Contemporary praise pop may posit Jesus as a personal savior, but much of the language it uses is a sort of salvation jargon that hardly speaks to the uninitiated–and it tends to frame worship as something done at a remove, with we sinners here on earth and God distant in his heaven. The songs on Rickie Lee Jones’s new Sermon on Exposition Boulevard (New West), on the other hand, have all the hallmarks of love songs–the lust and the longing, the desperation and solitude, the new love raising its defiant head, the wounded heart healed. But these love songs are about something far less tangible than romance: they’re songs of faith. It’s as if Jones has divorced the secular world and her rebound boyfriend is Jesus Christ.

Jones improvised the bulk of the lyrics for the album’s 13 songs while the tape was rolling. She riffed on The Words, a book published by her friend Lee Cantelon that removes the words of Jesus from their biblical context and arranges them by topic–a kind of Cliffs Notes to the New Testament. The record starts easy enough, with the sleepwalking jangle of “Nobody Knows My Name,” over which Jones–her voice still the sinewy, reedy cry, muscled into insistent girl soul, that we know from back in ’79–sings of a God present in things both elemental and man-made, an everywhere-at-once spirit, moving freely, unknown and unrecognized. It’s a lament of faith in a faithless world, but it also establishes a theme that recurs throughout Sermon–that Jesus and belief in Jesus have been co-opted and codified by the religious right, who set rigid parameters for who can worship and how. They narrowly define what a relationship with God can look like: Jesus is in the church, on the cross, on the side of the good and the righteous. Jones returns to us the gnostic Jesus, the people’s savior, who’s down with everyone and everything, not just the pious spittin’ heavy hosannas between the pews.

Most of Sermon is in first person, but the songs aren’t personal testaments of belief per se. On the second track, “Gethsemane,” she sings a sort of internal monologue, imagining Jesus’ foxhole pleading with his father as he awaits his fate. The first few times I heard it, I thought it was baby-please-take-me-back postbreakup desperation: “You wake up one morning and you’re by yourself / You’re on your own,” Jones sings, and later, “All I want is your hand.” Christ’s willing obedience to God’s plan is the very model of faith, but Jones cleaves it with a tender lick of humanity. Her portrait of Jesus is much more casual than the one you get from cracking a hymnal.

The most remarkable thing about the record isn’t Jones’s recasting of Jesus but the way she transmits her own faith: it’s a soft sell, relying on the beauty and aliveness of her message rather than heavy-handed threats of fire and brimstone. Underneath the metaphors and the transmuted bits of the Gospel of Luke that pass for a chorus is the true light of the record, Jones’s own eureka moment, a tiny thing laid carefully in each song. You get the sense that therein lies her hope for the world–a hope not of universal conversion but of peace and salvation for all. It’d sound insufferably New Agey and annoying if Rickie weren’t our west-coast, California-cooled Patti, who fell hard for jazz instead of rock ‘n’ roll and preferred her own diary-poems to Rimbaud’s. Both ecstatic and world-weary, she sings of the “soft-shoed devil” in “Circle in the Sand” as though they’re well acquainted–the devil might be some local bad boy she knows from back in her wild-girl days.

Last Saturday night, when Jones came through town, her wild-girl days seemed far behind her. She blew in from the blizzard and walked up the theater aisle directly onto the stage, her scarf and coat still on, a to-go coffee cup in her hand. She pulled out the piano bench, dropped her outside clothes in a pile on the floor, pushed up her shirtsleeves, and sat down to get to work. She was wearing lace-up shoes, a sweatshirt, no makeup, and cargo pants with a bunch of stuff in the pockets–she looked like this was just a stop she had to make on her way to Petco for some litter. But then, in the quick silence between the end of a song and the start of the applause, someone yelled “Rickie!” She looked up from under her long blond tangles and flashed a huge, knowing smile, and in that moment she was all rock star.

For the first few songs of the set it was just Jones at the piano. She gave some forgotten nonhits the once-over, seeming purposeful and confident and comfortable with her dominion over the music and the crowd. After “The Last Chance Texaco” she was joined by her six-piece backing band, most of which appears on Sermon–and which included Cantelon himself, doing backup incantations. They ambled through almost the entire album, their churning, fuzzed-out tangle recalling the Velvet Underground rather than the sometimes adult-contemporary sound of the studio recording. Jones strapped on an electric guitar and occasionally did double duty as a shaman: Her voice shrank and expanded, at one extreme tiny enough to be mistaken for a child’s, at the other clarion and full. She let loose whispers, holy howls, and even a swampy Waits-ian growl on “Tried to Be a Man.”

The songs meandered and circled back on themselves, picking up and shedding new instrumental layers as they went and almost never doing the same thing twice–sometimes they threatened to get away from the band entirely. But Jones was the real show, ever the zinging thousand-watt bulb. She nearly yelled the words to “It Hurts,” giving voice to the loneliness of the AD world–“It hurts / To be here / When you’re gone.” The song could be a love letter from Mary Magdalene to an absent Jesus or a prayer from a disappointed disciple. “My only precious thing I had / Has been broken.” But as electric guitar arced and receded and furious strumming and choral ahhhs welled up around Jones, as she squeezed her eyes shut and bent in half, pulling the mike down with her, as her agony turned to ecstasy and her accusing wail turned triumphant, it became clear what we were hearing–it was a redemption song.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.