Sunday, May 17, 2009

Album Review: So Elated, So Elated

So Elated, So Elated
Joyful Rice; 2009

The era of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) as we once knew it is over. If the world of Christian music in the 1990s was marked by a not-so-subtle attempt to “outdo” the “secular” world (e.g., Newsboys, OC Supertones, DC Talk), the new millennium has brought a radically different attitude. The new generation is tired of kitsch and ostentation, sentimentality and super-piety, the Religious Right and social subcultures. And musical tastes have changed as well. Instead of punk and ska and post-Nirvana alternative rock, American youth today enjoy the subdued folk-rock of Iron & Wine and Fleet Foxes and the brainy indie rock of Arcade Fire and the Decemberists.

Moreover, young Christian artists are no longer interested in maintaining the artificial distinction between so-called “Christian music” and “secular music.” These evangelical labels have (thankfully) been given a quiet burial, and in their place young Christians today are interested simply in making and hearing good music. Certainly there have always been groups of Christian artists with this attitude: Pedro the Lion, Starflyer 59, and Joy Electric quickly come to mind. But what distinguishes the current musical climate is the fact that this former minority-niche view has gone “mainstream.” As a result, the doors have opened wide for young independent artists to explore their ideas and musical sensibilities without the straitjacket of what Walter Kirn once called the “evangelical alternaculture,” in which “everything gets cloned in mainstream culture and then leached of ‘sinful’ content.”

Into this new situation, artists from the ’90s, such as David Bazan (Pedro the Lion, Headphones) and Derek Webb (Caedmon’s Call), have adapted their music to fit the times. And while it is interesting to see how established artists have changed over the years, we are seeing the proliferation of young Christian artists whose musical sensibilities have clearly been shaped by the fall of CCM and the rise of a new generation. These artists are taking advantage of the digital era, making the most of a worldwide web that enables the quick spread of music around the globe. One such group is So Elated, the latest effort by Chicago-based singer-songwriter, Ben Thomas, who is joined here by fellow band members Luke Harris (upright bass, mandolin), John Dudich (guitar, vocals) and Matt Brennan (percussion).

Released back in January, the debut self-titled release by So Elated is a perfect example of this new era in so-called “Christian music.” For starters, they do not call themselves a “Christian band,” nor is their music “Christian music.” The adjective “Christian” is dropped altogether—and for good reason. In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle famously quipped, “Christian art? Art is art; painting is painting; music is music; a story is a story. If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.” And later, after writing the term “Christian art,” she adds, “by which I mean all true art.” This is the perspective of So Elated. Instead of using artificial labels to distinguish themselves, So Elated lets the music speak for itself.

On first listen, it is immediately apparent that Ben Thomas and company were influenced heavily by Bazan and Webb—both of whom are cited as influences on their website and in press releases. (That’s not to suggest that these are the only two influences, since there are clearly many others, but these two have a special significance.) The opening track, “The Ache of Going Without” (which you can hear on their website) is the most obviously influenced by Bazan’s oeuvre. The steady, simple guitar chords and an uncannily Bazan-like vocal delivery indicate very clearly where Ben Thomas was finding his musical inspiration. In a way, for those with ears to hear, the song serves to indicate the kind of album the listener should expect: if you identify with the music found on records like Achilles Heel and Mockingbird, then keep listening—you’ll feel right at home.

If the opening track hearkens back to Pedro the Lion, a number of the other tracks are more clearly influenced by Derek Webb. Two, in particular, are worth focusing on in depth: “Redemption” and “Open My Heart With Knives.” Where Bazan tries to avoid speaking directly and didactically about issues of faith and religion—opting instead for the posture of the rebel on songs like “Foregone Conclusions”—Webb tackles these topics head-on. And most of the songs on So Elated follow in Webb’s footsteps, both musically and lyrically. To further the comparison just a bit, Webb tends to write two kinds of songs: those that say something positive about the version of faith which he envisions and seeks to practice (e.g., “My Enemies Are Men Like Me”), and those that sarcastically criticize the version of faith he has left behind or wants others to leave behind (e.g., “A Savior On Capitol Hill” and “A King & A Kingdom”). So Elated have both kinds of songs: “Redemption” represents the affirmative aspect, and “Open My Heart With Knives” the critical. What makes So Elated such a promising band is that they do both kinds of songs with more subtlety and simplicity. Webb is often far too didactic, and So Elated seem to have struck a more healthy and musically satisfying balance between him and Bazan.

In “Redemption,” So Elated present a message of Christian universalism—a topic that has received a fair amount of attention on this blog. The opening verse speaks about how every aspect of creaturely life has been changed by Christ: “the blood I bleed was transfused by you” and “everything I need was redeemed by you.” The second verse is more reminiscent of Webb’s penchant for controversial lyrics. In it, Thomas sings:
Every war-torn state, every child born with AIDS
Every broke-down mixed-up place is being fixed by you
Every political view
Every Christian, Muslim, Jew
Is being recreated new and fixed by Jesus
Finally, in the chorus, we hear that this redemption “blankets every fear we know” and, most importantly, “carries everybody home.”

The homiletic nature of these lyrics is hard to miss. Thomas & co. are preaching a sermon in song, and this can be both enriching and off-putting, much like Webb. In fact, the only difference between songs like “Redemption” and some of the old CCM tracks is the message being preached. Where a Steven Curtis Chapman or a Twila Paris would sing about the return of Jesus and the need to repent, here we have a song about Christ’s redemption bringing everybody home to be with God. Formally, the didacticism remains, but materially the message is quite different. That’s no small change, of course, and as a Christian theologian, I am quite happy to say a clear “Yes” and “Amen” to the sermon that So Elated is preaching. But I do wonder sometimes whether a little more Bazan and a little less Webb might do So Elated some good.

One other critique is worth mentioning. Songs like “Redemption” have their place, and I certainly want to encourage the theological content. But at the same time I am concerned about the all-too-easy treatment of death and brokenness in songs (and stories and films) of this nature. In this song, for example, war and AIDS are treated in a single line, with the conclusion that these are being “fixed by Jesus.” Yes, I agree—but this feels too flippant, too comfortable. I am reminded of a recent article in Atlantic Monthly about Flannery O’Connor. The author summarizes the key to O’Connor’s works in the following way: “(1) from the Christian viewpoint, the modern human condition is filled with a peculiar horror; (2) therefore, to fictionally depict humans in their peculiarly horrifying aspect is necessary in order to explore the mysteries of redemption and grace.” Redemption and grace are essential elements of human existence, but we have to pass through the way of the cross. While this is partly a criticism of So Elated, it is more of a suggestion that, in the future, they might want to explore the darker, more horrifying aspects of human life, without rushing towards the end of the story. Let the horror sit with us as listeners. And simply pointing out the many horrors of hypocritical American Christians is not sufficient (see below). We need to grapple with the human condition more broadly.

The other song most obviously influenced by Webb is “Open My Heart With Knives.” Here the artistic paradigm is the disenchanted post-evangelicalism prominent in a number of Webb’s more critical songs. Again, So Elated improve upon the model, while also showing off their ability to match penetrating lyrics with catchy melodies. “Open My Heart” is a reductio ad absurdum in the form of prayers to God. Like any good rhetorician, the song begins with an innocuous and quite common prayer: “God of truth open my eyes.” This could be the start of some typical, cliché worship song. But already by the end of the first verse, we hear a moment of honesty: “Open my heart with knives / But please don’t make it hurt.”

Those of us who grew up in the church know exactly what is being addressed here—viz. the hyper-piety of the typical American evangelical who prays for God to do some drastic act which will make us truly love and follow God. And so we hear prayers for God to “humble me” and “break my pride” and “destroy my false desires,” etc. The prayer is always for some extreme divine intervention into our religious complacency that will finally—once and for all—make us into the ideal Christians. “Open my heart with knives” captures this tendency toward pious exaggeration perfectly. The final line, “But please don’t make it hurt,” indicates that all is not right with this picture. Our hyper-piety is a mask hiding our secret desire for everything to remain exactly the way it is. We want others to see our love for God without the inconvenience of actually having this love ourselves. In short, the opening verse exposes us as hypocrites. We are Pharisees.

But that is only the beginning of this reductio ad absurdum. The next verse starts off with: “God of good give me some love.” The prayer goes on to ask God for “green grass upon my lawn” and no rain during the baseball game. The attack has gone beyond moral hypocrisy and now extends to the use of prayer as magic for selfish gain. All too often, prayer becomes a kind of divine manipulation, in which God is supposed to act like a cosmic genie who grants our personal wishes. Then comes the third verse:
God of business pedigrees
Take my hands and make them free
But make sure they both get paid
Two or three times above the working wage
No one’s laughing anymore. The joke’s over, and now it’s just painful—painfully true. And if this weren’t enough, the climax of the song’s argument—and the turn of the knife in the backs of religious people everywhere—comes in verses five and six:
God of love give me some peace
Please destroy my enemies
Help the rest of the world to learn to live like me
And tear down the temples that worship differently

Hold my hand and make me yours
Grant me sex, power, money, and a brand new car
I know I shouldn’t worship all my stuff
So I ask that you please do it in the name of love
With this song, “Open My Heart With Knives,” So Elated officially assume the mantle of Bazan and Webb at their self-critical, post-evangelical, anti-religious best. The same spirit heard in the Bazan who famously sings, “You were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord to hear the voice of the Spirit, begging you to shut the fuck up”—and in the Webb who sings sarcastically, “Jesus Christ was a white, middle-class Republican, and if you wanna be saved you have to learn to be like Him”—is heard again, alive and well, here in So Elated. For that, we have much for which to be grateful.

On the whole, however, the album is a mixed-bag. There are a number of very strong tracks, including “Why I Need You,” “Open My Heart With Knives,” “Strangers,” and “Lucky Ones.” These are hopefully a promising sign of what is still yet to come. However, the influence of Bazan and (most of all) Webb is often so strong that we fail at times to get a sense of what makes So Elated original and fresh. We don’t always get a coherent and compelling impression of So Elated as musical artists.

Most disappointing of all, the album turns the clocks of so-called “Christian music” backwards by ending with “Exit Door,” a song about “going home” to be with Jesus in heaven. The song is full of the typical CCM clichés. In the chorus, Ben sings:
You’re my reason, my completion,
You’re my exit door, you’re my ticket home
You’re my family and my mystery
You’re my walking dead and my desire to be
And I’m ready for you to take me home
In the press release, the song is described as a “classic apocalyptic, death-ward gazing, tombstone printable epilogue.” Having sung about the redemption of all things, I would have expected So Elated to be more “life-ward gazing.” A theology of redemption should lead us back into the world, not away from it. On this point, we always need the reminder of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and the mythological hope is that the former sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way.” Christianity is a “this-worldly” faith, not an “other-worldly” religion. So while for the most part, the album is on par with or better than your average Derek Webb release, this final song reverts back to the type of theology that Webb and Bazan, among others, have sought to counteract. Ending an album with this kind of song feels very paint-by-number. It reverts back to a formula that most Christian artists have left behind (no pun intended).

These criticisms notwithstanding, So Elated are still a very young band with a lot of room for growth. Their debut already shows a great amount of musical and lyrical, including theological, maturity. This is one group to keep your eyes on in the coming years.

[My sincere thanks to So Elated for the review copy of the album. You can purchase So Elated here. Click here for the So Elated online store, which includes the previous albums by Ben Thomas. You can follow So Elated on Twitter @soelated.]