In Brief: For a fifteen-year-old album by an often-misunderstood “worship band” in a style that’s been done to death since then, King of Fools holds up surprisingly well.
I was a teenager just shy of my 20th birthday when I got my first taste of a band that would go on to be one of my favorites for the next decade or so. The previous summer, I had been working at a camp where I made friends with a fellow college student who had musical tastes similar to mind. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see this friend again, given that the distance between L.A. and San Diego seemed insurmountable for two college kids without cars. But he was good at keeping in touch, and rather thoughtful when something caught his ear that he thought I might like. In the middle of spending an entire school year abroad in Scotland, he was kind enough to send me a cassette of the first studio album by an up-and-coming UK band that, unbeknownst to either of us, was soon to take the Christian music industry by storm. That band was Delirious?, and that tape (which unfortunately didn’t have much of a shelf life due to the tendency of cassettes to warp and get tangled up and do other weird things when they had particularly long running times) was King of Fools.
Delirious? is a name that tends to ignite either fond memories or strong criticism when you bring them up today to anyone who knows anything about Christian music. On one side of the fence, you have the folks who followed stuff like Hillsongs and Vineyard, who were likely to have been sitting around fire circles or on college quads with acoustic guitars singing “Lord You Have My Heart” and “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” well before they ever had a proper radio single on American shores. To these folks, Delirious? basically ushered in the era of modern worship. We were already worshiping God to the tune of soft rock before that, but somehow these guys made it cool. They took a sound U2 didn’t seem to want to use any more and turned it into these monolithic songs about revival and sanctification and intimacy with God. Then suddenly everyone in the land of CCM wanted to do this. And that’s where the other side of the fence comes in – the critics, who pointed out that these guys couldn’t write an original-sounding song if they tried, that Martin Smith‘s lyrics were painfully repetitive and unprofessional, and that all the imitators that sprung up basically ruined Christian rock as we once knew it. I’d say both sides are a bit extreme, but at that young, wide-eyed age, I hadn’t really heard anything like this before and I found it quite refreshing. Delirious? was a band that I stuck with for the long haul, which was a bit of a bumpy ride at times as they seemed to turn out some of the most memorable worship songs of the era while also making equal amounts of effort to defy the “worship band” tag altogether and write a lot of mainstream pop-oriented and even sometimes rather experimental material instead. They just didn’t want to be pigeonholed, and even on their first proper album King of Fools, that was readily apparent.
It’s honestly better that I came into King of Fools completely cold, not even knowing that these guys were responsible for the aforementioned “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever”. UK fans who knew and loved them as “The Cutting Edge Band” must have had mixed feelings when they popped this baby in and heard moodier soundscapes, the occasional loud and mean guitar parts, and lyrics on several songs that were most definitely not directed at God nor singing of His wonders in the third person. It’s a mixed bag, containing a few of the band’s best known anthems and a whole lot of “let’s try this and see if it sticks”. You could be rocking out one minute and then be stymied by a mellow, trancelike song that seems to kill your buzz for several minutes. Or you could be lost in a worshipful trance only to be rudely jolted out of it. The Cutting Edge records certainly had their feistier moments, but King of Fools seems to dive headlong into the turmoil and look at things through the eyes of a Christian trying to make sense of a confused world. It starts and ends with a blissful feeling of being all curled up in God’s mighty arms, but in between is a world of formidable mountains and car crashes and broken vows and holy wars. Throughout all of this, the record strives to be comforting, to walk with those who are hurting, but it’s thankfully short on easy answers. For all of the moments when the mood swings might bring on a sense of whiplash or the lyrics might seem a bit undercooked, there’s an honesty to it that I still find refreshing.
For some reason, as the band’s catalog grew more extensive over the years and I became fascinated with their more experimental side (and also started buying albums on CD!), this record kind of fell by the wayside. I’d pull it out occasionally and find it to be a bit of a chore to get through. Replacing that old worn out tape on CD certainly helped, but it also brought along a bit of a surprise. You see, Delirious? has one of the most confusing discographies of any band that’s been exported to the States from Great Britain since The Beatles. Almost everything they released over here in the earlier phase of their career got tampered with in some fashion – The Cutting Edge demos became a 2-disc set with the track order slightly mixed up, Mezzamorphis got completely rearranged with a few extra tracks thrown in, and Glo was thankfully left alone, but then Audio: Lessonover? languished in development hell for almost a year before finally being released as the vastly inferior Touch. It was almost like Sparrow records (their American label) didn’t trust these guys to just put out a good record and leave well enough alone. King of Fools fell prey to some of that early meddling, but to be honest, it might have improved the album slightly, since one track gets a rockier remix and a brand new track (actually a remix of one of the aforementioned Cutting Edge songs) slips right into the back half of the album, as if restoring a deleted scene to a film. I’m used to this version now and I think it feels a little more complete, even if the principle of the thing still bugs me all these years later. That said, it probably makes the earlier UK release (with a different wacko on the cover who doesn’t look at all like the Jerry Springer doppleganger on the American version) a bit of a collector’s item.
Anyway, time to pretend I’m still that wide-eyed college kid (later revisions notwithstanding) and dive deep into an old favorite once again.
A rather strange intro, just some rattling sounds and some fuzz from a speaker being plugged in, lead suddenly into the first verse of this opening prayer. “Here I am, in that old place again, down on my face again.” These were the first words I ever heard Martin Smith sing, in this devotional song that deftly balances a reverent posture with moody guitar chords that gradually climb to a crescendo. By today’s standards it might sound common, even cliche, but back in the mid-90s, there were only a handful of Christian bands attempting this sort of textured approach to worship music, and most of them were underground. It has its moments that an audience can sing along to, but where some bands might have gone right for the payoff, Delirious? sets about steadily trekking up the side of the mountain to get to that climax, as if the sweat and tears expended during the climb were part of the sanctification process. It pays off in a big way when the song peaks, hitting its loudest moment and then backing away for a hushed final verse that hangs with no immediate resolution: “Here I am/I’ve climbed with the strength I have up to this mountaintop/Looking out/The clouds getting bigger now/It’s time to get ready now.” This leads quite brilliantly into their first big hit song.
With its bouncy bass line and radio-ready chorus, this was the first Delirious? song that I fell in love with (as it was for a sizable group of their American fans, I’d suspect). It may well be the most played song in the band’s catalogue (by the band members themselves, that is), having been remixed for Mezzamorphis, played live at nearly every concert since it was recorded, and documented on the lion’s share of their live albums. With its big glorious gesture “And the wonder of it all is that I’m living just to fall more in love with You”, it’s easy to see why it caught on, since it treads the fine line between pop, rock, and worship so effortlessly. It’s such an obvious single, yet it’s not formulaic, since everything from the vocals to the rhythm section to Stu G’s guitar solo in the middle eight is just oozing with character. Even in the middle of such a joyous song, Martin’s aware of his feet being tethered to the Earth, knowing there’s always something more of God to know that will remain just slightly out of his reach. It gives the song a touch of realism, I think, that helps to offset its lofty goal and that ultimately makes it more relatable.
3. Revival Town
This song was already a pretty big moment on the original King of Fools, taking more of an organic approach with an acoustic guitar and some bongos leading the way, but still feeling like an unstoppable freight train by the time it ended. The remixed version trims off a bit of run time, but it cranks up Stewart Smith‘s drums and Stu G’s guitars considerably, even adding conspicious sound effects where they’re honestly not needed. It’s about an even trade – the song’s a lot of fun either way as Martin works himself into a fervor over a place where people are rediscovering their passion for God and it’s catching like wildfire. His tone here is more conversational and more rambling, as if giving his band a mission statement: “Well, I’ve got a message to bring/I can’t preach but I can sing/And me and my brothers here/Are gonna play redemption hymns.” This one seems like such an obvious standout that it theoretically should have gone on to become another Delirious? staple, but honestly I think “History Maker” (which we’ll get to later) ended up eating both versions of this one for breakfast. “Revival Town” seems like a pretty monumental anthem until you find out later what Delirious? can really do when they pull out all the stops.
4. All the Way
The first of a few more intimate moments on this album comes across, not too surprisingly, as the bigger brother with a bigger budget of some of the more quiet, confessional moments from the Cutting Edge days. Leading with electric guitar rather than acoustic despite the song having a simple chord sequence is probably a mistake, even if it does help to set the song apart from a number of acoustic ballads that the band had already done. By the time the string section creeps in and Martin starts to slip into falsetto, you know they’re aiming for something highly emotional. They almost get there too, with lines like “With you I’m washed as white as the snow/And all crimson stain becomes just a shadow.” But then Martin sabotages it with a rather weak chorus: “Today, today, today/We’re going all the way.” Listening carefully, I can appreciate how a subtle but soulful guitar solo meshes with the string section. Also, as Martin holds his last few notes of falsetto for another “left hanging” sort of ending, the band pulls off a pretty slick transition into the next song (even if the high-pitched whistling sound that bridges the gap is too strong a reminder of “With or Without You” for comfort).
5. August 30th
On the titular day in 1995, Martin, his wife, and bassist Jon Thatcher were involved in a car accident that they were lucky – wait, I’m sorry, we Christian folks prefer to say “blessed” – to walk away from alive. You probably wouldn’t know it just from listening to a song that in which Martin vaguely praises God for a second chance and recommits his life to Him. “Thank you for the chance to live again, I will run always for You”, is about as specific as it gets. And a very small set of lyrics gets repeated a lot over nearly six and a half minutes. So this song gets a C for specificity. But it gets an A for ambiance. The trance-like drum loop, simple acoustic guitar chords and piano, and Martin’s gentle vocals all work together to create something more sublime than it probably sounds from my description. The only electric guitars present are there to add a warm, golden glow that softly hums across the top of everything else. I don’t remember a lot of Christian rock bands experimenting with that sort of ambient, tonal stuff until the early 2000s, so it’s interesting to listen to this and hear some of the potential inspiration for later bands like Future of Forestry.
WAH WAH WAH WAHHHH… If an electric guitar could talk like the adults from Peanuts, that’s what the weird little intro to this song would sound like. It gives the listener very little warning as an uncompromisingly angry guitar riff comes crashing in, obliterating whatever prayerful trance you might have found yourself in the middle of. This is, quite intentionally, not your traditional Delirious? praise song. It ain’t a praise song at all – it’s a song about confronting broken promises and the harsh lessons learned from them. Everything about this song is loud, gritty, and distorted, and it’s probably the closest Delirious? ever got to sounding like alternative rock when the genre was still going strong in the 90s. This one could well be a long-forgotten genre exercise for Delirious?, but thanks to Stu G’s ample riffing and his surprisingly lively guitar solo, it turns out to be quite a memorable anomaly in the band’s back catalogue. It may well have been their first crack at mainstream radio, which was always a rather dicey proposition for the band since literally every attempt to get a song on Radio One was a huge fight for them. But if there’s one early Delirious? song that your average “secular” listener could hear and not immediately go, “Ewww, is this one of those Christian bands?”, it would probably be this one. And I mean that as a compliment.
7. King or Cripple
Oh boy, we’re really deep into the melancholy stuff now. I’d honestly forgotten that the band could get so moody back in the day until I pulled this album out again recently. What starts as a fragile piano ballad about mankind’s fragility and the alarming ease with which we fall from grace turns out to be another instance of aural whiplash, as these huge crashing cymbals and distorted guitar come leaping out after the first verse. Honestly, Mezzamorphis shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise to listeners after songs like “Promise” and this one. Even as the aggression backs off and it settles into a calm mantra of “Keep me, keep me”, this only ends up leading to one of the most startling false endings I’d ever encountered in “Christian music” during my college days. I must have jumped a few feet out of my chair when that guitar came squealing back in after I thought the song was over! And then from there until the true ending, it’s like a musical earthquake of epic proportions. This one must have a been a real show-stopper in their live shows back in the day… it’s a bit disjointed and not as thoroughly awesome of a listen once you know what its gimmick is, but it’s still great evidence of a band not wanting to be pigeonholed.
8. Hands of Kindness
Remembering not to completely betray the Cutting Edge fans, Delirious? backs off considerably for the most minimal song on the album, which is a pretty, piano-driven little prayer. Actually, it might be the percussion driving it more than the piano, since Tim Jupp‘s chords are so long, slow, and sustained, but the gentle drums have more of an intricate pattern to it. Things gradually complexify as the song tiptoes on, but you can tell from the get-go that this isn’t going to be one of their more musically intriguing tracks. I’m okay with that. it sets its mood nicely enough. The only real downfall to this one is that it once again reveals Martin’s habit of tricking us into thinking a song has more content than it really does. By singing slowly and repeating his chorus a lot, he’s able to wring about five minutes of calmly staring at your folded hands out of three verses containing two lines apiece, and a chorus that feels like a mere fragment of what it could have been: “How I love You/All I am is You/King of love, I bow.” Those college students who would lug their acoustic guitars all over campus to have spontaneous worship sessions with their friends (and I totally loved hanging out with some of those folks) would have loved this one, while those who wanted their lyrics to have a little more fire and conviction would probably have given up on the band in frustration at this point.
9. Louder than the Radio
This refugee from the Cutting Edge days got a makeover for the US version of the album, upping its tempo slightly and giving it a bit more bite and grumble, similar to what happened to “Revival Town” on its way across the Atlantic. Shoot, there’s even a bit of wah-wah in the second verse. They clearly wanted this to be a fun, funky, crowd sing-along anthem. With its big happy chorus of “Everybody ’round the world, COME ON!”, it certainly sounds like it wanted to be the rallying cry for a generation, but putting it on the same album as “Revival Town” and “History Maker” kind of dilutes the effect a little bit. So instead it has to settle for being the rallying cry for some weekend youth conference that had the misfortune of happening mere months before “History Maker” was written. (I don’t know that such a thing really happened. It just sounds like that type of song.) I can see how the band might have realized after the fact that this song fit a lot of the lyrical themes explored on King of Fools, but amidst some of the more personal and intimate stuff, it feels a bit too much like it’s trying to be all things to all people. Also, how is it that awesome for God’s praise to be “louder than the radio”? The radio isn’t really that loud. Lots of things are way louder. This song just needs a better simile.
10. White Ribbon Day
The album’s longest song (though by mere seconds over “August 30th” and that other song I keep overhyping) is so beautiful and poignant as it comes fading in, sounding almost like it could have been a B-side on The Joshua Tree if that album hadn’t been so America-centric. (And if it used a choir and much more clearly religious language. OK, maybe that isn’t the best comparison. Leave The Joshua Tree the way it is, please.) This one’s all about “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, admittedly not a subject that you would have heard a lot of American bands singing about at the time. Delirious? wanted to remember their brothers, embroiled in conflict between two different countries and two different takes on the same faith, and the questions they ask when pondering the senseless killing certainly don’t pull any punches: “How can it be that God is love/When blood rolls down upon our land/And fathers lose their only sons?/Where is the hope?” The song doesn’t pretend to answer these questions, aside from drawing a parallel to the unspeakable violence Jesus endured on His way to the cross. It’s mostly a prayer for peace and a moment of calm to rejoice in as the people celebrate “White Ribbon Day”, apparently some sort of rally for peace that folks hoped would serve as a lasting reminder. Sometimes I really like this one for its earth-shaking grandness and its sheer ambition; other times I think it’s trying to bite off more than it can chew. (Think of any number of songs written about America shortly after 9/11 – it’s a similar hit-or-miss proposition. How you respond depends largely on your disposition, and as usual, I’m stuck in between cynicism and idealism here.)
11. King of Fools
I’m willing to bet that half the reason why King of Fools, taken as a full album, doesn’t strike me as memorable as many of the band’s other albums, is because its title track is its weakest link. It’s electric but watered down, rhythmic but sluggish, experimental but not really committed to its own uniqueness, and it tries to be clever but it isn’t descriptive enough to really get there. The idea behind it is that a Christian with genuine faith in something that can’t be seen is going to look like an idiot in the eyes of the world, and that at some point you just have to embrace that paradox of foolish wisdom and let the world’s curiosity be the hook that keeps them asking questions. Something like that. Martin’s brevity is his worst enemy here: “Waiting for you/Nothing in this world can bring me/Peace and madness/They’ve become the very best of friends/Walking with you/Blindly follow out upon the/Water runs down/You’ve become the very best of friends.” It makes sense… sort of… but you’re led to extrapolate so much from it that it doesn’t really serve as the statement of identity for the album that it was clearly meant to. I tend to see this one as a mere speed bump between the two monolithic tracks on either end of it.
12. History Maker
OK, by this point I’ve managed to inflate this song to the point where if by some strange stroke of luck you’re into Christian music but haven’t heard this one yet, you’re probably doomed to be disappointed by it. Sorry, I can’t help it. It’s probably the band’s most emblematic song, the one they had to play at every concert or risk being drawn and quartered (I would have said “crucified”, but… you know). Their response to everyone falling in love with it was to draw it out to Charismatic (yes, with a capital C) proportions, filling it with excited preaching and praying and snippets from other songs that the band would accumulate into their setlists over the years. Something that becomes that huge of a highlight (or an albatross, depending on your perspective) in concert often seems disappointingly small and quaint when you go back and listen to the original album version. But not here. It was like Delirious? had always planned this, as the song becomes a near seven-minute sprint toward the finish line, listing off all manner of miracles (some of the “scientifically impossible” variety such as curing blindness and, y’know, resurrection) that they want God’s people to pull together for and pray for uncompromisingly. It’s all driven by a huge sing-along chorus, a loud, clattering rhythm, and one of Tim Jupp‘s most memorable keyboard riffs (which is literally two notes, but fans always hooted and hollered from recognition within 0.5 seconds of the song starting, so, job well done!) People who are sticklers about rhyme schemes will probably hate some of Martin’s very loose rhymes here, but since the song is mostly a bunch of fervent rambling, it almost comes across as a coincidence to me that any of it rhymes at all. Considering all of this, it’s weird that I love the song as much as I do – I don’t even know if I’m comfortable with its use as a “worship song” (and I’ve heard praise teams cover it) because it’s so heavily focused on what we’re gonna do. I see it as more of a promise to not be bound by our human, limited ideas of what God can do – this is taking the claim seriously that when people have faith, God moves mountains. So even when I get cynical and think, “Yeah, when’s the last documented case of a person actually rising from the dead?”, I think of unexplained healings that friends have gone through, or revivals that have broken out in foreign lands even when the missionary teams sent there were ill-prepared, etc., and I’m reminded why I get swept away in this song. It’s not because we’re these prayer warriors who are gonna do awesome stuff. It’s because God is big and this song is just trying to get a glimpse at a tiny corner of that bigness and ask if we can somehow take part in it.
13. What a Friend I’ve Found
Another low-key and rather minimal, but surprisingly enduring Delirious? classic shows up here, almost feeling like a postscript now that the album’s pushing the hour mark and “History Maker” easily feels like the kind of thing you could totally close an album with. Here Delirious? attempts to merge one of their simple, acoustic, “campfire” sorts of songs with an epic chorus sung by a big group vocal, and the effect is a lot like a number of the predictable but effective climaxes heard on any number of Cutting Edge songs. the language is exactly the kind of touchy-feely, “God is my buddy” stuff that was big in the 90s (which isn’t wrong per se… just limiting if you focus only on this one aspect of God, which Delirious? pretty clearly does not), but it’s hard to pretend I don’t get a little tingle going up my spine when that crowd of voices slowly chimes in “Jeeee-suuuus… Jeeee-suuuus… Jee-ee-suuuus, friend forever.” Repeat until infinity, growing in fervor with each iteration until the eventual pretty fade-out that all worship albums must partake in. It’s like, so naive that it’s wise. But then I guess that’s exactly what King of Fools is supposed to be all about.
With the entirety of Delirious?’s career in hindsight, I’d have to say that I still prefer Glo and Mezzamorphis, two vastly different albums released when the band was at the top of their game. Still, King of Fools is a worthy predecessor to those, and it’s as strong if not more so than most of the band’s 21st-century output. Give it a listen if you’re familiar with some of their best-loved worship songs and would like the chance to dig a little – please excuse me for this – deeper.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Revival Town $1.25
All the Way $.50
August 30th $1
King or Cripple $1
Hands of Kindness $.50
Louder than the Radio $.75
White Ribbon Day $1.25
King of Fools $.25
History Maker $2
What a Friend I’ve Found $1
Martin Smith: Vocals, guitars
Stuart Garrard: Guitars, backing vocals
Tim Jupp: Keyboards, programming
Stewart Smith: Drums, percussion, backing vocals
Jon Thatcher: Bass
Originally published on Epinions.com.