It’s an exciting time in music for the Church (and I use that term quite intentionally rather than “Christian” music or even the less helpful “Praise and Worship” but those are thoughts for another time).
R.U.F. Music helped kicked off a renaissance of sorts in the revitalization of hymns leading to several solid releases by Indelible Grace. Pagce CXVI, Red Mountain Music and Christopher Miner have also breathed new life into old hymns while The Opiate Mass have not only visited old hymns but written new material for the church. Bifrost Arts is bringing new life to old spirituals and hymns, and, Sovereign Grace Music is writing new music for the church while Soma Communities have recorded an album of songs inspired by the storyline of Scripture and The Rizers set Scripture to music for kids.
While “CCM”-style “Christian” music continues to lag behind popular trends and production styles, music for the church has largely been among the most creative and well-produced (I would argue that this is driven as much, if not more by theology than aesthetics, but that’s another post in and of itself) and at the fore of this creative and well-produced music for the church has been Sojourn Music.
Birthed out of the music ministry of Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY, Sojourn Music (hereafter simply called Sojourn) has now put out seven albums, of mostly original material, a split EP between Jamie Barnes and Brooks Ritter (read my review of that EP here) and now two albums of re-worked hymns by Isaac Watts. The new album The Water and The Blood is Sojourn’s follow-up to 2009′s Over The Grave, a terrific album of hymns by Isaac Watts.
Sojourn has continually raised the bar of expectation. With each new release, they have pushed their own boundaries as they blur genres. It always seemed like they were trying to push themselves as artists while also always keeping the Church and “congregational singing” in their view; not an easy task by any means.
In many ways, the new album picks up where Over The Grave left off, exploring the hymns of Watts, but in other ways, The Water And The Blood is an entirely different record, as it should be. The mood is often hushed and there seems to be a somber tone to many of the songs. While Over The Grave pushed genres in an often celebratory tone (think “Warrior” and the closing 80′s rocker “Savior King”), The Water And The Blood seems preoccupied with the valleys instead of the mountaintops with song titles like “Absent From Flesh,” “From My Distress,” and “Death Has Lost Its Sting.”
The album opens with a take on a song Jamie Barnes included on the split EP: “Absent From Flesh” and it’s hard not to compare the two. While Barnes opens with stomping banjo and slide guitar and moves to bouncing horns, bringing an almost New Orleans backbeat flavor, this take eases into things with hushed reverb and gentle acoustic guitar and shaker, whispering hints of Lanois. When Barnes’ chorus hits, you want to shout along. When this one comes, there’s a somber restraint. While it may not be entirely fair to compare the two versions, the differences hint at the direction of the new album.
What happens when a band who so consistently stretches themselves release a more mellow album with a pretty consistent feel? That’s what fans will have to wrestle with here. While there are few standout tracks like “Warrior,” it is an amazingly consistent album, both in musicianship and feel. The shadow of Daniel Lanois looms large and that is a good thing, pedal steel and reverb gently float in and out, never taking the focus and always in just the right spot. “From Deep Distress” comes closest to breaking the generally mellow tone of the album but there’s still a hint of restraint even in the bluesy riffs.
It’s this feel of restraint through the album that actually lends the mellowness of many of the songs a sense of immediacy and its what keeps me coming back to this album. The Christian life is not always shouting in joy. Sometimes it is spent in anxious waiting and quiet reflection. This seems to me to be an album for those times and I’m thankful that Sojourn did not feel the need to repeat themselves. We need music reflecting the totality of the Christian life. Sojourn has produced a solid album that will accompany many of us through the quiet moments of the soul. If you’re looking for some of the bold experimentation that has colored their other work, this might not be the best place in their catalog to start. But if you need music that’s comfortable in the best sense of the term, like it’s been part of your life all along, music that meets you where you are and leads you to reflection on God’s faithfulness, this is your album.
It’s an interesting situation when such an incredibly solid album feels like a pause in a musical catalog. And let’s be clear, this is an incredibly solid album with perhaps a more consistent “feel” than some past Sojourn releases. It’s almost as if they’re reflecting on their identity as a musical entity while finding joy in making a true “band” record. Recorded live with analog equipment, there is a warm and rich tone that lends itself perfectly to the more mellow feel of the album.
I am thankful for these songs and their players. I am thankful that we are in such a rich time of new and revived music for the Church and I am thankful for Sojourn for leading the way.