self-released / 2015
"Christian music" as an institution is in the midst of change. The "Christian contemporary" industry has for the most part imploded, meaning that there are fewer hoary imitations of five-year-old trends lining the shelves of Christian bookstores compared to a decade ago. Concurrently, there's been a surge in devotional and "church music" - Hillsong, Jesus Culture, and other worship titans now tour the world playing stadium venues complete with smoke machines, strobes, and jumbotrons. That's probably an improvement when all is said and done, but in that landscape, Fugitive Music seems like a blade of grass amid skyscrapers. And what a precious little blade of grass.
Fugitive Music isn't unique just by chance - everything about the project is a conscious effort to step outside of that "Christian music" machine. Intended from conception to be absolutely free for everyone (it's tougher to find a way to actually pay for the album than it is to get it for free), it's a radically anti-commercial endeavor.
It's also the brainchild of Simon Paylor, no stranger to the modern worship scene himself. He led worship (he calls it "facilitating" worship now) at a large church in southern England, and even recorded and released an album through a worship label he was signed to. But he grew estranged from the rituals of contemporary worship, and he found himself "radicalised" in "the Politics of Jesus" by the experience of teaching music at an immigration removal center, as well as a trip to Kenya, where he saw the extreme poverty but deep faith of Kenyan believers. The true seed of the the project was planted when he spontaneously wept in the middle of a 2010 worship conference: "The songs and doxology seemed disconnected, detached and anaesthetising. The words seemed overused and empty. Where was the revolution? The lament?"
Fugitive Music's first volume of music does its best to provide an answer - Songs of Resistance and Comfort is anchored by an intensely "earthed" theology. It rejects the heaven/earth dichotomy that tells Christians to keep their heads down and wait for the Lord to return before the real renewal of the broken creation happens. Instead, it lives in the truth that, in the words of Jesus, the Kingdom of God is not only "coming", but "in the midst of you".
The album's second song is called "Join the Feast", but it's a cover of the Psalters oldie "Dumpster Divers" from their Divine Liturgy of the Wretched Exiles record. It's no surprise to hear a Psalters song on here, because the influence of the one-of-a-kind, anarchist-leaning "world-punk" collective is all over Songs of Resistance and Comfort. Fugitive Music sounds more polished than Psalters' cacophany, and they tend more toward conventional rock instrumentation than the latter's kitchen-sink approach, but the animating ethos of peacemaking and justice is unmistakable.
That's not to say there's no musical flavor to Songs of Resistance and Comfort - quite the contrary. Paylor and company make a concerted effort to bring a unique aesthetic to each song. "You Are My Deepest Place" has a big, bouncy Fugazi riff at its center, and on the aforementioned "Join the Feast", the harmonica hoedown of the original is transformed into a thumping gypsy jam. The lyrics of the latter are as piercing as ever: "Come on patriots, bring your flags/We're washing feet and we'll need some rags."
Songs of Resistance and Comfort has a slightly doughy middle. While it opens strong and finishes even stronger with a stellar final three tracks, Vol. 1 slows down a bit in the middle and is the worse for it. The reflective tone is welcome, but these few tracks just aren't interesting enough in their lyricism or musicality to hold the listener's attention the way the rest of the album does. It's these slower songs, too, where Paylor's singing is out in front, and his voice can come off affected and overwrought, a little too choked with emotion.
Those final songs really are stellar. "Coming Home" is jubilant in the biblical sense of the word. Exhaustively listing the glaring marks of sin in the world - violence, addiction, slavery, environmental degradation, poverty, greed, loneliness, death itself - it declares them all "Swallowed up! swallowed up!" in the imminent new creation. It's a wordy song, but that's appropriate for such a comprehensive salvation.
Then there's "Pour Me Out", a blood-red gem of a song. It's an earnest plea to be used by God, even unto death. Trumpets toot triumphantly above clapping, stomping percussionists and some killer banjo-playing as the gang vocals insist, "There's a world outside/That needs your heart and mind/And your blood on the ground". Not exactly the feel-good worship anthem of the year, but it's exactly what the Church needs right now.
The closing track, a slow-burner that channels 90's alt, keeps the horse in front of the cart. Believers passionate about the Kingdom's implications for the here-and-now sometimes get carried away in the crusade and end up relying on human empathy as the fuel for change. "Waiting For Fire", though, understands that as the Psalmist says, "Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain", admitting "we walk in shadows, come light the way".
It should give evangelicals pause that the economics around our sacred music look much the same as a secular business. Speaking about that fact, Paylor says, "Considering worship is a gift, and the fact that many of our brothers and sisters are suffering through hunger and poverty, it feels abhorrent...that there are millions of dollars sloshing around the worship music industry." In such a world, Fugitive Music feels vital. Maybe the collective's effort to "square the circle of worship, justice, and musical expression" can begin a conversation that can flower into a shift in how the church worships - through music particularly and more broadly as well. After all, that might be the attribute that most separates a blade of grass from a skyscraper: it can grow. And pierce concrete, too.