In Brief: At times immediate and delightful, and at times slow, cerebral and perplexing, the opening chapter in Gungor’s new trilogy of albums celebrates the gift of life and the sense of loving unity that should be felt when Christians are at their best, at times coming back around to embrace the “contemporary worship” tag we once applied to their music, while still challenging the norms of that genre in fascinating ways.
The husband-and-wife duo Gungor makes music that is getting increasingly difficult for me to pin down genre-wise without attaching a number of caveats to any description of their music that I might make. Yet ideologically, I never seem to have any problems understanding where they’re coming from. They’ve challenged a fair amount of the typical thinking that has been culturally ingrained into evangelical Christianity over the last few years, and they’ve been branded apostate for doing so by less charitable listeners, but I feel like I’m pretty much always in their corner. Part of it’s because they’ve been through experiences that would rank among some of my worst nightmares – whether it’s the personal seasons of doubt that they’ve admitted to going through, to the cancellation of concerts and general shunning they’ve experienced after such admissions, to the much more personal grief of finding out that their second child was born with Down Syndrome. These things can make the human heart bitter and fearful over time, yet Michael and Lisa Gungor seem to always find artful and uplifting ways to respond to them in their songs. They’ll ask the hard questions of those who make ignorant assumptions about their personal experiences and crises of faith. But they won’t harshly criticize or turn away anyone who is at least willing to engage in the conversation. As the duo embarks on a new, fully independent chapter of their career with a trilogy of albums entitled One Wild Life, I’m thrilled to see where that conversation takes them.
The first of these albums, subtitled Soul, has a lot of themes to explore over its 12 tracks, so at times it can feel disjointed like their last album I Am Mountain, though I’ve noticed more of a conscious effort here to group the songs into little mini-suites that pair well with one another. Rediscovering the joy of Michael and Lisa’s love for one another, and how they’ve been challenged to grow as they embark on the adventure of parenting their two children, is one major theme which pops up early in the record, and then there’s a very personal and insightful series of songs that chart a soul’s journey from eager, childlike faith to a difficult season of doubt and finally full circle back to faith again, at the end of the album. Most of the songs on these topics are of the more slow and pensive variety, which can make the album as a whose feel rather downbeat, though I wouldn’t say it ever gets as dark and despairing as the track “Upside Down” that concluded I Am Mountain. In between are a small handful of surprisingly upbeat, pop-oriented anthems that celebrate unity among Christians and serve as a heck of a rebuttal to those who would seek to be divisive and sort Christians into camps of “us” and “them” based on their political or social ideologies. These can be almost jarring when they pop up in the track listing, but they’re some of Gungor’s best material, and aside from perhaps “Let It Go” on I Am Mountain, I can’t think of any of their previous work that I can easily compare it to. In general, I love how Gungor manages to come around and clearly discuss their Christian faith in several of these tracks without it feeling like an obvious bid to re-enter the commercialized world of Contemporary Christian Music. They make affirmations of the things they believe not out of the need to prove themselves to anyone or to assuage critics, but simply because what God is doing in their lives is too powerful for them to not express it. That they do so artfully sets a high water mark for other self-styled “Christian” bands, especially those who specialize in “worship” music, to rise to.
The opening track is really just two minutes or so of instrumental warm-up. I’ve never been a big fan of having to wait so long just for anything marginally interesting about a recording to become audible, so while there may be some thematic reason for putting this here, to me it’s totally unnecessary.
2. Lion of Rock
The warm but distant tone of a synthesizer transitions us into a very unconventional opening song – not a first for Gungor since “Let There Be” was definitely a very unusual opener on Ghosts Upon the Earth. But… I don’t know, I’ve had a really tough time warming up to this one. Some of the issue could just be volume-related, because so much of it feels like a hushed whisper at first, from Michael’s subdued vocal melody to the numerous little instrumental bits that seem to be flitting about, searching for a way that they can all work together, but sort of working against each other in the process. I’m sure it’s intentional. Michael describes climbing a large rock and looking down at the tiny specks of people on the beach beneath him, having one of those moments of epiphany where he realizes how connected everything is from far away, but how disparate and at odds it all seems to be when viewed up close. Lisa chimes in with her mantra “Every breath is give and take”, which sort of serves as a hook, though it’s not the type of thing I’d find stuck in my head later on after the record has ended. They know we expect a big anthem from here in the vein of “I Am Mountain”, and they’re purposefully subverting that expectation, which is not to say this song isn’t quite beautiful once all of its various pieces come to a crescendo with a refrain that tells us, fittingly, “All is beautiful”. I can see the poetry in it, and it certainly does tug at the heartstrings in the last verse when Michael comes to his senses after his little personal retreat and goes running back into the arms of his wife and children on the beach. Musically speaking, it’s just got a really convoluted way of getting there.
3. Moon Song
You can always tell Lisa’s songs apart from Michael’s – even if who’s singing lead wasn’t a dead giveaway, the bare-bones lyrical structure and the more introverted, electronic, almost robotic approach taken by the music seem to be her main calling cars. (See “Wandering” and “The Best Part” on I Am Mountain.) Here, I’m immediately distracted by her simple metaphor of God being the sun and her being the moon, only reflecting God’s light and producing none of her own, because I feel like I’ve heard this exact same song from Sara Groves (“You Are the Sun”), plus David Crowder Band dedicated an entire album (Illuminate) to the idea back in the day. It may be a central theme of the album, but it’s not expressed as eloquently as her predecessors in the genre. The band takes the same “Keep the chorus real subdued and first, then make it big with a lot of orchestration later on” approach, to the point where I feel like they’re almost self-consciously trying to avoid having an obvious, CCM radio-friendly chorus, and I admire that in principle, but in practice it makes the song a rather dull listen up until its last minute.
4. One Wild Life
I hate that I’ve been so hard on those first three tracks, because the album’s title track – which pretty clearly states its reason for being and gosh darn it, should have been the opening track – is a rousing anthem up there with some of Gungor’s finest, fully embracing the pop/rock side of their musical personalities in a way that feels fresh and neither forced nor a repeat of what they’ve done before. Lisa’s keyboards and vocals confidently lead the way here, and while we’ve heard several celebrations of life in general from Christian artists (heck, it’s all Switchfoot ever seems to sing about anymore), I think it’s especially poignant coming from the unique place of loss and hardship that Michael and Lisa have had to endure over the past few years. “See it as a fight, or as a gift” is the line that really stands out to me here, because man, I’m one of those people who sees nearly every obstacle that comes my way as a fight, and it’s no way to live. This is one of those songs that states the obvious, and yet I needed to hear it because it’s really hard to live out that obvious truth when you’re weighed down by all sorts of struggles – even the little ones that aren’t life and death. Wherever you’re at in your outlook on life, if you’ve enjoyed just about any of Gungor’s past anthems, you oughta have a blast with this one. Michael even throws a bit of an 80’s inspired guitar solo into the bridge, the kind that makes me wonder if he secretly wished he had long blonde hair to wave around as he played it.
5. We Are Stronger
With its hand claps and super-fun percussion, its cheery group vocals, and its obvious emphasis on the value of unity among each and every human being on the Earth, this anthem could easily veer into exceedingly broad, cartoony territory, saying something that makes us all feel good but that turns out to be a diet of air when we try to actually digest it. Singing about the grains of sand and drops of water and so forth that make up the world around us and how it all works together is a good start, but for me the real gut punch comes in the bridge when Michael makes the story specifically about humans, specifically the ones who are often marginalized by our own society: “Every black life matters/Every woman matters/Every soldier matters/All the unborn matter/Every gay life matters/Fundamentalists matter/Here’s to life and all its branches.” I’m pretty sure you can’t advocate for all of those groups at one without pissing someone off, and then of course there’s the inevitable accusation that Gungor (a white man) is repurposing the #blacklivesmatter meme, which is apparently a big no-no. He’s explained in his blog that he felt it would be a bad idea to generalize and say “all lives matter”, even though that is a true statement, because we need to specifically confront the ways we’ve oppressed or stigmatized specific members of our society. That’s why he started with a familiar phrase, wanting to show solidarity with that moment, but went on to name other groups who have also been unfairly treated, often by people who look like him or have the same cultural background that he does. “Fundamentalists” got tacked on just because that’s the group he has the hardest time treating with dignity. he wanted to challenge himself here, too. Personally, I was thrilled to hear “Every gay life matters” in a song by a Christian musician, because there just aren’t enough of us Christians speaking up about how wrongly we’ve treated members of the LGBTQ community my cutting them off from our churches and in many cases, our biological families. That’s a whole other soapbox that I could get on for quite some time, but for the sake of brevity I’ll just give a massive tip of the hate to Gungor for even trying to seed that conversation, and I’ll prepare myself for the inevitable backlash from… oh wait, all the people who would picket him for saying that stopped listening a longtime ago anyway.
We’re back in mellow mode here, with a huge dollop of sentimentality to boot, but I can’t fault the Gungors for coming up with this beautiful acoustic duet. I’ve heard them sing a love song to each other before (“Vous Et Mon Coeur”), but this one seems to be more of a love song from both parents to their newborn, marveling over every little facet of her tiny body and her adorable little personality and affirming that she is the gift of light, a creation of God, someone they love unconditionally. I’m not gonna lie. it’s sappy as all get out. But I kinda wish every kid could hear their parents say stuff like this to them.
7. At Sea
One of Lisa’s most emotional and vulnerable songs is up next… and again, I feel kind of bad critiquing her for being minimalistic when I get that it’s helpful for the lyrics to really shine through. But I have to admit I get rather bored with the sparse rhythm and the lonely, repetitive piano melody of this song. I just feel like there’s some unexplored potential that’s being missed due to the robotic nature of it. Which is not to say that I don’t feel something for her as she recounts a tumultuous time when she and her husband’s love for each other was apparently being tested. Marriages are like that, at least if people are honest with themselves. You get put through the wringer when you really try to love someone that much and you both take on the task of having to endure your personal tragedies together. Sometimes it turns you against each other and you just feel unmoored. The song concludes with a definite “I said I love him/her” from both Gungors, and a pact being made to basically walk on water together even though it seems impossible. It’s admirable. They just needed to take it up a notch, musically.
8. Land of the Living
The calm sound of the organ as the previous track bleeds into this one tells me that the two songs were meant to be conjoined. One is about being lost at sea together, and the other one is about finding your way back to shore. The mellow electronic beat and the occasional bursts of strings still aren’t doing a whole lot for me, to be honest, but this song comes to a stronger climax a bit sooner than some of the other ones I’ve had a tough time with, so as a whole I’ve warmed up to this one more easily. The poetic lyrical approach (penned by Matthew Perryman Jones, as it turns out) really lets you feel the weariness of a sailor who’s been out to sea for far too long, and the sense of wonder and almost disbelief that he gets upon finally sighting land. As his ship comes into that glorious Godsend of a port, he comes to another epiphany: “You cannot love in moderation”. 50% dedication wouldn’t have gotten them there – they’d have gone down with the ship. The subdued melodies that seemed to drift about in the dark at the beginning of the song now seem full, bright, graceful, even celebratory. A victory has been won, This would have been a pretty good way to end the album (though I like how they actually ended it even more).
9. Us For Them
When the electric guitar and the big, danceable beat of this song get going, it’s pretty easy to peg this song as the catchiest thing on the album. (The aforementioned “Let It Go” is a good comparison here.) I would love it just for that, but this one also makes a really strong case that you don’t have to dumb down or tone down the music in order for the really important point you’re trying to make to be heard. Michael makes it abundantly clear here that he’s not willing to participate in all of the petty culture wars and scaremongering and hypocritical judgment that Christians are unfortunately known for inflicting upon each other and on the rest of the world. He’s pretty convinced that the problem is an “us or them” mentality that has us seeing everyone who doesn’t look or think like us as “the enemy”. Aren’t we all equally sinful in God’s eyes? Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies? Gungor dares to suggest that it’s not only a matter of tolerance – that we must truly advocate for the people we don’t see eye-to-eye with, instead of seeking to take away their voice or their freedom. Only God is the judge – and brilliantly though the song references His judgment many times, that judgment is always love. The sword he wields is mercy. it takes the typical militant vocabulary that you’d hear from the extreme fundamentalists and turns it on its head, reminding us that the evil to be struck down is not other people, but the hate that makes us see them as enemies in the first place. That’s what I get out of the song, anyway – and it’s no stretch to say that this is the single most important song to me, personally, out of anything I’ve heard this year. Pretty much any time the subject of religion comes up on Facebook or some other discussion where it’s not guaranteed to be in a “safe” environment where you can assume everyone believes the same stuff you do, this is the angle I end up taking. I should probably just give folks a YouTube link to this song to save them some time when those discussions come up, because it sure goes down easier with Michael’s funky guitar licks and the whole band just sounding like they had a blast recording it, than it does with endless paragraphs of my unfocused pontification on the theory of life, the universe, and everything.
10. Am I
This is pretty much “Existential Crisis: The Song”. It’s mood whiplash to the extreme, coming after to feel-good rush of “Us For Them”, but it’s a powerful song that would probably be a bit of a shock to the system wherever you put it. It’s the sparsest thing on the album by far, and nearly everything about it is unsettling, from the Eastern-tinged, minor-key melody, to the tense anxiety of the string, to the deep, slow throbbing of its rhythm as Michael’s difficult philosophical questions echo off into the cold night sky: “Am I a ghost?/Am I an animal?/Am I an angel?/Am I God?/Am I meaningless?/Am I anything at all?” The chorus just repeats the two words “Am I, Am I, Am I” over and over, like a paranoid mantra, as if to suggest that answering any of these questions about the nature of his existence will only lead to a million more questions. It’s not the sort of thing you’re used to hearing from the “Christian music” camp, but I think it'[s an honest reflection of a period Michael went through, which was referenced a few times on I Am Mountain, where he had to rebuild his entire system of beliefs from the ground floor on up, starting with a lot of those basic questions that he had perhaps taken for granted his entire life up until that point. The song doesn’t spell out easy answers, but as the final verse turns the focus away from “I” and to “You”, asking God, “Are you there?”, “Are you good?”, etc., the final chorus then reveals a bit of subtle brilliance as the emphasis on those two words is shifted ever so slightly: “I Am, I Am, I Am”.
Here, the process of a man coming to grips with his beliefs and his doubts is told through the lens of a boy becoming a man, and it’s a story familiar to a lot of us Christians: When we’re young, especially if we’re brought up in the church, we take pretty much everything we’re taught at face value. Then we start to grow up and the questions begin to nag us, and we start to wonder; Did I just make the whole thing up? Was God really there or did I just feel what I wanted to feel in order to reinforce my belief in Him? Then eventually, Michael comes around to finding God again when he thinks he’s hit rock bottom. It’s interesting to me how innocuous and even light-hearted this gentle acoustic song seems at first – when he describes giving his life to Jesus at age ten and learning to speak in tongues, the background vocals very suddenly mimic speaking in tongues as a response. it’s an amusing little touch, but then the second verse throws us for a loop by tuning those declarations of faith upside down: “I saw the writing on the wall/You were a man and that was all/There was no God in heaven above/There was no perfect saving love/It was always only ever me.” If you heard this song out of context, and you were the typical Christian music fan, you’d start to get real concerned at this point, especially when the music takes a sudden turn from friendly and easygoing to an almost atonal electric guitar solo that sounds downright angry. Of course the third verse brings it all back around to acknowledge that God was there and in control of it all the entire time, which will probably get a few relieved “Amen”s as those worries listeners wipe the sweat from their brows. What’s important to me here is that though the doubt led to a man questioning some of the most basic truths of his faith, he never condemns the process of doubting. It’s an important milepost on the journey to a more meaningful faith, and the real scary thing, to me anyway, is when a person is in such denial about having those doubts that they never get past the initial, childhood phase of this story.
The final track is… surprisingly conventional for Gungor, actually. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just that after “Upside Down” pulled the rug out from under us at the end of their last album, and after all the times this record has defied my usual logic about how an album should flow, it’s interesting that they chose to end it with more of a straight-up worship song, in the vein of the long, sublime, quiet-meditation-to-massive-grandeur approach they’ve taken on past album closers like “Run to You” and “Every Breath”. I like this one a lot more than either of those two, actually. I’ve given Gungor some grief for starting off a lot of these songs so timidly and not really letting the chorus break loose until the final minutes, but here, that approach totally works. As Lisa sings about the temporary, fragile nature of everything and the holiness of a sovereign God who sets the beautiful dance of life and death in motion, the mood needs to be pensive. We need to understand our smallness in the grand scheme of these things as we are compelled to sing with her: “Holy, all behold the holy.” The “big-ness” of the song comes in its bridge, which is initially just worldess vocalizing, designed for people to learn the melody of it, jump in, and sing along, before they come back around and sing the actual lyrics that go with that gorgeous melody: “Come like dawn/Like grace/Like sunlight/Bring this world to life.” There’s just something about how effortlessly it flows from near stillness to a flood of emotion, back down to the gentle heartbeat of soft guitar and strings that it started with, that makes it a total class act. We’ve had nearly two decades of mostly “strictly formula” in this genre, so it’s a huge relief to hear something like this that is stunningly creative and yet easily accessible all at once. I really don’t want Gungor to go back to “strictly praise songs” full-time, because I think when they do come up with something like this, it needs to be special, and that’s exactly what it is here.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Lion of Rock $.75
Moon Song $.50
One Wild Life $1.75
We Are Stronger $2
At Sea $.75
Land of the Living $1.25
Us For Them $2
Am I $1.50
Michael Gungor: Vocals, guitars, miscellaneous instruments
Lisa Gungor: Vocals, piano, keyboards, miscellaneous instruments
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: