In high school and college, I had a tight circle of friends that gushed about Christian hardcore music. These bands weren’t the contemporary praise and worship groups we heard in church. They screamed, they had odd vocal styles, and they spun some of the most creative and disturbing lyrics I’d yet heard in religious music. To this day, I cite these bands as major influences in my college years and now I take a look back at the first album that exposed me to this world: Showbread’s Anorexia/Nervosa.
Anorexia/Nervosa is a double album. It tells the stories of two sisters who manufacture their own depravity and then experience salvation. Anorexia’s aim in life is to build a tower to reach the sky. Nervosa’s is to dig a hole deep into the earth.
Each CD’s lyric insert booklet contains a story that you read along while listening to the music. Both stories are largely metaphorical, but there are flashes of real-world accounts aligned with most songs. For Anorexia, it’s her tireless work clamoring for the spotlight in creating a nonprofit children’s hospital. For Nervosa, it’s working at a strip club/slaughter house.
The booklets contain time stamps for each track directing you when to read each part of the story as you listen. The full experience of these albums is jarring, disturbing, uplifting, and still intensely emotional after all these years.
Anorexia hit me hardest when I first got into Showbread, and it still has the same effect. I cried ten years ago and I cried again when I re-experienced the album more recently. In her real-world story, Anorexia is doing this supposedly selfless thing by opening a nonprofit for children, but the entire time she only cares about the acclamation she’ll receive for doing such great work. She overexerts herself building this legacy that will surpass all the crap in the world. When children die, she espouses a Calvinist “only some of us are chosen to thrive” mentality, so her sense of her own greatness overpowers the compassion she should have in those moments. Anorexia finally gets the legacy she wants when a child stabs her with an infected needle and she contracts a deadly disease. She’s dying, but church buildings and streets will be named after her.
The tie to the metaphorical story about building a tower is clear–it’s all about creating something larger than herself to be elevated above the rest of the world and last well beyond her. The part that cuts me each time is when Anorexia believes she has finally finished her tower only to look over the edge and find that she is barely an inch above ground. The real-world story also ends at this point, with Anorexia relishing in the promise of a movie made about her life.
The metaphorical story continues, however, and Anorexia is carried away from her so-called tower by a small Lamb, who dies from the burden of removing her from her own mess. The Lamb is obvious symbolism for Christ, and not only does his work completely restore Anorexia, but it also reunites her with her sister. It’s quite a happy ending for such an intense story.
Anorexia speaks to a very deep part of myself that on one hand wants to build a legacy but on the other hand is terrified of becoming too prideful. When I first experienced this album in 2008, it was one year after a spiritual crisis I endured in China the summer before where my pride came crashing down. It was painful and one result was that I physically destroyed several notebooks full of an epic story I had been writing because, in my theology at the time, I had made it a false idol.
So Anorexia really resonates with me and I want her to be totally alive and saved at the end of her story because that is just such a powerful tale of redemption. Yet now another reading has presented itself to me.
I now see a strong interplay between the real-world story about starting the children’s hospital and the metaphorical story about building a tower such that Anorexia may very well die in body, but live in spirit. This is not nearly as optimistic as I had once seen this story, and if I’m honest it has discolored the sense of joy I once had when reaching the end of this album. I used to think that both Anorexia and Nervosa are bodily saved in the end of their stories, but I now I’m not 100% certain that that’s the true outcome. It may well be that the Lamb meets Anorexia in her metaphorical story to carry her to heaven/safety as she dies physically.
Nervosa begins her story wanting to discover everything within the depths of the earth so that she might feel something. So, she begins digging a hole in her metaphorical story and in her real-world story, she works as a stripper despite admonishment from her sister. She projects an air of excitement, but we quickly see that her behavior spawns from a deep sense of emptiness. The tracks on Nervosa have the same titles as those on Anorexia, but the lyrics and music are different. Nervosa even meets the same characters Anorexia does, but has vastly different interactions, some of which are sexual assault.
Unlike Anorexia, Nervosa’s default perception of herself is that she is lacking. The chorus of this album’s first track says, “Yeah, I am the empty, empty. Yeah, I am the nothing in me.” In the real-world story, she doesn’t seem to be as aware of her sense of lacking, and has a mindset of “why try being perfect? I’m gonna have fun and experience the world instead.” Metaphorically, she wants the adventure of digging and can’t believe there might be horrible things deep in the earth unless she experiences them first-hand. She also compares herself to Anorexia. This is evident in the song lyrics on the third track, “you are the queen of clean; I am the world’s trash” and the story text where she looks at the sky and sees her opportunity to be something wonderful fade away.
“…something inside Nervosa wilted, and she relinquished any hope of the sky or even a life outside of the hole she was digging.”
Over the course of her real-world story, Nervosa takes a new job at a particularly disturbing strip club with a transparent dance floor that allows patrons to view animal slaughter that occurs on the bottom floor.
“The next night I’m dancing and when I look down over my body I can see the death and it looks good.”
It’s in this job that Nervosa hits her lowest point. She becomes pregnant after a rich patron assaults her and then she gets an unsafe, back alley abortion. The real-world story ends there with ambiguity about whether she survives the procedure unharmed. There isn’t as much of a sense that she might be dead as there is with Anorexia, but it’s still a possibility.
The metaphorical story continues graphically with Nervosa nearly rotting in dirt and darkness before the Lamb appears to carry her to the surface, out of the dirt, away from the hole, and back to her sister.
Whether Anorexia and Nervosa die is ambiguous enough that you can come away with multiple readings, and that’s part of the unsettling nature of these albums. Regardless, each story has a few hopeful threads woven in the narratives and the music. One is the intermissions. Musically, these tracks are soft and melodic, a stark contrast to the heavy screaming in every other song. In the narratives, these are pauses in the chaos where “the Lamb knocks.” God meekly and quietly attempts to cut through the noise of the sisters’ self-destruction. We hear this clearly as listeners, but Anorexia and Nervosa don’t. They only notice the Lamb when they are on the verge of “death.”
Additionally, the music often weaves in “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” as a refrain that signifies both the helplessness Anorexia and Nervosa reach at their lowest points and the salvation they ultimately experience. Now that I’m in a high church tradition, the presence of this classic hymn has a deeper significance to me.
The juxtaposition of graphic imagery and God’s presence in these albums is still refreshing to me now because they were my first exposure to an expression of God and Christianity that truly meets us in the depravity of the human existence.
My blackout poetry collection, Forgive Us Our Trespasses is available as a paperback and an ebook! The poems explore faith, doubt, lament, and hope. Check it out and discover why readers have called it “pithy,” “insightful,” “visually stunning,” and “emotionally challenging.” Be sure to add the book to your Goodreads list and leave a review when you’re finished!