In Brief: CHL’s swan song, a thoughtfully crafted concept album about Christ’s death and resurrection, is the rare “Christian rock” album that qualifies as excellent art.
Goodbyes are always a difficult thing for me. I suspect they don’t tend to be easy for most people. But one thing I’ve noticed is that they tend to be a little easier on the emotions when they’re planned, when loose ends can be wrapped up and people can feel some sense of closure. It’s the difference between someone giving you a heads up that they’re planning to move far, far away, and you can throw them a big party or sit down for your last cup of coffee together or whatever, rather than finding out after the fact that they just disappeared. The same tends to be true for me where music is concerned – I appreciate it when a band that’s been around for a while has the time to plan a proper farewell, rather than simply dropping off the map because some band members were quarreling or a label gave them the boot. Listening to an album and knowing a band planned for it to be their last can be a powerful thing – at least, when the material is up to the task.
I wouldn’t have ever said that Cool Hand Luke was one of my all-time favorite bands – I’ve had a healthy respect for their attempts to fuse art and theology ever since discovering them in 2003, but for a while, I just couldn’t get into their slow groove. It felt like all buildup and very little payoff most of the time. Funnily enough, they had changed quite radically to achieve that slow-burning indie rock sound from their previous screamo style – which I’ve heard a bit of and I generally can’t take seriously. So it was quite a surprise to me when the band managed a record that was equal part moody alternative rock, catchy piano rock, and down-tempo ballads, on 2008’s The Sleeping House. It was definitely a more “pop” record than anything they’d done before, but to me it felt like it removed a lot of the haze and let the songs truly soar for the first time. The band had always been under the radar, but by that point they were pretty much funding their own records, and not really holding onto a solid membership roster beyond chief singer/songwriter Mark Nicks. By 2009, Nicks was all that was left of the band, and the move to a simpler, more piano-based sound served him well, as it made the songs easy to replicate all by himself in a live setting. Theoretically, a band with only one member can never really “break up”, so Nicks could have continued making albums under the Cool Hand Luke moniker indefinitely. However, a different calling had been nagging him for a solid decade, which drove his decision to make 2011’s Of Man the final Cool Hand Luke album. Fittingly for a man who is giving up music to attend seminary, it’s a concept album about the last week of Christ’s life on Earth and the people who knew Him.
Of Man stands out as CHL’s most focused album, the music flowing almost effortlessly from track to track, giving it a cinematic effect as if parts of it could have been a film soundtrack. It’s a somber affair at times, stringing several piano ballads together, but generally applying enough ambiance and inventive instrumentation to each to keep things from getting repetitive. At the same time, there are callbacks to CHL’s past that briefly take the album on unexpected musical detours into rockier territory. You likely wouldn’t headbang to any of this – at least not for more than a few seconds – but the moments where it gets loud are generally quite epic. There are times when I wish Nicks and his collaborators (of which there are many – he called in favors from many of his favorite fellow musicians) had pushed the genre boundaries a little farther, but still, it’s different enough to ensure you won’t mistake this for your mother’s collection of Easter songs. (Cindy Morgan would probably be more her speed, if she’s into that sort of thing.)
I’ve always known that Mark Nicks had a knack for heartstring-tugging lyrics that could also be genuinely convicting to fellow Christians, without slathering on the cheese. That’s a difficult balance to pull off, but he’s done it well on past tracks like “Cinematic” and “Eye of the Storm”. Many of the songs on Of Man are like this, but what makes them distinctive is that each is told from a different first-person perspective, and not each person is necessarily one of the usual suspects you’d expect to weigh in if you know the Easter story. Even Judas gets a turn to tell his side of things – and a few tracks seem to be from the perspective of Jesus Himself. Obviously, some of this requires a bit of creative license, as the Bible tells us more about what these people did than what they thought and felt. But Nicks is a guy I’d trust to handle the source material with great care, sooner than I would a lot of other CCM songwriters. Ultimately, the album succeeds because the act of Cool Hand Luke saying goodbye is sort of superseded by the most difficult goodbye of all – Jesus saying goodbye to His followers and preparing to face death, but also being clear that the goodbye isn’t permanent. So it’s like Nicks is saying to his fans, “Take heart, I’m leaving you with a reminder of something so much greater than the music itself”, while also possibly giving us a sly wink and hinting that his own farewell as an artist might not necessarily be the last word on the matter. The latter part might be wishful thinking, but if Of Man is truly the last we ever hear from him, then I’ll say that it was definitely an accomplishment to create an album that feels so satisfyingly final. Just look at how many TV series have ended with truly bizarre finales lately, and how many beloved rock outfits have sputtered out, with their final records only becoming apparent as such after the fact, most fans thinking they were past their peak anyway. It’s not easy to go out at the top of your game.
Just as “Fast Asleep” led so beautifully into “Cast Your Bread” on the last record, CHL starts this one off in grand style with moody electronics and fuzzy electric guitar, creating a haunting yet anthemic ode to the arrival of a Savior. Mark Nicks wanted to picture it as a majestic affair, something not fully grasped by the people who stood by the sidelines, lowering palm branches and watching in bewilderment as Jesus rode into town on a donkey. As the cymbals crash and the crescendo brings us into the first full song, he creates that mood quite skillfully.
2. Are You Coming?
Much of CHL’s later material has been based on contemplative piano, and like some of the best tracks on The Sleeping House, this one combines a glistening piano melody with faster-paced rock instrumentation, allowing the album to take off at a brisk pace as Nicks attempts to enter the mind of a humble homeowner who let Jesus crash for the night on His way into town. It requires some imagination, as the Bible tells us so little about the guy and how he knew Jesus was even coming. Here, he is imagined as a man who struggles to have enough faith to fully believe his Savior is coming, especially having suffered a tragic loss recently and feeling like he should have been the one to die in his wife’s place. This little made-up vignette works because it captures the larger picture beautifully – humanity oppressed by the ravages of a difficult life on Earth, wanting to be saved from their toil but not fully understanding what that salvation entails.
3. Goodbye, For Now
This one really caught me off guard, especially coming so early in the album. It is, quite possibly, CHL’s most emotionally resonant ballad, and with a lot of them in the band’s back catalogue, that’s saying a lot. Nicks has chosen a beautiful, tranquil melody, which for the most part he leaves uncluttered by other instrumentation. His voice really shines here – it’s always struck me as a bit on the rough and raspy side, but when he lapses into falsetto on the chorus, the effect is astounding. Here he sings from the point of view of Jesus, explaining to those who have followed Him this far why it’s come time for Him to leave. It’s easy to gloss over this in the Bible, already knowing the outcome, but for the twelve men dining with Him there in the upper room, this must have been difficult to come to terms with – they’ve finally come to realize who He is, and most of them have staked all of their faith in Him, and now rather than kicking the doors of the government down and establishing His reign on Earth, He’s telling them he has to die? It must have boggled their minds and scared them senseless. The lyrics are sensitive, carefully considered, and overflowing with comfort, as Jesus tells His disciples to take heart, because He leaves the Holy Spirit with them, to guide them. The chorus is simple but effective – “I promise you that I won’t leave you alone/I promise you that I will take you home.” I’ll admit that this one gets me a little teary-eyed – and this is coming from a guy who’s heard so many “Jesus love songs” that I’m normally about skeptical when Christian musicians try to tug the heartstrings with such things. It’s CHL’s commitment to the overall story that makes it work.
4. The Last Supper
“This is the end, this is goodbye”, echo the background vocals as one quiet, piano-based song bleeds into another. There’s a slight mood of acceptance here, as if the discplies have gathered hands to say that final prayer, as Jesus’s last moments on Earth with them are considered, His heart heavy due to knowing what’s coming, but also filled with compassion and prayer for each of them. It’s a delicate dance between the piano and gutiar until the drums kick in at the second verse, and that’s where the finality of the plan being set in motion really begins to settle in. It’s interesting how Nicks chooses to focus on Christ feeling the sorrow on behalf of His worried disciples, and yet it seems like knowing the future is more gut-wrenching than not knowing it: “I’ve longed to share this meal with you/Though I doubt that I will taste the food/It’s hard to have an appetite/Knowing that I’ll walk to death tonight/My brothers, I now call you friends/But tonight you’ll think this is the end/Like a footfall among the ants/You will scatter when you get the chance.” He knows who’s sitting there in that room, planning to betray Him, which leads us seamlessly into the next song.
5. The Silver
The tone of the piano is appropriately more sinister here, almost sounding like a rickety saloon piano, played slowly and ominously. That and the varnish on Nicks’ voice remind me quite strongly of a few of Thrice‘s more organic songs from the final disc of their Alchemy Index project. We get to see the world from the ugly perspective of Judas here – a man who has followed Jesus for all this time only to backstab Him. The worst part is that Jesus knows exactly what Judas is up to – and from the tone of the song, it’s almost as if Judas knows that Jesus knows. As the pace picks up and the strings swell dramatically, the full force of Judas’s bitterness and regret is brought out: “I’m not a Peter and I’m not a John/I’m just a thief and a coward of a man/All that I wanted was to sit by Your side/But the silver won out because of my wounded pride.”
6. A Garden in the Dark
Eerie background ambiance leads into a song that attempts to capture the mood of Jesus’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, and the betrayal and arrest that happened there. Quite surprisingly, though the music is completely different, the lyrics are actually a callback to previous CHL albums – first The Sleeping House‘s penultimate track “The Incomprehensible Sleep” in which Jesus pleads for His disciples to stay awake and alert, and then going back even further to reference Wake Up, O Sleeper in the coda. It’s an interesting little nugget for those who have followed CHL for several years – I’m at least familiar with the references even if I wasn’t a huge fan back in the day. It’s worth noting that this is more of a transitional piece, leading out of the contemplative, prayerful segment of the album and into more of an action-oriented segment, so the song wouldn’t make much sense as a standalone. It’s quite like a transitional scene in a play.
7. His Eyes
If you thought the album was getting a bit sleepy and lacking in the “rock” department, this’ll probably wake you up. It takes its time to get going, with the distant but driving percussion threatening to break out and declare war at any second, but hanging back through a few verses just to make you feel nervous. It’s appropriate enough to express the growing dread that the disciples must have felt as the arrest and speedy trial of Jesus led rather quickly to His execution, complete with a humiliating perp walk through town to let onlookers jeer and throw things and rally for crucifixion. Nicks does his best to not turn away from the violence, even though you can tell that as a songwriter, he wants to pretty it up a bit: “They struck his face, no, that’s too poetic/They punched Him till their fringes were covered in blood.” The narrative eventually devolves into disjointed shouts from the crowd and shards of guitar feedback, leading up to the harshest moment we’ve heard from CHL since they’re old days, as the nails are driven into His hands and feet and Nicks recoils from the sheer horror of it: “NO!!! NO!!! NO!!!” Without the story to give it context, this would see like a highly unusual “screamo” moment on an otherwise mellow album, but the pulsing piano that persists throughout the song’s seven minute length is the consistent link between this harsh passage and the much gentler ones that surround it. Just the instruments by themselves communicate a lot of dread and anguish. CHL used to do a lot of long, drawn-out songs, but I don’t remember any of them coming to as epic and startling a conclusion as this one does. They really outdid themselves here.
8. The Burial
The atonal guitar feedback fades away into a bit of a breather passage – the piano melody is sort of a dark reflection of “Are You Coming?”, almost as if the act of burying Jesus’ body after the long, gruesome hours of torture was entombing a hopeful man’s faith along with the body. This leads into the fallout experienced by the disciples on that dark Saturday in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
9. The Confusion of Simon Peter
The anguish of the disciple who swore allegiance to Jesus and then famously gave Him up when under pressure is documented here, in this slowly unveiling, Sigur Rós-esque track. In the aftermath of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial, Peter wrestles with though theological questions: “Son of God, Son of Man/Deceiver of the Great I Am?/Whom have I in heaven but You?/What on Earth am I to do?” He’s hanging on to a lot of guilt, wondering if Jesus was mad at him when he died, and also missing the man who served as his teacher for the last few years. A meaningful echo of “This is the end, this is goodbye” gives way to the tortured bridge in which Nicks nearly screams “The last thing I wanted was to hurt You/And that was the last thing I did”. This leads to a loud, crashing climax in which Peter asks whether the same miracles Jesus performed that raised others from the grave can still apply to Jesus Himself.
10. I Remember
Use your imagination a little for this one. It’s tough sometimes to imagine a woman’s perspective when a man is singing the song, but Nicks does his best to see things through the eyes of Mary, the mother of Jesus, with sensitivity and grace. In terms of sheer sentimental beauty, it places second on the record after “Goodbye, For Now”, as Mary recounts things others told her about her unborn child, dating long back before any of the disciples knew Jesus. There’s a warmth and an intimacy to it as a mother mourns the death of her child, but also clings to her belief in the prophecies told about her son even when the disciples have given up hope: “Now Your people who walked with You forgot Your word/But I still believe in You.” This one works its way to a beautiful climax as well – the mood is thoroughly peaceful despite the bridge repeating the words “A sword will pierce Your soul.” This woman has seen so much by now, she’s not as easily shaken as the scattered disciples.
11. Two Versions
It took me a while to figure out what was going on with this song. At six and a half minutes, it’s the album’s second longest track behind “His Eyes”, but it feels a bit like two songs crammed into one, the first half being a low-key piano ballad accented by cello, and the second half much more galloping, percussive, climactic. Eventually I worked out that there were two characters here – the guards at Jesus’s tomb who had a bit of explaining to do when it was found empty on what we now know as Easter Sunday. The first guard takes the more pragmatic approach, not finding any acceptable explanation and accepting a bribe to keep it quiet. But as the song shifts gears and the other guard threatens to bust the story wide open, despite how implausible it may seem that a dead man could rise from the grave, the listener is sort of left with their own question. Which version of the story is easier for you to believe? These two men represent schools of thought that persist to this day – one heartily accepting that the only possible explanation is a supernatural one, and the other determined to explain it away through more rational means. Sure, we obviously know which side of the story Cool Hand Luke wants the listener to believe – but then I figure this music is mostly made for the already converted anyway. But I can see a part of myself in both of these men – one who knows some things can’t fully be explained and must be taken on faith, and one who is determined to explain them, to make them sound less ridiculous to people. It’s not that far a leap to get from one perspective to the other, and I think both are portrayed with a certain amount of understanding here.
12. Not the End, Not the End
Well, here it is. The last words in the final chapter of a band’s legacy. It’s appropriately introspective, laden with Latin phrases on either end that clearly carry deep significance for Mark Nicks – “Soli Deo Gloria” (Glory to God alone) and “Veni Sancte Spiritus” (Come, Holy Spirit). Here the disciples are confronted by the risen Jesus, who speaks to them one last time before ascending to Heaven. It’s not an overly complicated or epic song, just a simple, but joyously swelling rock ballad that commemorates a passing of the torch – Jesus leaves Earth and offers final words of comfort to His followers that echo the sentiments from the Last Supper, but now their meaning is more fully realized. The Spirit descends in His place – an aspect of the story that I, as a Christian, often tend to forget about because it’s often easier to relate to a physical guy walking and talking on Earth than it is to our often nebulous understanding of a disembodied Spirit. The reaction of whichever disciple is offering this last vignette is left for us as the last, most important thing that Cool Hand Luke as a band wants to remind us about Jesus: “Lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the age.” It’s a tearful goodbye and it almost seems to be over too quickly, but it’s also an immensely hopeful finale.
I only wish that I had discovered this album during the first few weeks after it was released – in time for Easter. It would make for powerful reflection during that season, and I’ll have to remember to pull it out again at that time next year. While the biggest fans of Cool Hand Luke (who in my experience were a small niche, but an immensely supportive one nonetheless) may feel a bit of a loss as Mark Nicks retires from music, I can say this much: If his years in seminary lead him to write sermons that are as thought-provoking as his songs, then the fans’ loss is going to be some congregation’s massive gain.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Are You Coming? $1.50
Goodbye, For Now $2
The Last Supper $1
The Silver $1
A Garden in the Dark $1
His Eyes $2
The Burial $.50
The Confusion of Simon Peter $1.50
I Remember $1.50
Two Versions $1.50
Not the End, Not the End $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.