The mind of the dreaming man is fully satisfied with whatever happens to it. The agonizing question of possibility does not arise….And if you die, are you not sure of being roused from the dead? Let yourself be led. Events will not tolerate deferment. You have no name. Everything is inestimably easy.
—Andre Breton, “First Surrealism Manifesto”
Though it feels at the same time somehow both a little controversial and completely obvious to say, I would contest that there is no genre of contemporary music more maligned and taken less seriously than Christian rock. Despite little sneaky punches into the mainstream here and there—when Larry Norman broke the code wide open, when Creed fooled us all, when Sufjan Stevens fed it to us bite-sized so we were allowed to like it—Christian rock has sort of always just been around for the past 40-odd years. Its audience is secure precisely because they dig the formula and aren’t looking for anything new. It’s got its own radio stations on the dial, stations which will never need to fight for sponsors, and thus will never die out. Ironically and interestingly, Christian rock may also be the one genre that will only become more popular the harder its detractors tear it apart. Such is the power of the righteously assured.
I don’t think the WOW Worship commercials have helped the rep much, either. They make the whole scene look like a terrifying cult—a precipice which, to be fair, it can indeed teeter on in the wrong hands. You remember seeing these: the swooping crane shots of overblown leather-clad dudes pouring everything into rousing crowd sing-alongs of “Shout to the Lord,” the crowds full of weeping teens with eyes closed, arms spread to the heavens. You certainly don’t need to worship at the false altar of secularism to feel uncomfortable or poke fun—in fact, they sort of make fun of themselves, in a completely unaware way.
But here’s the thing: the fringe is always going to be the fringe. They may show up in massive quantities for a kickass MercyMe show (and it may be a truly killer show tbh), but the buckets of tears they shed while moved by their Christly devotion and a couple of especially transcendent keyboard solos are not necessarily the scene’s norm. Plainly put, there is a lot of terrific Christian rock out there, waiting for you to swallow your preconceptions and welcome it into your heathen heart.
This is nothing too wild to read about. What I’m more interested in is why. Why, specifically, does Christian rock appeal to me, a nonbeliever, so much? It is perhaps the only genre of music where the medium truly is the message, so if I’m not buying the message, why do I keep coming back to the medium?
At least part of it, for sure, has to do with storytelling. History has shown that there’s no better way to tell stories than through music, and if you’re talking great stories looking to be told and told again, the Bible has you covered. One of my favorite records is Thy is a Word and Feet Need Lamps, by a devout outsider Christian janitor/multi-instrumentalist out of Berkeley who calls himself Half-handed Cloud. It’s an Old Testament concept album that cherry-picks some of the best and weirdest stories from the scripture and retells them with captivating, totally bonkers music. The album literally drove me to read my Bible, a book I didn’t even crack when I was actually a Christian, actually actively worshiping.
But storytelling isn’t exclusive to Christian rock by any stretch of the imagination, so that doesn’t make much sense. More so, my attraction to the best the genre has to offer might be its conviction. This would also explain why indie rock typically doesn’t appeal to me: ironic remove and detachment make me feel nothing, while earnest, bombastic openness makes me feel it all. And I’d much rather feel it all. Anathallo’s Floating World is an album you may not know or care about because it’s typically derided as maudlin, Christian, super-feeling Sufjan-lite. It is one of my favorite albums of all time, and probably, in a way, because of those descriptors. I’d rather feel, I’d rather be moved, I’d rather believe in the conviction of what I’m listening to. There is beauty in truth, and it takes more balls than you’d think to uplift in a world of too-cool indie records.
Which brings us to Free Flying Soul, the Choir’s ninth studio album, released in 1996. I don’t love every moment on this album, but I love this album. Like all the best Christian rock (and like Christianity itself), it swings wildly between emotional extremes. Love, guilt, disgust, praise, and fear are all offered in more or less equal measure. The overall message seems to be “Know the devil when you see him, and turn to Jesus.” But if you’re able to pull back further than that, the music delivers unto you a missive more universal: Deliver yourself from darkness, and be a good person. I, too, stand for these ideals. These are songs about God, but does that have to be all that they’re about? Sometimes Free Flying Soul gets me real emotional.
“The Ocean” might be the most difficult track to contend with on this record, so let’s start there. I consider it the most difficult because it definitely sounds the most Christian rock-y. It sways at midtempo with a singalong chorus. It’s got a positive message about persevering in the face of despair, trusting in Jesus—all the hits. It has the line “Cleansing love from God above / will shower you, dear child.” And yet, it’s also a gorgeous song. Sonically, Free Flying Soul simply sounds good as a whole, front to back, and the production on “The Ocean” is especially expansive. Every single-tracked instrument breathes openly on its own, is specific, unmuddled, has been cared for by a very careful ear. There’s also extremely killer male/female harmonies and some terrific, subtle violin and flute work. Point is, it sounds less like what you’re expecting it to sound like the more you listen in. And isn’t that what all great music is meant to do?
Look at “Salamander,” this record’s absolutely gorgeous opening track. Just the guitar tone itself is enough to make it stand out from the crowd. But the vocals, too, are perfectly suited—soft and weirdly menacing—and then you hit the song’s apex of handclaps and lightbeam-saxophone and what is there left to say? It’s unique, it sounds amazing, and above all else it’s searching for an emotional heft it knows is out there somewhere. Quite simply, it’s trying, and in trying, is already mostly succeeding.
What strikes me above all else about this odd little record, though, is its peculiar, careful pace. It’s a steady movement that defies the very definition of “alternative rock” and posits that mood is better created with caution than by bludgeoning the listener with sound. We don’t get anything with any kind of speed until track three, “Sled Dog,” which basically janks the immediately iconic Bo Diddley-ish drums of “I Want Candy” and layers on top percolating fuzz guitar, extremely suggestive muddled vocals, and what can only be someone pounding on a lead pipe. It’s not so much a fast song, though, as it is a lively one. It should come as no surprise that the song that follows, “Away with the Swine,” is the worst on the album and also one of its fastest. At the very least, it definitely sounds the most of its time (while managing at the same time to sound unbearably corny).
Otherwise, Free Flying Soul sort of lopes along, getting a little quicker here, slowing down again there, all-in-all existing in a sort of static-bound dream state. There’s a song on here, “If You’re Listening,” that feels like any second it could swallow itself whole in a sunburst of low-end haze. In this way, the Choir is the Christian rock band that, more than any other, might get the sound of what Christianity at its best is actually like: unsteady, hypnotic, uplifting, patient, understanding, and dreamy. This is not a record that makes bombastic declarations (mostly) or invites you to raise your hands and reach God through the music. It asks questions, accuses, struggles, and above all else, praises. It’s inviting, but wholly serious. It can crack a joke and get dark in the same slow breath. Most Christian rock, it seems, has the explicit purpose of inspiring mass love for Jesus through song—and this is not a horrible purpose, by any standard. But the Choir is a band first. They want to make music first, and make it good and meaningful and interesting, and it shows song by song on this, their ninth album, one they made after nearly breaking up the year before.
There is without a doubt better Christian rock out there than the Choir—it is not necessarily where I’d recommend you start if you’re a secular yellow-haired monkey with a taste for something new. Danielson Famile has made album after album of more inventive, more out-and-out daring music, and Half-handed Cloud, again, brings a purer positivity, an inviting lightness to a genre typically infused with empty sugar-spun calls to arm. Pick up any of Larry Norman’s early-70s trio that pretty much singlehandedly created the genre: Only Visiting This Planet, So Long Ago the Garden, and In Another Land. There are avenues you can take and, like all great music, most (definitely not all) transcend time and trend. Free Flying Soul isn’t quite that—it’s got transitional late 90s imprinted in its blood—but there are blinding flashes where the songwriting elevates itself. Where it asks you to ask tough questions. Where it worries these questions instead of offering answers. Where it takes you by the hand wordlessly and leads you slowly through a feedback wilderness. All that’s left: to let yourself be led.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.