After a tuning-up kind of introduction, “Jesus Came to My Birthday Party” launches with an extended melody line sung in tandem by male and female vocalists. And we have to stop here now and think about this. A 16-measure melody is hard enough to come by; to hear one delivered via male/female octave harmony is highly unusual if not unique. And yet it doesn’t draw any attention to itself, as neither of those two characteristics—the extended melody, the male/female joint lead—in and of itself sounds strange or unusual.
Couple the music now with the lyrics—themselves, too, at once strange and straightforward—and the appeal deepens. Mostly what we get is a repeated insistence by the narrator that “Jesus came to my birthday party/When I was seventeen.” The circumstances are otherwise sketchy in the extreme; we are only told that the narrator thought it was a dream, but knows he/she saw him “standing there,” and that Jesus had long hair. The song pivots on the second verse, the second and last time we hear the full 16-measure melody, when the narrator, recalling this “long ago” time when Jesus was at the birthday party, suddenly thinks he/she has seen Jesus again, but this time not actually in the flesh but “in the eyes of the strangers that pass,” and “in the eyes of the poor.”
As a plain narrative this song leaves so much unsaid as to be inscrutable. But there’s something in the repetition, the vibe, the rugged persistence of the male-female lead vocal line, and the eventual blending of acoustic rhythm guitar with a stirring electric lead guitar that prompts reflection, and opens the song up to its fuller meaning—which by the way, to me, has nothing whatever to do with anybody’s one religion, in case you’re worried.
And now comes the odd news that The Middle East, an Australian collective with an expanding and contracting roster, has unfortunately called it quits. Based in Townsville, Queensland, the band released its last album, I Want That You Are Always Happy, back in April in Australia, and played its last show at the end of July. The album was released in the U.S. in July, on Missing Piece Records. The band was previously featured on Fingertips in April 2010.