Sunday, February 12, 2006

Prayers and Tears


I have always struggled between a desire to hear and support a genuinely, artistically, good Christian band and the reality that I’ve yet to hear such a band. Recently I ran across and their/his album Psalterie and I think I might have found in them the first that I can honest claim is artistic. You can download the entire album for free, which is quite nice considering that it is a true work of .

In addition to the album, the group has a flash program that you can download which includes pictures, lyrics, and commentary on the album. When you listen to the album you can tell that the artist, , is trying to say something substantial with his lyrics and his music, but the exact meaning is fairly allusive. Thankfully, the commentary does not simply consist of recording notes, but actually commentary on the themes and meanings of each song. Part of the reason I like this guy is that he is trying to make that says something.

One of the great challenges for many Christian rock artists seems to be finding a , but Wright succeeds in this regard. Each of the songs on the album was “suggested” by the book of psalms. In the title of most of the songs is the verse that inspired it. Some times it is difficult to see the connection between the verses alluded to and the lyrics of the songs, but Wright’s commentary helps clarify things. While I won’t say that it is an experimental album, I will say that some of the recordings, productions, and dynamics are not typical in the least. And where Wright deviates from the beaten-pop-path it is always for a reason. The music speaks the same language as Wright himself. In “The Most Important Words (Ps 80:5),” for example, as the lyrics sing praises to God and relate our relationship to Him, the backup vocals weave in and out of key; thus evoking musically the same theme as “When the Music Fades,” without the needing to come out and say: “I am a fallen man making music to a perfect God, therefore my art will not be sufficient worship but I give it a try anyway.” You get a sense that everything on this project was chosen for a reason, every electric hum, reversed guitar, accordion, and odd vocal.

But there is something I am keeping back here. Two things actually. First, he says the F word, loud, forcefully, and unapologetically. In fact, he actually says in the commentary for “The Sun Fell on You (Ps 119:82)” that he knew that the song would get him into “trouble” because of his use of language. Yet he chose to put it in there. The second thing sort of explains why he felt comfortable using such profanity on a Christian work of art: Wright is not a perfect Christian. He describes many of his songs as “frustrated and faithless,” and claims to have occasional “sojourns into atheism.”

I think that when we, I am thinking particularly of myself here, try to conceive of what good Christian Art should be, we often think in terms of nonchristian/Christian. But this binary is not realistic in many ways, and Wright is a great example of this. I would never make the argument that Wright’s music represents a work of art made by a Christian walking righteously with Christ, but it is a very honest work. It is the work of a man who is struggling with faith; who does not pretend to have all the answers and know all the dogma, and who doesn’t pretend to be a tortured agnostic. This is a man who is growing in faith, who is maturing, who is learning, who is struggling with what it really means to believe, and as such there are elements (like the profanity) that display a lack of faith, but at the same time a deep honesty. Wright does not sound like he wants to shock anyone with his hip-postmodern-tenuous belief; he is simply a man coming to terms with his relation to God.

Perhaps the best song on this album is “Come Ye Sinners Poor and Needy (Ps 109:22),” an 18th century hymn by Joseph Hart that Wright arranges on guitar. Consider what he says about this song in context of the album as a whole:

“I struggled with the possibility of putting such an obviously religious song alongside my own often frustrated and faithless tomes. But Hart’s words truly do express the movement I have been trying to herald-and thankfully by means of a far more sophisticated pen.” (my emphasis).

If Prayers and Tears were affirming false doctrines through evocative music and powerful statements, I would not be writing about them here. But they don’t. Instead, through music that skillfully combines themes with sounds, lyrics with meaning, Wright chronicles his own “movement” toward faith. It is not a mature faith; we should not turn to him for answers, but that is not the place of art anyway. Where Wright is wrong, he is not making dogmatic pronouncements, but positing tentative beliefs. Perhaps the one statement that stands out is that he is trying to make the movement towards faith. And while I cringe when I hear him call Christ a baby “covered in filth and lies,” I delight that he understands that it is only this Baby that can save him. And I pray that his struggle will turn into comfort, and he will know the “peace of God which surpasses all comprehension.” (Phil 4:7). As he makes this movement, I will rejoice in the Lord that He has given Wright such an imaginative ability and devotion to excellence in order to worship Him in Spirit; and I pray that he will soon worship also in Truth. Posted by Picasa


Chestertonian Rambler said...

In my opinion, there are a number of good Christian bands, just none in mainstream pop since Rich Mullins (with whom I will agree that all his popular songs were the ones that sucked.)

Probably my favorite is Stavesacre. The lead singer only came back to music after a period of penace for his previous sex, drugs, and sacharine Christian lyrics lifestyle, and it really shows. The result is lyrics that express a profound sense of guilt and gratitude ('he who has been given much') as well as a very insightful and sometimes scathing look at the uneven edifice that calls itself American Christianity. Musically, though, I would put this band in Longinus' category of "the sublime" -- at times the music is almost unbearably beautiful, but on the same CD they'll have a couple of songs that just seem overlong and poorly paced. They also came out of the "hardcore" musical tradition, so if you don't like music that is loud and agressive, you certainly won't like their first CD.

One of the most telling phenomena of Stavesacre is the fact that though they started on a Christian label, they felt that it was impossible to remain under a "Christian" recording company and keep either their artistic vision or their faithfulness to Christ. Which, I suppose, supports my belief that the self-ghettoization of Christian culture is one of the most obvious errors of American "Evangelical" Christianity.

noneuclidean said...

I'll have to check Stavesacre out. I'm always on the lookout for Christian music I can support. There are a few bands that I'm in to that are aggressive, but for the most part I question the place of Christians in making hard-core music. Check out my post on Christian art in general:

If Stavesacre is the type of band that is always aggressive, I would like to know from you how you think they can justify such an emotion throughout all their albums. To rephrase that, life, at least mine, does not always make me feel aggressive, so how can you have a good work of art that evokes aggression constantly and over several songs and several albums?

It might sound like I'm attacking Stavesacre by asking this, but I'm not. I've never really heard them so I have no right to attack them and, recognizing you as a thinking person, I'm curious to hear if you think they manage the balance between aggression and unity between form and theme. I'm fairly sure it is possible to have an artistically good, hard-core Christian band, but I do think it would be extremely difficult. How can this aggresion fit in with our call to be joyful? Loving? Peaceful? Let me know.

perry said...

I thought your journal entry about our first album was very thoughtful and demonstrated a rare sense of grace and generosity not often found among people who characterize my songs as "Christian Rock"; typically, anyone who thinks that my goal is to express my faith only focuses on the doubt and not the belief. Or people occasionally use it as a slander. Ha. Anyway, I really appreciated the obvious time and consideration you put into it. You write very well, by the way; your blog entries are all as thoughtful as the review and a treat to skim through.