In Brief: By far the most creative and skillfully crafted worship album of the year… possibly even the decade.
There are times when being a somewhat snarky writer with a habit of calling it like he sees it no matter what folks think of it can have a downside. It’s fun to gush over something that I like, knowing I’m not being paid to express an opinion that leans one way or the other, but wanting to get the word out there all the same. And I’ll admit that I also derive pleasure from pointing out the things that aren’t so great about music, even when it’s an artist I otherwise enjoy who I feel has made a misstep. What I don’t anticipate is that artist actually catching me in the act and commenting back to me personally to explain their stance. This is what happened when David Crowder, excited about last’s year Special Edition re-release of his band’s album Remedy, put the word out on his blog, and since I was in a particularly snarky mood that day, I saw fit to leave a comment asking why they made us wait to get the extra stuff that wasn’t on the original version, basically accusing either the band or the label of wringing extra cash out of fans who had already bought the thing the first time around. That led to a particularly unpleasant argument in which my actions spoke louder than my words. It hurt the feelings of a man whose music I normally enjoy a great deal – it made me look like more of an enemy than a fan. The discussion deteriorated and abruptly ended after that – I never really got to make amends for ruining his day with that whole debacle. So I promised myself that I’d be equally forthcoming about the positives the next time he put out something that I liked. Given that I’ve liked every album the band’s put out since Illuminate way back in 2003 (including Remedy despite my criticisms of its more simplistic approach when it was first released), I figured that there was a high likelihood of this happening.
But holy WOW, I was not expecting Church Music. This year, they’ve gone and put out an album that would have been worth gushing about even if I had hated everything else they’d done up to this point. The David Crowder Band has always been a group that strives to put more of an artistic spin on the concept of “worship music” while still maintaining the accessibility and, to some degree, usability of their songs in a Sunday morning setting. And each time I awarded their albums four-star ratings (or three bumped up to four when I came to my senses, in the case of Remedy), I felt like they had accomplished something worthwhile, but fallen just slightly short of the truly spectacular album they were seemingly born to create, the one that runs end to end with a singular purpose, a logical progression from one thought to the next, and a good amount of experimentation beyond the stylistic boundaries of what a band who makes “church music” can do on a “worship album”. They were almost there with 2005’s A Collision, which was monolithic in its reach and packed with out-of-the-box thinking, but too jarring in its execution for it all to come together as a unified work. With Church Music, the band has thrown down the gauntlet to themselves, and come up with 17 songs and 72 minutes worth of continuous music, packed with tunes that are liturgical and yet danceable (!) and that segue seamlessly from one track to the next, at times bearing closer resemblance to a DJ mixing music in a club than anything you’d expect in a church service. But that’s the DCB for you. Underneath their mostly earnest, reverent, and fun-loving exterior, there’s a little bit of irony lurking for those willing to find it.
But the object of Church Music is not just to sing “Rah, rah, God!” and have fun dancing your butt off for an hour and change. You’ll find some of that, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s just that too much of Christian worship music focuses on the cheerleading and the vaguely fuzzy good feelings and leaves out any sign of true depth. Where Crowder and his buddies succeed is in crafting the entire album as a sort of story, meant to trace the development of music within the church from its earliest known origins up through today. That’s the stated goal, anyway. There’s not a handbook here that gives you a one-to-one correlation of songs to historical events, and you’ll find very little here genre-wise that even remotely resembles any music made within the walls of a church before maybe the 1970’s. The vast majority of it is music you still won’t hear in churches today, except maybe those on the bleeding edge of contemporary worship services. The idea seems to be using new musical language to retell a timeless story. It’s not a linear story – you’ll hear everything from a modern reworking of an ancient hymn to a reverent remake of a mainstream rock hit, and it’s up to you to piece together the larger framework of it even though any of the individual songs can be taken as simple nuggets of joy, wisdom, confession, gratitude, etc. on their own. It’s an album that works on multiple levels, which makes it fascinating for folks like me who listen for the details, but also offers easy points of entry for folks who are simply sick of the same old thing when it comes to worship music. It’s very hard to please both camps. As far as I’m concerned, these guys are geniuses.
Now I’ll admit that there might be a few cases where the geniuses tried a bit too hard, and the album’s concept can be a bit of an albatross. Since the “continuous” dance mix idea is extended over the course of the entire album, it’s even applied to the occasional sparse ballad, which can create a bit of lagtime as the beat from one song is winding down to match the next, or getting revved back up to match the song after it. As much as I love it when a band thinks ahead about how their songs will be sequenced and what running order fits them best, I think it would have been OK in a few cases to cut off an energetic song abruptly, or even fade to the traditional resolved chord and then let the slower song pick up naturally, but then again, it’s nice to be removed from the traditional listening experience where you know where the fast songs and the slow songs are gonna be and how they’re mostly going to start and end. This makes it difficult to complain too much even in a few spots where the lyrics do fall prey to some of the band’s more simplistic tendencies. For all I know, some of these phrases are simple ones that we’ve all heard before because the songs are inspired by hymns and spirituals and liturgies that have been echoing off of stained glass windows for hundreds of years. Church Music is not an album that didactically teaches history, but it inspires me to go out and enrich my knowledge of that history, in much the same way that Sufjan Stevens‘s Michigan and Illinois albums aren’t there to teach me geography, but they successfully spark my curiosity about what events went down in the obscure nooks and crannies of these state that are named within those albums. If that sounds like a bold claim, it’s meant to be. The band stuck to their vision, and despite (or perhaps because of) the quirks that resulted from it, they managed to crank out an album that expresses praise to a creative God on a very personal level, even while using some of the most common words and phrases in all of Christendom.
1. Phos Hilaron (Hail Gladdening Light)
The first track gets things off to a bit off an off-kilter start, with its haunting piano, electro-trash beats, and moody melody, but then, when has a David Crowder Band album ever gotten off to a conventional start? This is a space-age update of what is apparently the oldest known hymn still in the books. It’s more of a tone-setter than a musical centerpiece, because just when you’re getting into it, the rhythm melts away and the next track begins to bleed in.
2. Alleluia, Sing
Isn’t it cheating to do a simple fade-in when the premise of the album is that each track was designed to segue into the next? Whatever. it’s hard to find anything to complain about as a piano cadence comes to the foreground and the familiar recipe of acoustic guitar, live drums and keyboards, and little bits of glitchy programming the DCB fans have known and loved for years begins to take over. This is to ease the longtime fans into the new project, because it’s classic Crowder, with its simple but effervescent chorus bursting forth: “Alleluia, Majesty! Alleluia, King of Kings! Alleluia, angels sing!” it’s an obvious track to be used in worship services by any early adopters, even if the verses sound a little like a redo of A Collision‘s “Here Is Our King”. The band has suggested that the electronic elements in this song are a “signpost”, a hint at the stylistic shift to follow. And as nice as this track has been, I’m strapped in and ready for the real ride to start!
3. The Nearness
Boom! The electric guitars and synths kick in, and we’re launched down the first thrilling drop and through a loop-de-loop or two. This one’s an excellent bridge between the more aggressive sound of past upbeat tracks like “Can You Feel It?” and the more dance-oriented approach that most of this album takes. The band is at their boldest here, describing God as a penetrating flood of light, with the chorus reaching enough intensity to even justify a little bit of screaming along to the final four words: “Feel – the – earth – SHAKE!” Lacy Mosley, lead singer of Flyleaf, makes a brief but heavenly contribution to the song’s bridge. This one’ll resonate in the ears as the strains of backmasked piano trickle out, leading us into the next track.
Drummer Bwack takes front and center on this track, the R&B-influenced beat and synthesizers leading the way where you’d normally expect a guitar on more of a contemplative song such as this. Here we have an excellent case of inventive music illustrating more deeply what simple lyrics might not fully address on their own, as Crowder sings of a devotion to God even in the darkest times: “When the shadows fall on us, we will not fear, we will remember”. It’s the way the darkness and light play against each other in the various musical elements of the song that really give that idea some weight, culminating in an interesting turn of phrase, given the theme: “We rest in Him, the shadow of the cross.”
5. Eastern Hymn
This epic track is one of the best examples of the curious marriage of liturgy and technology that characterizes Church Music. Against another driving dance-rock rhythm and synths that sound like they were pulled straight from an arcade game, the band repeats a short but effective mantra: “Bring us love, You who are love. Bring us peace, You who are peace.” The title seems to suggest that this was borrowed from the tradition of some “Eastern” church – Eastern Europe or Russia would be my best guess given the brief interlude where the song shifts into 3/4 time and the technology melts away to reveal tambourines and an accordion, evoking the image of a band of immigrants caravanning across the frozen taiga. All of these elements together really shouldn’t work, and it’s to the band’s credit that it all remains cohesive and exciting over the course of six and a half minutes. The final chorus, where the beat drops out entirely and it’s all mechanically tweaked vocals and background ambience, makes my hair stand on end.
6. SMS (Shine)
The project’s first true ballad celebrates… the spread of the Gospel through text messaging? Seriously, I have no idea where this band comes up with some of their song titles. While glittery keyboards and glitchy beats still abound, this one treads more peaceful and intimate territory, with Crowder offering up an effective, earnest prayer: “Can You overcome this heart that’s overcome?” As on Illuminate, light is a recurring theme on this album, having been a central image in “The Nearness” and now being the thing that Crowder asks for – just a hint, a sign, a confirmation that he’s headed in the right direction.
7. The Veil
I love the way that the mellow beat of “SMS” seamlessly blends into the “geeky rave” synthesizer riff that propels this song. The DCB indulges their love of dance music here, with a pulsating beat and keyboards bubbling over, building momentum toward another simple but joyous refrain of “What a Savior, what a King”. There’s another female vocal during the bridge, which I’m thinking must be either Lacy Mosley again, or one of the DuPree sisters from Eisley. The lyrics might suffer a bit from minimalism here, and I’m a bit baffled by the band’s tendency to throw in little musical asides that momentarily interrupt the rhythmic flow of the song, but overall I still enjoy this one quite a bit.
8. We Are Loved
One small critique here – I enjoy the continuity of having two like-minded songs back to back, but the ingredients to this one are so similar to “The Veil” that they almost feel like two movements of the same composition. Emphasis on the phrase “We can love ’cause we are loved” echoes back to the previous song’s opening statement, “There is a love deep in the soul, oh when you love.” The two songs don’t sound exactly the same, but when I’m not in the middle of listening to one or the other, I’ll sometimes forget which snippets of lyrics or which musical quirks belong to which song. The way that the rhythm gradually slows to a halt at the end of this one is also a bit of a cheat – there’s such a drop-off in energy between the two songs that it might have been better to put something mid-tempo in between, or to just bring this track to a sudden halt and let the next one pick up immediately, like how “…neverending…” suddenly transitioned into “Never Let Go” on Remedy.
9. All Around Me
It’s easy to forget any quibbles with musical segues when this song’s minor key piano melody kicks in, though – it’s a beautifully understated cover of a song by Flyleaf (interesting that they covered the band while using their lead singer elsewhere on the album), which attempts to describe an experience of spiritual solitude, but removed from the religious jargon heard in a lot of “Christian music”. This too works as an intimate prayer, with little bits of intriguing imagery, describing God as “thickening the air I’m breathing”. (Yes, it’s “thickening”. Not “pickling”, as I initially misheard.) Crowder’s made the effort to do at least one out-of-left-field cover per album as far back as I can remember, and while this might not be as unexpected as covering Sufjan Stevens or Sinead O’Connor, they really did the unexpected and made this song their own by taking the stripped-down approach.
10. How He Loves
The mellow break in the album’s center continues with its slowest track, which is also a cover, this time coming from singer/songwriter John Mark McMillan, which sounds almost hymn-like with its soaring melody, swaying rhythm of 6/8, and its repeatedly cry of “Oh, how He loves us!” Not many “worship songs” would dare to use the word “jealous” to describe God, but it’s there in the Bible, and this song musters up a lot of reverence, putting us in our place away from the spotlight with the reminder that the storms and mistakes tragedies of life are mere tools to draw us humans closer to God. Crowder’s sparse piano arrangement, which later brings in the drums and Jack Parker‘s electric guitar for a euphoric finish, does a great job of going from understated to jubilant over the course of 5 minutes. Transitioning back into the up-tempo stuff is a bit tricky after the meditative space that the last two tracks have created, but generally speaking, the speed-ups work better than the slow-downs.
11. Can I Lie Here
Due to how good of a job this song does at ramping the energy level back up gradually and tastefully, it’s almost easy to miss how elementary the lyrics are – a simple, repeating verse with only the last line changed and the occasional aside to bridge the pieces together – as you get drawn into the joyous mood of it. On most worship albums, I’d accuse this song of being too comfortable, too insipid, but I think a worship band can pull off a sense of peace and happiness in God’s presence when they acknowledge that it can sometimes take heartache and confession and repentance before we can really get to that point of peaceful rest in His arms.
12. Birmingham (We Are Safe)
England or Alabama? That’s my first question when I read the title, since I don’t know enough to be aware of significant church movements taking place in either city, other than obviously the Alabama city being known as the heart of the Civil Rights movement. The song doesn’t seem to reference any of this, beyond its simple words about God’s love being relentless and a source of assurance and safety. Two songs of “Everything’s happy, yay!” in a row might be a bit much for me, but I do enjoy the interplay between the synths, electric guitars, and drums/breakbeats in this one.
13. Church Music – Dance (!)
Remember “Turkish Delight”? Maybe not; it’s pretty obscure. But the DCB did a track for a mostly ill-concveived, Chronicles of Narnia-themed compilation that came out in 2005 as a movie tie-in, and they provided pretty much the only worthwhile track on the project, depicting the White Witch’s temptation to the tune of a disco rave-up. Take the main musical idea behind that song, add a stomp-and-clap rhythm track sure to get your butt shakin’, throw in a festive guitar solo or two, and let T-Pain have at it (OK, not really, but check out that funky auto-tune hook!), and you’ve got an extremely addictive party song that’s guaranteed to never be used as church music in any of those denominations who don’t believe in dancing. Crowder gleefully stomps all over that antiquated idea, that dancing is somehow sinful, by telling churchgoers to get down with their bad selves because of their brokenness and their status of having nothing to lose. It’s a modern take on the idea of “come just as you are”, the notion that we’re all sinners and we’re all recipients of more grace than we could ever know what to do with. This is my favorite track on the album – it’s so out of left field for the band, and yet so perfectly representative of the group’s personality.
14. What a Miracle
We go back to mid-tempo, urban-influenced territory for this drum-heavy track, which is similar to “Shadows” in its approach, but with a bit more bite to it. Bwack is at his best here, creating a head-bobbing beat while the rest of the band sets up an irresistible, dark and yet uplifting chord progression that makes this one feel like an electronic response to the similarly moody “Deliver Me” from Illuminate. The same stomp-clap beat from “Church Music” still bleeds through into this one, just slowed down a bit, eventually colliding with the overriding joy of the next track.
15. Oh, Happiness
The synth riff that starts this one off tells you pretty much everything you need to know – it’s so deliriously cheesy that it could almost be lifted from a kids’ TV show in the 1980’s. (That’s not a criticism, I promise!) Crowder apparently irked a few of the Calvinists in his audience with this track, which seems to hint at the idea of salvation being universally available with its refrain: “Oh, happiness! There’s grace enough for us and the whole human race!” And I don’t really want to play around with semantics or get into get into theological debates, other than to point out that “can” does not necessarily imply “will”. As the song says, “Everything can be redeemed”. We’ve seen this to be true, due to some of the sad cases that God used as heroes throughout the Bible; and anyone who’s been a Christian long enough and who can be honest with themselves understands the wretchedness that they were saved from. This song is here to celebrate the redemption that crops up in the least expected places – not to say everything’s perfect or that all roads lead to salvation. Just that God is at work in far more places than our narrow minds can hope to comprehend. Understanding that sure makes me happy, anyway.
16. God Almighty, None Compares
The chirping of birds and ringing of church bells give way to the squeal of a guitar, which in turn gives way to Crowder’s most magnificent epic yet, the true climax of the album, building up steam slowly with its 3/4 rhythm and its declaration which seems to borrow liberally from the book of Revelation: “Glory and honor, wisdom and power/Grace and fury, splendor and might/O, You are splendor and might/Matchless beauty, endless light.” Suddenly the song shifts gears and the twin axes of Jack Parker and Mark Waldrop take the spotlight for a full-throttle chorus that only hints at the noise waiting to be unleashed at the song’s pinnacle. Crowder and co. revealed a love for the game Guitar Hero by actually using a controller from the game as an instrument (after much rewiring and fiddling around, I’m sure) during their Remedy Club Tour; here they further reveal it by turning in a song that just begs to be a level in the game. What’s the deal? Isn’t all of this noise and showing off a bit superfluous for a worship album? Nah, it’s not that at all. It’s simply a chance to let the guitars take over (which Parker, Waldrop and Crowder all do for a solid two and a half minutes at the end of the song, navigating all manner of drum fills and time signature changes) and let the music itself be an act of worship, a teeny-tiny approximation of the overwhelming splendor of the Most High. Sometimes music says what words cannot, because to truly encounter God face to face would probably get a believer a million times more pumped than the most kick-butt guitar solo in existence.
17. In the End (O Resplendent Light!)
You’d probably expect a quiet ballad at this point, to come down from the dizzying heights of “God Almighty” and close things up on a reflective note. But this closing track, which I understand is mostly Bwack’s brainchild, takes the road less traveled, somehow picking up from the fading rhythm of 3/4 with an electronic march in 4/4 time, and not missing a beat. The lyrics turn toward encouraging believers still on the path being carved out by history, still unsure of what stories God has left to write, still knowing that following Christ can often make life more challenging and more full of suffering than taking the easy way out. “In the end, no hurting” is juxtaposed with “‘Til the end, there is hurting”, implying that there’s paradise ahead but there’s a grueling race to run in the meantime, with the exhortation that “We were made to live forever!” repeated again and again as the final words of the album. Then total mayhem breaks loose as the rhythm breaks apart, the pitch gets shifted down into the depths, and elements of the opening track “Phos Hilaron” begin to swoop in at odd angles, as if to depict the eventual breakdown of the physical world and God still being there for all eternity, in the end just as He was in the beginning. Indeed, if you let the heat death of Crowder’s musical universe completly play out until there’s nothing left but indecipherable electronic bleeps and bloops, you’ll glimpse the continuous loop on which the album exists – the Big Crunch begets the Big Bang as the last bits of sound flow seamlessly into the beginning of the first track. (For maximum effect, rip this baby to iTunes, set it up as a gapless album, and put it on repeat.)
It’s little details like that final ingenious segue that convince me of the DCB’s ability to marry great art to genuine worship. Take any song on its own, and several of them may seem a bit light on content, but put the pieces together, and it’s a fascinating journey, one which could describe the church’s history if taken in one context, or simply a person’s emotional and spiritual journey over the mere sliver of history that they’ve personally lived out. Listening to Church Music feels like taking part in something far greater than oneself, and it sure makes me wish that more Christian musicians would strive to create on that same level.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Phos Hilaron (Hail Gladdening Light) $1
Alleluia, Sing $1
The Nearness $1.50
Eastern Hymn $2
SMS (Shine) $1
The Veil $1
We Are Loved $.50
All Around Me $1.50
How He Loves $1.50
Can I Lie Here $.50
Birmingham (We Are Safe) $.50
Church Music – Dance (!) $2
What a Miracle $1.50
Oh, Happiness $1.50
God Almighty, None Compares $2
In the End (O Resplendent Light!) $1.50
David Crowder: Lead vocals, acoustic and electric guitar, keytar, piano, programming
Jack Parker: Electric guitar, backing vocals, Rhodes piano
Mike Dodson: Bass, keyboards, cello
Mike Hogan: Violin, turntables
Jeremy Bush (a.k.a. Bwack): Drums, percussion, bells, programming
Mark Waldrop: Electric guitar, noise box
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.