In Brief: A dramatic leap in artistic quality after Beautiful Things. This will bust up your notions of what “worship albums” should sound like.
When I reviewed Gungor‘s Beautiful Things, I noted that they were a worship band at a crossroads, straddling the line between artistry and congregational accessibility, and I hinted that the follow-up album had quite definitively fallen on the “artistry” side of things. Now it’s time for me to unpack that statement. I was only barely getting into Gungor’s music, appreciating Beautiful Things for both the lush, reverent instrumentation of some of their more reflective stuff and a few (though certainly not all) of their upbeat, crowd-pleasing anthems, when they went and dropped Ghosts Upon the Earth. Their previous album was barely a year and a half old at this point (mere months to this listener), and with that being a bit of a breakthrough for the band, they could have practically recorded Beautiful Things II in their sleep. The mark of a good artist, I think, is the willingness to change up the game instead of delivering what’s totally familiar and expected by your audience. So I anticipated that Ghosts would show further creative development. I looked forward to them challenging their audience a little. But even I wasn’t prepared for this.
First and foremost, we’ll get the obvious out of the way. Ghosts Upon the Earth is not a rock album. A lot of modern worship albums lie somewhere on the spectrum between pop and rock these days, those being the dominant styles among worship bands in a lot of contemporary churches. Go against that, and you’re either doing some sort of old-school hymn revival project or else you’re just marketing to a genre niche. Your local Christian bookstore will probably still classify this amongst “Rock”, not knowing what else to do with it, or perhaps “Indie” if they’re really savvy, but in general it’s a tough disc to classify. Even calling it a “worship album” is, at times, forcing a square peg into a round hole. It is certainly a meditative, cohesive work designed to express and inspire worship. But with its largely organic, sometimes Baroque, and sometimes rootsy instrumentation, its hushed meditations on creation and sin and redemption, and its occasional oddball anthems that almost completely throw out the contemporary P&W rulebook, This isn’t exactly going to have an easy time fitting into Christian radio playlists – to say nothing of your average Sunday service. Perhaps select songs could work in more of a “presentational” fashion; something for the congregation to meditate upon, possibly paired with a visual element as a sort of mini-play or pageant. But even then, it would require some keen rearranging on the part of the worship leader, and some working knowledge of music theory beyond the standard four chords on the part of the band. Assembling the talent required to make this record happen – from choirs to string players to other miscellaneous contributors – couldn’t have been a small task. So recreating any of it in a live setting will take some ingenuity – and that even goes for Michael and Lisa Gungor themselves.
Ghosts Upon the Earth is the rare album in Christian music that takes some time to fully grasp, but that comes out a lot stronger for it. As an expression of worship, it’s undeniably personal, not in the sense that it involves anecdotes from the songwriters’ own lives, but definitely in the sense of communicating a redemptive story in a language that is unique to those songwriters. (And I do mean songwriters, plural – Lisa plays a much larger role here than she did on Beautiful Things, serving as the de facto band leader on several songs and making it difficult to tell where her husband’s ideas ended and hers began). Lyrics are often few, even simplistic and repetitive in some places, but they pair well with music that often seems to tell its own wordless story. Sometimes that story is jubilant, leaping out of the speakers with intricate arrangements that might make Sufjan Stevens or Nickel Creek jealous, while at other times it’s more subdued and impressionistic, especially during the passages that linger on the idea of creation betraying its Creator and having to come around and learn how to live for that Creator’s glory once again.
You can probably use Beautiful Things as a litmus test for how much you’re gonna get into this one. If you found that album’s quieter moments (particularly in the back half) to be refreshing and soul-nourishing, you’ll have a lot to work with here, though the occasional odd time signature or intentionally bizarre chord progression might jolt you out of your reverent trance. If, like me, you loved the unexpected instruments worming their way into “indie worship” anthems like “You Have Me” or “The Earth Is Yours”, then most of this album will be a feast for your ears. If you were drawn to the peppy, youth group-friendly praise anthems, then… sorry bud, you’re totally out of luck. You’ll be straining to hear the familiar sound of an electric guitar or a catchy drum beat, and even if you do manage to find it, you’ll still be rather beguiled by everything else that’s going on. If Beautiful Things existed at a level of spiritual and artistic maturity analogous to college, then Ghosts Upon the Earth is embedded somewhere deep in its third year of seminary. It’s more concerned with what’s true about the relationship between God and our sinful but willing souls, and finding intriguing ways to express that truth, than it is about entertaining its audience. Fortunately, for those with open minds and hearts, it turns out to be quite entertaining anyway, simply as a bi-product of its uniqueness.
1. Let There Be
There’s no more appropriate place to start than with the beginning – creation itself. Gungor isn’t the first worship band to lead off a record with the old “In the beginning…” story, but they create a musical atmosphere for it that shows a little more ingenuity than most. At first, there’s little more than a piano and an acoustic guitar noodling around in the darkness, barely audible. The song is formless, with Lisa’s vocal following no apparent lead instrument, just floating out there by itself: “Darkness hovering/Grasping everything it sees/Void, empty/Absent life and absent dream.” This settles into a meek, but at least recognizable chorus melody, the minimal elements from which to build a song. From there, the cosmic soup begins to congeal as the song slowly builds, and the second time around that simple chorus starts to become more prominent with its simple chant: “Let there be… let there be light”. Suddenly there is an explosion as that light is summoned forth, cymbals crashing and snares stuttering and strings overflowing with joy… and there’s a boys’ choir. Ah yes, the boys’ choir. It could be such a sappy element to throw into a worship song, but here it’s pitch-perfect as the innocent, awestruck voices bring that chorus to a boiling crescendo. There’s no turning back from this, no calming down the overpowering noise of creation to bring it to a nice, neat finish. It simply piles more and more on to the crescendo until we are abruptly dropped into the next song. And I love it for that.
2. Brother Moon
A happy-go-lucky flute leads the charge as the universe is set into motion, and God’s celestial gifts – the moon, the sun, the wind – are recognized for their role in sustaining life. Lyrically, this reminds of the theme running throughout David Crowder Band‘s Illuminate album, but musically it’s quite different, featuring a bouncy rhythm that stops and starts throughout the verse, not hitting full throttle until around the second chorus: “In You we live, in You we move, in You we have our being.” It wouldn’t make sense to have a song about this if there wasn’t any actual motion, so while this is probably about the closest thing to a poppy worship song that you’ll find on the album, it’s still not accomplished by conventional means, almost resembling a stripped-down, chamber pop take on what might have been one of the “big rockers” had Gungor not taken this artistic detour. Things get off-kilter during the bridge, Michael and Lisa and whatever backup vocals must have been available that day excitedly declaring “You are everything good! You are everything beautiful! You’re everything!” while letting the rhythm of the words override the actual 4/4 rhythm of the song, which is tons of fun but would probably be maddening for any in-house church band trying to keep up with the changes. The overall effect reminds me of Anathallo in some ways… and I miss Anathallo quite dearly, so this isn’t a bad thing.
3. Crags and Clay
Here the final piece of the puzzle is added to creation – mankind, shaped from the clay of Earth itself. Thus far it’s the most subdued track on the album, starting out with meditative piano that reminds me a bit of the Jónsi track “Tornado”, though this one’s quite peaceful rather than tormented. Michael’s voice is hushed, almost a whisper, as he describes the elements of nature that make up the building blocks for life: “The chaos of creation’s dance/A tapestry, a symphony/Of life himself, of love herself/It’s written in our very skin.” Even the chorus here is comparatively hushed, though beautiful in its own restrained way, in no hurry to slam us with a big hook or anything like that, but lovely all the same as Michael and Lisa softly harmonize, as if trying to grasp what it might have been like for Adam and Eve to gaze up at the stars for the first time. The soft splash of cymbals and a sweet bed of strings do eventually join in to give the song a fuller sound, and we’re three for three on gorgeous crescendoes at this point, even if they’re trying not to be as obvious about it here. You sort of have to have some respectful restraint when you’re singing a refrain like “Fearfully and wonderfully and beautifully made.”
4. The Fall
The mood of tracks three and four is similarly mellow, so you’d be forgiven for not noticing the shift in focus, but this is the moment where the idyllic wonder of Creation gets tainted, and sin is introduced for the first time. This is softly lamented over banjo and piano, and there’s a gentle call and response between Michael and Lisa as he prays for deliverance: “How long, how long ’til You save us all?”, to which Lisa’s reply (presumably playing the role of God in this exchange) is simply “Turn your face to Me.” The instrumentation, though quiet and delicate, is breathtaking at times, especially when an oboe shows up to lift the melody midway through the song. You can sense the light beginning to shine into that dark world, and there’s a real sense of peace and forgiveness to it.
5. When Death Dies
One of the most musically impressive pieces is up next, showing off Michael’s fancy fingerwork as he brings a bit of Spanish flair to the proceedings with his rolling, syncopated arpeggio on the acoustic guitar. Fittingly, the melody is all minor key and moody, but ultimately victorious, describing all manner of ways that death simply cannot win, as life springs up again where rot and decay are expected. This doesn’t fit as tightly into the “creation narrative”, but I can see little hints that we’re fast-forwarding through the Bible – lions sleep, gravestones roll, all that sort of stuff. Basically, God makes impossible stuff happen where all hope is lost. true to this album’s overall restrained approach, this one doesn’t kick into high gear until the second verse, where drum programming and hand claps liven the mood. By the time we get to the bridge, we’ve got dueling stringed instruments. As cool as all of this is (and I really, really love it – it’s my favorite track on the album, in fact), it’s hard for the studio version to compare to the live performance, in which Michael and Lisa and a beatboxing cellist – yeah, you read that right – had an entire audience of David Crowder fans going from “Who the heck are these guys?” to “Wow, now that’s how you do an acoustic set!” in the span of a mere five minutes. Go look for it on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean.
6. Church Bells
Now we delve into what I call the “prophetic” part of the album – not in the sense that it predicts the future or anything, but more that the lyrical focus turns toward things that the audience needs to hear, but that will probably find them putting up a fight. Over a softer acoustic arpeggio, almost like a slow dance, Michael pulls out his best Derek Webb impression – seriously, there are a few moments where his voice kind of cracks and he’s a dead ringer for the CCM industry’s favorite theological debate-inspiring lightning rod. The laid-back, folksy nature of the song almost makes it easy to miss the fact that this is a post-modern rebuke, admonishing the jaded and skeptical among us: “Let church bells ring, let children sing/Even if they don’t know why, let them sing/Why drown their joy, stifle their voice/Just because you’ve lost yours?” Ouch. This mean old music critic really felt that one. I guess I’ll take it under advisement. For all of Gungor’s artistic aspirations, they seem to be reminding us – as they did in more subtle ways on Beautiful Things – that simple, youthful, elementary expressions of worship are not necessarily bad things. It’s a healthy reminder – otherwise those among us who are convinced that all of those “youth-groupy” bands are so yesterday while gushing over the creativity of folks like the Gungors (who are still limited humans trying their best to express their faith in a meaningful way) could miss the point entirely and bring about a trendy wave of hipster worship bands that the next generation will simply deride for trying to put new wine into old wineskins. It’s food for thought.
7. Wake Up Sleeper
This one’ll be a jolt to the system, for just about anyone who thinks what they’ve heard from Gungor so far is roughly their speed. It’s probably the most experimental thing I’ve heard them do thus far, which is no small task given… well, this entire album. Even within the framework of Ghosts Upon the Earth, this one sticks out like a sore thumb, because it’s meant to. With banjos and acoustic guitars plucking away and a fiddle occasionally pitching in a searing note, they sound like they’re having a total field day with odd chord voicings here, almost as if they woke up on the wrong side of a Punch Brothers record. This gives the song a sinister groove, which is a strange contrast to Lisa’s voice as she relays a message of hope to the weirdos and outcasts while simultaneously taking the establishment down a peg: “Woe to you religious teachers/Rich and worshiping your book/Woe to you who use His name/To justify the souls you took.” The jarring rhythm and odd-angled melody are what it takes to make certain you don’t mistake this for just another mild-mannered praise song, I suppose. “WAKE UP!” the chorus practically wails. Gungor is one of the few Christian bands I can think of who can pull off a complete lack of subtlety like this and still sound credible (see also: “God Is Not a White Man”). Needless to say, this ain’t gonna fly on K-Love. (Which is funny, because it’s pretty much a paraphrase of what Jesus had to say to people.) Things get even weirder when the swampy acoustic vibe takes a sudden detour into some sort of heavily, electronic bass midway through, which is where Michael joins the fray: “Open our eyes and awaken us.” Looking more closely at a few of these songs where both partners share lead vocals, it starts to become clear that they’re playing consistent parts in this ongoing drama between Christ and His bride (and just to mess with your preconceived notions, Michael is apparently playing the bride.)
In keeping with the “prophetic” theme of the last few songs, this one references a literal prophet. (Bonus points if they do this one back to back with “Dry Bones” in concert.) Musically, it’s probably the most subdued thing on the album, and I know I’ve said that a lot of songs are subdued, but this one’s got its own thing going on, with a lot of dark shades – stark notes from the piano and acoustic guitar, somber bass notes sliding around, and a slow but strange rhythm that seems to keep slipping off the beat. It took a long time to get used to, and I’ve come to appreciate it now, but I still seem to have trouble keeping track of the beat when I listen to it, which is weird for a slow song. Michael proceeds to blow my theory about role-playing by clearly taking on the voice of God in this one, lamenting that Israel, like a wayward lover, has gone astray. Much like the language in the Bible itself, this analogy about two lovers doesn’t shy away from implying that the cheating lover has prostituted herself to the highest bidder. It’s not explicit, but it ain’t “safe for the whole family”, either. It’s a murky, tragic song that lets us feel the cavernous depths of that heartache. And still the jilted lover longs for his bride despite the betrayal: “Come back, my love.”
9. Vous Êtes Mon Cœur (You Are My Heart)
Here the two lovers forgive each other, and are reconciled. Despite the hurt that has taken place, the language is gentle and poetic here: “Where have you hidden yourself, oh my beloved?/You fled, having wounded; I pursued, but you had gone/In search of you, my darling, I would scale the highest clouds/Scour wooded valleys, roaring torrents, whispering gales.” For the first time I’m not sure which of Michael and Lisa’s voices are playing which role, as you could interpret the words to be about God’s faithful, relentless love, or a human who realizes how far he/she has fallen, searching high and low to find God again. Either way, the intent comes across and it will definitely be a tear-jerker for some folks, while others will get tripped-up on the seemingly gratuitous use of French. I’ve always found it weird when a few words of a foreign language are sprinkled into an otherwise all-English song – I usually feel like it’s better to just pick one language and go with it. (This bugs me on Arcade Fire records sometimes… and no, this song does not sound remotely like Arcade Fire.) I know French is regarded as romantic and all that, but it’s only those four words that aren’t sung in English, and Michael even translates them for us near the end of the song, so it doesn’t really feel like it was that necessary to present them in French in the first place. Musically, there are some restrained elements that I can appreciate here, like the flute which adds a simple beauty to this romantic ballad without making it sound overly gloppy. Still, for me this is probably the album’s weakest track.
10. This Is Not the End
We’re coming into the home stretch here, with a few lively songs that, at this point, are well-timed. And unlike “People of God”, which was an awkward blemish on the otherwise restrained back half of Beautiful Things, these up-tempo tracks are much more musically satisfying. As Lisa’s bells and Michael’s banjo ring out, along with an array of “Oh-oh”s to lighten the mood, we’ve stumbled across one of the few obvious sing-along moments on the album. It’s great fun – something with a solid (though not heavy) rhythm that you can bounce along to, and with the same keen ear for unusual instrumentation that makes this entire album so out-of-the-ordinary. I figure this one was written just to let the ad hoc band members in the studio that day unwind and have some fun. Lisa sounds great as her voice chimes out above everything else, but it’s the one spot on the album where the minimal lyrics kind of bug me a bit: “This is not the end/This is not the end of this/We will open our eyes wide, wider.” Maybe I’m missing something that should have been apparent from context, but… it’s not the end of what, exactly? I guess there are worse things than a simple song about singing for joy and being glad to still be alive. I’ll try not to think too hard about it, and instead enjoy the fun little rhythmic breakdowns in between the verses.
11. You Are the Beauty
Awwwww, yeah. As soon as those acapella voices ring out in unison, you know you’re in for something great. “Youuuuuuuuuuu are the beauty! Youuuuuuuuuuu are the light! Youuuuuuuuuu are the looooooooove, love of miiiiiiiine!” Instant smiles, right there. And that’s just the beginning, because the band launches into full-on, unabashed, bluegrass mode here. Such a weird thing to bury so late in the album, and yet so thematically appropriate, reflecting on the things that God has made for man to enjoy and to reflect His kindness – things as basic as music and our senses of taste and sight, and (gasp!) sex. (I had convinced myself, when I heard this song played live, that Michael had sung anything other than “Breath and sex and sight/All things made for good in love divine.” Nope, there it is in the lyrics! Take that, prudes.) Lyrics like that would threaten to steal the show in most any song by a Christian artist that dared to go there (even for as briefly as a single word), but the instrumental talent present for this song is not about to be underestimated. As if the unapologetically twangy bounce of the chorus weren’t enough, the entire second half of it is dedicated to a lengthy breakdown that navigates all sorts of fun twists and turns, ending up almost unrecognizable from where it started. It’s celebratory, it’s strange, it’s tons of fun. For obvious reasons, this was another jaw-dropper during their live set. Now listening to anything Gungor has done in the past makes me feel like they’ve been holding out on me.
12. Every Breath
Still, despite the fingers flying and the musical complexity on display, Gungor’s secret weapon remains their ability to hit hard with a seemingly subtle song. Here, you’d almost think they’d gone lo-fi for the first several minutes of the song, since they’ve stripped down to the gloss-less essentials of Michael’s voice and a lone guitar, picking out the chords slowly, reflectively. Everything that Ghosts Upon the Earth has given us to mull over up to this point leads to a simple prayer of re-dedication: “I will love you with all of my heart/I will love you with all of my mind/I’ll love you with all of my strength/I’ll love you with everything.” Lisa’s voice meekly backs up Michael’s here, but the grand production normally present behind them is gone. The ingredients are so basic that you could easily sing this one around a campfire – that is, until the coda. Just when the bare-bones nature of the song has been stretched almost to its breaking point, with a sparse coda leading towards what we would assume is a solemn ending, the song bursts to life much like how “Let There Be” did at the beginning of the album, bringing back the boys’ choir and the crashing drums. It’s every bit as beautiful and effective. Those final repeated words – “Here I am, Lord/All I am, Lord/Here I am, Lord/I am Yours” ring out louder and louder, almost as if all of the mistakes and betrayals documented throughout the album are being swept into a huge vortex and sucked out of existence forever. What remains is an innocent lullabye of gentle bells gradually fading out, perhaps a reminder of the way God sees us through the lens of salvation. It is the sound of being born again.
Finally listening to this album after coming home from the band’s amazing set opening for David Crowder, I realized that a torch was effectively being passed, from one of the worship bands I’ve respected most during the past decade to one who will hopefully continue to amaze me in weird ways over the coming decade. There are still some growing pains – I think Gungor’s still got a magnum opus in them just yearning to break free. But Ghosts Upon the Earth is pretty darn close, and while I’m not sure how wide its appeal is going to be, I figure that those who do spend the time to really get into it will likely find a deep appeal for it.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Let There Be $1.50
Brother Moon $1.50
Crags and Clay $1
The Fall $1
When Death Dies $2
Church Bells $1
Wake Up Sleeper $1
Vous Êtes Mon Cœur (You Are My Heart) $.50
This Is Not the End $1
You Are the Beauty $2
Every Breath $1.50
Michael Gungor: Vocals, guitars, piano, glockenspiel, banjo, mandolin, programming, horn/string/choir arrangements
Lisa Gungor: Vocals, piano, glockenspiel, bells, percussion
Lots of other people: Lots of assorted stuff
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.