In Brief: While the genre mish-mash gets a bit gimmicky and it doesn’t quite have the depth of the David Crowder Band’s best albums, I appreciate Crowder’s ongoing commitment to being creative and eclectic within the confines of “modern worship”.
I’ve developed a really strange relationship with what we Christians call “modern worship music”. I still remember fondly how, a little over twenty years ago, I first discovered that the music we sing in church could actually, at least from my perspective at the time, be a lot “cooler” than the stuffy traditional hymns I was used to as a kid. I’ve been over the details many times, ranging from my first Delirious? and SonicFlood album purchases in the late 90s to my growing disillusion with the genre in the early to mid-2000s when it began to dominate Christian radio. Here in 2014, most of the music I listen to that one might consider “Christian” tends to exist on the fringes of an industry that I’ve managed to turn my back on. It tends to be more “indie” and free from the constraints and expectations of what “church music” should should like. As much as I once respected the Matt Redmans and the Chris Tomlins of the world, their output has increasingly felt cut-and-pasted to me over the years, and it doesn’t help that there’s always a slew of young hopefuls trying to sound exactly like these guys. So it’s weird to me that there’s an artist in the genre who hasn’t really fallen out of the focus of the “mainstream” of Christian music, whose work I still actively listen to.
The David Crowder Band may have been the last holdout among those artists – I didn’t really get into them until well after I had gotten bored with many other songwriters and worship leaders of their ilk, but something about their shamelessly geeky commitment to making interesting music that explored more complex theological themes underneath deceptively simplistic lyrical structures took hold. They broke up in 2012, but most of their members continued as The Digital Age, while David Crowder himself now records simply as Crowder. The intent behind his music seems to be largely unchanged, but without the “band” format, he seems to be freer to dabble in genres aside from the expect pop/rock sound with electronic underpinnings that made up the DCB’s most popular songs. Especially toward the end of the band’s discography, we learned that Crowder really liked two genres in particular: bluegrass and dance music. We saw both of these genres get merged into the DCB’s core sound in interesting ways, occasionally occupying space on the same album, but it isn’t until now that he’s had the werewithal to try and fuse them together. That seems to be the intent of Crowder’s first full-length album apart from the band, aptly titled Neon Steeple. It’s a nod to the American church’s musical roots (he’s a good old Southern boy, after all), and it also aims to explore where the church is going and what its relationship is with the music of today.
Now, if you’re like most people, your reaction to the notion that someone would try to combine twangy folksy music with electronica is probably, “Blech”. Let’s face it. If you like one of those genres, you probably don’t go anywhere near the other, unless you have really eclectic tastes. I have eclectic tastes, and I’m still not sure the idea works as well in execution as it does in theory. (Does it even work well in theory? I’m just sort of amused that someone had the audacity to try it. I guess there was Rednex all those years ago, but that was pretty clearly a joke.) It reminds me of those old Reese’s commercials where two people enjoying their favorite dessert foods would crash into each other, and one guy would be all, “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!”, and the other guy would be all, “You got your peanut butter in my chocolate!”, except in this case it’s not peanut butter, it’s sriracha. It’s two flavors that even a culinary school genius wouldn’t have the gumption to mix and make them even remotely taste good. If you’re not the type to be scared off by the sound of a banjo gleefully plucking away (and there’s a surprisingly high number of such folks among Christian music fans, which is weird given the influence that the religion has on mainstream country music and the fact that the CCM industry is based in freakin’ Nashville), you’re probably going to bolt for the door as soon as those slamming dance beats get dropped in a few bars later. Whether your idea of a congregation coming together to sing songs of praise on Sunday morning involves hymnals and organs, or a clean-cut metrosexual in his twenties narrowly avoiding ripping off various radio hits as he belts out gushy little love songs to God while the drums and electric guitars blare loudly (and I’ll admit, I’ve grown rather tired of the latter), it certainly isn’t… whatever this is.
The truth is, once I got over the initial bad taste that Neon Steeple left in my mouth, I had to admit there was a fair amount of Crowder’s usual pop savvy behind it all. Sure, it’s gimmicky, but at times it’s kind of amusing. And at times, Crowder will drop the twang and just let a song play out as electronically accented pop music, or else he’ll drop the laptop wizardry and just sing a soulful acoustic ballad that sounds like it could be (and sometimes is) several decades older than most of this record’s source material. I can’t say that it all collides in the most logical manner, but then that sort of abrupt mad science, jumping from one musical mood to the next, has been one of Crowder’s calling cards since A Collision, and I’d take it over a sea of indistinguishable mid-tempo ballads about oceans and stuff any day.
Now I’m gonna be honest and say that while I admire Crowder for being such a freak in an otherwise mild-mannered setting, I don’t think Neon Steeple is quite the grand statement that he wants it to be. It’s 50 minutes and change of fun with genre fusion, occasionally hinting at the emotional depths or musical awesomeness of climactic moments in his old band’s discography, but never quite coming across as “classic” in the same sense that a lot of that material did to me even when it was new. I critiqued his counterparts in The Digital Age for having kind of a weak theme on their debut record Evening:Morning, and I feel pretty much the same here. I don’t have a “high concept” to use here as a roadmap to this album’s twists and turns. And the novelty of mixing genres starts to wear thin over multiple iterations, to the point where the peppier songs toward the end don’t really stand out, even though any of them clearly would have at the front of the album. “More of the same” isn’t something that should happen this quickly when an artist is so bent on musical trail-blazing that he’s willing to part ways with his old bandmates to pursue that muse. (I can only assume that’s why they’re making music as two separate entities nowadays – because the rest of the guys were like, “That’s cool and all, Dave, but we kinda still want to rock out and sing the latest Hillsongs anthem from time to time.”)
So, to sum up: Not quite the grand artistic statement I was hoping for, and for the most part not a transcendent “quiet time” sort of spiritual experience either, but a fun diversion if your tolerance for genre-bending is high.
1. Neon Intro
The album is book-ended by two short acoustic pieces, just Crowder and a guitar, which remind me of short intros such as “I Need Words” or “Sparks Fly” from early DCB albums. They don’t really do anything for me.
2. My Beloved
The first full song on the album is a party unto itself, an audacious mix of samples from old Gospel recordings, hand-claps, rapid-fire banjo picking, and a slamming club beat. It’s when that beat really kicks in, just past the first chorus, that you’re likely to bail on this album if the genre-blending doesn’t suit you. This was a good song to put up front, since it’s a litmus test for how you’re going to react to most of the songs further in. Despite every bone in my body screaming at me that this wasn’t working upon first listen, I’ve actually grown quite fond of the song, because Crowder has an effective way of repurposing what sounds like very old song lyrics and melodies with massive pop hooks. I can’t say that its themes of praising God for seeing the light are exactly new territory for Crowder (see the entire Illuminate album and, well, “I Saw the Light”), but I do like the phrasing of the opening line “There’s a sun coming up, in my soul, in my soul”, and in general this one’s just a lot of fun to sing along to.
3. I Am
This one’s a slight bit more radio-friendly, using the piano as a sort of middle ground between the acoustic and electronic elements, and not shoving the twangy stuff as far into the foreground, though it’s definitely still present. It’s a solid mid-tempo anthem that once again mines familiar territory for Crowder: “There’s no space that His love can’t reach/There’s no place that we can’t find peace/There’s no end to Amazing Grace.” Despite how many times I’ve heard him sing about more or less the same subjects, I never get the feeling that he’s just going through the motions – even in an upbeat song like this one, there’s a meditative, reverent, and ultimately celebratory tone to his voice as he reflects on the concept of undeserved favor. The chorus is clever in principle (is it “I am holding on to You” or “I am, holding on to You”, e.g. holding on to the Great I Am?), but a little weak in execution, feeling a lot like it does when one of those Chris Tomlin types takes a rich old hymn and tacks on a too-simplistic chorus in an attempt to freshen up what didn’t need freshening.
4. Come Alive
Almost as up-tempo as “My Beloved”, but starting off with more of a minor-key groove, is another one of the album’s better examples of how the bluegrass and electronic elements can work together in perversely amusing ways. Hearing this song in isolation, not already knowing what Crowder was up to in those last few tracks, you’d expect the stomping and clapping that accompanies the banjo and slide guitar in the verse to erupt into a full-on hoedown by the time the chorus comes around. Instead it becomes a road-trip-ready workout of a modern dance track, even throwing in some dubstep-inspired distortion when it comes back from the bridge, just to make us wonder how many of the world’s most disparaged genres he can pull together into a single song. It’s every bit as ridiculous as it sounds, but as the fiddle starts happily weaving its way above the dancefloor chaos, I start to wonder if a hoedown and a rave might have more in common than first meets the eye.
5. Lift Your Head Weary Sinner (Chains)
Here we lay aside the electronic tomfoolery for the better part of an entire song, once again bringing the banjo and the stomping and clapping to the forefront of an addictive, mid-tempo anthem that sounds like it could have been sung by prisoners working on the chain gang. The gritty (by Crowder standards anyway), soulful vibe is a welcome change of pace, and thanks to the strong backing vocals and overall group participation, this turns into one of those powerhouse numbers that just rattles the walls with its celebration of freedom from sin, especially towards the end, when the pounding drums that bring the bridge back into the final chorus remind me of the long build-up and eventual release of Illuminate‘s “Deliver Me” and “Coming Toward”, though not as drawn-out in this case. The message here is pretty clear, and it’s an encouraging one – “If you’re lost and wandering/Come stumbling in like a prodigal child/See the walls start crumbling/Let the gates of glory open wide.” Nobody’s a more dirty sinner than all of us already gathered here, so welcome aboard, and who cares what you did in your past that you’re ashamed of? I wish every Sunday morning in every church in the world could feel like this.
6. Come as You Are
Hmmm… a sparse piano ballad in 3/4 time with a big, emotional chorus? This one sounds an awful lot like Crowder wanted to write his very own “How He Loves” (which, as you’ll remember, he helped to popularize on Church Music, but was actually written by John Mark McMillan a few years prior). Themes of healing and redemption run strong here, and if a Christian artist is going to harp on a theme repeatedly, I suppose this is one of the better ones – “Earth has no sorrow that heaven can’t heal.” Still, I feel a strong sense of familiarity here that bugs me slightly, because it’s a pretty song but it doesn’t quite live up to the one that pretty much every listener is going to compare it to.
7. Hands of Love
I’ve noted in the past that for all of Crowder’s gleeful playing around with electronic sounds, he can come off as cheesy and kind of youth-groupy just as easily as he can come off as club-friendly and cutting-edge. Thanks to the sunniest synthesizer riff this side of “Oh, Happiness”, he unfortunately goes for the former here, and the hayride-ready rhythm doesn’t really help matters, bringing the dorkiest of both worlds together in a catchy but almost unforgivably goofy anthem that commits the cardinal sin of rhyming “Jesus” with “frees us” in its chorus hook. If you relate to God in the sort of floating-on-a-fluffy-cloud terminology heard in past Crowder songs like “Can I Lie Here”, this one might be up your alley, but by the time he tries to work in the children’s song “He’s Got the Whole Wide World in His Hands” during the bridge, I’m so done with this one.
8. Jesus Is Calling
Crowder’s made a habit of covering country-Gospel type songs on his albums before, so it’s no huge surprise that he whips out an old Hank Williams number here, with steel guitars blaring and the whole nine yards. As with Kris Kristofferson‘s “Why Me, Lord?” on the DCB’s final album Give Us Rest, his rendition feels authentically old-school country (meaning the laptops get to sit this one out), but it’s quite jarring given the surrounding context. At barely two minutes, it almost feels like someone dropped an old TV commercial into the middle of the album.
9. My Sweet Lord
While we’re on the subject of songs Crowder didn’t write, here comes a strikingly beautiful one whose original authors (Seth James and Steve Littleton) I can’t say I recognize. It’s the most hushed and folksy moment on the entire album, and just to pack a little extra punch, Crowder brings in elder stateswoman Emmylou Harris for a stirring duet. It’s a sweet, confessional prayer built around spare guitar picking, with a little bit of banjo sprinkled in for flavor, but mostly managing to achieve the sublime by way of the subtle. This would be the closest that Neon Steeple comes to that “quiet time” sort of experience that I alluded to earlier.
10. This I Know
It would seem almost insensitive to dive back into the dance party so soon after such a fine moment of tranquility, so this song acts as a bit of a buffer to slowly build the energy level back up. Starting off with Crowder’s simple finger-picking and the words “Up on the mountain, where Your love captured me” help us to linger in that intimate moment before other musicians come in to join the fray, which I think is done quite tastefully, definitely giving the song more of a percussive vibe but without ruining the intimacy of wanting to return to that scared place where the Lord first opened a man’s eyes to His glory. By the time the bridge rolls around, it’s a pretty little celebration full of fiddles and handclaps that echo like thunder and lovely female backing vocals, and I’m sort of surprised how I didn’t notice this one as much before as I am now, writing this review. Suddenly I’m reflecting on some of my favorite “mountaintop experiences” and I figure that’s exactly the kind of place Crowder hoped to take me with this one.
11. Ain’t No Grave
It’s interesting how much the back half of this album seems to ditch the “folktronica” conceit and just go straight-up folk, albeit with its fair share of wall-of-sound production tricks. This one’s got a similar sort of groove going for it that made “Lift Your Head Weary Sinner” such a standout, though its motion is less rigid and more breezy, and there’s a bit of a Celtic lilt to it when the recorder comes in during that triumphant chorus. As far as songs about how death can’t hold a believer down go, this one almost gets me as excited as Jars of Clay‘s cover of “All My Tears”, except for one fatal flaw. It tries to pull a similar trick of jumping from one measure to the next when the drums haven’t counted out an even multiple of 4, just to give the song more of an organic sense of motion, I guess, but it often results in the various instruments just sort of banging on a chord until they’re all in agreement and then they drop the chorus in somewhat awkwardly. This would be an absolutely brilliant recording, if they could just shore up the timing of everything a little bit.
12. You Are
I’m going to guess that “You Are” is intended as a counterpoint to “I Am”, though since both songs meditate heavily on God’s unchanging grace, and since we also have a song on this record called “Come as You Are”, what’s presumably meant as a thematic reprise comes across more as needless repetition. Musically, it doesn’t reprise that specific song, but its jumpy electronics make it sound like the result of consuming one too many packs of Smarties, and while I would normally find it clever that they managed to mix another round of quick-draw banjo-plucking into the shuffling dance beat, we’ve kind of been there, done that at this point. Mood-wise, this one’s out of sync with the rest of this album’s back half.
13. Here’s My Heart
I think part of the reason I’m not quite getting into this record at the same level of “depth” I did with most of the DCB’s stuff is because even though the music and lyrics are often heartfelt, there’s less and less to really challenge my sensibilities as the record goes on, as evidenced here by a seven-minute Chris Tomlin cover where something much more climactic could have gone. As epic eleventh-hour numbers on Crowder records go, this certainly ain’t no “Rescue Is Coming” or “God Almighty, None Compares”, and it doesn’t even boast the same scaled-back-but-still-profound qualities of a song like “Remedy”. It’s just a lot of easily measured single syllables delivered in perfect, slow rhythm (which is pretty much Crowder’s default songwriting mode when he’s not pushing himself to do something different, even though in this case Crowder didn’t actually write it). The chorus is literally just “Here’s my heart, Lord. Here’s my heart, Lord. Here’s my heart, Lord. Speak what is true.” It gets monotonous the first time through, and no matter how much longing he wrings out of it vocally, no matter how much the disappointingly standard worship band instrumentation may swell up behind him, I never really seem to get engaged by this one.
14. Steeple Outro
Take what I said about “Neon Intro”, and cut and paste it here. It would perhaps have been more thematically satisfying to let the other end of this pairing represent the “Neon” aspect of this album’s sound, with this simple acoustic outro serving as the “Steeple”.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Neon Intro $0
My Beloved $1.75
I Am $1
Come Alive $1.50
Lift Your Head Weary Sinner (Chains) $1.75
Come as You Are $1
Hands of Love $0
Jesus Is Calling $.25
My Sweet Lord $1.75
This I Know $1.50
Ain’t No Grave $1.25
You Are $.75
Here’s My Heart $0
Steeple Outro $0
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: