Album: One Wild Life: Body
In Brief: While Soul still has the highest concentration of my personal favorite songs from the One Wild Life trilogy, the sheer ambition of Body and the stylistic ground covered here is hard to ignore. It’s a brave, albeit imperfect and somewhat awkwardly paced, album from a band that continues to challenge the notion of what “Christian music” should be about.
“Gungor is a danger to Christianity.”
I don’t remember where that quote originally came from. Some conservative Christian publication, no doubt. All I know is that I first saw it in one of Gungor’s own press materials for the conclusion of their One Wild Life trilogy, deliberately juxtaposed with a more positive quote about their music, and it made me chuckle. I’m amused when musicians are able to take criticism against them and turn it into a sort of beacon for the exact kind of people who are most likely to be drawn to an act that would be criticized in such a way. Michael Gungor has certainly mused on his fair share of topics, more so in his blog than in his songwriting, that have made the typical “Christian music” fan uncomfortable. From gun control, to the literal vs. figurative truth of Genesis, to his own period of doubt and darkness that led him to dismantle and rebuild his faith in Christ from the ground up, this is clearly a man who would rather be honest with his questions and accept that a chunk of his audience may turn against him as a result, rather than fall in line with what the CCM industry at large wants to hear him say. Body, the final chapter in the trilogy of albums that Michael and his wife Lisa Gungor have lovingly crafted over the last two years, seems like the kind of album where they’d want to prepare us ahead of time for the kinds of questions and statements that might make your average Christian listener squirm. I’m not your average Christian listener, so for me those questions and statements are intriguing and energizing, and I don’t see anything terribly controversial about it, unless you’re inclined to be unchritable in how you interpret song lyrics, I guess. But we live in a day and age where a large chunk of the American Church has willfully pitted itself against honest intellectual pursuits, as though the human brain were nothing but a tool of Satan. So those looking for comfortable “worship band” cliches (like the kind they probably think Gungor used to offer on albums like Beautiful Things because they weren’t listening carefully to some of the deeper album cuts) are gonna be out of luck. For the rest of us, buckle up. It’s gonna be a fascinating, but bumpy ride.
Now I’ll be honest at this point and say while I’m 100% in support of Gungor’s passion for exploration, for working out the doubts and the questions as they craft their art rather than spoon-feeding us the prepackaged answers we might expect, I’m not always all that convinced that some of their experiments carry as much artistic merit as the band clearly hopes they would. A well-intentioned song about unity, understanding, loving our neighbor, that sort of thing can often be torpedoed by overly hippy-dippy lyrics that don’t really offer any insight, even though I might agree with the overall positive vibe of the song. And some of their “jammier” tracks can seem to go nowhere fast. This particular tendency was taken to its most logical (and most utterly maddening) conclusion when I saw the band during their residency at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood this summer, when their set consisted of almost nothing but free-form jams, with the tempos, keys and time signatures spontaneously crowd-sourced, and only vague snippets of already-written-and-recorded Gungor songs working their way into those impromptu jams. Make no mistake, the Gungors and their touring band have some serious live chops, because it takes real talent to do something like that without it coming unraveled at the seams in no time flat. But when you’re a fan of the actual meaning behind the songs as well as the payoff from well-structured songs that lead to memorable choruses and gorgeous climaxes, it can be super-frustrating to pay more for a concert than you would for an album, and end up hearing nothing but musical meandering for most of an evening. That’s not Gungor’s normal M.O. – all the other times I’ve seen them live have cemented them as one of my absolute favorite live bands, and I’m sure their official tours from this point forward will carry on that legacy. I just caught them in a weird place – churning out three LPs in a little over a year’s time, feeling the need to get away from the studio and prove they could still hack it as a live band, and probably wanting to deliberately thumb their noses at anything resembling convention for a little while there due to how they’d been treated by former members of their audience. I have no doubt that some of those spontaneous sessions may have congealed into a few of the song ideas heard on this record, but let’s just say that I never want to spend my hard-earned money on a bizarre concert experience like that again.
It’s really tricky for me to critique the Gungors, since I want them to be free to say whatever they have on their minds to say. Sometimes I just wish for more boldness and specificity when they’re saying it. That problem came up several times on the middle installment, Spirit. Since Body is more specifically trying to track the human experience from birth to death, it benefits from a clearer narrative, at least in its opening and closing segments. Somewhere in the middle, we get back to the very generic “love is all you need” type stuff, and when it’s combined with a bit of musical exploration that doesn’t seem to go much of anywhere, it’s maybe only about 50% as annoying as the concert experience described above. But there are more up-tempo, intriguingly produced and performed, rhythmically-driven tracks on this disc than either of the other two, so I’d also say there’s a bit more immediate payoff on Body than on either of its predecessors. I’m still partial to Soul just because of how strongly I identified with a few of the flagship songs on that album – for example, “Us For Them” was my favorite song of 2015, hands down, and nothing on either Spirit or Body really reaches that same level of awesomeness. But I think that out of the three, Body strikes the best balance between sheer ambition and actual accomplishment.
Only slightly less unconventional than the long, drawn-out intro track and slow burner “Lion of Rock” that opened Soul is this contemplative acoustic track, accented by a string section as the Gungors try to imagine the first thoughts of a human child upon being born. Most of it consisghts of wondering what the lights and sounds are, feeling discomfort, and wanting to be soothed by the disembodied voices they will come to know as mom and dad. It’s a really interesting point of view from which to write a song, and given the theme of the album, it makes perfect sense that this had to be the first track.
2. Step into the Light
Making less sense is this transitional track, just over a minute long, which feels like an unfinished acoustic sketch that only further serves to mess with the flow of an already unevenly paced album. I really like what Michael has to say here, describing the human body as “God expressed in skin and teeth and oxygen/In id and dream and mind.” But musically, there’s nothing engaging about it. I just want to move on to the good stuff already.
One of the first aspects of the human experience that a child in their formative years has to learn how to manage is their ego. That ever-present need to be recognized, paid attention to, and cared for. For a toddler who knows nothing but its parents having to attend to its every need, that makes sense. When that’s still the all-consuming goal of our lives well into adulthood, it makes us seem selfish and petty. This song is almost anti-melodic in its attempt to capture that self-centered human nature, with its constant interjections of “See me! Love me!” and a dramatic little string riff comprising what you might consider a chorus, while the verse fleshes it out with bits of flotsam and jetsam from popular culture: “Fifteen minutes/The modern siren song/Selfie statues line all the walls.” Underpinning it is a bit of a robotic beat, which makes the song feel like a bit of a minimalist funk jam, though there’s not quite enough energy to it to make it a real workout. It’s the first upbeat thing on the album, but I wouldn’t call it catchy in the conventional sense. It’s intriguing, though, and it challenges me as a listener in mostly positive ways.
4. Alien Apes
ZOMG they wrote a song about evolution! Well, not really, but obviously the title hints at it and the chorus goes so far to say that “We keep on evolving”. Let’s put aside the creation vs. evolution conflict for a second, though. Humans are weird and unique creatures compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, no matter how you slice it. We’re self-aware and capable of more than just self-serving actions, but we’re also capable of leaving deeper scars on the planet than any of the other species that call it home. That’s what I think the song is getting at – the unique role that humans play in the universe. I love the guttural little grunts at the beginning of it and the more aggressive electronic beat – they combine with a funkier-than-usual electric riff to make this one of Gungor’s most memorable and downright danceable tunes, and for me it’s the standout track on Body.
5. Already Here
I’m hoping that the seemingly pointless exercise of taking the audience up on a suggestion to do a jam in 7/8 time, in whatever key and whatever tempo was suggested on that bizarre night I saw Gungor in concert, eventually led them to this song. With its offbeat polyrhythms seemingly always stumbling in an attempt to catch up to one another, they’ve created a wonderful little ode to procrastination, to our flawed tendency of thinking we’ll do the important things we’ve always been planning on doing when the timing’s exactly right. Lisa’s constant insistence of “Someday” in the chorus while Michael rattles off all of the lame excuses we have for putting stuff off is genius – “When the schedule clears/When the worlds align/When the money’s there/When I see a sign.” The bridge gets into the metaphysical concept of “now” being the only time that’s guaranteed to us, with the future being merely a mental construct. Heady stuff, but in a roundabout way, I think Gungor has illustrated the difference between happiness and joy here, because one expects the circumstances to just magically work out right, while the other acts on the faith that we can make good things happen despite the circumstances.
6. Walking with Our Eyes Closed
So yeah, this is one of those records where, by default, the one reasonably straightforward upbeat track becomes the lead single. (For whatever the term “single” is worth for fully independent bands in this day and age, of course.) Like standout tracks “One Wild Life” and “Anthem” from the last two albums, this one’s fronted by Lisa. I feel like there’s a little more detail to this one than there usually is in the songs she writes, but honestly I don’t know if the person who writes it is always the one who sings it in the Gungors’ case. Some interesting stuff here about the sun and the earth and angels and demons, and humans burning their bridges to the past. I don’t fully understand it, but I enjoy it. Perhaps not as much as other Gungor tracks in this vein, but only for small, nitpicky reasons, like whatever it is that Lisa is muttering during the bridge that apparently didn’t make it into the lyric sheet. “‘Salright”? “So dat”? Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to fit and it isn’t explained. I hate to harp on that when the song is otherwise so well written and performed. It’s just one of those things that irrationally annoys me.
7. Breath Within the Breath
Starting with a skeletal beat or riff and working your way up to something a little more “jammy” seems to be Gungor’s M.O. on much of this record. This song pulls it off better than some of the others, because it gives ample space for Michael’s intriguing lyric about being a recluse, a guy locked away in a tower writing songs instead of doing something about the corruption and chaos he sees out there in the world. I think using your voice to point out the injustice and wrongheadedness is doing something about it, personally, but I don’t want to impede upon his honest confession of self-doubt. “Sometimes I get tired of being a liar”, he admits. He seems to find some comfort in knowing it’s more about the journey than about having all the answers, but the longing and confusion found in the repetitive chorus of “How long will it be like this?” suggests he wrote this in a place of unrest. I like how the time signature changes up for the chorus. It’s unexpected and it leads to a nice little percussive breakdown at the end of the song.
8. Lovely Broken
There’s a subtle beauty to this song that made it one of the most easily overlooked tracks on the record the first few times I listened to it. It doesn’t have a flashy beat or a strong instrumental hook to draw you in. The main gimmick here is that it’s an unconventional duet between Michael and Lisa. I mean, in some sense every song they perform is a duet, but in this case it’s almost an argument. Lisa’s lyrics are optimistic, looking at the beauty of creation and all of the reasons to have faith in humanity, while Michael’s are cynical and hopeless, fixated on humanity’s evil side and the death and destruction it brings. The melody is more or less the same for both, but the background details shift to support the two voices – there’s this sunny piano trickling through Lisa’s part of the verse, and a moody bass tone lurking beneath Michael’s, with a very subtle shift toward minor key in the way he sings it. They come together for the chorus, trying to find balance in the good and bad, and assurance that it will all work out alright, and for a song so rich in observation, it’s honestly a bit weak on conclusions. It’s a beautiful and inventive performance, though. I love songs that feel like a conversation between two people (which is going to frustrate those of you who are really into musicals and know they’re not my style, I’m sure).
During the aforementioned off-the-deep-end jam session otherwise known as a concert that I mentioned attending earlier, Gungor did play one or two of their actual songs. One of them just hadn’t been released yet. Lisa had written it with singer/songwriter William Matthews, who was there to perform it with her that night, and at the time I wasn’t even sure if it would wind up on a Gungor album, since it’s the only time I can recall on any of their records where someone outside of the band has taken the lead vocal for the entire song. In the context of recent reports of police brutality and other racially-motivated injustices, and the ultimately hopeful, Gospel-inflected tone that this song takes on, it makes total sense that they needed a voice like Matthews’ to truly convey it. The song doesn’t get too much into specifics, leaning instead on more universal notions of how everyone longs to be free and only obliquely hinting at the headlines that inspired the song. So it may lose its initial context in a few years, for all I know. But I appreciate the restraint shown here, how it builds gradually from a simple ballad into a rousing crowd sing-along. (One nitpick: Why the trickling piano in the first verse? It’s distracting and it’s a reused sonic trick from “Lovely Broken” that doesn’t really fit the mood here.) The song would make a good closing number during a more conventionally organized Gungor setlist, I’d imagine. Shoot, there’s even some spontaneous applause and cheering at the end, from the background singers and players who were there in the studio when the song was recorded. (Which is a bit of an overused gimmick for songs like this, but we needed a little levity at this point, so I’ll allow it.)
10. Be the Love
Song-for-song, this record’s been stronger than the other two One Wild Life entries thus far. Sorry guys, but things are gonna get mediocre for the next few tracks. I really want to like this one – its twinkling little programmed beat shows the promise of developing into something really fun, and its overall mood of unconditional love and universal acceptance is certainly appealing. The lyrics, not so much. The chorus is about as broad and generic on this topic as it can possibly be: “In the sun and the moon is love/All of the ground is love/Free, we are waves of the ocean /We are a love revolution/Love everyone.” Jeez, that’s such a hippy-dippy lyric, even the Dave Matthews Band would probably scoff at it. And the fun rhythmic jam I hoped for? It never materializes. Yeah, the beats and guitars get heavier during the bridge, but it never goes into full breakdown mode, making this another one of those overly restrained and slightly embarrassing attempts at getting funky that seem to show up at least once on most Gungor records these days. “Love Is All” was basically the same thing on the last record. We need something more theme-specific here instead. Body, guys, remember?
11. To Live in Love
This one’s a duet in the more traditional sense – think of the lovey-dovey atmosphere of songs like “Vous Êtes Mon Cœur” or “Light” and you’ll get the idea. I’m not sure in this case that it’s actually meant to be a romantic song, but the soft acoustic texture and the gentle vocal delivery give it a feeling of intimacy. Maybe it’s more like a lullaby that they are singing to their child (I especially get that feeling in the bridge when they sing “How many times will I tuck her in at night?”) The main point of the song seems to be that they’re wondering how they will be remembered when they pass on, perhaps specifically in the memory of their child. Will their legacy be selflessness or greed? In a way, that’s been a driving question for much of the album, as they’ve tried to separate God’s design for humanity from more self-serving, human-nature sorts of reasons to live. It’s all very admirably written, but due to the sleepy delivery, it’s not one of the more engaging songs on the record. “Vaguely pretty” is about as compelling as this one gets for me.
It drives me nuts when the lyrics of a song make a good point, only for that point to be undermined by the fact that it has nothing (that’s readily apparent, anyway) to do with the premise of the song. “Why does man despise the body?” is the good point that’s being made here. Since the entire album is a defense of our corporeal nature being as beautiful and God-ordained of a thing as our spiritual and soulful nature, it of course needs a song that tackles that head-on. But the way Michael goes about demonstrating that point is by using the Tree of Life as an analogy, asking if it was ashamed of its need for sunlight, tried to divorce itself from its bark, etc. This makes zero sense to me. I’m not a tree, trees aren’t sentient, and these are ridiculous questions that no one would reasonably ask about a tree. The analogy is doomed to fail from the get-go. Now consider the fact that it’s one of the longest songs on the album, it unfolds at a rather glacial pace, and the melody has this annoying habit of reaching for a comfortable place to land and missing it every time it hits a sustained note. I’m sure that’s intentional, given Gungor’s habit of deliberately bucking pop music cliches when they feel it doesn’t suit the mood of the song. I admire that in principle. In practice, I get rather impatient and irritated with this one every time.
Well, we’re approaching the end of the record and things were getting a bit too mellow, so let’s throw in one more noisy, upbeat track just for the heck of it! This one’s kind of fun, but it feels really out of sync with everything going on around it. Then again, Gungor’s made albums like I Am Mountain that are deliberately paced in a way that throws off the listener’s expectations, so I can’t really consider this a mistake… it’s just weird. This one begins with a stop-start acoustic riff that always makes me think of the little theme you hear in the underground levels of Super Mario Bros. It doesn’t really develop into the solid groove that it could, because Michael seems hell-bent on accenting a lot the wrong syllables in his lyrics, putting the emphasis in seemingly all the places where the beat is not. It’s slightly maddening. We’ve got another lyric here where I can get behind the message, but the way it’s presented is a bit hokey: “I’m more than a party or orientation/I’m more than a class or a half Puerto-Rican.” OK, humans shouldn’t be stereotyped based on labels. Good message. But the structure there is: Category A, Category B, Category C, oddly specific example of Category D. I usually want more specificity in song lyrics, but this song’s trying to appeal to something universally human about all of us, namely our uniqueness… so I don’t know, at least be consistent about how you write these things? (Seems to me that “nation” would have been the obvious rhyme there.) What probably bugs me the most about this song is how cacophonous the strings get during the breakdown, when the drums get really offbeat and all hell threatens to break loose for a few moments there. I like that it’s energetic and trying to jolt us out of a trance, but look guys, I’ve just turned the volume up to catch all the little nuances in the previous two songs, so maybe be consistent about the volume levels on stuff? Just sayin’.
14. The Great Homesickness
After the abrupt ending of the last song, we have another short acoustic piece, this time song by Lisa. OK, at least the bad pacing of this album has some symmetry to it, I guess. her lyrics are borrowed from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, and the main thrust of them seems to be that humans long to return to their Creator, meanwhile experiencing hints of the Creator’s presence through the sun and the sky and the forest, etc. It’s pretty, but as with other such interludes on Gungor’s album, I wish there were more to it.
15. The End
Having rewatched the final episode of LOST recently, it seems like a perfect analogy for the final song on this trilogy of albums. That episode is literally called The End, for starters. Other commonalities include thematically satisfying callbacks to the very first moments of the project, and a prolonged fixation on the afterlife that is fascinating in theory, but that tests our patience in reality. Fan reactions will be similarly mixed, I’d expect. Now, to delve into the specifics of the song: The opening minute or so is an acoustic reprise of “Lion of Rock”, the first full song on Soul. While not one of my favorites on that album, it was basically the moment that inspired the entire series, with Michael having an epiphany about the interconnectedness of it all while perched on a high point above a beach in New Zealand. Circling back to that same moment in time and offering a new verse that finds him wondering about the day he returns to “the source of it all” seems appropriate. The handoff from there to the main part of the song, though, is a bit awkward. Most of the song is this slow dirge of horns, which the vocal melody follows in a sort of solemn chant or mantra, and there’s a lot of empty space, occasionally underscored by ominous piano or other background sounds, which I’m sure is meant to depict the unknown void that awaits us after death. The lyrics are like a voice from beyond offering comfort to a person in their dying moments, saying things like “I hope you lived/I hope you lived a life of love and risk/Now welcome home”. It’s interesting to me the music denotes a sort of fear and trembling, and just sort of hangs there. The last minute or so reprises the “orchestra warm-up” from Soul‘s intro track, causing a lightbulb to go on in my head as I finally realize the significance of that track which I had quickly dismissed when I reviewed that album. It puts a musical ellipsis on the entire process, as if to say life existed before us and will exist after us, and we don’t know yet what that experience of returning to its source will truly be like. It’s not the normal depiction of the afterlife that you’d get from a typical Christian songwriter, and I applaud the song for that. But due to the setup where the beginning and end of the track are clear callbacks the beginning of Soul, I find myself disappointed that the middle section doesn’t seem to be a direct reference to any other musical moment from the One Wild Life project. The deliberate lack of a climax, while probably necessary for narrative reasons, also makes me feel like it’s not as engaging of a listening experience as it could have been. So the project end on one of those songs that I respect a great deal for its artistic ambition, but that can get a bit tedious when I’m actually listening to it.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Step into the Light $0
Alien Apes $1.75
Already Here $1.75
Walking with Our Eyes Closed $1
Breath Within the Breath $1.25
Lovely Broken $1.25
Be the Love $0
To Live in Love $.50
The Great Homesickness $.75
The End $1
Michael Gungor: Vocals, guitars, miscellaneous instruments
Lisa Gungor: Vocals, piano, keyboards, miscellaneous instruments
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: