In Brief: What starts off as a gutsy, confessional, and even mildly confrontational record sadly slips into the adult contemporary doldrums barely a third of the way in, and it never truly recovers. I’ve got nothing but love for Jennifer as a person, but Set Me Free plays it way too safe to be nearly as lovable as her classic albums or even Letting Go.
Jennifer Knapp is one of those artists whose work is hard for me to review in a bubble, without considering her personal life or the events that might have led to certain songs being written. I’m sure you all know the drill by now: Christian musician becomes popular in the late 90s and early 2000s, very suddenly disappears from the public eye, and emerges 10 years later with a new record not specifically aimed at a Christian audience, and the accompanying revelation that she is gay. I addressed my feelings on this when I reviewed her comeback record, Letting Go, but at the time, I didn’t want her sexuality – regardless of whether you agreed or disagreed with her belief that you can be gay and Christian at the same time – to overshadow people’s feelings about the album. A few of those songs obliquely addressed the long-term same-sex relationship that she had already been in for several years before coming out publicly, and one or two others anticipated the scorn she would get from Christians upon revealing it, but for the most part, Letting Go was not a record about being gay, and Jennifer neither expected nor wanted to become the poster child for anyone’s cause. Four years later, with the release of a follow-up album entitled Set Me Free and its accompanying tell-all book Facing the Music (which I haven’t read yet, but would really like to), she seems to have slightly changed her position on that whole “cause” thing, having become a bit of an advocate for gay Christians whose voices aren’t being heard because of the much louder conservative voices shouting to be heard over them. That doesn’t make Set Me Free a political album, nor is it one that rains down righteous anger on those who have judged and ostracized Jennifer over the years. But it informs a few of the more poignant songs on the record, in a way that sort of makes me wish she’d just go for the jugular and get it out of her system already.
(I can’t really go much further without getting up on a soapbox, so for those who would rather just read a music review, feel free to skip the following paragraph of soapbox-iness.)
I’m bummed that it’s the year 2015 and we Christians are still treating our gay brothers and sisters this way. There was a period of several years where I was a bit hesitant to take a stance on this, because “sympathizers” and “allies” like me tend to get lumped right in there with the folks who actually are gay, due to a larger problem the Church tends to have with a “guilty by association” sort of attitude. I’ve been fortunate to go to a church that has tried to tackle this issue head-on, with all of the thorny and uncomfortable scenarios it brings to mind, and it hasn’t been easy, but asking the question of how Christians who are gay and Christians who believe it’s a sin to be gay (groups which aren’t mutually exclusive, by the way), can have that discussion respectfully, and still love one another and live in community with one another. I don’t necessarily feel that we need to get to a point where everyone agrees on what is or isn’t a sin. I’m just tired of how we treat each other when we think someone is sinning. We’ve assigned a special hierarchy to certain sins (generally the sexual ones), and there’s so much other stuff that we heterosexual Christians let ourselves get away with, but for some reason homosexuality is that big, special, “unforgivable” one. I’m sick and tired of that attitude. I’m also sick and tired of how easily folks like Jennifer who are earnestly seeking the truth and trying to understand what the Bible means when it brings up the topic are written off as conveniently throwing out the parts that make them uncomfortable. You can disagree with her interpretation and understanding of those passages if you like. But bringing them up over and over as if this would somehow be news to her and the other gay Christians out there is just nonsensical. As a Church (big “C”, meaning all Christians worldwide), we’re at an impasse on that topic right now, and it’s going to take years if not decades to work it out. In the meantime, we need to stop treating each other like crap. If you take someone who needs a spiritual home just as badly as all the other sinners inside the walls of your church do, and you throw that person out on their ear, how can you expect them to ever mature in their faith without community and leadership? Christians who harshly judge and ostracize gays, in my opinion, aren’t aware of the extreme depth of grace that God has extended to them. I don’t know that any of us are fully aware of it, honestly. But I know enough about myself to know I don’t deserve to be saved. I’m not in a position to tell someone else they’re too far gone if they don’t immediately change X, Y, and Z about themselves. I’d rather have them in my community and being honest about their struggles with X, Y, and Z, than have them out there in the world living 100% morally upright lives, but having lost interest in God due to how His followers have treated them.
(Okay, rant over. For the most part, anyway.)
Now, back to the music. Jennifer has always walked a fine line between aggressive folk/rock and understated but soul-nourishing acoustic music. On her early albums, a lot of the mellower material was straight-up praise songs, not necessarily of the congregational variety, but just simple and heartfelt songs of gratitude for the grace she was re-learning about almost daily as a relatively new Christian. Nowadays, the religious language is pretty much gone, which isn’t a problem in and of itself because I listen to tons of Christian artists who write more about relationships than theology, but it sort of leaves a void where the down-tempo material can sound a lot like generic love songs or breakup songs if she isn’t careful to put a unique spin on it. Her past material has proven that the songs she writes about relationships don’t have to be generic. The heartbreaking “In Two (The Lament)” from her pre-hiatus release The Way I Am and the gorgeously romantic “Fallen” from Letting Go were bright spots in this department. Most of Set Me Free is subpar by comparison. It starts off great, and I don’t just say that because the two big rockers are tracks one and three, because the title track is sandwiched in between and it turns out to be one of her more powerful “mellow” songs. But once you’re past that opening trio, you’re stuck in the slow-to-mid-tempo doldrums for eight more tracks. Not all of them are bad (and the ones that are tend to be merely tedious rather than terribly written or outright offensive to the ears – I don’t think Jennifer has ever written a song that I’d put in the latter category), but very few of them make much of a case for you to be humming them later on, long after the record has ended. It’s a shame, because Jennifer has a lot to say aside from her whole singing/songwriting gig, and while I don’t want a political or religious cause to be the thing that overtakes her music, it does seem to be a platform that’s mostly going to waste when she spends almost an entire album on the generic stuff. Being gay doesn’t consume the entire identity of a songwriter; neither does being religious, for that matter. But at least convince me that you’re as passionate about the things you are writing about as you are about the causes you support when you’re not singing. That’s all I ask. Letting Go did that much even when the songs were just about her grandfather or keeping faith in your fellow man or whatnot, so I don’t think this should be too lofty of a request.
The strong start that this track gets us off to turns out to feel like it gave me a lot of false hope later on, but I won’t hold the rest of the album against an intrinsically solid song. The same soul-bearing grit that gave her early songs like “Undo Me” and “Into You” so much power, and that truly startled us all on Letting Go‘s “Inside”, comes to the surface again in this tough rocker that basically confesses Jennifer’s grown rather weary of all the bending over backwards she’s expected to do to fit into someone else’s mold of what a (Christian/female/lesbian/insert your own interpretation here) rock star is supposed to be. She uses the bleak landscape of Kansas, her home state, to illustrate this mindset: “Tornado Alley, don’t I know you well/I should’ve known better than to build my house in hell/Oh, the bones I had to break/To make my home in such a place.” The chorus, which is one of Jennifer’s most addictive, finds her longing for sweet relief from all the pressure: “I think I need a doctor with a shot to cure me/Whiskey or a bullet, please.” Her voice is just dripping with sarcasm here – I don’t think she’s literally endorsing drinking away one’s problems or committing suicide. But it is rather chilling when you think about how many folks in the LGBT community have been driven to such things due to the abuse they’ve taken from “normal” people who vilify them for not fitting in.
2. Set Me Free
One of Jennifer’s most beautiful and vulnerable performances is up next, and you almost don’t expect it from the breezy, carefree guitar melody and the softspoken string section, but this one sounds like it came from a place of very deep personal pain, with a healthy dose of epiphany to help it go down easier. Here she addresses someone who claimed to be a friend but who only sought to judge her and correct her behavior. Ultimately, they couldn’t work it out due to this person’s attitude, so the song finds her pleading, “If you don’t love me, set me free.” The song’s most hard-hitting lyric appears in its bridge, where she asks this so-called friend who apparently sees her as more of a project than a person: “Should I find my resting place/Amidst the ruins of shame and disgrace/Who are you to care?/You’re no longer there to judge what I’ve become.” That basically sums up how I feel about Christians who aren’t willing to at least have a respectful dialogue with fellow believers who are gay. (Sorry, I’m getting all soapbox-ey again here.) If you can’t find a way to love them, then at least drop the pretense and let them go. You can have your safe little bubble of a community where everyone is heterosexual and nobody makes you uncomfortable, and maybe you can leave the rest of the world alone and stop trying to wield political influence and make people’s lives even more miserable beyond the walls of your church – which is the only place where you’ve got free reign to say what you will and won’t permit.
3. Why Wait
This song is the closest thing we get to a “rocker” after the opening track – it’s got more of a warm, inviting feel to it (much like “Want For Nothing” from Letting Go), and dare I say a bit of country-pop influence. This is the type of love song you get when a touring musician, tired of the long weeks on the road being away from her lover, and the various social pressures gnawing at them, decides that delayed gratification is overrated and makes her case for why they should be together, here and now, fully enjoying each other’s company. It’s a sweet little song, and it’s fun to sing along to, though it doesn’t have quite the same melodic bite as the songs I’ve compared it to. I think putting it at track 3 was a huge mistake, since tempo-wise, the album falls into an abyss after this and never quite recovers. Having it later in the album to serve as a bit of a wake-up call might have helped the pacing problems ever so slightly.
That’s not to say that all the slow and mid-tempo songs that follow are bad ones. Even though this one struck me as dull at first due to its rather limp percussion and half-hearted electric strumming, it won me over with its nostalgic lyrics about her childhood, and the days she would spend with her father down by the river, skipping stones and shooting beer bottles and those sorts of things that people do for fun in the Midwest, I guess. It becomes a bit of a tear-jerker when the song hints at a strained relationship between the two (or else just the normal trials and tribulations of growing up and not being a carefree little kid any more; I’m not entirely sure) in its second verse, and then she ends up laying her late father to rest by pouring his ashes in the river in the third verse. I’m tempted to think the music should be more dramatic, because it’s easy to miss the deep personal significance of what she’s describing here when it’s so low-key. But maybe her dad was one of those no-nonsense kind of guys who didn’t want people to make a big fuss about him. So then I guess this would be appropriate.
5. What Might Have Been
Here’s a song that perfectly illustrates how an artist can come up with a deeply emotional, almost painfully truthful song of heartbreak, only to squander it on a musical approach that feels so dry and unimaginative that it’s a real struggle for me as a listener to care. This one’s either about a relationship that looked promising but never actually came to fruition, or else one that dragged out interminably when it should have ended much, much sooner. Either way, Jennifer’s quite hurt that this person, who was apparently a bad influence on her, continued to tempt her with maybes and mights, when all she got out of it in the end was regret. This subject matter could be really gripping, but the music sounds like a sedated lullaby, and the chorus seems to skip a beat and trip over itself right where it drops the title and it’s supposed to have the most emotional impact. I find myself feeling the same way about the song that Jennifer felt about the relationship: Stop hinting at something better that I’ll never get from this song, and just END IT ALREADY. It lasts for nearly five minutes, and while Jennifer’s worked wonders with longer, sparser songs in the past (see “Martyrs and Thieves”), this one’s pretty much dead on arrival.
6. Mercy’s Tree
Sticking a three-minute quickie of a song right in between two languid, five-minute behemoths was a really pad plan, especially when these three are all in 6/8 time. This one’s at least got a brisker pace and a little more electric energy to it, though I’d still categorize it as a ballad. Given it surroundings, it feels like an interlude by comparison, maybe even a commercial break. Since the thing it’s advertising is tolerance, I’m actually OK with that, but it baffles me as to why a stronger song like this one wasn’t fleshed out more while others were left to go on far longer than necessary. Here Jennifer takes aim at the homogenous comfort zones found in so many of our congregations, asking why we fail to follow through on the compassion that we tout as such a noble value: “White as a sheet, you can bleed til you dry/Should we take and never ask why?/Huddled in masses, we sit on our asses/And hold on to what we should let fly.” I’m actually amused that she found a way to work the word “asses” into a song and have it sound completely sincere. On a deeper note, I appreciate that the operative pronoun here is “we” and not “you” – while she’s describing problems within a religious institution, she still considers herself part of that group and therefore she shares some of the blame. Her resolve is to not be lazy about this and to speak up where she used to stay silent, even if that means she’ll get into ugly, awkward fights with people whose feathers are ruffled by it. “You can bury what’s left of me under mercy’s tree”, she concludes. Better to die in that battle than to not fight it in the first place.
7. The Tale
With the same slow, labored pace and overall rhythm as “What Might Have Been”, there’s really not a whole lot else about this song that I can think to point out. It might flow slightly better, and I do respect Jennifer’s optimistic attitude in the face of what sounds like a tragic split from someone she cared deeply about. “I will be the one who lives to tell the tale.” Because she’s a survivor. (You go girl!) But I’m still baffled as to how a song like this can come out sounding so tedious when it contains the same basic recipe as songs like “Fall Down” or “Hold Me Now” that I deeply admired back in the day.
8. So Happy
We hit rock bottom here, not because the song’s egregiously bad in any way that sticks out at first, but just because it stubbornly refuses to stand out in any way, opting for yet another sluggish rhythm and dull repetition and quite honestly, just about the most half-hearted lyric I’ve ever heard from Jennifer. She’s negotiating with someone for a second chance to prove herself, and she has little more to promise than, “It may not be perfect, but baby we’ll be fine/You’ll be so happy/You’ll be pleased.” It’s redundant, it’s not specific to whatever’s going on in any way that makes me want to take notice, and I’ve got zero interest in digging any deeper. This one isn’t even a particularly long song, but I’ve kind of run out of patience at this point.
9. The End
The acoustics are a little brighter here, with Jennifer’s finger-picking almost doing a delicate little dance, which I like. I think this one could have been a standout if the surrounding tracks gave it more contrast. Instead, it’s just a slightly more pleasant pitstop in a desert of mostly dried-up song ideas. Vagueness once again rules the day here – you might get the sense that she’s mourning fairweather friends who don’t stick by her when times get tough, but expressing this sentiment as “Everyone’s a friend until you reach the end” is just hopelessly nondescript. Where’s the wit that showed up earlier on this album? The specificity? The poignancy? Heck, anything beyond the beigest prose known to the English language?
10. Sweet Love
I think that out of five albums so far, this is only the second cover song to appear on any of Jennifer’s albums (the first being Shawn Colvin‘s “Diamond in the Rough” on Lay It Down). This time the source material is an old-school R&B hit originally record by Anita Baker. This would be the perfect moment for a subdued folk album to throw us a real curveball, and give us a little something with a rhythmic groove and a bit of sass, which the original version certainly has. Yet this still disappoints. You know how it’s trendy nowadays for acoustic and indie types to reimagine their favorite pop and rock songs in a stripped-down and usually slowed-down setting, removing all the production tricks in order to focus on the raw melody and lyrics? Yeah, I kind of stopped being a fan of that trend after about the fifth time Iron & Wine did it. Jennifer has nothing new to offer to this tradition, squandering a chance to show us a different side of herself as she mellows out the rhythm to the same sleepy 6/8 that got old earlier in the album, and decidedly turns down the temperature to the point where there’s no “sizzle” left in this steak. Her vocals are pretty good here, showing us her softer side but putting a decent amount of “croon” into her otherwise too-mellow interpretation. This just isn’t one of those songs where you want to put focus on the lyrics alone. It needs a little more rhythmic punch to really accent the twists and turns in its melody, and to make us feel anything beyond, “Aw, well I guess that’s kind of cute.”
11. Come Back
I think this album closes out with a legitimately good song. Not a great one, but once again it probably suffers due to the fact that I’m comparing it to a long string of rather dull tracks that came before it. This exact same subdued performance, floating along on a muted but steady guitar strum reminiscent of “Trinity” (which was one of the first tracks on Kansas to convince me that Jennifer was something special all those years ago), humbly seeks reconciliation and ends the album on a hopeful note as she invites an estranged friend and/or lover, “Come back and we’ll sort it out”. Nothing really climactic happens here – there are some pretty strings and once again it’s one of Jennifer’s stronger vocal performances in the “heartfelt ballad department”. Ultimately, I think it would be a nice little comedown at the end of a more hard-hitting setlist. Since it shows up long after a lot of fans looking for edgier material will have tuned out, it’s probably destined to be forgotten. A 6- song EP with this album’s first four tracks, “Mercy’s Tree”, and this track to close it out probably would have been a wiser move.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Set Me Free $1.75
Why Wait $1.25
What Might Have Been $0
Mercy’s Tree $1.25
The Tale $.25
So Happy $-.25
The End $.50
Sweet Love $.50
Come Back $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: