While Lewis Capaldi’s life gets regularly picked apart in the media, the biblical references in his lyrics are routinely overlooked. Whether or not the pop star has a faith in Christ, the use of Christian imagery in his work demonstrates the enduring power of the greatest story ever told, says Josh Hinton
Believe me, whether you wanted to or not, you’ve listened to Lewis Capaldi’s music.
Since his 2019 hit single ‘Someone you loved’, became the longest-running top ten UK single of all time by a British artist, it has been playing on the radio almost continuously. It greets me in taxis and shops with almost alarming regularity. Sometimes, I wake up singing it - and I don’t even like the song.
Yep, right here at the outset, I’m going to jump into the bear trap Capaldi lays for his commentators, by attacking his work.
But how can you not? He deals in pop of the very palest beige. Described by some (including himself) as “if Adele was a guy and not as good”, he writes anguished, crying-in-the-rain piano ballads – and nothing else. It’s all very well for three minutes, but after an hour, you’re ready to superglue your ears shut.
The one thing you can’t deny, however, is that he delivers his songs in an extraordinary voice. By turns sandpapery and syrupy, there’s a universe in which he’s a soul belter à la James Brown. It may yet be this one, if his handlers let him veer from the path of the golden calf.
Because golden calf he most assuredly is. His tunes may be the aural equivalent of overcooked pasta, but boy, do they sell. In his short career to date, he’s racked up more than 4 billion streams, his first album has gone five times platinum in the UK, and he’s played the biggest-selling indoor gig ever – among many other accolades.
Capaldi is achieving a level of financial success that few artists can match. But it’s not just his songs that draw a crowd. It’s him: the man himself, in all his unfiltered, peek-behind-the-curtain hilarity. He’s the quintessential pop star of the social media era; by rejecting the glamour of forebears like Elton John or Rod Stewart, he’s built a winsome public persona by ruthlessly making fun of himself.
Capaldi mentions God. So what? He could just as well have sung about the Lone Ranger, or cheese sandwiches
A few months back, he deadpanned to NME that his new album was: “a total piece of flaming s****”. His TikTok feed is basically one long exercise in trolling. And the typical Capaldi press interview soon careens off into giggly daftness. He’s just a guy, your mate, the bloke from the pub who’s had just enough pints to be everyone’s best friend. And people love him for it. What could be more 2020s than the meteoric rise of the most anti- of anti-celebrities?
On top of all that, for most of his career, Capaldi has struggled very publicly with poor mental health and, most recently, Tourette’s syndrome. Beset by the intense pressures of fame, he cancelled several tour dates to rest in the run-up to this year’s Glastonbury Festival. Even so, tics and a fading voice made completing his slot a struggle, and he’s since announced an indefinite break from public performance to allow himself the chance to recuperate and rebalance. The Glasto show has quickly become a symbol of everything Capaldi stands for: vulnerability, self-deprecatory humour, and an adoring audience that buoyed him up even as he stumbled – “the best of the human spirit”, as The Guardian put it.
Add all that up, and Capaldi is an artist people just love to discuss. The state of his health makes national news. His role in amplifying disabled experiences is rightly applauded. His every word and motivation are dissected and held to the light – except (and I’ve really looked) for the fact that his work is absolutely drenched in Christian imagery.
Think about it for a second. Capaldi’s two albums are titled Divinely Uninspired To A Hellish Extent (2019) and Broken By Desire To Be Heavenly Sent (2023), with artwork in infernal red and beatific blue to match. Right up front, he’s drawing on Christian tropes. Over four years, he’s created a diptych unified by biblical depictions.
The album covers are a far cry from the raggedy realism of his social media output. In place of the knockabout lad, we’re presented with a soulful, thoughtful, faintly demonic figure on album one, mildly angelic on album two. It might just be ‘The Man’ parcelling him up like this – such a perfect four-year marketing package certainly smacks of boardroom intervention – but, at the very least, Capaldi has to be happy with the general direction. And at the most, there has to be a reason why he’s talking the language of heaven and hell.
When you take a closer look at his most recent album, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest his use of Christian imagery isn’t just marketing fluff. One of the songs is called ‘Love the hell out of you’. It’s about taking on someone else’s pain, helping them find healing by stepping into the breach and suffering in their place, offering a way to new life through selfless love. Sound familiar? “I’m gonna love the hell out of you / Take all the pain that you’re going through / I’ll bring you heaven if that’s what you need / ’Cause you’ve always loved the hell out of me”.
Taking it a step further: ‘Heavenly kind of state of mind’ is even more Christian-adjacent. It might be a run-of-the-mill love song, but it features lyrics like: “When I need someone to save me from original sin / You call me like a chorus only angels can sing.” And: “Giving my heart over to you would be no sacrifice / Oh, Lord, I ain’t afraid to die if it means I’m by your side.”
These words aren’t just vaguely Christian in character: they could be written to and about Jesus. And they demonstrate a knowledge of deeper theological concepts than just heaven and hell; the idea of salvation from original sin, of the need to sacrificially give our all to our saviour, and of a joyous reunion with him after death.
Is that it, then? Is Capaldi a closet Christian, covertly expressing a faith that can only come out in oblique references and romantic metaphors? Well, perhaps. In one scene from his recent Netflix documentary How I’m Feeling Now, the singer is filmed packing up his belongings as his mum and dad move house. After he shows the audience his childhood WWE wrestling cards and the condoms he’s just found in his wardrobe, there’s a lingering shot of a Good News Bible atop a pile of his belongings.
From one point of view, it’s tempting to pick up breadcrumbs like these and construct a super-narrative in which one of our culture’s biggest obsessions is, in fact, a Christian. And who knows? Perhaps he is. But Capaldi certainly isn’t saying one way or the other: his own perspective on faith is uncharacteristically hidden. Unlike (for example) Hozier, whose cutting use of religious imagery points pretty directly to a deep anger at the Church, Capaldi never confirms whether he sees heaven and hell as more than just a poetic device.
And that’s the real point. It’s significant that his blatant Christ-references have attracted little comment or question. Few journalists are clamouring to hear him explain just what he means by lyrics such as “save me from original sin” because, in truth, our culture now automatically treats religion as little more than an inert turn-of-phrase. Capaldi mentions God. So what? He could just as well have sung about the Lone Ranger, or cheese sandwiches. It’s all just metaphors, innit? If I was going to put money on it, I’d lean towards the conclusion that Capaldi himself thinks something along those lines, too.
It’s all about me
This indifference isn’t malicious. It’s the natural endpoint of a cultural process that accelerated in the 1960s, when a generation of popular artists, ring-led by The Beatles, poured rocket fuel on the fire of individualism and downgraded religious faith as a source of truth. John Lennon neatly summed it up in his infamous 1970 song ‘God’: “I don’t believe in magic / I don’t believe in I-ching / I don’t believe in Bible / I don’t believe in Tarot / I don’t believe in Hitler / I don’t believe in Jesus…I don’t believe in Beatles / I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and that’s reality / The dream is over.”
It’s not an anti-Christian invective. It’s a wholesale rejection of anything other than the individual and those whom they choose to value. Anyone or anything that claims to be bigger and cleverer – be it God, the government or whatever – is necessarily a lie. So sure, talk about God and Jesus and the Bible if it floats your boat. But don’t expect anyone to treat what you’re saying as anything more than a ‘dream’.
These words aren’t just vaguely Christian in character: they could be written to and about Jesus
Which brings us back to Capaldi. Maybe he’s a Christian, maybe he’s not – but really, who cares? That’s the essence of the response his lyrics have received. And for Christians, that’s where the real questions start. Is this just a depressing reminder of our faith’s slide from authority in the UK? Or is there a brighter reading of the situation?
The story that lasts
Well, to approach an answer, let’s start with this: deep emotion is Capaldi’s stock-in-trade. And when he needs to convey real power and meaning, he reaches for his Bible. We’re spiritual beings made by a heavenly God and, even in 2023, people from right across the atheist-theist spectrum still feel the weight of scripture. When artists like Capaldi plug into the truths expressed in the Bible, they imbue their work with a living energy because they make it chime with the God-ness that is at the centre of all humans.
It’s the reason countless action films end with the hero sacrificing themselves for the greater good before miraculously escaping harm, aping Jesus’ death and resurrection. We feel the rightness of that narrative; the truth that it echoes. Likewise, it’s the reason explicitly Christian weddings, funerals and christenings have remained de rigueur long after cultural Christianity has receded elsewhere. Because when we want to imbue something with a significance that doesn’t depend on how we feel right now, we turn back to the faith that taught us right and wrong in the first place. It’s still there. Still powerful. Still true.
Some argue that all this just boils down to habit on a national scale: that the fact Christian tropes are still in common usage does not, in fact, make them true. But time will tell. As Gamaliel shrewdly points out when Peter and the apostles are brought before the Sanhedrin: “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39).
In other words if, as we believe, the Bible is the word of God and Jesus is the way to redemption, then the weight of our faith will not dwindle with time. Cultural Christianity in the UK may be fading, but the truth of the gospel is not. We see its light burning even in the words of Capaldi. And for those of us who recognise the living truth behind his metaphors (and others like them), this is where it gets exciting.
Far from an esoteric, irrelevant way to spend your Sunday morning, the Christian faith is a vital, whole-life call: a framework that makes sense of our relationships, jobs, interests and tasks. It doesn’t just speak life into love songs, it sets every last email, commute, conversation and coffee in the context of God’s good, all-encompassing work.
In short, it’s no big jump to help others see how our faith plugs into their daily lives, fears and hopes. After all, Capaldi is already doing it.