Music about God is often panned as imitative, unoriginal, and shallow. I've long thought the blame for this phenomenon rested more at the feet of those of us who buy "Christian" music than it does the artists or their labels. There are some very powerful songs in the genre, but there is no getting around that U2 and Coldplay should feel flattered. Very flattered.
Don't get me wrong, I really like worship music. For all the artistic limitation imposed by its audience's very specific wants, Christian music can still inspire a transcendent state in the listener. At its best, the genre encourages us to look beyond the self toward something greater. Some of the greatest moments of insight in my life have been found alongside a straight-eight bass line and an ambient guitar lead with a lot of reverb and echo. It is what it is.
Sometimes a Christian artist breaks the mold and explores new ground, and occasionally that artist finds success in the marketplace. David Crowder is one example–exactly who is he trying to emulate? His sound is not only unique in his genre, but in the larger world of music. I treasure artists like these because the ability to break new ground while taking an audience with you is a rare talent.
It is in this spirit that I write a review for I AM MOUNTAIN by the alt-folk collective Gungor. In the spirit of full disclosure, this review is far from objective–I consider Michael Gungor a friend. We met through a mutual friend and our first conversation was a multiple hour exploration of the nature of God, faith, science, philosophy, and ultimate reality . Prior to that meeting, I only knew of Gungor as a band that made a really interesting single called "Beautiful Things," and I'd only heard that song because we covered it at church. I had no idea about the rest of their catalog, or that Gungor was an actual name (I'd assumed it was a reference to some kind of anime). This is a too-long way of saying this review is heavily biased because my enjoyment of this record is colored through the conversations I've had with Michael.
Part of what defines the Christian Music genre is a sort of saccharine sweetness. It's pleasant at first, but in large doses the feelings evoked can seem false. Very little Christian music reflects the real messiness of life and relationships, or our attempts to follow after a God we believe in. Inevitably, verse 3 or 4 generally rights all wrongs and restores everything that is broken in our musical stories. I get why this happens. Our faith is all about reconciliation, and it's something we long for.
But we don't always get to see that, do we? Sometimes relationships don't heal. Sometimes the friend dies even though we're all praying for them. We have faith that all this works out in the end, but today that check is uncashed.
I AM MOUNTAIN is a messy, unresolved record of utter joy, jubilation, hope, and doubt. It is a volume of music that is both refreshingly undefined by popular norms and packed with melodic hooks that hop on a carousel in your mind. This is a record that talks about God, yes, but it also talks about love, philosophy, loss, the search for meaning, cosmology, and coping with the existential burden of self-awareness. In the same way our lives are multi-dimensional, this album reflects the depth and texture of a life well lived.
The title track earns it's distinction and inaugural position well. It starts out softly, a looping set of keys and Michael softly singing "I am mountain, I am dust, constellations made of us." It is immediately apparent that this is a sacred record of a different sort. The new mysticism of science is here with an acknowledgment that this grand act of creation, the way we came to be involved ancient stars exploding, spreading matter across the cosmos. These grand themes and an exploration of what happens when Faith and Science dance remains, each time building toward a massive, non-wordal chorus.
Another dance emerges that will play out across the record, which is the synergy and tension between Michael and Lisa's different musical sensibilities. So often on the record Michael elucidates dense prose, rich with meaning and warranting further exploration and Lisa responds with the idea distilled, purified and amplified with tremendous emotional texture. Pay attention to the swelling synth sounds as well, they become a theme and often herald a coming insight, or nod to our collective future. Synths create a massive, expansive scene on this first track. It is very often Lisa's job to deliver the hook. I AM MOUNTAIN is very deep, and also very pop. I suspect it will be heard on radios quite often, and it's the go to get-pumped-up-for-school song in my family.
The second song, The Beat of Her Heart, really sets the stage for the full theme of the record. It is here that the style of the music shifts. Allusions to the Mountains of the Southwest are there, both in musical stylings and a tale about a protagonist who plays a nylon-stringed guitar, his love, and their nemesis. There is an even, laid back steadiness to this track that reminds me most of The Doors. This is a song that explores ideas of loss and redemption subtly, and it certainly does not resolve with a final verse of reconciliation. I have to think this placement of this track was intentional, as it prepares the listener for many somber, desert sounds to come.
My two favorite tracks are the third and fourth: Long Way Off and Wandering. Any song that contains the terms "erudite" and "apophatic mystic" is already exciting to me, and Long Way Off delivers in spades. It is here that we see materialism and empiricism are very useful ways to measure our world, but fail to speak fully of the human experience. The steady march of kick and snare make you tap your feet while you think about the nature of what can be known. We're a long way off, indeed.
Wandering starts with Lisa singing, in a deeply processed voice, "I've been wandering through this world, looking for an anchor to hold me." How many of us feel that way? This is a theme that transcends any subculture. Wandering soulfully explores the ramifications of a culture where we have tremendous knowledge and endless ability to deconstruct, without any clear path to rebuilding. How many people are leaving the Church today? How many people are dissatisfied with pop culture? Who feels secure in their jobs? What's the approval rating for our Congress? Everywhere you look, organizations are crumbling and systems are breaking down. What's next? The final line is Lisa's voice, now clear of any effects, "I've been wandering through this world, looking for a love that might free me." There's that uncashed check again.
Luckily the fat, funky tones of "Let It Go" are here with some advice. We are in a world where YouTube comments represent the means of popular communication. Our ability to deconstruct means we are excellent critics, always ready to take apart the creative work of another. Michael sings "If there's anything that holds you down, just forget it." We will not be able to accept healing until we learn to operate outside this trend of passivity and criticism, and we won't be able to offer healing to others either. Let It Go, and you may find yourself able to respond to the calling of your life.
And so the rhythm of the record is established. Different sounds are explored, but the Mountain theme always returns. Wayward and Torn speaks of the safe places we find, those sanctuaries where we are appreciated for who we are, while God and Country offers sharp criticism of gun culture and war hawkishness. Hither and Yon offers a time of transition, setting the stage for Yesternite. Yesternite is a song of tremendous longing and melancholy. Bring tissues.
Best Part is the most emotionally moving track to me, a somber appreciation of what it means to be alive and aware. This is a song best enjoyed in a still, quiet place. You will spend a lot of time in these two minutes and 43 seconds–your life may even flash before your eyes.
Finally is an upbeat end for the record. It's hopeful, but very cognizant of our missed potential: "We could be free, finally." It is a vision of what happens when humanity transcends self and embraces others. We could be free, but we are not.
Upside Down seems like a hidden track to me. This is a musical exploration and rejects the typical structure of a song. Is there a verse, or chorus? Where's the bridge? Regardless, there is movement. We start floating in space with Michael, who tells us the world is upside down and asks if we see it before pleading to make it right. The song begins to build here, growing and weaving like vines climbing a chain link fence into the sun. After this growth, the song starts to unravel and musical deconstruction begins. There is still growth, but it is a growth of entropy. Almost frantically, the song grows and grows until it is cosmic in scale, the Universe within a song. For me, the eventual reveal is surreal and powerful because layered in this music are my own words, as my axioms for God are read back to me.
And that's it. There is no wrapping paper, or bow to tie up this package. I AM MOUNTAIN ends in a gloriously unresolved way. We fall slowly back to Earth and are left with what exactly?
This is a record about God, absolutely. There is no way to separate the sacred from this, but I wonder how Gungor's traditional audience will respond to such an expansive, unresolved treatise. There is no saccharine here, but there is a wonderful admonition to grow, explore, learn, and play. This is not a record exclusively for the Church–I imagine Sam Harris would appreciate the themes here as much as I do. The church is welcome here, but this is also a humanist tone, and more. Gungor has torn down old walls and broken new ground.
I am most interested to see who follows.