Album: One Wild Life: Spirit
In Brief: While more upbeat and rhythmic than its predecessor Soul, Gungor stumbles slightly in the lyrics department here by being a little too vague about their spirituality at times while being a little too didactic when they get more specific. I don’t disagree with anything they’ve got to say here; I just question whether this is the best way to present these thoughts in musical form.
Jumping straight into the second disc of Gungor‘s One Wild Life trilogy would be a lot like watching the second installment of a film trilogy like Back to the Future or The Empire Strikes Back. It can be immensely entertaining, but it’s a bit difficult to judge on its own without the first part to set up the story and the third part to resolve any remaining cliffhangers. While One Wild Life doesn’t necessarily set out to tell a linear story, the second installment, Spirit, would presumably be a bit hard to make sense of without its predecessor Soul to lay the groundwork. Soul really makes clear the objective of One Wild Life and makes a few axioms of the Gungors’ approach to faith and relationships abundantly clear. Spirit builds on some of those themes, but by and large its lyrics are more esoteric, more willing to just live in the moment and appreciate the gift of life and the universe we exist within, not needing to qualify it constantly by reminding us, “Yeah, we’re still Christians”, which I’m sure is a question they must be tired of getting asked by now. Taken on its own, it would seem to be some sort of an ode to vague spirituality, and that sort of thing doesn’t bother me, but I can see it adding fuel to the fire of critics who have accused them of abandoning their old “worship band” roots. The irony is that when the Gungors make it a point to get up on a soapbox about more specific issues, I’m proud of them for breaking with the conventions of typical “conservative” Christianity and denouncing the ways that we’ve let nationalism and greed contaminate our faith, but I find that the way they say these things is a bit heavy-handed. That’s always tricky, when you agree with an artist but aren’t sure they’re saying what they have to say in a way that would be convincing to anyone not already convinced. Some who agree and are excited to finally hear such sentiment expressed in a song by a “Christian band” will just slap the highest possible grade on it, just on principle. I’m still convinced that these things need to be addressed artfully, though, so with an artist as dedicated to following their creative muse wherever it leads, I can’t let Gungor completely off the hook when I feel like they’re getting a bit lazy in that department.
Musically, Spirit is a mixed bag as pretty much all of their albums are. I appreciate their commitment to not fitting the conventional pop/rock or “worship band” mold, but there are times when I feel like they’re changing up the status quo in a song just because they can and not because it really serves the song. Consequently, some of the rhythmic “gotchas” in these songs where you think you’ve got the beat and then realize they’re doing something syncopated to throw you off the scent, and some of the more ethereal instrumental passages that might have once seemed novel now seem like familiar tricks that the band has employed before. I’m sure that a few times it’s intentional, as a few songs make subtle but deliberate references to songs from Soul and serve as bookends to the sentiments expressed there. Perhaps more of this will make sense to me once the Body album is released later this year. For now, I enjoy most of the music on this record while feeling like none of it is terribly new territory for the ban. If you’re familiar with how their style morphed from more congregational music to the “post-liturgical” sound they now prefer starting from Beautiful Things on up through I Am Mountain, there won’t be any huge surprises here. So existing Gungor fans will enjoy this, but I don’t see this particular record winning over a whole lot of new converts.
Remember how I complained about Soul having too long of an intro? Not a problem here. They just jump right in with a “La la la la” and an uptempo rhythm. This is a feel-good song in the vein of Soul‘s “One Wild Life”, and it seems to springboard off of a theme from that song by describing such basic principles of life as the color of the sky and Earth’s orbit, things science has long since explained for us, as miracles. The idea seems to be that explaining something doesn’t make it any less magical – there’s still wonder to be found in it. And I like that idea – the more I’ve learned about science, the more fascinated I’ve been at all the little details the Creator put into the world around us. But I have to say that the way they’ve stated it here is a little… well, the term “hippy dippy” comes to mind. Especially when they drop into the bridge, which has a string section running counter to the unconventional rhythm of the song (a la Ghosts Upon the Earth‘s “Brother Moon”), and they drop these lines: “Come, play it on your drum, feel the beat within/Love like a mystic drug filling everything.” They probably didn’t mean to get me thinking about drug circles and certain forms of chemical recreation. Fun song overall, but I’d have gone back to the drawing board on some of the lyrics.
Here, Michael Gungor‘s stuttering guitar licks set up an almost robotic rhythm at the start of the song, and his wife Lisa Gungor takes the lead vocal, giving it a human heartbeat as the other instruments begin to work their way in. By the time they get to the chorus, it’s a fun, beat-driven workout of a song that turns out to be the most fun thing on the album to sing along to: “My heart starts beating like an anthem.” Michael sings during the bridge, dropping a little more lyrical weight into an otherwise lighthearted song: “Good within the bad, love within the greed/The divine in you, the divine in me/Maybe we could find some peace.” He hits hard on the whole unity theme throughout both this project and Soul, and it’s a theme that I enjoy, though I won’t pretend it hits me as profoundly here as it did on “Us For Them” or “We Are Stronger”. Still, this is easily Spirit‘s best track, just because it feels so darn good.
Just in case it hadn’t hit home yet that the Gungors really want you to marvel at the world around you, they drop a big chorus on us here that urges us to “Feel the wonder”. Aside from a mildly surreal first verse, Michael’s not terribly clear on exactly what the source of all this wonderment is, but I can tell this one’s more about setting a mood than proving a point, so I can roll with it. What really makes this one a success is how well the different elements of Gungor’s sound come together. Michael and Lisa trade off lead vocals, and what sounds like a loose acoustic sketch on Michael’s guitar at first turns into an almost electro-pop anthem by the end of the song. I like it when a song can turn an unexpected stylistic corner and still feel like it has a unified identity throughout, and the Gungors have sometimes been hit and miss in their attempts to marry acoustic noodling to keyboard wizardry, so I’m glad they got it right here.
4. Spirit Becomes Us
This short interlude would be an example of the sort of loose guitar noodling that doesn’t do anywhere. It’s maybe a minute long, the lyrics do little other than insinuate that the spirit is near, and the melody doesn’t seem to want to settle on anything resembling a hook. It might be foreshadowing a song later in the album, but on first listen it seems really out of place.
One of the catchiest songs on the album is also one of its most rhythmically and lyrically contrary ones – they seem determined to drop a massive hook on us without following the conventional 4/4 rhythm that the casual listener might expect, and somehow it actually works. A forceful beat, a compelling chord progression, and strong chorus vocals really help to drive it home, and for some this song might be a bit repetitive, not to mention confusing if you can’t figure out what “You are the ocean/I am the whale” is supposed to represent. (Or why they’re singing it with what sounds like a slight reggae inflection: “I am de whale.”) The whole thing is apparently an esoteric meditation on how we think in dualistic themes of black and white, and I guess there’s some point to be made about God existing out of our conventions, but I haven’t completely done the math here, I’ll confess. This one will probably be a live highlight because there’s a bit of jamming near the end of it that they could probably extend to hype up the audience.
6. Kiss the Night
The opening of this song hits us out of nowhere with a heavy dose of social conscience: “Everything we have/Built upon the back/Of Black and Native blood/Believing they were right/With scared texts and lies/The patriarchy died.” They’re building up to a point here about those who expressed doubt and dissent toward the status quo ultimately led us to confess we as a society had been treating entire groups of people as subhuman, and we’re better off for having those folks to rock the boat. I still haven’t worked out how exactly that leads to the chorus’s admonition of “Kiss the night/We’ll feel our bodies closer to the sky.” I can see how “the night” might represent those uncertain, nagging doubts that need to be identified and expressed, which is traditionally something we Christians are afraid to do. But I don’t get where the kissing part comes in. I have a bad habit of taking metaphors too easily, so I guess I’ll just enjoy the catchy chorus for what it is – it’s a good compliment to “We Are Stronger” as far as upbeat anthems of equality go. The bridge might contain the thesis statement of the entire album: “Consonance isn’t always peaceful/Dissonance isn’t always evil.” Everybody playing nice and getting along and refusing to express disagreement isn’t what brings about social change. That’s a good message that will no doubt be difficult for some of the target audience to grasp.
7. Let Bad Religion Die
You can tell from the title that there will be absolutely no room for mincing words on this song. If you’ve listened to Gungor long enough to remember “God Is Not a White Man”, then this one’s got about the same level of subtlety, which is to say none at all. Given the timeliness of the subject matter – pointing out how blind acts of faith that shed blood or spread hate are not consistent with the notion of a loving God, whether it’s Islamic terrorists blowing people up or Christian fundamentalists shouting at people with loudspeakers about how they’re going to hell. Where it gets really freaking weird is where you get these almost Disney-esque orchestral elements fluttering about during the chorus, which threatens to undermine the serious message of the song. Perhaps they felt that the song might seem a bit too grave without it? I’ve had a lot of internal debates about this one, because I think the message is right on and would make an excellent sermon, but it’s a bit tricky in the context of music – you’re using what should be a tactful art form to critique someone else’s lack of tact. That was basically my position on the song up until a homophobic jackass shot up a club in Orlando last week, right around when we hit the anniversary of a racist jackass shooting up a church in Charleston a year ago. Then I was like, “Screw it, the world needs to hear stuff like this, even if it’s blunt as an anvil.”
8. Love Is All
Several years ago when I reviewed Beautiful Things, I rather harshly described the Israel Houghton collaboration “Heaven” as “waspel” – basically Gospel music watered down by white people who mean well but don’t really know how the genre works. I get the same feeling from this song, which seems to apply an indie minimalist sort of aesthetic to what intends to be a soulful, horn-laden, beat-driven Gospel track. It comes across as incredibly anemic and mildly annoying. This is all in the name of opening our eyes to prejudice and remembering that love is all we need. Simplicity and specificity are coming together here in the worst way possible, because I feel like Gungor is being specific about the problem, but overly vague and Pollyanna-esque about the solution. They’ve done a better job elsewhere of communicating what that love actually looks like, so it’s annoying to hear them falling back on cliches here.
Lisa really knocks it out of the park on this down-tempo anthem – it has the same feel to it of some of the more meditative worship songs she fronted on past albums, though this particular album isn’t all that big on the God talk, so instead it’s more of an affirmation of – well, love conquering all. I can’t say it’s any more specific than the last song, but there’s something in its long, slow build that carries with it the emotion of a hard-fought victory. It’s beautifully performed and nothing about it feels inauthentic in any way. I’m also quite preoccupied with how the chord progression in the chorus seems to mirror “Us For Them”. The two songs have otherwise very different characters, but I can’t help but feel like they did this deliberately to underscore a recurring theme in their songwriting.
10. We Are Alive
Remember the City on a Hill series? Basically it where where a lot of Christian artists came together to collaborate on simple but heartfelt worship songs, and while I found most of the series to be a bit bland, this particular song by the Gungors sounds like it could have been one of the more thoughtful entries on one of those albums well over a decade ago. It just has that sort of hymn-like quality to it, with its slow meditation on everyone being equals at the shore of the river (that is implied to be God’s grace) being the sort of thing that’s easy to join in and sing along to, a la classic worship songs like “All Who Are Thirsty”. It’s another slow build to a beautiful crescendo – nothing too flashy, but certainly sturdy enough to translate well to the communion segment of a worship service, even if the various musical bells and whistles Gungor typically brings along aren’t easily replicated by your average Sunday worship team. I love the little vocal coda at the end of this one, rising up to the heavens for a few extra seconds after you think the song’s over.
11. Body & Blood
The closing track is unconventional, to say the least. It’s more of a mantra than a traditional song, and it’s heavily Asian-influenced, starting off with a one-woman wail from Lisa that immediately transports us to somewhere in India or the Middle East (and I should be smart enough to pinpoint the musical influences more precisely, but you get the idea). There’s a strong tribal influence to the rhythm here, and Michael is noodling around on the acoustic guitar in what sounds like an approximation of an Eastern scale (again, I’m just guessing). Once his vocals come in, they’re heavily washed in reverb, so it’s hard to make out some of the lyrics at first: “Look within/Deep within/You are not depraved with sin/You are loved/You are the love of God/You are the Body and Blood.” It’s a nice summary of the theme of unity and none of us being better than the other that has popped up throughout the album, and I think it’s significant that they tried to step outside of conventional Western music, as if to suggest that we in the Western world don’t exclusively own these truths, and they can and should be passed along without the baggage of Western culture needing to be attached to them. What’s most fascinating about this one is how, instead of coming to the expected climax, the ominous thump and click of the drum beat from “Am I” can be heard as the song fades out. It would segue almost perfectly into that track if the two had been on the same album. So they’re simultaneously giving us a callback to a pivotal song on Soul and hinting at a possible theme to be explored on Body.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Spirit Becomes Us $0
Kiss the Night $1.25
Let Bad Religion Die $1.25
Love Is All $.25
We Are Alive $1.25
Body & Blood $1.25
Michael Gungor: Vocals, guitars, miscellaneous instruments
Lisa Gungor: Vocals, piano, keyboards, miscellaneous instruments
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: