In Brief: Knapp’s wrestling with themes of love and grace on her comeback album is commendable. Unfortunately, the CCM audience will just put a big “LESBIAN” stamp on it and steer clear.
Christian music is a fickle business. If you are a professing Christian whose inclination is to make music largely for a churched audience (and sometimes, even if you aim for an audience beyond that but get so stubbornly labeled that the church won’t let you beyond its walls without frequent slaps on the hand), and your songwriting is fairly straightforward in its profession of faith set to the tune of some recently trendy musical style, you might find a built-in audience willing to accept your music at face value simply because it comes with that “Christian” stamp on it. But make one wrong move, and oh how quickly that audience can turn on you. It could be something as seemingly trivial as the stray use of a word like “damn”, or it could be something as life-changing as a divorce or extramarital affair. (Heck, you could get dinged for performing at a political event attended by Democrats.) Whether it’s something the Bible specifically addresses, or just an affront to the sensibilities of a highly conservative subculture, they’ll be sure to let you know with their letters, their message board comments, and most significantly their disposable income, that you’re not wanted ’round these parts.
Well, at least for a while. We Christian music fans seem to have this funny hierarchy of sins that directly correlate to how long we’ll shun an artist. PG-13 language? A year or two, basically the lifecycle of the offending album. I figure Derek Webb‘ll have another shot at being liked by this audience around this time next year. Divorces and affairs? Amy Grant and Sandi Patty seem to have recovered at least to the point of modest career success after a few years of being persona non grata. Abominable politics? Well, let’s be honest, I could never find an Over the Rhine album at a Christian bookstore to begin with. (The language clause likely did them in long ago anyhow.) It’s a bit silly, when you think about how easily we’ll hold one perceived transgression up to the light and act as if that renders null and void anything else that the artist has to say. I suspect it’s because we mistake artists for teachers. We want Christian music to tell us what to do, or at least to comfort and assure us that we’re already on the right path to glory. So we kind of set these human beings up to fail by figuring they should be more like our personal versions of Jesus than we are just because they’re up on stage.
But there’s one transgression that’s a sure-fire show-stopper in this business: Homosexuality. I don’t know the length of the average banishment sentence for Christian singers who come out of the closet, since the only real precedents for this have been artists who were long since out of the limelight (see Ray Boltz) or mainstream C-listers who only ever glanced the surface of the Christian music sphere to begin with (see first season American Idol hopeful RJ Helton). I’ve never really been forced to consider the impact of it until it finally happened to an artist whose music I held near and dear to my heart. That artist is Jennifer Knapp, herself out of the limelight for quite some time due to a self-imposed retirement circa 2002 when she was just hitting the apex of her career. I was a huge fan, and I had heard rumors even that far back that she was gay, but at the time I honestly thought that was just mean slander from people who couldn’t handle a gutsy chick with an electric guitar and/or the fact that a young, beautiful celebrity like her didn’t have a boyfriend. I vehemently denied such rumors whenever they crept up – and now cut to me, eight years later, when she decides to reboot her career and then comes out in an interview with Christianity Today merely weeks before her comeback album drops. My jaw drops as well. The funny thing is, if she’d told the truth years ago, I would have treated her like most of the audience is doing today. I’d have written her off and pawned or destroyed her old albums. Knowing what I know now, though, I can’t love Jennifer any less than I always have.
Now if you’re either a non-Christian or more of a liberal Christian reading this and you’re thinking, “So she’s gay. Big deal! This is a music review, not a morality review.”, then you’re not alone. Even if I vehemently disagreed with Jennifer’s stance that the Bible doesn’t actually label all homosexual acts as sin (and I actually haven’t made up my mind on that one way or the other, nor are attempts to argue the pros and cons of that within the scope of this review, so if you’ve got a comment on that subject, save it!), I would still feel strongly that it’s my duty as a critic to evaluate her new album based on its actual contents. It would also be hypocritical to suddenly disavow all of her older work, as if to say it was all fake and that none of those soul-searching laments about sin and songs of praise don’t still genuinely connect with my own spiritual journey. There’s the temptation to go back and re-interpret everything, and to let one aspect of Jennifer’s life be a distorted lens through which we view her current work – as if her only reason for releasing a new album was to flaunt a big rainbow flag in our faces. The fair approach is to take each song, each line of lyrics, on its own terms. And what I’ve found as I listen this new disc, titled Letting Go, is a simple but effective slice of folk/rock, comparable to Jennifer’s earlier work (minus the production experiments that seemed out of place to some folks on 2001’s The Way I Am), but also indicative of the growth and the struggle that she’s been through in the intervening years.
Truth be told, I have to commend Jennifer for being direct in interviews (and before the album released, just so anyone offended by it wouldn’t have to waste a dime on her) while writing songs that address the personal in general enough terms that it’s still highly relatable beyond sexual preferences or, in some cases, even religious affiliation. Make no mistake, Jennifer is still a Christian and her faith still strongly influences her songwriting. This time, she’s just using different tools to address her convictions. You won’t hear the direct songs of praise that you heard on those earlier albums. You will hear some like-minded gutsy rockers, and a few songs that are sweetly apologetic and that honestly approach the struggle with selfishness and pride that comes with being human. Arriving at “gay is OK” hasn’t diminished the reality that sin (in all of its various and devious flavors) is still a cancerous disease, one which Jennifer knows she has to wrestle with each day. It’s the willingness to acknowledge that, sometimes in disarmingly prayerful terms, that has made Jennifer feel like a kindred spirit ever since my college days when I first discovered her music. But having grown up enough to realize that those who claim to love Christ can also be the worst persecutors at times, I also relate to the “righteous anger” displayed in a few songs where Jennifer is rather candid about the judgment that has been leveled against her. Whether she’s right or wrong, the way she’s been treated is absolutely unacceptable. And she’s not afraid to hint that a good portion of the church needs remedial Sunday school.
But look at this, I’m still going on and on about the lyrical content and how it’s informed by Jennifer’s sexual orientation. It is difficult to escape, even if it’s never directly stated in the content of the album. But the most soul-bearing acts of honesty would mean little to me if the music wasn’t good, and Letting Go mostly passes that test. If your favorite moments on Knapp’s past albums were the Lilith Fair-friendly, but spiritually tinged, guitar-slinging moments like “Undo Me” or “Into You”, you’ll find more here to wet your whistle than you did on the comparatively downbeat The Way I Am. And I’d say the album flows better in terms of its meandering between rockers and ballads than 2000’s Lay It Down, a fine record which suffered from a slight case of schizophrenia. It’s not quite as packed with highlights as Jennifer’s watershed debut, 1997’s Kansas, but it’s got a similar vibe. Jen’s husky but beautiful voice hasn’t suffered at all with age, and whether she’s turning out a sweet love song, a thoughtful ode to a grandfather with a soft spot for country music, or a barn-burning rocker, it all feels like a long-awaited chance to sit and catch up with an old friend. Letting Go isn’t as long of a record as I would have liked for a comeback after such a long hiatus, and it’s not Jennifer’s most complete and satisfying work, but it is a great snapshot of a woman striving (despite what some may say) to please God while not bowing to the whims of men. (I mean “men” as in human beings. Not specifically males. See? There you go reading into stuff again.)
1. Dive In
It’s great to hear the confident strum of guitars, the solid thumping of drums and a grumbling bass line on what might just be Jennifer’s most confident album opener yet. Where past albums generally led off with something mid-tempo before getting to the rockers later, Jennifer gets into the thick of it right away, letting us know her state of mind as she returns to the spotlight as she comments, “Careful what you say/Careful who might hear/Someone else inside the universe could write it down/And you’ll be hearing it for years.” Through this song, she acknowledges living in a world of secrecy and just getting plain sick of it, no longer satisfied with “Standing on the edge of myself”. It’s a good mantra to open the record with, as she commits to no longer caring what the audience thinks and vows to just be herself. She acknowledges the cost of this decision, knowing there’s one audience member whose opinion really matters: “I may be a fool to some, a hero to others/But to you, just a lover.” That “you” is definitely open to interpretation. Did I mention there’s a nice little electric guitar solo here? Just in case anyone thought Jennifer had abandoned rock music nine years ago.
2. Want For Nothing
The production that softens this album from time to time is apparent in the processed guitar effect that loops throughout the background of this song. It finds Jennifer in more of a “pop” mode, which isn’t terrible since it all leads to a memorably melodic chorus. But the single-chord strumming during the verses leaves me wanting a bit. Lyrically, this is an interesting song to examine, as it’s hard to tell whether it’s a song of assurance from God to man, or more of a song about lovers. Whatever relationship she’s describing, it’s definitely a happy one, in which she promises “You will want for nothing, know the truth/I will be here waiting for you”. The song seems to stem from a desire to stop overanalyzing and just enjoy a gift that’s been given. I can relate to that.
