Artist: Jennifer Knapp
Album: Love Comes Back Around
In Brief: While it’s a thematically warmer record that opens up a little more about the long-term relationship that Jennifer has been in, I’m not finding a whole lot here that keeps me engaged on a musical level. She’s played it safe with her mid-tempo heartland rock/adult contemporary style for two albums in a row now, and that’s a bit frustrating given the unique perspective that she has to offer.
Sometimes when I’ve been listening to an artist for a very long time, I think it’s worthwhile to do a thought experiment, and ask myself how I’d respond to their music if I were brand new to it and knew nothing about their career or their personal life prior to their current album. I’ve been a fan of Jennifer Knapp for almost two decades now, during the two very distinct phases of her career – her trio of “Christian rock” albums released around the turn of the century, and her more recent, not-so-directly-religious, more relationship-oriented material following the end of her long hiatus in 2009. But let’s say I didn’t know any of that history, including the fact that her overall sound and style snagged her enough crossover appeal back in her “Christian rock” days to get her a gig at some of the Lilith Fair dates in the late 90s. I never really got into most of the rest of those “Lilith Fair types” back in the day, so my first reaction upon listening to Knapp’s newest album, Love Comes Back Around, would be to say that I admire what she’s trying to say with a lot of her songs, but most of it’s a bit too middle-of-the-road for me, in much the same way I’d respond to your average Sheryl Crow or Natalie Merchant or Sarah MacLachlan song: It’s OK, I guess, but it doesn’t really do much for me. Since I have a history with Knapp, I’m willing to keep listening even when I have a rather ho-hum response to a new collection of songs from her, to see if some highlights emerge over time that didn’t initially grab me. But since I’ve made it a hobby of mine to review a lot of the music I’m listening to, with the hopes of drawing in new listeners who might not have had the opportunity to check out a particular favorite artist of mine before, I have to be honest when I think there’s not a whole lot that I think might be engaging to someone who wasn’t already a big fan. And unfortunately, that’s how I feel about Jennifer’s sixth album.
I also think it’s possible that, if I were brand new to Jennifer’s music without having known anything else about her, I might not pick up on the fact that she is a gay Christian just from listening to her latest set of songs. Those two things are both important aspects of her identity, though she often doesn’t address either of them head-on in her songwriting. Obviously the faith aspect of her songwriting was more prominent pre-hiatus, and she hadn’t come out as a lesbian until after the hiatus, so there was really never a time when both of these things were made clear in the same song. It’s all still there in subtle ways for those who care to pick up on it, but I think it’s important to Jennifer to not write songs that would segregate her audience, as if to say these songs over here are only for religious people, and these other songs over there, these are the “gay songs”. A few hints at how the question of gender roles might play out differently in the relationship she’s been in for over a decade are about as obvious as it gets here, and I’m kind of exicted to hear those little windows into a part of her life that clearly brings her a lot of happiness. But I might just as easily assume some of these were love songs about a heterosexual relationship if I wasn’t paying very close attention – which might say something about my own heteronormative biases, or perhaps about Jennifer’s attempts to not be exclusive with her songwriting. It’s hard to say.
I’ve mentioned in the past that while Jennifer’s pretty outspoken in her role as an affirming gay Christian when she’s writing a book or doing a speaking engagement, she tends to make music that falls more into the category of “songs written by a musician who happens to also be a Christian and gay”, if that makes any sense. This was important when discussing her fourth and fifth albums, Letting Go and Set Me Free, since the former had a few songs that were angry and boldly defiant in the face of those who would choose to judge her for coming out of the closet, and the latter was very much an album about loss, almost as if the friendships she’d had to say goodbye to hurt as much as a breakup with a longtime lover. Love Comes Back Around finds her in a mostly happier and more content place, at least if I’m interpreting the lyrics correctly, and that makes me excited for her, but not terribly excited about most of the music she’s come up with. I might not even categorize most of this as “rock” if I didn’t know anything about her history, settling instead on a cross between folk music and adult contemporary pop, with only the occasional guitar solo or garnish from some less conventional instrumentation to remind the listener that she’s still got a few tricks up her sleeve. It’s just not a style of music that typically does much for me, and it’s not like much of anything Jennifer’s done has been boldly experimental or reinvented her chosen genre in any notable way in the past. The songs were just more engaging as a whole. Now they’re kind of an even spread between mildly interesting and downright boring. This isn’t really the kind of artistic progression I was hoping for from a musician with her unique experience.
Back when I was listening to more Christian music than mainstream or indie music, I had a bit of a pet peeve with artists who seemed to be more “story” than “substance” – meaning they let a powerful testimony that would be repeated in pretty much all of their interviews and press materials do the talking for them, while not doing much of anything engaging or innovative with their actual music. Jennifer had to make it on personality and artistry, not really having a big “story hook” to hang her career on, aside from the somewhat refreshing angle of her being a relatively new Christian at the time and being able to write rather straightforward songs of faith without them echoing a lifetime’s worth of CCM cliches. That made her songs stand out, and she felt like a kindred spirit back in those days when I was first listening to Kansas and Lay It Down. When she disappeared for the better part of a decade, I missed her dearly, and when she came out in 2010, I still felt a strong attachment to her, because at that point, I tended to side more with the supposed “misfits” who didn’t conform to the CCM industry’s unwritten standards of morality that most of its audience seemed to expect a “safe for the whole family” type artist to follow. But it’s been three albums now, on which her testimony of having to rethink a lot of the things she once believed, still affirm that she is a Christian, and finding her voice as an advocate for other LGBT Christians pushed to the margins, has been mostly a background detail that the listener has to make a mental note of when interpreting songs, which could otherwise be about a lot of different things. I admire what Jennifer is trying to say with some of her songs, but I guess I find myself wishing for some bolder statements in her actual music here and there, just because there are so few artists in her position.
So I guess it would be hard for me to say, to someone who is at a similar cultural crossroads where their faith and sexuality are both important parts of their identity yet seem to be at odds with each other, and who is new to Jennifer’s music, that they’d find a kindred spirit in her the way I did all those years ago. They might if they went to one of her speaking engagements or read one of her books, or maybe even if they were amused by the self-deprecating between-song banter that characterizes her live shows. But the music, for the most part, is just sort of a pleasant soundtrack, tangentially related to her efforts in those areas. I wouldn’t recommend against listening to it if one is so inclined… I just wouldn’t go out of my way to say, “You absolutely have to hear this!” like I might have with a few of her songs on Letting Go. I know she’s capable of making stronger statements than this, and it’s really hard to divorce myself from that expectation as I listen to this record. That’s not a judgment of the quality or effectiveness of her advocacy, or a knock on her as a person… I just think it would be one possible way she could make her music more interesting for old fans and newcomers alike.
1. Straight Road
She’s gotta be trolling us by putting the word “Straight” in the title of the first song on her album, right? Actually, I’m not sure. If this is an attempt to mess with people’s expectations of the subject matter, it’s certainly a subtle one, because the song itself is pretty clear that it’s about how good it feels to come home after a long stint on the road, and it has zip to do with sexual orientation as far as I can tell. Long before the word “straight” meant “heterosexual”, it meant “not curving or bending”, and if you’ve ever driven in a place like Kansas (where Jennifer is from), you’ll know how flat and straight the roads can get, what with no significant terrain forcing them to do anything else. To most of us, this sounds pretty boring, but to Jennifer, it’s a sign of familiarity, one of the first reminders that she’s on her way home. There’s definitely a spiritual metaphor in play here as she contrasts this with some of the long and winding roads she’s traveled elsewhere, as if to say that coming home keeps her down to Earth and on the “straight and narrow”. But at the same time, it’s like she’s gained this appreciation for the place she comes from by traveling to these other far-flung places where they do things differently, not by staying in one place and being afraid to ever venture out. The bridge of the song puts it best: “If absence makes the heart grow fonder/No wonder why I’m so prone to wander off.” Musically, while the guitar riffs and other instrumentation are pretty workmanlike here, as they are on most of the album, there’s a subtle trick she pulls by playing the opening riff in 6/4 time before switching to a standard 4/4 for the verse and chorus. It’s not the most amazing example of the music matching the personality expressed in a song’s lyrics that I’ve ever heard, but on an album where the musical style often defaults to very basic folk/rock, I appreciate that sort of thought being put into the structure of a song.
2. New Day
This is one of those songs where, if the album as a whole wasn’t so darn laid-back, I’d appreciate a little more how the slow build up to a more energetic climax plays out. The drums and guitar at the beginning of this song almost feel like they’re stumbling along at a slower pace than they should be. It’s not a terribly interesting way to open a song, but it fits with Jennifer’s lyrics, which seem to express some sort of regret over a night half-remembered, even implying that she’s a bit hung over in the aftermath and would appreciate it if you’d keep the lights low and the music down, please. This is probably a metaphor for the atonement she’s seeking over past regrets, and the mood of the song brightens a bit in the chorus where she more confidently expresses the need to throw the curtains open and greet the new day with arms open. The climactic moment comes in the form of a guitar solo, which a strong, gutsy vocal performance from Jennifer leads into quite nicely – “Could you untie the rope/That holds me to the gallows/Be my ray of hope/Don’t leave me here in the shallows!” (Insert epic rockage here. Well, relative to the rest of the album, at least.) The song then settles back down to the lazy shuffle it started with after a final chorus, which at least gives it a little symmetry. I struggled with this one a bit at first, but it’s very gradually become the highlight of the album for me, and it might have a shot at poking its way into a list of my Top 20 or so Jennifer Knapp songs, if I ever decided to make one.
3. Love Comes Back Around
The title track is a tender acoustic ballad, the kind that gets my attention by making sure to include a bit of finger-picking alongside the simple strumming – on an album where the instrumentation mostly keeps it simple, that’s the sort of thing that will draw my attention to a particular slower song surrounded by mostly slower songs. I love how effortlessly Jennifer’s intimate and affectionate side comes out here, as she sings a promise to her lover that despite all the discouraging obstacles in their path and the question of whether to take the plunge and get married seemingly taking longer to answer than it should have, Jennifer hasn’t forgotten how much this person means to her, and she seems to have given her a ring as a reminder of this. You could interpret this as an engagement song, or perhaps as a re-validation of the reasons behind an engagement that’s gone on longer than usual. Either way, you can tell from the sweet tone of her voice that she absolutely means it, and that really draws me into the song. As love songs in the Jennifer Knapp discography go, it’s not as show-stoppingly gorgeous as “Fallen”, but then again, very few love songs are in my opinion. Since I now have close friends who are trying to navigate the waters of being in same-sex relationships while also being Christians, including a couple who got engaged earlier this year who can’t help but come to mind as I listen to this song, it’s no surprise that this one hits close to home for me. I know these folks have had to fight every step of the way, for the blessings of their families, for a voice in their congregations, and for legal recognition of their bonds to each other. Same-sex marriage only became legal nationwide in America in 2015 (and it still doesn’t appear to be legal in Australia, where Jennifer was living during her career hiatus in the earlier years of the relationship she’s still in now). So I’m guessing some of that may have had an effect on Jennifer’s thought process as she was writing this song. I feel like I relate to this one more thematically than musically, but it’s still a pretty song that tugs the heartstrings exactly as it needs to.
4. Perfect Pardon
This song feels like it wants to be a big, celebratory anthem, but the somewhat lagging tempo it settles on doesn’t really communicate that feeling as well as it should. There’s more richness to the instrumentation here, with a little more texture to the electric guitar giving its brief solo in the middle eight more of a soulful feel. And don’t forget the horns. There’s a trumpet and a trombone and some strings here, and Jennifer’s actually credited with playing the trumpet on this one as well as the guitar. It’s nice to hear her branching out – last time I can recall hearing horns on a Jennifer Knapp song was “In Two (The Lament)” on The Way I Am, and I don’t think she was playing a horn instrument herself on that one. Still, the horns don’t add as much flavor as they probably could – they never rise to the level of being more than just a bit of background flavor, which is frustrating because I’ve heard Jennifer take at least a few mildly genre-bending turns in the past, and I wish she’d be braver about doing so in the current phase of her career. I like what this song is about – it uses planting a garden as a metaphor for putting all your blood, sweat and tears into something and not seeing the results you’d hoped to, but then having it mean a more to you due to all that you went through when that payoff finally comes. “Garden” and “pardon” were too perfect of a rhyme for this song not to get written, I suppose.
