals of a female Spanish singer, complemented by jangly flamenco guitars, piano, and accordion. It’s clear why the Pope and Co. chose “Wake Up! Go! Go Forward!” as the album’s debut single, since it’s the collection’s most accessible song—an ’80s classic rock track with wailing electric guitars, crashing cymbals, and booming trumpets, along with a bit of a Pope speech serving as a shoehorned-in refrain.
In addition to the song/plea “Wake Up! Go! Go Forward!,” one of the other standouts is penultimate track “Santa Famiglia Di Nazareth,” which opens with a romantic male-female call-and-response duet before building into a swelling anthem, its booming chorus and violins ascending to the heavens.
While Wake Up! isn’t exactly pure pop music in the vein of Justin Bieber’s megachurch Hillsong UNITED, whose current hit “Oceans” sounds like a Coldplay B-side, and while you’re well aware that this is proselytizing dressed up as pop—in case there was any doubt, the album includes a 24-page booklet filled with His Holiness’s words and prayers—it still counts as another endearing and unexpected move from the most boundary-pushing Pope to date.
Let’s hope—nay, pray—the kooky septuagenarian tackles hip-hop next.