Were You There?
by Diamond Version

Writers - Traditional (legally credited to Bender/Nicolai/Tennant)
First released - 2014
Original album - CI (Diamond Version)
Producer - Conrad Hensel
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

Neil provides both lead and backup vocals for this extremely unusual remake of this traditional gospel hymn—the full title of which is often rendered "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?"—by the Berlin-based electronic duo of Olaf Bender and Carsten Nicolai, who together go professionally by the moniker Diamond Version. This track received its digital premiere (on SoundCloud) on April 17, 2014. (This date was surely no accident: it happened to be Maundy Thursday, the eve of Good Friday, one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar, observed in commemoration of the crucifixion of Jesus.) It subsequently appeared as the sixth track on Diamond Version's debut album CI, released in June 2014.

Electronic artists have shown a curious penchant for plying their musical trade with gospel tunes, most often by employing samples from gospel recordings. So, for all of the surprise it represents, this track also has some tradition—and not just gospel tradition—behind it. Even Neil's guest appearance really isn't quite as surprising as some fans might think: consider his Catholic upbringing and occasional PSB songs with overtly Christian elements, such as "It's a Sin," "Your Funny Uncle," "Birthday Boy," and "Searching for the Face of Jesus." It was, in fact, Neil's idea to record this particular song. (Diamond Version had first approached Neil to record a guest vocal for them, but apparently left it up to Neil to choose what to sing.) Regardless, there's no getting around the fact that the announcement of this track came out of left field.

Diamond Version's music for this track is very much in the "industrial" vein; think Violator-era Depeche Mode, but ramped up a couple notches. The lyrics, fundamentally unchanged from at least certain versions (and there are often multiple equally "authentic" versions of such traditional lyrics), simply ask the listener whether he or she was "there"—present, spiritually if not physically—at key moments of the Christian Passion and Easter narrative: when Christ was crucified (specifically when he was nailed to the "tree"—a common alternate to "cross"), when he was laid in the "cave" (again, often alternately "tomb"), and when the stone was rolled away (the unstated corollary being his resurrection). The recurring refrain "Sometimes it causes me to tremble" expresses the narrator's profound sense of awe and wonder at this familiar yet ceaselessly powerful story.

Personally, I always find it a challenge to interpret such radical reinventions of traditional gospel songs. On the one hand, it shakes off any cobwebs that may have accumulated on it in the minds of many if not most listeners who are already familiar with it, virtually forcing them to hear it in a new light. And that's a good thing, especially for those who take its message seriously. On the other hand, I can't help but wonder about the elements of iconoclasm, deconstruction—those are indisputable—and perhaps even outright critique underlying the recording. Ultimately, however, I believe the matter rests with the individual listener, perhaps even more so than with most "secular" songs. To put it another way, one's interpretation of and even appreciation for such a recording can't help but be powerfully influenced by the particular religious perspectives of those who hear it. Yes, even more so than of those who created it.


Officially released

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