5. Don’t Believe Me
This is the point where the album starts to drag for me, and despite a few bright spots, there isn’t a whole lot left for me to get excited for until the end. I can appreciate the gentle mood Jennifer’s trying to set for us here – some warm acoustic strumming, a little bit of mellow horn ambiance (not being played by her this time), even a female backing vocal to underscore her simple chorus. I feel like this one’s almost a cry for help disguised as a bit of self-deprecation, basically admitting that she puts on a front to avoid admitting when she needs someone for emotional or practical support in whatever she’s going through, and so she has to tell that person how to see through her facade when they catch her doing this. It’s a nice idea for a song, but… I don’t know. The way she plays it is just so darn subtle. The message is subtle. The melody is subtle. The instrumentation is subtle. I’m drowning in subtlety here, and I don’t really want to admit this, but I kind of need someone to reach over and ever-so-slightly nudge me out of it.
6. Girl Thing
I really want to love this song. It seems designed to come across as more light-hearted and playful, and it’s one of those “window into the intricacies of a relationship” type songs that I usually respond quite well to. Depending on how you interpret it, it’s either a wry commentary on how the gender roles play out in a relationship between two women, with one of them being more into chick flicks and greeting cards and so forth while the other couldn’t care less about them, or else it’s a rebuttal to someone on the outside critiquing the relationship for not fitting into their expectation of gender norms. (The bridge possibly supports the latter interpretation as she sings “Shut your mouth, I can’t take it any more”, but it doesn’t seem like she’s delivering it angrily… it could be her way of saying “Let’s not overthink this too much and drive ourselves crazy with pointless arguments, as long as we’re cool with each other’s different ways of expressing ourselves.”) Jennifer’s doing this little dance on the acoustic guitar that’s half chord strumming and half finger-picking, which initially draws me into the song, but unfortunately her vocal delivery is on the looser side, and it doesn’t conform to the rhythm all that well, making the chorus come across as a bit messy and slurred when it really needs to land the main punchline of the song instead. The result is that the song is pleasant, and it puts a little grin on my face when I’m listening to it, but it doesn’t have a strong enough hook to stick in my head after the song is over. I feel like this kind of a song really needs that sort of a hook to better assert its identity, you know?
7. Forget the Past
Oh for crying out loud, Jennifer. In what universe did you expect this song to be interesting to anybody? With its slow pace, its rather dull and unassuming percussion and electric guitar, and a chorus that noticeably struggles to get its melody off the ground, this one is a genuine chore to listen to. It’s not even all that long of a track at just over three minutes, but it’s a painfully dry three minutes. Jennifer’s encouraging someone to “Try something new, forget the past”, as if this should be an admonishment to not base your expectations of the future on someone’s flawed past performance. Honestly, the song doesn’t even live up to its own message. There’s absolutely nothing new about it, unless I suppose you consider past Jennifer Knapp ballads that haven’t managed to be anywhere near as beige and boring as this one. The chorus arrives at its title drop with the complete opposite of melodic payoff – there’s so little variance in the notes she sings that it might just qualify as an anti-hook. I don’t care how pretty her voice is (and to be fair, that’s the one constant that has never changed in her music – I’ll never not love the sound of this woman’s voice) – this just isn’t a good use of it, nor of her guitar, nor of her lyrical skills. Next!
8. Roll Over Me
This is a sad but beautiful love song that, much like “What Might Have Been” and “The Tale” from her last record, might be a bit too slow and measured for the impact of it to be felt as strongly as it should be. Jennifer seems to be mourning the loss of someone who had a very real effect on her, to the point where even the smallest details of the sounds they made, the imprints they left on the bedsheets, things like that, trigger bittersweet reminders now that they are gone. She hears a passing storm and wonders if that could possibly be the person’s way of comforting her and reminding her that they still love her – I have to admit I’ve never heard a song that described rolling thunder in such tender terms. The way Jennifer holds her notes here is fabulous, and the lyrics are a real gut-punch at times: “I haven’t slept for a long time/Dreams without you are the worst kind.” But, much like those two songs from Set Me Free above, this one kind of drags, and aside from a 3/4 rhythm that contrasts with the straightforward 4/4 of most of the album, there isn’t a whole lot to make this one standout to me. I guess at least this album only has one such song instead of two longer ones very close together in the tracklisting – that made it seriously difficult for me to resist tuning out halfway through Set Me Free.
9. Roman Holiday
We definitely needed something upbeat here, as the album rounds a corner into its home stretch. Of course, “upbeat” is a relative term given how relaxed this record is, but this may well have the “poppiest” ambitions of anything on the album, with its brighter guitar chords, a bit of piano and synth, and strong backing vocals. (OMG it’s Margaret Becker! Who I just noticed also sang backup on “Girl Thing”! Neither one holds a candle to their classic duet “When Nothing Satisfies”, but I’ll take what I can get at this point.) The mood of this one is definitely cheery, with Jennifer suggesting that she and her lover take a page from the 1950s romantic comedy that the song is named after, with her in the Audrey Hepburn role while her lover stands in for Gregory Peck. Just so there’s no room for gender confusion, she pretty clearly addresses her lover as “girl” in the second verse. (I mean, there weren’t romantic comedies about gay couples in the age of classic cinema, so a modern couple’s gotta improvise, y’know?) It’s a charming little song that does a pretty good job with the imagery, igniting my own inner wanderlust, because I know from personal experience that jetting off to a magical place you’ve never visited with someone you love is way more memorable than doing it all by your lonesome. So I love what the song is about. But what’s up with the production here? With all these instruments in the mix, this thing oughta stand out as downright magical – instead there’s this bridge where the piano and synth are supposed to take center stage, and they’re just buried behind the monotony of basic drums and simple guitar strumming. It’s like the players involved were striving for anonymity. Beef up the presentation of the various instruments involved here, and I could imagine this one fitting pretty neatly into KT Tunstall‘s latest record.
10. Return to Me
The final track really wants to tug at my nostalgic memories of the very first time I ever heard Jennifer Knapp, since it begins with an acapella intro strongly reminiscent of “Faithful to Me”. You know how there were no instruments other than Jennifer’s voice in that song? It was for very good reason. The song deviated occasionally from it’s 3/4 meter just because certain lines of lyrics needed to fit, and with just her voice, that gave it an air of spontaneity. Here, she’s softly strumming an acoustic guitar to keep time, and the lyrics she’s written don’t seem to fit well with either a 3/4 or 4/4 beat, so it’s like she keeps changing her mind mid-strum and she ends up with all these out of place measures of 4/4 it what should have been a 3/4 song… or is it that she’s just syncopating 4/4 to the point where my ear keeps expecting 3/4 and getting confused? Either way, for such a mellow song, this one is mentally exhausting beyond belief. You’ll probably have an easier time with it, and maybe not even notice anything unusual about it, if you don’t have a strong sense of rhythm. It’s rare for me to hear a song that has some sort of a rhythm to it and wish that it had none. I just don’t like being distracted by something like that which is probably supposed to be a subtle detail at most. What’s truly heartbreaking about this is that the lyrics reveal Jennifer at her most directly prayerful since the early days, pretty clearly addressing God in a vulnerable moment where she’s holding out hope for some sort of a huge change in her life and wondering why it’s taking so long. “Scared to count the hours that I have wasted/By talking to myself/But a thousand years to you is but a day.” I mean, that’s downright Psalm-like. And I feel like that moment of clarity hits harder after all of the personal expressions of longing and waiting patiently that have come earlier in the album, than it would have after a set of Bible songs. But when I’d rather just read those lyrics on paper than listen to the actual song… yeah, sorry Jennifer, but you ended this record on a real dud.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Straight Road $1
New Day $1.50
Love Comes Back Around $1.25
Perfect Pardon $1
Don’t Believe Me $.50
Girl Thing $.75
Forget the Past -$.25
Roll Over Me $.75
Roman Holiday $1
Return to Me -$.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: