Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Author's Playlist: How To Get Into Christian Music

Over the same period when a bunch of animals were announcing their presidential runs, a bunch of other, less developed animals were razing a city to the ground for the death of someone in their pack, and another, higher-up but still less developed animal was urging us not to dismiss all these animals’ concerns because their actions just so happened to be inexcusable and animalistic, the Author’s Playlist on Spotify quietly passed the 48 hour mark.  Having argued about animals all year long and unsuccessfully tried to prevail on others the superiority of the human to the bestial, I’m seizing this milestone as an excuse to talk about something a little less contentious, because if there’s one thing that never fails to unite people regardless of their political or socioeconomic backgrounds, it’s the music we listen to and the inborn ability of all people to distinguish artistry from garbage.

In the end, the ratio of grimy, secular rap to “Christian” music in the Author’s Playlist has turned out roughly 1:1, which really isn’t shocking as it took me a long time to develop a taste for either one.  Getting into Christian music is a rather difficult feat for ears that have long been reared on film scores, classical music, arena rock, and other genres which are very musically complex and rich.  As with most styles of music, if your primary entry point into this art form is the radio’s or internet’s current heavy-rotation setlist, you’ll only ever hear a smidgeon of the stuff that’s actually worth your attention, and my heavy exposure to such impoverished stations is probably what led me to indiscriminately hate religious-themed music for such a long time.  Likewise, if the only Christian music you ever absorb is the tired, sometimes inane Chris Tomlin anthems performed to death by your church’s worship leaders with choruses that cycle ten to twenty times before the song is over, you may get incredibly irritated at the very thought of listening to Christian music, viewing it as a menial chore and an exercise of your eardrums’ patience for repetition. That’s how I felt about it for the longest time, and there are still moments in (otherwise great) outdoor Beatissima worship sessions where my brain will wander off from God and dwell on homework, writing, women, anything to get me through the neverending finale.

As with most genres, the key to enjoying Christian music is just to appreciate it as music without dwelling on its larger spiritual intentions. Once I got over the fact that I was technically listening to Christian music and started focusing on the instrumental or lyrical beauty behind the given recordings, what I once regarded as a nuisance or a boring remainder of Sunday school became an aural sensation and a rewarding complement to my other alternative, folk, rock, or indie pickings. To make this transition as effortless and affordable for the uninitiated as possible without the expense of hiring an official “transition team”, I and my fellow undergrads in Beatissima’s Cultural Arts department are so blessed to present this run-down of the very best in CCM, and we hope this proves to all working DJs at Air One or elsewhere that good Christian music and good music don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Inland by Jars of Clay

Any of Jars of Clay’s albums could make the cut for inclusion in this list (The Eleventh Hour and Who We Are Instead are particularly noteworthy), but Inland is probably their most daring and invigorating achievement yet.  If any group could stake a claim to headlining the soundtrack of my childhood, it’d be either Jars of Clay or Newsboys or David Crowder Band, although I didn’t consciously connect their music with their names until half a year ago.  There were a lot of U2 singles as well, some Enya here and Matchbox Twenty there, and the Moulin Rouge soundtrack was always a mainstay, but for the long family roadtrips my parents’ iPods would dependably return to one of six or seven albums by these bands, and as a result I sadly developed a kind of emotional numbness towards all of them.  Inland was a relatively new addition to my family’s library and I was beginning to tire of it until I left for Beatissima and gave most Christian music a well-needed break to explore a host of other artists recommended by college friends whose uncouth vocals or abrasive production hadn’t been embraced at home.  That’s artists with uncouth vocals, in case that wasn’t clear, though a good number of my college friends also have very explicit vocals. Most of those explicit friends have really sucky taste in music too, except for Billy, who’s contributed more to this Playlist than any other individual in spite of (or because of) all his eccentricities.  Huge shoutout to Billy.

All that’s just to quote a more mainstream Christian singer who said you never know what you got till it’s gone.  For the longest time I convinced myself that Jars of Clay were musically boring and unsophisticated, but it wasn’t until I dragged myself through a trough of Kanye-Kendrick-Glitch Mob-Radiohead-Jack White-Jai Paul-Weeknd/Banks-Arctic Monkeys-Black Keys-Sublime that I could genuinely respect and enjoy Jars of Clay for what they do so singularly from everyone else (and what everyone else does differently from Jars of Clay).  Whereas many faux-alt albums end up sounding like a disjointed hodgepodge of musical styles, Inland is fully itself with a perfect and deliberate composition of electric and acoustic textures.

Take the lead track, After the Fight, which has a very unusual interplay of irregular drum strikes, bass lines, and layered vocals I can’t describe that vividly but sounds strange and beautiful.  Saying nothing of its incisive, subtle lyrics about the confusion of man trying to make up his own conception of love, Age of Immature Mistakes has some of the most impressive guitar work on the album, with strumming so intense and grandiose it mirrors the ego of the narrator.  Reckless Forgiver features the most explicitly spiritual chorus of Inland’s offerings, where Dan Haseltine pleads, “All I want is peace like a river / long life of sanity / love that won’t leave too soon” with goofy, whining violin strings honing what seems to be the utter simplicity of his request.

There’s actually not a lot of proper or proverbial references to God on Inland, a refreshing oddity of a Christian album where the pervasive absence of theological language makes the band’s brief allusions to the heavenly and eternal that much more significant and profound as compared to some big churchy crowd pleaser like Our God Is Greater which has no sense of subtlety or, well, anything in that particular case. None of the songs are overtly “Christian” or blatantly sermonizing, but I think the unifying theme of the album is of trying and failing to find permanent solace in human relationships or in idealized, passionate romances.

As such, much of the album assumes a somewhat melancholy or frustrated tone that’s evident even in titles like Love In Hard Times (a wonderfully minimalistic and moving expression of desire), Loneliness and Alcohol (wherein loud, hard-edged electric guitars crash spectacularly against their quiet neighbors), Left Undone, or Skin & Bones, by which point the narrator has relented enough from his foolish humanism to recognize:“We’ve made an art out of neglecting what we don’t want to see / Love is skin and bones, trying to set us free.”  The final track draws on John Donne’s famous quote “No man is an island” but cleverly twists it from a comment on the unification and social nature of man to a statement about man’s dependency on and longing for God. “You’re leaving all / just burn it in the fire / of everything you once knew / everyone that knew you… pack up all your questions / just keep heading inland / come on home to me.”

There are a couple slower songs that bog the record down marginally, and “Human Race” is a genuinely terrible ditty whose happy, skippy beat is thoroughly at odds with its cynical, tactless lyrics.  While Inland as a whole is very thoughtfully worded, the fourth track sounds amateurish and desperate by comparison on account of its strained “unfriending”/TV references and unimaginative rhyme schemes (“Look in my eyes, touch my face; we’re limping along, the human race.”)  It doesn’t reflect their talent as a band and you should just forget it ever existed.  Still, even OK Computer had the whacky, robotic Fitter, Happier working against it, so the presence of a single dud should hardly be grounds for dismissing the album.  The bottom line is that Jars of Clay use instruments in interesting ways, vary each section’s sound just enough to avoid redundancy, and write mostly pensive words that reward closer examination.

For a depressing period of two years I was a budding music snob who fooled myself into thinking I didn’t care at all for Jars of Clay.  Then I met a bunch of real music snobs who transformed me into an even bigger snob who now humbly recognizes that Jars of Clay are one of the best things to impact music like ever, ever.  They have all the alternative-indie cred of Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, Modest Mouse, The xx, or insert hipster indie band you don’t listen to here on top of poetic, spiritually challenging lyrics that strengthen one’s faith instead of dumbing it down.  To quote the venerable Rick Berman, it’s so dense, every single bar has so many things going on.


  1. An even more fundamental step to ‘Get Into’ any genre of music is investing in a 64Gb Zune or BLU or Lumia Windows phone! Everything sounds better on a Zune or Windows Phone!

  2. Who knew? Blogger only allows comments up to max 4096 characters. So here comes my 4-part comment ....

    Your opening paragraph amuses me greatly. The idea of music being non-contentious, totally uniting, and y’know generally unsubjective … :-D. In fact, I enjoyed this whole post. My appreciation for Jars of Clay, as you know, runs deep. So, I appreciate that you appreciate them. My only bone of contention with your post was with your conclusion that “the key to enjoying Christian music is just to appreciate it as music without dwelling on its larger spiritual intentions.” My disagreement is going to be rife with irony to you, because, as you know, I rarely “hear” lyrics. I will admit to responding to a song’s general musicality first and foremost. Do I like the way it sounds? (most of the time, it’s truly that simple for me). BUT. But, for a song to transcend being merely enjoyable to being truly great (for me, anyway) it has to reach thru my subconscious and grab my attention with a message of truth - a message of truth that speaks to my heart with wisdom and grace. So (again, for me), a song’s larger spiritual intentions matter.

    By way of “for instance”s, here are songs (of both the great-musically & trite-radio-CCM variety) that for me are elevated to greatness BECAUSE of their larger spiritual intention…

    Give Me Jesus (various) Seems to me sometimes it’s in the repetitions and in the simplicity that true wisdom and spiritual insight reign …
    In the morning, when I rise …
    And when I am alone …
    And when I come to die …
    Give me Jesus, give me Jesus
    You can have all this world
    But give me Jesus.

    Give Me Your Eyes (Brandon Heath) We don’t see rightly. We’re apathetic.
    Breathe in the familiar shock
    Of confusion
    And chaos
    All those people goin' somewhere
    Why have I never cared?
    Give me Your eyes for just one second
    Give me Your eyes so I can see
    Everything that I keep missing
    Give me Your love for humanity
    Give me Your arms for the broken-hearted
    The ones that are far beyond my reach
    Give me Your heart for the ones forgotten
    Give me Your eyes so I can see

    All I Can Say (David Crowder Band) For those times when we feel pretty empty, alone, far from God, unable to worship properly …
    Lord didn't You see me cry'n?
    And didn't You hear me call Your name?
    Wasn't it You I gave my heart to?
    I wish You'd remember
    Where you sat it down
    And this is all that I can say right now, i know it's not much.
    But this is all that I can give, yeah that's my everything.
    This is all that I can say right now [right now], i know it's not much.
    But this is all that I can give, yeah that's my everything.
    I didn't notice You were standing here
    I didn't know that
    That was You holding me
    I didn't notice You were cry'n too
    I didn't know that
    That was You washing my feet

  3. Blessed Be Your Name (Matt Redman) On the importance of not being ruled by our circumstances…
    Blessed Be Your Name
    In the land that is plentiful
    When I’m found in the desert place
    When the sun’s shining down on me
    When the world’s ‘all as it should be
    on the road marked with suffering
    Though there’s pain in the offering
    Blessed Be Your Name

    Weightless (Christa Wells) on the importance of not holding on to guilt/sin and its consequences
    ‘Cause I’ve carried this a long time
    in a well-hidden bundle on my back
    but I’ve realized forgiveness is weightless
    so I’ll leave my burden on the tracks

    Dead Man Carry Me (Jars of Clay) what about when we can’t even get to a place of trading “weightedness” for “weightlessness”?
    Try to lift a finger, but I don't think I can make the call
    So tell me if I move, 'cause I don't feel anything at all
    So Carry Me,
    I'm just a dead man
    Lying on the carpet
    Can't find a heartbeat
    Make me breathe,
    I want to be a new man
    Tired of the old one
    Out with the old plan
    OR ….
    Something Beautiful (Jars)
    Maybe stir the sleeping past
    Lying under glass
    Waiting for the kiss
    That breaks this awful spell
    Pull me out...of this lonely cell
    Close my eyes and hold my heart
    Cover me and make me something
    Change this something normal
    Into something beautiful
    What I get from my reflection
    Isn't what I thought I'd see
    Give me reason to believe
    Never leave me incomplete
    Will you untie this loss of mine
    It so easily defines me
    Do you see it on my face?
    And all I can think about
    Is how long
    I've been waiting to feel you move me
    Into something beautiful
    And I'm still fighting for the
    Word to break these chains
    And I still pray when I look
    In your eyes, you'll stare right
    Back down into something beautiful

    OR ….
    Awake My Soul (yes, Chris Tomlin/Lecrae)
    Awake, awake, awake my soul,
    God resurrect these bones
    From death to life, for you alone
    Awake my soul
    Then He said to me,
    Prophesy to these bones and say to them,
    Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!

  4. This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones,
    I will make breath into you,
    And you will come to life…
    Your word gives life to my dry bones
    Your breath tells death it can ride on
    Awake me, make me a living stone,
    A testament to your throne, I
    Im nothing without you, Im on my own
    The only one who satisfies my soul

    Amazing Grace/Grace Like Rain it’s all grace. It’s only ever always been all grace.
    Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
    That saved a wretch like me
    And I once was lost but now I'm found
    Was blind but now I see so clearly
    Hallelujah, grace like rain falls down on me
    Hallelujah, and all my stains are washed away

    Phenomenon (Rita Springer) it’s never been about the “goodies” or the “experience”. No matter our circumstances, He is loving us. He’s worthy of our praise, no matter what.
    I am not here just to see a phenomenon
    I am not here for experiential bliss
    I simply come to the feet of the God I serve
    The one that I love…
    I've had enough of this life of a Pharisee
    I want to know this Jesus who's been loving me…
    Forgive me, oh Lord, if I've been a market place
    Turn me upside down so I will seek Your face
    And if Your presence comes into this place
    So will the thunder and rain

    So there you have it. My case for spiritual intention matters. And maybe, perhaps, this is your longest comment ever? Anywhoo, thanks for your thoughts on Jars. And please, feel free to add any songs to MY playlist that you think I’ll like.


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