In Brief: An interesting snapshot of a worship band at the crossroads between making conventional praise songs for the congregation, and making beautiful art for the Creator.
It’s no secret among Christian music aficionados (and many detractors as well) that the style of direct praise songs created specifically for congregational singing that we know as “worship music” dominates the market. Turn on any Christian radio station that plays music, and that’s mostly what you’ll hear. It’s a trend that picked up at around the turn of the century and seems to be still going strong. In theory, it isn’t a bad thing – worshiping God should be the highest purpose that music made by Christians can serve, right? Yet so many of the singers and songwriters who have dedicated their careers to this genre seem content with cutting-and-pasting, either from other worship leaders or from mainstream music trends considered safe enough that conservative congregations won’t object to “church music” that imitates them. Pickings are generally quite slim for Christians who seek a higher standard of creativity in their worship music. I can probably count the artists I respect the most within this sub-genre on one hand, and even then, some of them are retired (Delirious?), about to retire (David Crowder Band), or not specifically devoted to congregational worship music in a majority of their songs and/or pretty far off the Christian radio radar (Future of Forestry). So when I heard the name Michael Gungor get mentioned a few time in the same breath as some of these other bands, as an example of an artist making the transition from big-church anthems to more of a personal, creative expression of worship, I decided it was high time that I finally gave his band (simply named Gungor) a listen.
My entry point into Gungor’s music (their participation in one of Jars of Clay‘s most youth-groupy and pedestrian songs on The Shelter notwithstanding) was their 2010 release, Beautiful Things. I first discovered the title track through, of all things, an interpretive dance that was performed at my church this past Easter Sunday. The image of flowers rising up out of dead ground, healed and made into something new by God, had been explored in many songs before, but something about this interpretation was striking despite its simplicity. I filed the band’s name away for future reference, not stumbling across them again until I discovered that the David Crowder Band was taking them out as an opening act on their final tour. Getting caught up with Beautiful Things in its entirety showed me a band at a crossroads – one still content to pump out high-energy anthems that wouldn’t be too out of place at a youth group-friendly Christian concert (a characterization which has its own set of pros and cons), but one also willing to explore the type of mellow and lush orchestration popularized in indie music circles by artists like Sufjan Stevens. Crossing these two unlikely elements reminds me at times of Future of Forestry’s work, while at other times Gungor’s work has a confessional, Psalm-like quality that might appeal to fans of Shane & Shane. Honestly, anyone can put their finger to the pulse of Christian music’s independent scene and come up with hipster trends to imitate, so I’m surprised that I haven’t heard more CCM bands trying to bring that sound to the big screen and falling flat on their faces. It takes a talented musician to make it work and not sound contrived in the process, so when Michael and his wife Lisa Gungor back off from the big declarative rock anthems and try on different genre hats, they’re generally quite successful.
The downside of trying to make these two approaches work together is that Beautiful Things, as a whole, is the type of record that’s gonna be hit-and-miss for almost everyone. Listeners who are younger and/or who gravitate to the big catchy anthems that worship bands typically open their Sunday services with are probably going to like about a third of the record and start dozing off for the rest of it, perhaps even recoiling when the group whips out a glockenspiel or a banjo. Folks who are into the Hillsongs-type anthems that start slow but pick up the momentum of a freight train and drag on for eight minutes or so will get into some of the album’s more reflective ballads that seek an emotional response by way of repetition. Folks like me with more eclectic tastes will drool when they bring out the more exotic instruments, but find some of the rest to be rather pedestrian. It’s the sort of diversity that, assuming listeners are patient, might just unite different segments of the congregation who like their worship done in markedly different ways. But “everything but the kitchen sink” does have its limits, and from my point of view, there are a few moments where I feel like Gungor’s falling back on something simplistic enough that it should be beneath them. That’s not to knock popular worship leaders like Chris Tomlin who have their simple formula and execute it well – it’s just to say that there’s an overabundance of that on the market and it’s disappointing to hear a band with ambitions beyond that reign in their talent from time to time. Still, the balance of Beautiful Things is well-executed and at times quite thought-provoking, and it’s a good starting point to help you decide if you want to go backwards toward Gungor’s more congregational material (released under the moniker “Michael Gungor Band”, or forwards to their artsier stuff (their newest album, Ghosts Upon the Earth, which I’ll cover in another review shortly).
1. Dry Bones
The classical guitar opening here – which finds Michael Gungor displaying some deft fingerwork, not just in speed but in terms of emotion as well – is a bit misleading. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s the kind of song that goes from small to big, only barely giving you a hint that it’s about to erupt before it does. Whether the quiet opening or the fact that it turns a corner and becomes a heavy rocker is the bigger surprise… well, that’s gonna depend on whether you have any prior experience with Gungor. You can easily picture a dry, dusty village somewhere in an arid region of Spain, thirsty for rain, as the setting of the song’s opening as he laments, “These bones cry out, these dry bones cry for you”. It isn’t until the second chorus that thunder strikes (though you can detect it in the distance once the drums begin to pound in the second verse) and a torrent of heavy rain floods the landscape, drenching the song in minor-key drama. “Jesus You’re the one who finds us! Surely our Messiah will make all things new!” he all but screams, ensuring that the song hits its emotional peak in its final seconds, serving as a lead-in to the title track rather than needing a neatly wrapped-up resolution of its own.
2. Beautiful Things
Would it be ridiculously unimaginative of me to call this a beautiful song? Well, it is. And I could think of other words for it, but what’s striking about this one is its ability to create something uniquely lovely out of very simple ingredients. At first it’s little more than an acoustic guitar gently plucking basic chords, and a touchy-feely verse about pain and wondering if life could ever change. It sounds like we’re headed for the sort of boneheadedly obvious territory that a group like Casting Crowns might stumble into, even more when we find that the chorus is literally one chord over and over. “You make beautiful things. You make beautiful things out of the dust. You make beautiful things. You make beautiful things out of us.” It’s such a dry melody that it’s almost deadpan. Where’s the beautiful part, guys? The trick is that it seeps in slowly. You’d expect a weepy string arrangement in a song like this, maybe some pretty backing vocals from Lisa, and you totally get those, but they intertwine with the existing elements in a more creative way than you might have expected, like young vines wrapping around old, dead twigs and bringing new life to a dead garden. The exploratory composer within Michael Gungor can’t help but get a little curious, even on such an obvious Christian radio hit, throwing in augmented chords to turn that plain melody into something that really sings, and it’s like the happy medium of worship songs. The dude who barely knows four chords but might be all your church has to cobble together a worship team with can play it with pretty much those four chords, while the dude with some actual musical training can throw in all the embellishment. Those confident enough to teach the “guy part” and the “girl part” to a congregation can make sure that Lisa’s simple refrain of “You make me new, You are making me new” wraps around the final chorus for gorgeous effect, while those who would get lost with too much going on can stick to the simple chorus. Shoot, they even throw in a little impromptu acoustic dance complete with handclaps and an unusual time signature in the tag. Little hooks like that are the perfect way to signal to astute listeners that underneath this emotional wallop of a praise song, there’s more musical talent than might have first met the eye.
3. Brighter Day
Don’t let the solemn-sounding choral vocals at the beginning of this one fool you. As soon as that grinding guitar riff kicks in, this one’s off on a sprint straight into happy Christian rock-ville. Not that this is an entirely bad thing. It’s definitely on the poppier end of rock, with the chorus featuring a sunny synthesizer riff (or is that a violin? Hard to tell with all the distortion and other effects here) that lands just shy of the prototypical David Crowder Band workout tune. (I love the DCB. But admittedly they do sound kinda dorky sometimes.) The lyrics, which are basically an overview of God redeeming His fallen creation, in short bite-size phrases so you can dance to it, aren’t among Gungor’s most profound. Still, there’s some tricky riffage when the song turns a corner into its bridge, and that gives the band a chance to demonstrate a bit more musical muscle due to the churning rhythm. Unfortunately they got a bit too overzelous in the studio and overdubbed some cheesy sound effects (complete with a snippet of Lisa shouting “Don’t like it!” as if she were the lone soul in the band who thought this wasn’t a good idea – this is repeated at the end of the song and they have a good chuckle over it). So basically at this point, it sounds more like a long-lost Audio Adrenaline song that you’d set your youth retreat highlight reel to. I realize I’m kind of bagging on this song, but I’ll admit it’s a lot of fun, and they sound like they had a blast making it, so it gets points for its sheer infectiousness where it might lack in originality. There’s a fun little interlude at the end where Michael busts out a funky acoustic guitar part (“This could be the dance part”, comments Lisa) that sets us up for the next song.
Unfortunately, trying to sound funky doesn’t mean you always pull it off successfully. That’s the lesson that Gungor seems to learn the hard way on this collaboration with Israel Houghton, a worship leader who I have a sort of love-hate relationship with due to his ability to throw a reasonable amount of Gospel flavor into the melodies of the songs he composes, and then populate those same songs with insipid sentiments that are often way too cheery to really ring true. (I might be getting that “snake-oil salesman” vibe from some of his stuff due to the fact that he leads worship at Joel Osteen‘s church, but we’ll leave that debate for another day.) Suffice to say, the man does have some musical talent that I respect, so you’d figure working with a thoughtful songwriter like Michael Gungor would be likely to produce a home run, right? WRONG. This one gets a pretty solid groove going, heavy on the bass, confidently bumping along at a medium pace like it’s gonna build up to something that really kicks. But all we get in terms of lyrics boils down quite literally to about two lines of text: “I don’t know what you’ve been told, but Heaven is coming down to the world”, and then the chorus, which responds to this with “I said, heaven, Heaven is coming down.” That’s all they wrote, folks. You can dress it up with vaguely Waspel-y backing vocals all you want, but honestly it sounds like a waste of time for all involved. they seem to realize this when, at barely two minutes and change, the song slows down and fizzles out. That might be a cool comedown if things ever bothered to heat up in the first place, but come on guys, you’re parking the train when it’s barely half a mile out of the station!
5. You Have Me
Talk about mood whiplash. From an awkward, half-hearted attempt at contemporary Gospel, we switch gears completely to an all acoustic song led by, of all things, twin banjos. You’ll get no “hee-haw” vibe from this one, however, as it’s a very slow and sensitive number, the syncopated rhythm of the banjos and an upright bass giving it a gentle sway. Psalm 139 seems to be the inspiration for this simple but effective prayer, as Michael recalls a time that God pulled him back from the edge of complete nothingness and despair, renewing and reshaping life where he thought it was completely dead. “I’ve wandered at heaven’s gates, I’ve made my bed in hell”, he sings reverently, “but You were there still.” it’s a personal, intimate song of devotion, and yet it blossoms in a thing of gorgeous grandeur as horns and glockenspiel join in, bringing the track to a breathtaking crescendo, slowly walking us down through a lovely chord progression as Michael and Lisa sing the simple refrain “You have me, You have me/You have my heart completely.” It’s like the Something Like Silas song “Spirit Waltz” had a baby with any number of the tracks from Sufjan’s Seven Swans album. Hands down, this is my favorite Gungor song thus far.
6. Cannot Keep You
For those who have found the lyrics to be a bit simplistic up to this point, here’s a little something to sink your teeth into. Over a more modest, slow-paced bed of drums and piano, with a little bit of steel guitar lurking in the background, Gungor lays a bit of theology on those of us who would seek to kep God in a neat, tidy little box. Just as the people written about in the Bible could not contain God in tents or temples, we are reminded here of the folly of limiting God to only what we’ve experienced within the walls of our churches and the pages of our Bibles. It should be a “duh” statement, really, to say that God is everywhere, but it’s easy to forget and act like there are “God-forsaken” places out there beyond our safe little bubbles. This really shouldn’t be a radical revelation, but that’s the funny thing about us humans – we need the reminder. If not for that urging to find out what God is doing in the places we wouldn’t even expect God to be found, we might easily take a chorus as cliche that states, “Who is like the Lord, the maker of the Heavens?/Who dwells with the poor, and He lifts them from the ashes/And he makes them sit with princes/Who is like the Lord?” But in its own subtle way, the song wryly reminds us to act as if we actually believed these things were true of God rather than paying lip service to the idea, and to then come back and even find that God was also there in our Bibles and churches all along. (Nice cover-your-butt statement there, because you know someone might otherwise might try to twist the words around and act like Gungor is implying that God is not in our Bibles and churches. The point is that those aren’t the only places to find Him.)
7. The Earth Is Yours
This cheery, upbeat praise song isn’t like the others. Where Gungor normally launches into full rock mode for the bouncier songs on this album, here they deliberately keep things at a smaller, earthier scale. I get a bit of a Björk vibe from the rhythm of crunching twigs and the fast-paced glockenspiel melody that leads the song off, and there’s a string section providing the backbeat while other things like toy piano contribute to the song’s celebratory mood. This is another one that feels like an adaptation of a Psalm, simply admiring God’s presence in nature and the way He orchestrates creation so that it, in turn, continues to create beautiful landscapes in His honor. I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for the nature songs, but I also find it refreshing that there really isn’t an “I” in this song. Eventually the lyrics do shift to say “Hear us crying out”, but that’s mostly following the example of nature, removing the “What’s in it for us?” element from it and just standing in awe of that relationship between Creator and creation. Interestingly, the more conventional instruments like drums and acoustic guitar only join in once the “fancier” instruments have set the stage, and in that respect it reminds me of something Future of Forestry might have come up with. That’s extremely good company for Gungor to be in.
8. Call Me Out
Gungor’s second attempt at doing something a little funkier has markedly better results. It’s less of a pure genre exercise than “Heaven” felt like it was trying to be, starting with a fun stomp-and-clap rhythm and bringing in a solid bass line, but giving the song a little more to do than just simmer all the way through. The piano has a slightly wacky, sideways melody to it, so this ain’t your average four-chord worship song, especially not when a banjo starts plunking away to follow the weird chord progression. It’s really more of a confession than a praise song – man keeps falling short and having to admit that when faced with the presence of God, yet God keeps calling man forward to do extraordinary things despite our limited understandings and unfaithful hearts. Some of that message is perhaps lost in the simple, repetitive phrasing, but this song ends up in a category similar to “Brighter Day” where it might be a tad trite, but the unorthodox fun they apparently had making it does a lot to bring the song back up.
9. Please Be My Strength
This is where the album really starts to get mellow, with about five capital “O”s. This isn’t a bad thing, at least at first – late in a worship album is generally a good time for the more contemplative numbers, at least if there’s enough musical variance to keep the pacing of it from getting dull. This track is based on simple acoustic fingerpicking, accompanied by piano and little else other than some occasional synthesized keyboard stuff that mostly just adds subtle ambiance. Emotionally speaking, it’s one of Gungor’s weariest songs, as he is admitting to God that he’s out of strength, too weak or perhaps just too lazy to fight the good fight. Even this gets turned around for God’s glory (that being the highly improbable way that, funnily enough, God seems to work) by demonstrating that in times when we are strong and have fought the good fight, that God was that source of strength and it wasn’t anything we could conjure on our own. I like the devotional nature of this song because it’s a willing prayer but not a hackneyed promise to be a total goodie-two-shoes like you hear in a lot of CCM songs. it wants nothing less than to give God glory, but it’s realistic about all the ways in which we’ve failed to do that.
The piano and acoustic guitar sort of reverse roles in what might be the quietest song I’ve ever heard about lifting God’s name on high. Usually songs like that are bold, brash, shouting to the heavens. This one, instead, has that subtle hymn-like sort of quality to it that once again reminds of Sufjan Stevens. (I swear I’m not saying that just because there’s a banjo. Though I do love that about the song. There’s also a harmonica, in case you’re keeping track of folksy instruments not being used in a cliched manner.) It’s possible to accuse this one of being thematically repetitive since once again we have the image of rain falling on a thirsty land and people repenting and turning to God. But I still admire the song’s meekness, how it treads carefully so as not to spoil the hushed moment of a plea for forgiveness. Some things just can’t be communicated as well with an oversized pop hook, you know? Strangely enough, the song retains its own smaller-than-small hook value as Michael and Lisa softly sing their rounds of “And be lifted higher” at the end of the chorus. It’s the kind of melody that will gently nudge its way into your head.
11. Late Have I Loved You
Here’s where we might go a little too far off the mellow end. Nothing but good intentions here, as Michael Gungor sings one of his starkest songs, the simple but poetic lyrics describing the paradox of God being ancient and yet having the revelation of discovering God anew, realizing how much he was missing all along. The song starts out almost abstract, a lonely piano melody following the vocals, but with no discernible rhythm until a slow, drawn out 6/8 finally starts to become recognizable midway through the song. The group gets a good late evening sort of crescendo going by way of a cymbal roll and a more defined rhythm as the song turns a corner into its more tangible second half. Some will find its unconventional quietness beautiful; I can see that essence within the song but I still find myself getting a little bored with it, not because I think it needs to be loud or beat-driven or anything, but more because I wonder what some of the less conventional instrumentation heard elsewhere might have done for this one.
12. People of God
The album definitely needs a final burst of energy here before going into its final slow-burning anthem, so just at the nick of time we get… a shameless mid-tempo Coldplay ripoff. Wait, that can’t be right! Gungor might have the occasional dud or cheesy “rock the high school retreat” sort of track, but would they really stoop so low as to imitate a trend that’s well on its way to becoming a dead horse in Christian music? Maybe. I could be biased, considering that nearly anything with a piano chiming in on all the quarter notes like roughly half of A Rush of Blood to the Head while the electric guitar gently soars like “Yellow” is gonna make me suspect a Coldplay imitation of the lowest order. But even putting that aside, Gungor’s lyrics are at their most banal here, falling back on trite and uninspired cheerleading as it urges us, “People of god, rise up!/Rise up and shine god’s love!/We are the light of the world, of the world!” About all that’s missing are some crowd-participation-friendly “Whoa!”s. I wouldn’t say that absolutely everything about the track rips off Coldplay. The music box-like piano intro sounds like it’s going to lead to something more than that, but alas, it never does. The guitars and drums slam a bit more during the bridge, though there still isn’t much creative about it. I want to be inspired by this song’s take on 1 Corinthians 13, since it’s one of the few songs inspired by that passage that doesn’t seem to degenerate into total lovey-doveyness (the passage is often read at weddings, but I don’t think it’s meant to be limited to romantic love, personally). For most, I suspect this track will pass by inoffensively – there’s nothing inherently grating about it, other than the fact that I had already heard this sort of thing done six ways from Sunday by roughly the end of 2003.
13. We Will Run
The final track, more than any other, is where I get the “Hillsongs” vibe. Part of it’s because, after Michael sings the opening verse and chorus over very quiet instrumentation, Lisa pretty much takes over and the song really becomes hers to lead. The melody and the slow-building crescendo can’t help but bring more than a few classic Darlene Zschech tracks to mind. The heavily repeantant theme of many of the album’s slower tracks dovetails with the message of the song “Beautiful Things” as Lisa prays, “We will run to you, we will run to you/Turning from our sin, we return to You/Father heal your world, make all things new/Make all things new.” Once again, simple but effective. You might look at the nine-minute run time and think either, “Wow, how are they gonna sustain ir for that long?”, or if you’re used to sprawling songs like these on worship albums, you’d expect it to hit a glorious crescendo somewhere around minute six or seven. Funnily enough, neither expectation is quite correct, as it’s really more of a five-minute song with a four-minute instrumental coda. Consider it a “hidden track” if you like, but after Lisa’s final cry of “Oh, bring us back to You!” fades away and the weepy strings (admittedly a bit cliched this time around) finally recede, the song doesn’t end in the conventional sense – turn the volume up and you can still detect a piano playing quietly, contemplatively, almost like the end credits of a dramatic film that ended on a peaceful note. From there you probably know enough to predict the crescendo that it’s going to build back into, making this song unusual in the sense that it has two massive peaks rising up out if its solemn quietness. There are church bells and a few other nice touches that help to add one last bit of emotional clout, but I’ll be honest – this one might be a bit too earnest in its attempt to tug your heartstrings by way of pure repetition.
Gungor has a lot of interesting ideas on this album, many of which they see through quite well, and maybe others where I can admire the attempt even if they didn’t quite pull it off. It’s those scattered few pesky tracks where I feel like they’re dumbing it down to make the radio gatekeepers happy that puzzle me. I’m glad to report that the follow-up record, Ghosts Upon the Earth, contains no such nonsense, and I’m hoping to review that one soon as it seems to make good on the promise of Beautiful Things in some rather unorthodox ways. Still, Beautiful Things deserves credit for being the album that got me into Gungor by bridging the gap between easily singable songs that I could easily adapt as an amateur worship leader to share with a small group, and artsier fare that tries to buck the trends of the genre. I’d definitely say it’s worth a listen if you’re tired of the same-old same-old.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Dry Bones $1.50
Beautiful Things $2
Brighter Day $1
You Have Me $2
Cannot Keep You $1
The Earth Is Yours $1.50
Call Me Out $1
Please Be My Strength $1
Late Have I Loved You $.50
People of God -$.50
We Will Run $.50
Michael Gungor: Lead vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, piano, banjo, harmonica, melodica, bass
Lisa Gungor: Backing vocals, piano, keyboards, glockenspiel, loops
Brad Waller: Drums, electric guitar, banjo, cello, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.