The record’s most stunningly beautiful track is this unabashed love song, with its rolling piano melody, which is an unusual approach for Jennifer, since her music is usually guitar-based. The acoustic does play a supporting role, and no doubt it’s lovely even when stripped back to that single instrument in concert, but the full production certainly does it all kinds of favors. There’s no denying who Jennifer’s singing to this time when she assured her lover: “Even though they say that we have falln/Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do it twice/Given every second chance/I choose again to be with you tonight.” The rest of the song follows suit, walking a fine line between poetic and straightforward as it emphasizes a conscious choice to commit to a person and hang in there for the long haul. Honestly, a lot of hetero songwriters could learn something from this one, given how many love songs these days are little more than declarations that a person is attractive and makes the singer feel good. No doubt that’s true here as well – and I’m sure a stray line about being “borne from a wild, wild lust” will raise some eyebrows – but the choice being made seems to run a lot deeper than that. Jen’s been in the same relationship since 2002, so what’s being preached here is being practiced. I mean, that’s when I first met my wife. It’s a nice little endorsement for monogamy without saying so blatantly. Of course, most of Jennifer’s former audience will be too upset about the gender of the parties involved in the relationship to see that sticking with one person for that long is laudable, but I digress.
4. On Love
The folksier side comes out in this sparse acoustic ballad, which uses few words to say a lot about the concept of longsuffering. Jen’s voice is at its most beautiful and vulnerable as she sweetly sings, “I have waited long, but never given up/ I have waited on you/But never, never on love.” As the song gets more dramatic with the piano and electric guitar subtly chiming in at the bridge, it becomes one of the most spiritually satisfying moments on the record. Through the simplicity of this song, it’s like she’s pondering the perfectly patient love of God that she’s trying to model in her own imperfect way. Jennifer said once about early songs like “Trinity” that she would write things down as song lyrics that she was learning about God and trying to remind herself about. I’d like to think that’s still happening here.
This’ll likely be the song that gets the most attention. In attention to being Jennifer’s heaviest rock song (not that heavy by modern rock standards, but certainly more electrified and gutsy than her previous record-holder, “Into You”), it’s also the one where she unleashes a bit of “righteous anger” at the Christians who stabbed her in the back with their harsh words before she even went public with her sexual orientation. This one’s not specifically about that orientation (none of her songs are, but it’s generally not too hard to figure out the issue that led her to write some of ’em), but that actually makes it relatable to Christians who have been cast aside by their own as a result of other issues perceived as taboo by folks who apparently don’t understand the meaning of grace. “I know they’ll bury me before they’ve heard the whole story”, Jennifer snarks at the very beginning of the song, not long before she leads into the chorus with the fury of a woman scorned: “Well, who in the hell do they think they are?” Despite the decibel level and the use of just about the mildest swear invented (honestly, it amazes me how “hell” as an expletive gets a slap on the hand when actual references to “hell” as a place with the insinuation that a person will end up there for being gay gets regarded as perfectly acceptable), the chorus shows some vulnerability and helps us understand why she struggled for so long to tell most of the world the truth: “I’m the one who keeps it on the inside/So they’ll leave me alone, leave me alone!” Man. Just hearing this one makes me want to give her a big hug and say, “Sorry about all those jerks.” But then, I’ve seen her rock this one live with nothing but her acoustic and a big smile on her face, so I think the act of writing this song got the frustration out of her system.
6. Letting Go
Ominous minor chords and more of a mid-tempo, but still rocky mood characterize the title track, in which Jennifer wrestles with some sort of a relationship or temptation that she figures is detrimental to her health. This is the one that reminds me the most of the old Jennifer – specifically the song “The Way I Am”. While that song more directly addressed sin and admitted that she’d be better blinding or mutilating herself to avoid it (so to speak), this one seems to acknowledge the troublesome relationship as a mixed bag, acknowledging that “Holding onto you is a menace to my soul” and yet defiantly stating “I’m not letting go” when it’s all said and done. Some of her most rough and raw vocals emerge on this one, suggesting that it’s an area of great frustration with her. This is where it’s helpful to remember that a lot of Jennifer’s songs have been about the perennial struggle with sin since day one, and I for one don’t think this one specifically refers to a romantic or sexual relationship. I think it’s more of a toxic friendship, or just a person who gives bad advice. It could even be about the Devil himself – understanding how alluring his words can be despite knowing full well where that path can lead. I like that she’s honest about this. I like that she basically says, “I still mess up” instead of throwing out the notion that there is a definite right and wrong.
7. Mr. Gray
Switching gears completely, Jennifer shifts into easygoing acoustic mode for one of the closest things to a country song that she’s ever written. She’s said that this one was done for her grandfather, who supports her music career but thinks rock music’s a bit too loud. So while the keys and other production elements might be sacrilege from his point of view, Jen still did her best to honor him with this one. It’s simply about a man who works hard, apparently one who has trouble providing for his family but who seems to understand his need for mercy better as a result of this. I like how the religious reference here is couched in a personal story, which sort of illustrates the role faith plays in culture, which is heard in many country songs, even sometimes by artists who aren’t necessarily Christians themselves. It’s subtle rather than preachy. I actually prefer that mode of songwriting.
8. Better Off
One of the album’s mellowest songs shows up next, almost immediately setting a tone of regret with its minor key progression and its downbeat acoustic rhythm, slowly shuffling along. Jen’s heartache is clear as she addresses a relationship in which trust has been breached – maybe the person can’t be around her any more due to a significant disagreement, or maybe she did something dumb and let them down. It’s hard to tell whether it’s a sincere apology or a bit of bitterness when she comments “I’d be better off/I’d be a better man/If I was what you want/And not what I am.” Agaian, I feel the urge to compare these words to the words “It’s better off this way/To be deaf, dumb, and lame/Than to be the way I am.” Seems like this is a struggle that resurfaces often in Jennifer’s life. It’s either the cost of being imperfect and people not showing grace, or the cost of being honest about what she thinks God has called her to do and people not agreeing with it. Either way, this is an effective and heartbreaking song.
9. If It Made a Difference
Another piano-based song shows up here, a little more up-tempo, but still bearing the load of a strained relationship. This time Jennifer’s a little more defiant, as if reneging on a position she once took to make another person happy. She’s looking back on an attempt to be all the things this person expected it to be and seeing little but wasted time, even going so far as to tell the person, “I’m sorry I ever gave a damn.” (Again, there’s one of those words that gets frowned upon as an expletive by a lot of Christian listeners, but rooted for in its literal usage. I have to admire Jen for ruffling their feathers a bit – not that they’re likely to still be listening at this point anyway.) She seems genuinely sorry that the friendship didn’t work out, but she also indicates in a roundabout way that people seem to put up with this person’s crap far too easily – “I am the only one who ever tried to leave you behind.” Well, that’s gotta sting a little!
10. Stone to the River
This self-proclaimed exercise in ripping off three chords and the truth from Bob Dylan closes the album in 3/4 time, offering up this lofty goal: “I’m trying to keep faith in my fellow man.” The melody is eerily reminiscent of her classic “Martyrs and Thieves” at times, not quite eclipsing the quietly epic scope of that song, but definitely lifting the mood in just the right way after all of the conflict that’s been woven throughout the back half of the album. As peaceful strings begin to crescendo and background vocals subtly chime in, Jennifer finds solace in this metaphor: “Like a stone to the river that cannot be washed to the sea/We keep filling it up ’til it’s taken enough and it breaks the seam.” I’m actually not completely sure what that means, but it seems to have something do with the wounds Jennifer’s been given by her fellow man, and the ones she admits she’s returned in kind. I like having this declaration at the end, as if to say that because she hasn’t given up on her faith, she’s doing her best not to give up on the people she shares it with. A lot of folks have walked out on religion for less than what Jennifer’s been through, and while I can’t blame a lot of those folks, I really admire Jennifer for this concluding thought that still regards those who have hated her as “my fellow man”.
There’s a lot of good stuff here if you can look past the controversy. In a day and age where the media likes to trump the war between the religious right and the supposedly godless liberals on the left, it feels like the voices of individuals who are not all one or the other can get drowned out. So you don’t often get to hear the struggles of, say, a committed Christian dealing with the repercussions of making her sexual identity known to people. I know a lot of folks will probably give Letting Go a cursory listen and write it off as some sort of liberal hogwash, or express dismay at the lack of straightforward praise songs like some of the selections found on her earlier albums. As much as there are aspects of those previous albums that would have been nice to hear reprised here, I think that’s missing the point. These ten songs seem to have been chosen as the most honest representation of who Jennifer is now – not someone who simply whines about how she’s been treated to get attention, but who really struggles with those conflicts on a personal level, not backing down from who she believes she was made to be, but also feeling the genuine pain of the relationships severed as a result of it. What might not be her fault is still a responsibility that she acknowledges. To try to love Christians who have spit in your face as you believe Christ would love them is no easy task. Listening to this record gives me a little insight into the process, and ultimately, hope.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Dive In $1.50
Want For Nothing $1
On Love $1
Letting Go $1
Mr. Grey $1
Better Off $1
If It Made a Difference $1
Stone to the River $1.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.