Gungor – I Am Mountain: Soundtrack to the Dark Night of the Soul

2013_Gungor_IAmMountainArtist: Gungor
Album: I Am Mountain
Year: 2013
Grade: B

In Brief: If Ghosts Upon the Earth was a total game-changer for Gungor, then I Am Mountain may be a completely different sport. It throws a monkey wrench into nearly everything you thought you knew about them. With candid expressions of doubt and putting one’s faith in the wrong things, and one heck of a schizophrenic musical approach, the duo has already alienated a lot of “Christian music” fans. But ultimately, their brave choice to be honest instead of pandering to an audience results in a fascinating, albeit somewhat uneven, record that reminds us what lies at the axiomatic “ground floor” of our system of beliefs.


I Am Mountain, the third album released by Gungor since their re-christening under a single name after being known as The Michael Gungor Band, is the type of album that is almost easier to describe by pointing out what it is not. This approach will probably make more sense to folks who have at least some passing familiarity with the married couple’s past work, but bear with me here even if you haven’t. I think summing up what their music used to be, and how it has changed, is probably the best way to manage expectations for an album that, without some context, could be a bit of a tough pill to swallow.

First of all: It is not Beautiful Things II or even Ghosts Upon the Earth II. Both of those were strong albums. The first was a cross between “sorta youth-groupy rocked-out praise songs and artsy indie worship ballads”, with its simple-yet-ingenious title track, pretty much the duo’s signature song. The second purposefully distanced itself from the rockier and more youthful side of that sound, aiming for a more mature and more lushly produced, but sometimes still quite jubilant, “post-modern liturgical” take on mankind’s creation, fall, and ultimate redemption through Jesus Christ. It wasn’t your typical “Christian music” album by a long shot, but it was still quite clear where the group was coming from. I Am Mountain sounds nothing like those albums, and its lyrics don’t read like anything from those albums.

Second: It is not a “worship” album. That may sound weird coming from an act that pretty much established itself on the premise of bridging the gap between smartly constructed congregational worship songs and more cerebral, theologically-heavy discussions of what our faith means and how it changes us. But I can’t imagine singing any of these songs while sitting in a pew. That’s not to say that it isn’t coming from a Christian perspective – Michael and Lisa are still Christians – but the fact that this is the type of album that makes them have to keep answering listeners’ questions about what they believe nowadays oughta clue you in that these aren’t soothing modern hymns designed for the Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin fan clubs.

Third, and most important: This album is uncomfortable. You can hear it in the odd shifts between musical styles as it meanders from track to track, sometimes rocking out way more than Ghosts ever even tried to, and sometimes getting lost in eerie layers of synthesized sound – when Michael isn’t doing a bunch of fancy noodling around on his acoustic guitar, of course. And you can hear it in the troubled questions that don’t always meet up with satisfying resolutions by the end of the song, or even the entire album. This is the sort of art that makes you pause for a second, and wonder what the artist must have gone through to arrive at such questions. Having a read a bit about Michael and Lisa’s experiences behind the scenes, particularly with Michael going through one of those “dark nights of the soul” and having to pretty much reconstruct his entire system of beliefs from square one, helps to inform the individual songs quite a bit, but taken in a vacuum, I Am Mountain is truly puzzling. How you choose to respond to the mere presence of such discomfort may say a lot about you as a listener. Are you the type who wants to shut down the doubts as quickly as possible, believing that to merely give them a voice is to give Satan a foothold? Then you will not understand, enjoy, or appreciate this album, beyond perhaps a few fleeting moments. Are you the type who wants to sit down over a cup of coffee and have a long, candid talk about how a person’s spiritual struggles have shaped them as a human being, and is your natural response to that one of compassion, or one of judgment? If it’s the former, you may get a lot out of this album. If you’ve been through it yourself, or are going through it now, then you might get quite a bit out of it.

But there’s a fourth thing that I should also mention: This is not a “secular” album, either. That word gets thrown around a lot by Christians uncomfortable with the thought of the line between “us” and “them” getting blurred, and it can be used as a dirty codeword for “ashamed of their faith and only in it for the money” when an artist jumps the fence and starts playing to no specific demographic in particular. There’s simply too much discussion of faith, both the presence and the absence of it, for this to go over well with folks who just want music to give them an innocent way to unwind with a catchy tune and who don’t want to be troubled with all that religion stuff. It’s just that Christians used to speaking (and singing) their usual lingo may not know how to process the thoughts of someone once on the inside looking at the Church from the outside, deciding if they still want to take part. I’m at a point in my own personal journey where I can relate to this – still absolutely sure that I’m a Christian, but not too terribly keen on the whole insulated sub-culture we’ve set up for ourselves, particularly in terms of how we typically deal with folks who knock our idea of the status quo on its side. I’ve been one of those folks in the past, and I’ve behaved judgmentally towards some of those folks in the past. And I’m glad that Gungor wants to add to that conversation, even if it’s too unsettling of a conversation for most folks to want to have.

And finally: It’s not a depressing album. At times, it might be. But there are songs of hope and celebration here, songs that hold firm to beautiful things we simply can’t un-know, despite how much we may engage in the philosophical exercise of throwing away as many assumptions as possible. Songs about the intimacy of familial love, the soul-growing experience of learning to love the journey even when the destination is elusive, and the inherent miracle in the particles of dust and water that make up our bodies and the cosmos alike. Stuff that you know is good for you deep down, even if you may be tempted to return to more superficial comforts after what is admittedly a bit of a downer ending. Stuff that reminds those with ears to hear that God is still present, even in situations where His name is not explicitly mentioned, or even when it is at the center of a thorny question asked by a brave skeptic.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. I Am Mountain
Despite all I’ve said to imply that this album is a difficult listen, its title track is one of Gungor’s most joyous songs (and one of the hardest to get out of your head). A cute little piano riff meets a percussive groove that soon builds into a triumphant chorus with pounding drums – the song really satisfies a primal urge to bang on things and cry out at the top of your lungs. In some ways, it’s a creation story, and while Ghosts Upon the Earth opened with one of those as well, this one is more about how we are woven together from the physical components of the universe – “I am mountain, I am dust/Constellations made of us.” I love Michael’s notion that we are “Momentary carbon stories/From the ashes, filled with holy ghost”, and I love how he trades off vocals with Lisa, who declares “We will fight for our lives” to set up the wordless chorus, which is simply one long, tuneful “Whooooooooa!” optimized for full audience participation. It’s an incredibly welcoming track, even if it does nothing to prepare you for the mood whiplash to come. I just have one small complaint about the use of synthesizer here – it comes in like a siren, hanging on a persistent note, as the chorus comes roaring to its climax, and while I think a lot of indie artists have found great ways to redeem the synthesizer in recent years, it feels out of place and unnecessary in a song that already feels complete with the “earthy” sounds it started off with.
Grade: A

2. Beat of Her Heart
This incredibly moody, downbeat track is the kind of thing you’d normally expect to show up much deeper in an album’s tracklisting. Gungor put it here intentionally to shake things up and let us know that anything goes on this album. And I respect that, but I’ve had a hard time getting used to the song. I like the overall “feel” of it – the dark tone of the electric guitars gives it a bit of a “spaghetti Western” sort of flair, and Michael’s classical guitar playing demonstrates consummate musicianship as always. The sound have this one has been compared to Calexico, and that ain’t a bad place to start. I just think he made some odd choices with the melody here – his delivery is so hushed in places, and it sticks to the lower part of his register quite stubbornly, as if intentionally downplaying the drama. And as dramatic subjects for songs go, the fable or Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the oldest and most effective ones in the book – a musician descends into hell to rescue the doomed soul of his wife, but his own hubris gets in the way of his ability to free her. Arcade Fire delved into this story on Reflektor, released a mere month after I Am Mountain, and the coincidental timing is interesting even if the two bands have nothing in common apart from being led by a husband and wife. Gungor’s take on the story has the soul and the texture of it right, but the odd pacing and the even odder melody seem to intentionally curb any excitement that I might otherwise feel about it.
Grade: C+

3. Long Way Off
More uptempo, decidedly light in its approach, is this toe-tapping anthem dedicated to the true knowledge of knowing that we know nothing. It’s one of those necessary philosophical steps in Michael’s journey of deconstructing and reconstructing his faith – having the humility to admit that while we believe certain things to be true about an infinite and all-knowing God, we can’t even come close to knowing everything about that God or the world He created. At first, with its light, breezy piano melody and Lisa’s meek harmony vocals, bumping along on a computerized bass line, it tackles simple concepts, such as great scientific accomplishments that have only shown us the universe is vaster than we could have ever conceived, and then later dropping much heavier concepts on us: “The erudite composed a thesis/Everything we see is all there is/But as an apophatic mystic/We’re a long way off.” Yeah, I had to look up some dictionary words there, I’ll admit it. While this song never quite reaches the boiling point that it seems to want to, it’s a worthwhile meditation, and I think the heavy vocabulary here is quite intentional, as a way of saying, “These words may sound smart, but I really don’t know much of anything.”
Grade: B+

4. Wandering
One thing that really stood out to me about Ghosts Upon the Earth was that whenever Lisa took the lead for a song, the lyrics and overall approach tended to be more minimal. Her writing style is more simple and meditative in nature, so a song like “Let There Be” or “This Is Not the End” may not seem terribly detailed if you judge songs by their word count, but they’re really good at setting a mood and painting it across a wide canvas. This song also does that, but in a much more dreary and alienating way than Gungor fans are used to. Your level of tolerance for Auto-tune will heavily influence how much you’re able to enjoy this one, because her voice is absolutely drenched in it here, becoming more and more electrified (and to some ears, the effect could be a bit grating) as the song gets more and more lost in its murky echoes. It doesn’t sound too far removed from the sort of thing Sufjan Stevens might have come up with for The Age of Adz, quite honestly – there’s a very somber piano melody slowly propelling it along, and an appropriately mournful horn section joins in, much like something you’d have heard at the end of one of Michigan‘s more drawn-out tone poems. The lyrical idea is as simple as it gets – Lisa is wandering the world, lost, with only an unspecified “you” to hold on to. it could be God. It could be her husband. It could be anyone who is a steady source of strength and refuge during troubled times. The song intentionally avoids drawing conclusions beyond that, because it is an exercise in simply learning to appreciate the wandering and not being so impatient about arriving at the destination. Finally, at the tail end of the song, the electronic layers are discarded and her voice comes through as clear as day… she’s still wandering, but more content to be in that state.
Grade: B

5. Let It Go
This one also isn’t too specific in the lyrics department, but unlike “Wandering”, it’s fun as hell. Gungor demonstrated a few times on past albums that they could lay down a funky groove, but here they totally go for it, with tricked-out bass licks and a light-speed guitar solo heavy on the wah-wah and a fast-paced beat designed to get a crowd moving. Plenty of synth, too. It fits better here. The point of it all seems to be that there’s a time for uncertainty and waiting for a sign, and then there’s a time to stop letting all the baggage drag you down and just learn to enjoy life without all the answers. As philosophical advice goes, this might seem a bit on the shallower side, but I think part of my own process with this album is learning that each song is not a self-contained thesis, but rather a step in the journey. There are times when this is appropriate. And this song celebrates the freedom one feels when they stop worrying about what everyone else thinks and wants them to believe and the supposed “answers” they’re supposed to have for everyone else, and they just say “to hell with it”. Maybe not forever, but at least for long enough to pull their heads out of the sand and celebrate the things we know for sure are good and right in this life. (This one’s gonna be a highlight when I see Gungor in concert next weekend, I’m willing to bet.)
Grade: A

6. Wayward and Torn
Bringing back a bit of the Western flair, but not sticking around for terribly long, is this twangy little ditty that promises a home for those wandering souls who don’t fit in anywhere else. The melody has a world-weariness to it that makes it sound like it came from an old folk song, the vocal harmonies resonate with sonic depth, and Michael’s steel-stringed guitar solo is a reason to get up out of your seat and cheer. But just as they’re drawing you into this rousing anthem of misfit unity, the song repeats part of its first verse and then abruptly ends. It’s barely two minutes long. Aw man, I was hoping for a breakdown a la “You Are the Beauty”!
Grade: B-

7. God and Country
By far the most rockin’ thing on the album – and out of pretty much anything the duo has done since “Dry Bones” – this track seems like it will settle for nothing less than to kick some ass and take some names. Ironically, it does so by criticizing our lust for ass-kicking in the supposed name of righteousness and patriotism. I’m sure Gungor’s gotten some flak for this one. It’s basically an extension of a blog post he wrote in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings in late 2012, asking if our love of guns was blinding us from the inherent dangers of letting people be so free to own them. Boy, did the claws come out after this one. Sort of proved his point, though I don’t think he was saying we should absolutely take all the guns away from every citizen, either. Just that we need to rethink the pros and the cons and stop using the name of God as an excuse to violently strike down anyone we perceive as a threat. The song – which comes blazing in on a rollicking drumbeat likely inspired by Muse‘s “Knights of Cydonia” – almost cartoonishly pokes fun at our violence with its rip-roaring guitar licks and its whip-crack sound effects. Both Lisa and Michael play the part of relatives of soldiers who have given their lives to pointless wars, pulling no punches as they cry, “Barely even knew what in hell he’s fighting for!” I think the intent here was for them to represent people on both sides of a war who care more about the loved ones they’ve lost than about any political ideology. I don’t think the song is 100% anti-war, per se – there are times when an individual or an entire nation has no choice but to defend themselves from aggressors. But it’s pretty sobering nonetheless when Michael sings in the acoustic coda, “Those who live by the gun die by the gun”. If we keep arming ourselves to the teeth, then the cycle can only continue.
Grade: A+

8. Hither and Yon
I honestly don’t see the point of this instrumental track. It sort of serves as an intro for the following song, but it’s mostly just a slow electronic beat, some meandering piano chords, and Lisa “aah”-ing along to a melody that doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. After a minute or so Michael’s acoustic guitar segues us into…
Grade: C

9. Yesternite
… a very sparse and personal song that might just take us into the deepest point of doubt and turmoil that Michael reached. There’s a quiet grace to the way he finger-picks this one, and for the most part other instruments stay out of the way, save for a string section, which really gets going midway through the song when they start plucking away and things get more dramatic. Since Michael is singing about “gods” – yes, plural – that seemed to smile on him yesterday only to have left him in the lurch overnight, this is an easily misinterpreted song. It sort of makes me chuckle that some listeners have heard this and assumed Gungor became polytheistic or something – they’re completely missing the point that this song is about things that we mistake for God and put our trust in, only to be disappointed. With that said, there are times when I feel like this one is trying too hard to be clever (honestly, who says “Yesternight” instead of “Last night”, and if they do, who spells it the cheesy way?), and that just doesn’t fly with the subtle and intimate approach that it takes. So what we end up with is a well-meaning song that I can relate to, having been through my own times of doubt and disappointment and having to refine my understanding of what god actually promises versus the feel-good things we make up for Him to say to us, but ultimately a song that sort of misses its mark because it’s trying too hard to be unpredictable.
Grade: B-

10. The Best Part
I can take one slow, abstract, synth-heavy ballad from Lisa. I’m not so sure about two, especially surrounded by the already mellow material that dominates the end of this album. Again, it’s a glimpse into a moment of intimacy – in this case, being pulled out of your introverted by such simple things as the touch of your toddler child’s hand, or the beat of your lover’s heart heard and felt against the cold, still night air. There could have been a real sense of graceful beauty to this one – Michael certainly pours his heart and soul into the reserved but romantic acoustic soloing that he does throughout the track. But the stiff electronic beat and persistent synth chords dominate the track to the point where it makes everything else seem secondary. I get that the synths and keyboards are Lisa’s things and so her songs are going to involve them quite a bit… it just doesn’t gel all that well with what Michael is doing here, and maybe they see this as a merging of two very different musical personalities, but I kind of feel like this wasn’t the time for intentional stylistic dissonance.
Grade: C+

11. Finally
The album concludes (or rather, seems like it’s about to conclude_ on a hopeful note. Slowly, cautiously, almost as if afraid to speed things up and risk us missing this honest prayer, Michael sings over a stark but steady drum beat and an anemic sketch of a guitar melody, about looking forward to the innocence and the freedom of finding Eden again. In some ways, this feels like a look back at Ghosts Upon the Earth, thematically if not stylistically, particularly when the tempo picks up just enough to approach the breezier pace of a song like “Long Way Off”, and a banjo and some other colorful instruments are brought in, as he softly sings of that day when things are made right again: “We’ll chase the sun/Naked we’ll run/We could be free/Finally.” It’s an optimistic finish, but not a big, anthemic one, as if the Gungors are being cautious with their optimism.
Grade: B+

12. Upside Down
Just as “Beat of Her Heart” felt out of place at track 2, this one seems rather jarring when placed at the end of the album. “Finally” wrapped things up so well that this one can feel like an afterthought at first – a track that was cut from the album proper but that they were too proud of to leave out entirely. However, given that it’s such a long, abstract piece and that its deceptively simple lyrics seem to ache with loaded questions directed at the Almighty, I’m pretty sure that it was fully intended to go here all along, as if to snatch the neat and tidy ending we “Christian music” fans have been trained to expect, and to close the record instead with a sobering reminder that sometimes doubts and frustrations linger, for months or even years, and you just have to wrestle with them honestly, as best you can. The first few minutes seem calm and delicate enough, like a simple prayer that could apply to one human soul as easily as it applies to the entire planet: “Upside down/Upside down/This world is upside down/Do you see?/Do you see us?/Do you hear us?/Make it right/Make it right/Let the sun rise.” No kidding, those are the entire lyrics of the song. And you could fill in any number of personal or global tragedies as the reasons for those questions and concerns. The second half of the song is where things really go off the rails – and just to be clear, I’m not criticizing Gungor for this, just saying it’s unexpected. The melody gets way more minor key, and the whole things gradually whips up into a maelstrom of a climax with the piano swirling around a sad, slow, sustained guitar melody, while the rest of the soundscape seems to be falling apart around us, as if the hard questions were too much to handle. Buried in the sonic mess that is the end of this song, Michael and Lisa’s voices barely register, panned off to one side or the other, reciting simple axioms about what God and our faith and the whole ball of wax mean even if some of the things we were always taught turn out to be wrong. I can’t really do it justice, and you can’t really hear everything that’s being said, but Michael has a blog post about this that I think is worth looking up. It’s an ending that many will misinterpret and find deeply troubling… and I think we’re meant to find it deeply troubling, because that’s how it feels to have the rug pulled out from under you when you thought you had this whole faith thing figured out. I’ve been through enough of it to realize it’s an important part of the growth process… but it is painful and scary and frustrating, and this song, hard as it may be even for an open-minded listener like myself to swallow, is commendable for trying to paint that picture accurately. Still, those expecting the calming majesty of a song like “Run to You” or “Every Breath” are probably going to be massively disappointed with this one.
Grade: B

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
I Am Mountain $1.75
Beat of Her Heart $.50
Long Way Off $1.25
Wandering $1
Let It Go $1.75
Wayward and Torn $.75
God and Country $2
Hither and Yon $0
Yesternite $.75
The Best Part $.50
Finally $1.25
Upside Down $1
TOTAL: $12.50

BAND MEMBERS:
Michael Gungor: Lead and backing vocals, guitars, various instruments
Lisa Gungor: Lead and backing vocals, piano, keyboards, various instruments

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
https://play.spotify.com/album/0lRmcnWHj2uWG7osKQSL1l

MORE USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.gungormusic.com
http://www.facebook.com/gungormusic

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