Glimpses of God (Vol. 1)
- reviewed by Russ Breimeier and Andy Argyrakis Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2003 1 Jan
This feature isn't about "safe music." We're not vouching for the personal faith of the artists listed below, nor are we suggesting that they don't have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
What we are calling attention to is the increased interest in spiritual subject matter in today's popular music outside the Christian subculture. Despite the rise in explicit content within popular music in recent years, there has also been a rise in spiritual soul searching, with artists expressing a longing for something much deeper than the infamous sex, drugs, and rock & roll.
Skeptical? We would be too. But the artists listed here wouldn't be included if we were just highlighting what Christian listeners wanted to hear. Some of these artists do indeed come from a Christian background, offering glimpses of their faith through their craft. Others still don't know Christ, but they certainly know of him — enough to communicate spiritual longing with an honesty that is refreshing.
We present to you our first edition of "Glimpses of God," six of perhaps many current examples of spirituality found in today's mainstream music. Most songwriters will tell you they like to let listeners interpret songs for themselves rather than define their music for them. Decide for yourself from these examples, but we believe that if nothing else, you can use the music of these artists to, as one speaker once put it, "preach from a common pulpit."
"There's spirits above and behind me, faces gone black, eyes' burnin' bright/May their precious blood bind me Lord, as I stand in your fiery light" — from "The Rising"
Such is the plea from the title cut of Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band's Grammy-winning Best Rock Album, The Rising, a project on which he still reigns supreme as The Boss while also wearing the hats of both a preacher and a peacemaker. Springsteen has frequently woven themes of spirituality in his songwriting — this disc provides deeply personal, spiritually inspired material about September 11 amidst heavy doses of merrymaking rock and roll.
For instance, cuts like "The Fuse," "Worlds Apart," "Empty Sky," and "You're Missing," a quartet of tactful mini-sermons covering mourning, anger, loss, and restoration. In "Further On Up the Road," Springsteen looks to the hope of heaven for comfort in the loss of a friend: "One sunny mornin' we'll rise I know/And I'll meet you further on up the road." He also expresses faith to persevere in "Lonesome Day" by singing, "'This too shall pass,' I'm gonna pray … Let kingdom come, I'm gonna find my way through this lonesome day."
"My City of Ruins" obviously inspires an image of a stricken and wounded New York, but it is actually about Springsteen's New Jersey upbringing, toward which he pleas for restoration and revival — "The church's door thrown open/I can hear the organ's song/But the congregation's gone/My city of ruins." The chorus soon becomes an intercessory prayer as Springsteen cries, "With these hands I pray for the strength, Lord/With these hands I pray for the faith, Lord/With these hands, I pray for your love, Lord."
In fact, the only song that seems to conflict with the other prayerful tracks is the rousing "Mary's Place," a party-styled anthem in keeping with The Boss' classic "Glory Days" in which he sings "I got seven pictures of Buddha/The prophet's on my tongue." Is he singing personally here or in character for the song? Beyond that track, Springsteen steps up his faith awareness throughout the rest of The Rising, providing solace in his words of faith, hope, and restoration.
A Rush of Blood to the Head
"In my place, in my place were lines that I couldn't change … I was lost, I was lost, crossed lines I shouldn't have crossed … I was scared, I was scared, tired and under-prepared, but I'll wait for it/If you go, if you go and leave me down here on my own, then I'll wait for you." — from "In My Place"
Coldplay's shimmering sophomore effort (a Grammy winner for Best Alternative Music album) is one of those projects that maddeningly blurs many lines, not just between pop and art, but also between songs of earthy love and spiritual yearning. The average listener will surely lean to the former interpretation because of the vagueness of the lyrics, but as with the music of Lifehouse, there seems to be much more at stake here than a simple unrequited crush.
The search for purpose, meaning, and (above all) love, is a recurring theme set-up by the majestic "Politik" — "Give me strength, reserve control/Give me heart and give me soul … but give me love over this." The first radio single, "In My Place" (cited above), is as honest a confessional as any modern worship song or Psalm. The second single, "Clocks," similarly expresses a prodigal's humility and longing to return home — "Lights go out and I can't be saved/Tides that I tried to swim against/Have brought me down upon my knees/Oh, I beg, I beg and plead." The chorus of the song is simply "You are" and the bridge "Nothing else compares."
Strangely enough, "God Put a Smile Upon Your Face" offers the album's most definitive and yet cryptic references to the Almighty: "Ah, when you work it out, I'm worse than you/Yeah, when you work it out I wanted to/Ah, when you work out where to draw the line/Your guess is as good as mine." Perhaps Chris Martin is singing about the fine line between sin and pleasure, stating that everyone is sinful and falls short and that there are no degrees. A few lines later, he sings of God's mercy: "Don't ever say you're on your way down/God gave you style and gave you grace/And put a smile upon your face."
According to various interviews and articles, Chris was raised in a Christian home — the son of a minister, in fact — but has since expressed bewilderment with people's interest in it. Yet
Mary Star of the Sea
"Jesus, I've taken my cross/All to leave and follow thee/I'm destitute, despised, forsaken/All to leave and follow thee." — from "Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea"
When the Smashing Pumpkins died of natural causes in 2000, their inscrutable singer/songwriter Billy Corgan could have easily packed up his instruments and retired from his hectic rock and
roll lifestyle with mounds of money in the bank. Instead, he re-
teamed with Pumpkins' drummer Jimmy Chamberlin in 2001, adding
guitarists Matt Sweeny (Skunk & Chavez) and David Pajo (Slint,
Papa M, Tortoise, Stereolab), plus bassist Paz Lenchantin (A
Perfect Circle). The alternative rock quintet christened
themselves Zwan, making their official major label debut with
Spiritually tinged? Corgan? Yes, and it's present from the very first verse of the album's first song, "Lyric," in which he wails, "Here comes my faith to carry me on, a faith not ungreat/I fight to stay strong so I stand accused of playing numb/I know it is wrong for I give my strength/I give my heart, take these chains." His reflections may seem to some nothing more than the poetic prowess he's demonstrated with Smashing Pumpkins, but others might interpret lines that come later in the song as pointing toward heaven above — "A lyric, a time, a crusade, a line/One minute, a friend, a road without end."
Religious mentions are equally evasive on "Declarations of Faith" as the front man groans, "So stop laughing and play the muse/This heartache rots that which spills from my heart into your will/ So give in to the rivers' wind/I declare myself, declare myself of faith." Metaphors for earthly love or indications of a higher power?
By far the most intriguing selection is the epic medley of "Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea," a song that stirs up bombastic instrumental rage with gargantuan guitars and progressive percussion. The lyrics just don't get more specific than this, with Corgan clearly singing "Jesus, I've taken my cross/All to leave and follow thee." This is later followed by stirring choruses of "Jesus, Jesus … reborn, reborn," which could either refer to spiritual renewal or brand new artist life after the end of the Pumpkins.
This is all pretty stunning coming from a man who once declared God "empty" with the Smashing Pumpkins — a new article from
Progressive acoustic jazz/rock
"I'm on bended knee, I pray, Bartender please/Oh when I was young I didn't think about it/But now I can't get it out of my mind/I'm on bended knee, please father, please" — from "Bartender"
Arguably the second biggest band in the world today behind U2, the Dave Matthews Band has only grown in popularity over the last decade, defying all age and race demographics. In the summer of 2002 they released
As the title suggests, recurring themes of brokenness permeate this sobering album, especially in tracks like "Grace Is Gone," "Raven," and the title cut. Amid the loneliness and grief is a buoyant hit single called "Grey Street," in which Dave sings about a young woman who finds herself slowly losing hope in light of a fallen world: "There's an emptiness inside her/And she'd do anything to fill it in/And though it's red blood bleeding from her now/It's more like cold blue ice in her heart." Ignoring Dave's choice in pronoun, most (if they're being honest) can relate to the doubt expressed from some point in their lives — "How she wishes it was different/She prays to God most every night/And though she swears it doesn't listen/There's still a hope in her it might/She says, "I pray, but they fall on deaf ears/Am I supposed to take it on myself to get out of this place?"
It's sad but true that people question this, but there's a shred of hope to build upon here — at least such people are acknowledging the existence of God. "You Never Know" similarly contemplates our existence and whether or not God is still playing a role in our lives. The song "Big Eyed Fish" explores what happens when people out of desperation try to live outside the life they were created for, with a plaintive and prayerful chorus that states, "Oh God, under the weight of life things seem brighter on the other side." One could even interpret the album's other hit single, "Where Are You Going?," as a seeker friendly song: "Where are you going, where do you go?/Are you looking for answers, to questions under the stars?/If along the way you are growing weary, you can rest with me until a brighter day/It's okay."
The most intriguing track on
Who can say exactly where Dave Matthews is going with all this? I'm not even sure he can, since his own personal beliefs are all over the map (he seems to have been raised Christian and believes in God, but has since embraced many other religious beliefs). What is certain is that these are the words of someone searching for comfort and meaning to this life. Considering the popularity of the band, this album is a tremendous opportunity for Christians to use as a launch pad for a deeper walk with a Savior who makes beauty out of busted stuff.
Live At the Wetlands
Soulful, bluesy rock jams
"Problems at my home, I've got to press on/Problems on my job, I've got to press on/When I'm down to my last dime, I've got to press on/When I don't have my friends, I've got to press on" — from "Pressing My Way"
Listening to the six extended jam sessions on
The talented musician and his three equally impressive bandmates (who play drums, bass, and B-3 organ) have helped foster a new interest in the "sacred steel" movement — a fusing of gospel, country, and blues that is slowly finding a new audience. The unique and successful sound has afforded Robert Randolph and co.
opportunities to back The Blind Boys of Alabama on their
There are, however, some instances of sung dialogue, such as the aura of unconditional perseverance surrounding "Pressing My Way" (cited above). In addition to the joyful steel guitar and organ solos, the jam soars to new heights when bassist Danyel Morgan lends his very feminine sounding vocals to the mix, sounding as though he were pulled straight from a gospel choir: "I feel like pressing on my way/Through the storm/Through the rain/I feel like pressing my way."
Though tracks such as "Ted's Jam" and "The March" are completely instrumental, they are nonetheless inspirational, putting listeners into a gleeful, perhaps even praiseworthy mood. It's even safe to say, based on video concert footage, that Randolph's playing literally gets people dancing and rejoicing as though they were in a Pentecostal church! "Most of the ministers will tell you that it's wrong, but I'm doing it basically for the instrument," he explains. "So many people don't know what pedal steel is and what you can do with it. It's been hidden for so long. I'm trying to get it out there and make it as well-known as possible." It's a joyful noise indeed.
Heavy modern rock
"You take offense in what I say/Can't have it any other way/We're all subject to the altar that we bow/And to those who disagree/And still believe they can be free/You're just clinging to a rotten sacred cow" — from "Left for Dead"
Tribe of Judah is the latest artistic endeavor of Gary Cherone, the lead singer of the defunct heavy metal band Extreme, who later recorded one album as the lead vocalist of Van Halen. He also happens to be an outspoken Christian, and if you have doubts (like U2's Bono, he's occasionally prone to profanity), listen closely to the content of the songs he's written. Extreme's 1991 hit, "Hole Hearted," is about the search for fulfillment, and in Gary's case, the hole was God-shaped.
The new album re-teams Gary with Extreme bandmates Pat Badger on bass and Mike Mangini on drums, along with guitarist Leo Mellace and keyboardist Steve Ferlazzo. The result is a blend of Extreme's pop-metal bombast with modern industrial electronica — Van Halen or Def Leppard meets Nine Inch Nails. Even more intriguing than the sound, however, is the album's theme.
If you "read behind the lyrics" in the album's liner notes, you'll find a quote by Fyodor Dostoevsky: "If there is no God, then all things are permissible." Pair that phrase with the
Apostle Paul's words from 1 Corinthians chapters 6 and 10
("'Everything is permissible for me' — but not everything is
beneficial.") and then listen to
From that statement one could view
If you think these themes would pass over the heads of the average listener or concertgoer, you'd probably be correct. Likewise, most Christian listeners probably won't grasp the cynicism and hypothetical themes. Most, in fact, will have a hard time getting past the intense album cover that sequentially shows a handgun being shoved hard against Gary's neck. The controversial image is an attempt to illustrate the theme of free will and man being the measure of all things. A song of grace that clearly points to the cross would have made for a stronger and more meaningful ending to this seemingly bleak and sometimes (ahem) extreme album, but this is nevertheless challenging and creative music written from a faith-based perspective that recalls the convicting works of Christian artists like Steve Taylor and Mike Roe.