There was a time, not that long ago, in which I was pretty sure I was the crap. I mean, I was right about everything, knew better than everyone else, and was fairly invincible. At least, that was the lie I put out there about myself. I lived according to that lie. And even though my performance of that role may have been fairly convincing to some, if I was honest with myself, I knew it was a lie. Inwardly, I was a mess.
The older I get, the more I learn about God and myself, the more I embrace that mess. That doesn’t mean I’m satisfied with it. I just recognize it’s the truth. And I try not to pretend so much anymore. The truth is this: I am desperately in need of mercy.
I think that’s why Leon Bridges’ River speaks so deeply to me. In it, I hear a deep desperation. I hear a man coming to an understanding that he is extremely limited and faulty. That he is in need of mercy… of grace… of salvation. Hey Leon, me too. Thanks for sharing this beautiful song. I see it as an invitation for all of us to see ourselves in the protagonist’s story. To stand in his shoes. To recognize our own need.
Apparently, asking questions was not okay. That’s what was confirmed for me recently in an online conversation with some of my Christian brothers and sisters as we discussed some weighty doctrinal/theological issues. In one of my posts, I began asking questions about the nature of the Bible. These were questions, mind you, not statements. They focused on the limitations and brokenness central to being a human and how this affects our ability to comprehend and/or apply what we read as well as how it may have affected those who helped shape the biblical canon. I asked how we can be certain that our English translations of ancient writings rendered in old languages for which we have no original manuscripts are accurate representations of God’s Word. Such questions struck a nerve.
This was especially the case with one participant. His response was, I’m sure in his opinion, “loving.” He was concerned about the condition of my soul. He was worried my salvation was at risk. To him, even asking these questions represented a crisis of faith. But I didn’t see it that way. In fact, I felt (and feel) secure in my relationship with God and in my posture as a follower of Jesus. I was just asking questions… logical, important questions. But such questions, for this gentleman (and others), meant I may not be matching up with evangelical orthodoxy.
Last week’s TS10 playlist is likely one of my favorites thus far. Can’t explain it… but it touches me deeply. And one of the songs that particularly impacts me is Andrew Howie‘s Post. According to Howie’s site, the song’s title was inspired by the title of Dave Tomlinson’s book The Post Evangelical. Post is an autobiographical manifesto of Howie’s divorce from evangelicalism. Every time I listen to it, my heart is broken anew… for several reasons.
The very first line of the song is telling. And it resonates with me deeply in light of the question-asking situation mentioned above.
Goodbye evangelical certainty…
I’ve gone through most of my life highly regarding “certainty.” Much of that certainty revolved around statements like “the Bible clearly teaches that…” While I believe there is much in the Bible that’s as clear as a window, I also have come to see how I have been “certain” about other issues and “teachings” in the Bible that aren’t so clear. And I’ve found the only way I can maintain my certainty about the “clarity” of those muddier concepts is by ensuring I am surrounded by people who agree with that certainty. As I continue to follow Jesus, I am finding the weakness of such “safety in numbers.”
I’ve had more than my share of this safety in numbers
And strong certainties
I choose to live in a dangerous world
Where I know I am free
“I choose to live in a dangerous world…” Yes. Yes, please. For me, and my guess is for others as well, certainty brings a sense of safety and security. Certainty can be insulation from the dangerous and the unknown. But what if God, in his infinite wisdom, does not value certainty in the human experience as much as my evangelical family and I do? What if such certainty actually draws us away from mystery and from a need to pursue him, letting him be our safety and security amid uncertainty, danger, and the unknown? I am becoming more and more convinced a life following Jesus is a life lived on the “slippery slope.” It is a life of questions, risk, challenge, and “out on a limb.” It is a life in which certainties are few.
Even as I write these words, I can feel the inward tension of feeling the eyes of my evangelical brothers and sisters watching me, categorizing me, judging me. Asking questions and living in uncertainty are taboo for us evangelicals. They make us look, dare I say it, “liberal.”
So don’t tell me your stories
And don’t sing me your songs
And don’t presume that you know me
And that it’s me who’s in the wrong
And why would questioning things be problematic? Why would choosing to live with a measure of uncertainty rankle some of my church-going friends? I will not pretend to know what goes on in someone else’s heart and mind. But, based on what I have observed and experienced personally, I can take an educated stab at why these things are deemed dangerous or unsavory: fear. We are afraid that maybe we don’t have everything figured out just right. We are afraid to be wrong. Sometimes, I think, we are afraid to think. But even these statements reveal only symptoms and not a root cause. What is the root cause of such fear? Let me suggest this… the illusion of certainty and the aversion to critical thinking and questioning may be rooted in a lack of actual faith. What if God is not big enough to handle our questions? What if our intellectual meanderings reveal there is an element of our belief that is false or questionable? Again this is all rooted in fear.
Fear may well be the beginnings of wisdom and love
But I don’t want to be afraid anymore
The fear that leads to wisdom is not the same as the fear I’m talking about. Healthy fear involves a reverence for God, an acknowledgement of how awesome and great he is. Regardless, Howie’s expression of being done with fear resonates deeply with me. Like him, I don’t want to be afraid anymore. The kind of fear I’m talking about only leads to an illusory sense of safety.
And it leads to the creation of unnecessary rules and structures. Jesus consistently confronted the religious leaders for their habit of loading extra burdens on the backs of people who are seeking God. Unfortunately, I’ve seen time and again how, instead of following Jesus, us evangelicals have followed the ways of his religious opponents. Don’t dance. Don’t listen to rock music. Don’t wear jeans to church. Don’t play cards. Don’t drink alcohol. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. I’ve been hollered at for violating any number of rules, both explicit and implicit, that have nothing to do with what God wants and everything to do with bolstering an unauthentic security.
Goodbye cookie-cutters and Sunday schools
How can I be part of this game if I don’t play by your rules
As I consider these words, my heart hurts. Cookie-cutter methodology, in terms of how to “do church” or what it means for an individual to follow Jesus, has nothing to do with authentic Christian spirituality. There’s nothing wrong with Sunday school, but like Howie, I know that Sunday school has been the arena for fear-reinforcing dynamics. And the question, “How can I be part of this game if I don’t play by your rules?” Wow… that question has swirled through my mind and heart in various forms since I was a kid.
Can’t you see that the gossip, the grudges, the violence
Have taken their toll
Gossip. Grudges. Violence. Three dynamics which should be foreign to Jesus’ church… Three behaviors that are in fact diametrically opposed to the way of Jesus. And yet, they live in the church. Sometimes, they thrive more than faith, hope, and/or love. They are the fruit of fear.
I gossip because I want to feel better about myself and the choices I’ve made. I want to feel better about myself because I am afraid… afraid that I’m not good enough, that I won’t measure up, that I won’t be loved. I hold grudges for much the same reason. Grudges give me a sense of control, which once again makes me feel better and elevates me over the other person. Violence is about me forcing my will on the victim. Again, this makes me feel bigger and better. Gossip, grudges, and violence are the fruit of fear and they are destructive. Unfortunately, it feels as though these dynamics are the rule for many of us evangelicals rather than the exception.
I choose to escape from the clutches of your good intentions
And save my own soul
And this is where my heart breaks the most. As I listen to Post, I find myself time and again walking the same path Andrew Howie describes so vividly and poignantly. I hate the fear. I hate the cookie cutters… the rules… the gossip… the grudges… the violence. It would seem a common response to want to walk away from these destructive dynamics. I certainly do, no matter how they may be rooted in someone’s “good intentions.” But where my path diverges from Howie’s is in that second line.
Simply put, I cannot save my own soul. I need Jesus. Yes, he is my crutch (as many critics of Christianity have suggested). I am not ashamed of that reality, because Jesus is actually more than that. He is my life. He is the breath in my lungs and the beat of my heart. Without him, I can do nothing, let alone save my own soul.
Does walking away from the “clutches of (the evangelical church’s) good intentions” mean walking away from Jesus? I don’t think so. And I think that’s a worthy discussion point. Even though, quite literally, my greatest pain has come from within the “walls” of the church, that pain has not alienated me from Jesus. In fact, what I’m finding is it only compels me to connect with him more deeply. That pain reveals how deeply I need him.
Church wounds cut deeply because in the context of a church community we would (and should) expect to experience the love and grace of God. The community of people which make up “church” are to be an expression of these things here and now. We are to be God’s representatives to each other. So, when in our frailties and fear, someone within the church hurts me, it can feel as though God himself is wounding me.
But Jesus is greater than the church. And he is bigger than my wounds. He stands above my fear and grasps for control. In fact, I am naive enough to believe his love is so transformative that all of these ugly church dynamics can be addressed. The church can be transformed. I believe there is hope for the church (even us evangelicals).
Who is that walking towards me as I
Leave these sinking ships
Beckoning me ever forward
With a whisper on her lips
There is more than this
As I listened to these words the first few times, I wasn’t sure what Howie was describing here. And while I still cannot state for certain that I “get it,” I can say the “her” mentioned feels a lot like the “sister wisdom” of the Proverbs. If that’s the identity of this mysterious woman, then I find myself, once again, on the path with Howie. I cannot turn off my brain (or my heart) when it comes to the ills within American evangelicalism. I cannot ignore how easily we set aside the call to love because of our insecurities and need to be right. And these things lead me to that slippery slope I mentioned above. The only way I can stand with any sense of sure-footing in that place is if God grants me wisdom. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that wisdom is calling out to us and whispering in our ears, “There’s more than this.” And as Howie and I (and others) branch out from the seemingly but illusory “safe and secure,” we need the companionship of Lady Wisdom.
So, as I take my own post-evangelical journey, I ask God humbly to provide that companion. I, like Howie, am ready to stand on the slippery slope of “I don’t know.” I am ready to admit my limitations as a human being and confess the mystery of God is greater than my little brain can handle. I am thankful that Jesus not only provides security while standing in uncertainty, but that he is beckoning me to follow him as he guides me on this path.
I will never forget my introduction to The Daredevil Christopher Wright’s music. First off, I knew if I was going to be a well-rounded local music appreciator, I would need to know their stuff. So, I got a hold of The Nature of Things a few years ago. As I first listened, while sitting in my van in the Festival Foods parking lot, I knew I was diving into deep waters. And those waters were not only deep; they were unpredictable. Beautiful vocals and craftsmanship sealed the deal for me (and I still smile when I listen to the extended, super-long dramatic pause in Blood Brother, one of the great, unpredictable moments on the album).
I was, of course, bummed to learn that the band was going on a hiatus, but also excited to hear what one of their members, Jonathan Sunde was going to produce as he ventured out as a solo artist. I had a chance to hear him play during Adelyn Rose’s album release show for Ordinary Fantasy at Eau Claire’s House of Rock a couple of years ago, and I was mesmerized by the guy’s immense talent, story-telling, and, honestly, his between-song banter. I especially remember him describing the process of writing a particular song and he ended by saying, “Follow the muse. Follow the muse.” As I’ve engaged with his music more over the last couple of years, it is evident that he is still following the muse, because his writing and music are certainly inspired.
In 2014, he released his first solo record, Shapes that Kiss the Lips of God (I wrote about it here). It’s one of those records I can always go back to. I never get tired of it. And I never get tired of hearing him play songs from it. In fact, I had the privilege of seeing him perform recently at The Cabin at UW-Eau Claire and he played a bunch of those songs that night. The most memorable song of the night for me was his haunting, acoustic rendition of Blinding Flash of Light, an already soul-rending, sober meandering of faith, doubt, and what exists in between them. His quiet, somber approach to the song that night drew me in and broke my heart.
Again, Sunde swims in deep rivers lyrically and musically. I’ve long been curious about his inspiration and motivation for diving in so deep. I recently asked him about this and the theological and philosophical themes in his music, especially his mentions of Jesus and Christian ideas. Sunde replied,
Well, I am motivated and shaped by my attempt to follow Jesus. The big questions have always been present for me and a source of curiosity, frustration, excitement and peace. How people have explored those questions and the philosophical and spiritual conclusions that they have come to, fascinate me. In and overarching way and sometimes in a more pointed and specific way, my songs are an expression of my wrestling with these spiritual and philosophical questions. Over time and for a host of reasons, I’ve come to the conclusion that I can trust in the explanation of the nature of things that Jesus presented. As such, when I’m speaking most intimately about trust and fear and doubt and love it comes from that perspective.
Sunde’s response was refreshing to me. The reason for this is simple, and it’s not motivated solely by my own efforts to follow Jesus. It’s because Sunde doesn’t write about God, theology, or deep philosophical issues from the standpoint of an unengaged bystander. For many of us, it is easy to investigate these issues and themes without letting them impact us personally. I don’t get that vibe from Sunde. It seems to me his wrestling with God, as it were, not only impacts his life, but informs it. For me, it is deeply meaningful when I listen to someone sing or talk about lofty subjects that are practically influencing how they live, act, think, and speak… and that’s the vibe I get from Sunde.
This honest, personal wrestling and his willingness to share openly about them is one of the reasons I’ve become such a fan over the years. It’s why I want to share his music with whoever will listen. It’s rare that you get such honesty, talent, craftsmanship, and humanity in one package, and that’s what I see in Sunde and his art.
It feels great to take part in the inaugural Daytrotter Downs. I’ve had the privilege to get to know that community of folks really well over the last 10 years. My label, Cartouche Records, is from that community. I really believe in the honesty and example of people in out of the way places working really hard and making beautiful things that have an impact on the wider world. I believe that Daytrotter has done just that and so I’m stoked to participate in their continuing evolution.
And speaking of Shane Leonard, I’ve been personally pulling for more collaboration between Leonard and Sunde. They’ve toured together and Leonard contributed his talents to the recording of Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God. So, of course, I was excited when the “J.E. Sunde Trio” debuted and toured in early 2016. The trio includes Sunde, Leonard, and Har-di-Har’s Andrew Thoreen. Sunde’s pretty excited about this new entity as well:
It’s been something that Shane Leonard and I have talked about since our collaboration on my first record. The thought was to explore that material and new songs in a more lean ensemble. It took some time to get schedules in order, and there is still more of that to sort out, but with the addition of Andrew Thoreen to the equation and an enormously encouraging first tour under our belts, we’re all excited to make this into something. So, yes, it definitely has a future. On top of performing, the ensemble will play a large role in the new record that I’m working on.
And, oh yeah, there’s a new record on the horizon. More good stuff coming from Mr. Sunde in the future.
I’m glad I had a chance to catch up with Sunde at the Cabin show and via email in recent days. Aside from being an incredible artist, he also happens to be a genuinely nice guy. He’s one of those folks you just want to root for. As for me, I think the art he’s created has already made him a winner, but I would certainly love for more people to connect with his music. His songs and his talent deserve to be heard.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine told me about a band called Speedy Ortiz. I checked them out on Spotify, liked them right away, and then proceeded to (basically) forget them. That is, until this year…
Early in 2015, I downloaded a compilation album from artists who would be playing at the Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Kentucky later in the year. One of the tracks was Raising the Skate by Speedy Ortiz. I was immediately in love. It’s funky, sassy, and provocative. Easily my favorite line is from the chorus: I’m not bossy; I’m the boss. Talk about setting a tone… And that tone is pervasive throughout Raising the Skate.
No matter how many times I’ve listened to this song, I keep going back to it and it still makes me giggle every time. So, I’m pleased to name Raising the Skate by Speedy Ortiz as the 2015 Tomme Suab Song of the Year.
“The worse childhood you have, the better artist you become.”
The renowned visual artist, Marina Abramovic, made this statement during an interview for CBS Sunday Morning some time ago. It made an immediate mark on me and rang painfully true. I don’t know much about the details of her childhood, but based on this statement and the little bit I do know, it doesn’t seem to have been a very good one. For her, the pain of her childhood is the fuel for her art.
I think she is onto something very important with the above statement. For me, the most compelling music is that which seems to be borne out of pain, struggle, or discontent. When I was younger, I was all about angry and/or rebellious music. It’s what drew me to Rage Against the Machine, Project 86 , and U2. During the past several years, as I have experienced some significant emotional healing, I started listening to sadder stuff. The Civil Wars were the door into sad music for me.
The anger, rebellion, and sorrow that drew me to these artists and those like them came from my own childhood. Like so many of us (I would argue all of us), I was deeply wounded as a child. I experienced deep rejection, abuse, and neglect. In the years leading up to my healing experience, my response to these wounds was anger and rebellion. This anger was not healthy. It was aggressive and controlling. As I began to see with some clarity that I had been wounded, the anger began to melt into sadness and grief. Now that I have experienced some significant healing, I find myself drawn simply to what feels like genuine emotion. That’s what I write about here. And, I write about it because the emotionality of music has helped me fully feel what I have needed to feel as I have been getting well.
The reason I can relate to emotive music is the genuine emotion so many artists pour out in their music. Without that, I would not be able to connect with their songs the way I do. Furthermore, the emotion they share likely comes from similar places as the emotion I feel when listening to them. When I listen to Sanctuary Hum by Project 86, for example, I get amped up and angry. This makes sense, as the song focuses on emotional, physical, and spiritual abuse in a church setting, specifically by a church leader. This resonates deeply with me, as I have experienced spiritual abuse myself. My own wounds have led me to want to protect others from being wounded. The song is an anthem, encouraging the abused person to stand up in the truth and to not let the abuser win. Even writing about that, in this moment, has me a little charged up. The emotion and context of the song beat at the same rhythm as my heart. And, the obvious connection here is that the emotion and context of that song came from the writer’s (Andrew Schwab) own experience.
Here’s the simple truth: we are all broken. We have all, whether or not we see it yet, been abused and/or neglected. We are all “damaged goods.” If we don’t own up to that, we are simply fooling ourselves. We all need healing.
I am convinced that a powerful avenue of that healing is self-expression. We are all built with innate significance. Each one of us was given a voice. Among the different ways you may use your voice, one of the most important ways is taking what is in you, the good, bad, and ugly, and getting it out there for others to see. Sometimes, that simply means you share the story of your wounds with a trusted friend or with a small group committed to your recovery and well-being, like what we experience at Woundedat Valleybrook Church. Sometimes, it means that you create something that expresses the emotional responses to the wounds that live in your soul. For me, that has come out in a variety of ways: writing, creating “identity presentations,” and sharing my story verbally. These expressions have been a central part of my healing process. They have helped me gain clarity about who I am, as well as who I am not. They have helped me create a dividing line between the parts of me that are genuinely me and the parts that I have taken on from my wounds and from my negative responses to those wounds. They have helped me grow closer to wholeness.
If I was wired differently, my self-expression would also come out in music. But, alas, I am not wired that way. So, I am thankful for musicians and songwriters who are wired that way and who share their souls through their music. And, I am thankful for the ones that are honest about their brokenness, their woundedness. For me, they are the ones that create the most meaningful art.
I’m spending some time with Field Report’s new album, Marigolden, this morning. This is a new relationship and I’m just becoming acquainted with the album, but I think we’re going to be good friends. It is rich, full, provocative, and emotive. And Christopher Porterfield’s odd analogies and word pictures are ever present.
I will never forget the first time I heard Field Report. In February of 2013, Kalispell, Shane Leonard’s project, was set to play a backstage concert at the State Theater here in Eau Claire. I was super excited about this show, as Shane’s music and friendship has played a central role in the beginning of my personal passion for and investment in locally-rooted music. As the day of the concert approached, Field Report was added to the show as the headliner. I was actually pretty disappointed. I didn’t know who they were and I wanted Shane to have the longest set that night. Thankfully, I was in for a very pleasant surprise that night.
From the time Porterfield and the rest of the band took the stage, they owned it. And, it wasn’t about showmanship. It was about the honesty and vulnerability of their music. As my wife said after the show, Porterfield has a lot to say, and he has no problem saying it. And these things he has to say are filled with passion, pain, suffering, and emotion. He also has a creative and descriptive way of saying them. The first time I heard him sing “pound that pussy (as in, “full of puss,” to be clear), bloody cyst off with a weather-treated two by four”(parentheses mine), that image grabbed a spot in my brain and it’s still there. I’m not sure why that 2X4 has to be weather-treated, or why it is the best prescription for that nasty cyst. However, that imagery has obviously stuck with me, even impacted me.
Those lyrics are from Chico the American, from Field Report’s debut, self-titled album, which is featured on this week’s TS10. After hearing them play at the State that night, I began listening to that album non-stop. It is home to so many poignant songs. Some are quite painful just to listen to… Porterfield’s lyrics are transparently honest and vulnerable. He has no problem baring his shortcomings for the listener, letting us in to his complex emotional world. That kind of vulnerability is, in my mind, Field Report’s biggest draw. I have been challenged, provoked, and saddened by what he has to share.
As much as I have fallen in love with that first record and songs like Fergus Falls, I Am Not Waiting Anymore, Taking Alcatraz, and Chico the American, I am really excited about the new album, Marigolden. As I listen this morning, I am again drawn into the gritty vulnerability. The lyrics and musical moods are still emotive, still painful, still brutally honest. Porterfield’s creative word and image choices are still there. And yet, it feels like there is a musical progression from the Field Report album. The music feels a little richer, deeper. While I cannot comment on the technical reasons why this may be, I can definitively say that the band seems to have brought something of themselves to this album that wasn’t there on the first one. I am eager to become better acquainted with what lies in Marigolden.
The future seems to be very bright for Field Report. Marigolden has been met with much critical acclaim. They already have a national following that is continually growing. Just this morning, the band announced that they will be touring with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy in Europe beginning in January, which is no small thing.
As their popularity grows, the likelihood of them playing small, local venues continues to ebb. That’s why YOU should get out and see them this Friday night at House of Rock. Aero Flynn and another band (TBD) will be supporting them. The show starts at 9:30 and is only $10 in advance. You can purchase tickets here. If you can make it out, you will NOT regret it!
I’ve been contributing articles for Volume One for the past couple of years. One of the first ones I wrote covered the emergence of a new band from the Eau Claire area called Softly, Dear (New on the Scene). Back then, Softly, Dear was just starting to figure out who they were musically. Even though the first tracks they released were a little rough, I could certainly here some significant talent and creativity at work.
After writing that piece for V1, I honestly didn’t pay much attention to the band for a while. And then I saw them play at the House of Rock at Adelyn Rose’s CD release show back in February of this year. Toward the beginning of their set, they mentioned that their Portico EP was available for free at the merchandise table. At first, I wasn’t all that interested. Then, they played Lenses, which is featured on this week’s TS10. As soon as they finished playing that song, I quickly grabbed my copy of Portico.
Admittedly, I am a sucker for songs that have at least a semi-epic feel to them, especially ones that start out mellow and slowly build, and build, and build. Lenses is such a song. It is not a song, per se, in that it is instrumental. Truly, no lyrics are needed for this piece. I remember what it was like listening to them play it live that night. I vividly remember feeling the slow build, finding myself moving along with the music as its intensity continually rose. When the band finally reached the emotive crescendo of Lenses, I was ready for it and I allowed the force of that climax to overtake my heart and mind. Moments like that transcend just listening to someone play music. They become spiritual moments for me. From that point on, Softly, Dear has had my full attention.
I’m glad I snagged that EP. Softly, Dear has the extraordinary gift of taking a serious subject and giving it its due weight, while also, somehow, making the sharing of that subject fun. The best evidence of this gift is Know My Name from Portico, which has become one of their favorites among locals. It tells the story of a man who is drafted by the Army, whose life is altered forever, and who, as he ages, can no longer take care of himself. Sad subject matter… and they treat it as such. Yet the song still rocks and is fun to sing along with. Weird dynamic perhaps, but it totally works.
While Portico obviously showed significant growth from those first couple of recordings I wrote about in V1, Softly, Dear’s new album shows even more. They released the self-titled Softly, Dear in August of this year and it is a great listen (you can stream it on their Bandcamp page… and then you should buy it!). When I listen to it, I hear some serious Weezer influence in it, which cannot be a bad thing. There is the raucous fun of It’s Alright, a sarcastic look at poor life decisions, and Alive Now (Paycheck), a desperate cry for a paycheck owed. Alive Now makes me smile every time I hear it. I’ve always appreciated a good smartass. There’s also the tenderness and sobriety of two people falling out of love with each other in Things I Say. It’s not easy to move from silly to sober, but Softly, Dear pulls it off.
Not only is this album well worth your time and money, it also shows how Softly, Dear is continuing to grow, which promises even greater things in the future. So, take some time to listen to Lenses on the TS10. Even better, go to Softly, Dear’s Bandcamp page and stream/buy their music! My guess is that you will be drawn into their authenticity, playfulness, and smart-assedness as I have been.
When I was growing up, heavy metal or hard rock was not okay in my house. It was the devil’s music. So, I never went near it until about 1986, when, in my youth group at church, I was introduced to Rez Band and Stryper, a couple of rock bands comprised by Christians. Rez (or The Resurrection Band) was gritty and raw, and I found that very appealing. And then there was Stryper, the opposite of gritty and raw, but still with a little edge (especially in light of the environment in which I grew up). These two bands were my introduction into harder music. As time went on, I gravitated more and more toward that stuff.
I think I was drawn to the intensity of harder music. One of the intense bands that I fell in love with was Project 86. What drew me into their music was that same rawness and grittiness I heard in Rez. But, I enjoyed P86 much more than Rez. They were honest about God, the church, and the dark stuff that happens in the church. And, they rocked hard. And, if I’m honest, there was some anger in their music and my heart resonated with that anger.
About three years ago, my hunger for angry music began to fade a bit. I remember when I first started listening to The Civil Wars around that time, and how their music was like a magnet for me and I couldn’t stop listening. The draw for me was the sorrow in so many of their songs. Those songs are sober, emotive, and heart-rending. One song in particular, “Falling,” grabbed a deep, firm hold of me during that time (more on that in a moment).
It is not coincidental that around that same time, in the fall of 2011, I participated in my first session of Wounded at Valleybrook Church. I mentioned something about this program in the ” The Song That Changed Everything” post. During that season, as I processed my own wounds, recognized their origins, and began to experience freedom, I learned about the dynamics of and relationship between anger and grief when it comes to the healing process.
For so many years, I was the angry young man who, sometimes boisterously and sometimes silently, was constantly bucking against the system, full of defiance. I began to see that my anger was not really about all the stuff I had been railing against. It was about my wounds. It was anger toward God and toward those who wounded me. As I processed through this truth, I was able to begin moving past being angry about my wounds and start feeling the sorrow for what I lost because of them. I was progressing from anger to grief.
So, it makes sense that I was more and more drawn to sad songs during that time. I was sad, and appropriately so. Much had been taken from me through the emotional wounds I had received in my childhood and young adult years.
And, during that season, I was also trying to figure out how to navigate life, especially in regard to my relationships with my wounders. In some of these relationships, I had lived in a lie for what felt like forever, believing things were good when they really were not. In fact, those relationships were dark, ugly, and harmful. But, I had been numb to those realities, and any time that I considered the possibility of something being wrong, I also numbed my emotions and found ways not to feel the anger and grief that were brimming under the surface.
This is why The Civil Wars’ “Falling” spoke to me on such a deep level. Consider the following lyrics:
Haven’t you seen me sleepwalking?
‘Cause I’ve been holding your hand
Haven’t you noticed me drifting?
Oh, let me tell you I am
Tell me it’s nothing
Try to convince me
That I’m not drowning
Oh let me tell you I am
Please, please tell me you know
I’ve got to let you go
I can’t help falling out of love with you
Why am I feeling so guilty?
Why am I holding my breath?
I’m worried ’bout everyone but me
And I just keep losing myself
Oh, won’t you read my mind
Don’t you let me lie here
And die here
The main folks that wounded me in my formative years had always convinced me, through word and action, that the way they did things was the way things should be done. I grew up believing that what I experienced was not only normal, but that it was, in fact, good. As I began to break away from this fantasy and see things for what they really were, I could heartily relate to the feelings in this song….
I’ve been going through the motions, even though I know something is amiss…
You keep trying to convince me that everything is good, when I know that I’m drowning…
Won’t you reach out to me? Can’t you see I’m dying a slow, painful emotional death?
Oh, how I could relate to those verses, those thoughts, those emotions. I will forever be grateful that The Civil Wars wrote and recorded that song. It has played a role in my personal healing process simply by saying things that I needed to say, by expressing emotions that had laid dormant within me for years, for decades. Again, this is the power of music.
Thankfully, as I have continued to heal, I’m finding that angry music can still speak to me. It can help me feel things I need to feel. The same can still be said for sad songs. After all, I am very much in the midst of the healing process. And, I can also embrace happy songs, love songs, and songs that are emotive in a variety of ways, because I am beginning to fully feel all my emotions and embrace them as part of who God created me to be, as a fully-functional human being. But, getting to this point has not been easy, and I have had my hand held throughout by The Civil Wars, Project 86, and any number of other gifted musicians who bare their souls, challenge me, resonate with deeply felt emotions, and help me find my own voice.
Ever since I started listening to music as a teenager, there have been those albums that have just grabbed a hold of me, seemingly not wanting to let go. U2‘s Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire were a couple of those. Kalispell’s Westbound was another. Derek Webb‘s Mockingbird was yet another. I immersed myself into these albums, feeling every twist and turn. They sucked me in and I was captivated. I have wandered into another of these traps, J.E. Sunde’s Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God, released recently by Cartouche Records.
One of my favorite albums of the last few years is The Nature of Things by The Daredevil Christopher Wright. It was so delightfully unpredictable and the band tackled really deep philosophical, theological, and relational issues with grace and depth. This work of art stimulated me intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. I was really bummed when I heard that the band was on hiatus and that Jonathan Sunde was working on his own solo material. Now, that’s no knock on Sunde. It’s just that there was something special about what The Daredevil had created together. Surely, there would be no way that Sunde would be able to create something comparable in terms of the unpredictability, craftsmanship, philosophical wanderings and simple beauty of The Nature of Things.
Well, I was utterly and completely wrong. Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God, is, in a word, wonderful. I can’t stop listening to it. Earlier today, I was listening to iTunes in “Random” mode. Easy Kid (the second track on the album) came up. Within ten seconds, I turned off the “Random” mode, selected the first track of the album, and was compelled to listen to it in its entirety. Again, it’s like a magnet… it draws me in and I seemingly can’t escape.
Now, don’t get me wrong… this is not another Daredevil album. It is J.E. Sunde. It is his voice, both literally and essentially. Other than his incredible vocals, it doesn’t sound like the Daredevil to me. Sunde has his own thing going here, and it is compelling and deep. The music and instrumentation are eclectic, to say the least. And, the emotional mood moves around throughout the album. There’s playfulness, passion, anger, sorrow… just so much to feel here.
One element that has drawn me in are the deep theological/philosophical themes in the album. It’s one thing to write about deep stuff. It’s another to make such thoughts compelling, both lyrically and musically. Sunde is obviously adept in doing just that. A Blinding Flash of Light describes Sunde’s apparent struggle with believing in God in the midst of people who don’t share that belief. The song seems like a journal entry in which he is weighing the views of the atheistic influences around him. He struggles with feeling “foolish for talking to Jesus.” These are heavy matters, and the melody, instrumentation, and lyrics accurately portray that heaviness.
Another song that grabs a hold of me every time I listen is I’m Gonna Disappoint You. It is a soulful ballad that sounds like part of a conversation between two folks on the verge of a romantic relationship. Sunde’s heart here is to ensure that the other person comes into this relationship with eyes wide open… “What if I don’t kiss you the way you want to be kissed?” “What if you don’t like the books I suggest?” This song is full of nitty-gritty thoughts about ways that Sunde could disappoint this potential partner. The trepidation he feels as he shares these thoughts is palpable. You feel it throughout the song. It’s as if he is saying, “I want to be with you, but I’m a little scared.” For so many, if not all, of us, these are thoughts and feelings that are very familiar, and he paints them clearly and emotively.
And then there’s the pain and anger of You Can’t Unring a Bell. It starts out with the sorrow-filled statement that you can’t, in fact, unring a bell. As the song continues, the listener learns that Sunde’s heart was broken and his trust betrayed by someone special. As the tempo picks up and the song intensifies, it’s almost as if you can feel Sunde himself shifting from sorrow to anger. Again, Sunde is masterful at portraying these emotions and the tensions surrounding them. When I listen to this song, I can’t help but enter the emotional world Sunde invites the listener into. I feel, to the extent possible, what he feels. There is no art that speaks to me as deeply as art that makes me feel like that.
While I once was disappointed that the Daredevil Christopher Wright was on a hiatus, I am now so glad that they took a break. J.E. Sunde has created something beautiful with Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God. The precise craftsmanship, eclectic instrumentation, incredible vocals, and masterful songwriting provide a portal into deep connection and emotion. I cannot recommend this album enough.
A little more than a week ago, I had the great pleasure of attending a We Are the Willows show at The Cabin. I had been looking forward to it for some time. I love the band and I love the venue. I was not disappointed in any way with what I experienced… even though I left the concert before it was over (more on that in a moment). I expected to enjoy the band’s unique instrumentation, excellent musicianship, and Peter Miller’s soaring vocals. I certainly got all that, but I got two surprises as well. Those two surprises made the night for me.
The first surprise came right at the beginning of the show. LOTT (WATW’s violinist/backing vocalist, Leah Ottman), opened the show with a set of her original work. It was just her voice, her violin, and some recorded instrumentation, yet her performance filled the room. It was intense, emotive, creative… all the elements I crave in music. She is a gifted songwriter, vocalist, and violinist. I got chills several times during her set. I want to hear more.
The second surprise came toward the end of We Are the Willows’ set. They were excellent, just as they were when I saw them in November of last year. But, I was a little more clued in this time around. As I mentioned in my previous post about the band, their new album is focused on the content of over 300 letters sent by Miller’s grandfather to his grandmother when he was in the military, serving overseas. Knowing that going into this show, I was able to listen more attentively, and hear some of the love and deep intimacy in the songs as they played them. I was captivated.
In between a couple of songs, Miller shared a story about spending some time with his grandfather, who was suffering from dementia. There was a lamppost just outside the window of the room where they met, which his grandfather consistently thought was a tree, and he would talk about how awkward the tree was and that it needed to be “analyzed.” One day, as they were looking out the window, discussing that tree, Miller’s grandmother walked between them and the window and caught the grandfather’s attention. He then turned to Miller and said (after 66 years of marriage and while suffering from dementia): “I’d like to analyze that!” That story still strikes me. It’s funny, of course, but it speaks to something deeper. There was a deep, intimate connection between Miller’s grandparents. That connection was evident in the songs sang that night and in this story, as well as other anecdotes Miller shared.
As the evening grew late, and the band’s set continued, I found myself longing to be with my wife. This was so to the point that I actually left before the concert was over, for the sole purpose of going home to be with her. Now, I have an extraordinary wife, and it is my privilege to spend my days with her. But, there was an additional dynamic in play that night. Miller’s words and music had affected me deeply. They drew me back home to my wife.
So, to Miller and the rest of the band, I personally apologize for leaving early. At the same time, I want to thank you for such personal and intimate songs. And, thank you for playing them with the passion and musicianship they warrant.