Hither and Yon / 2015
Gungor isn't much for laurel-resting. When Ghosts Upon the Earth was released in 2011, the envelope-pushing, post-rock-influenced "liturgical" worship album quickly established them as the foremost standard-bearers for Good Christian Music. A less ambitious band might have mined that Sigur Rós-lite sweet spot for a couple more years. Instead the collective, which orbits husband-and-wife duo Lisa and Michael Gungor, took a sharp left with 2013's consciously electronic, experimental I Am Mountain, but with only fitful success. Tracks like the beautiful, autotune-soaked "Wandering" were outliers, and a lack of compelling hooks meant that a listen to I Am Mountain always somehow passed like a ship in the night. Their massive new One Wild Life project is a vindication of the sonic overhaul - Soul, the first installment in a trilogy of albums, is simultaneously the most complex and most accessible music they've ever made.
The shaping concept of One Wild Life - an exploration of the soul, the spirit, and the body - at first sounds too nebulous to be anything more than pretense. How do you make an entire album about the soul, especially when you've got Spirit coming out in just six more months? Yet this first record is surprisingly coherent, and Soul keeps a tight focus on its namesake: theconsciousness that makes us anomalies among the rest of the known universe.
But what are we? The track "Am I" is an existential crucible where that question weighs like an millstone. On it, Gungor stares down the barrel of nihilism, self-deification, self-loathing - everything a human being estranged from its meaning faces. "Am I a ghost?/Am I an animal?", Michael asks despondently over seething, malevolent strings. Then, "Am I meaningless?/Am I anything at all?". It's a moan of inverted Cartesian skepticism, and Gungor is still moaning when the song ends. Resolution doesn't come until the next track, "You".
When Gungor announced in 2013 it would be straining out the "church music" part of its musical persona to form a side project called the Liturgists, it sounded like they were rebranding as a secular pop act. That was maybe half true: Gungor now releases through their own Hither and Yon record label, which removed them from the CCM ecosystem, and their Liturgists output does hew closer to a more explicitly worshipful, contemplative style. But Lisa and Michael Gungor are deeply religious people, and God will always out in their songwriting (indeed, a re-recorded Liturgists song even makes its way onto Soul in the form of album-closer "Vapor"). What the new pop sensibility does is open a host of new topical possibilities - these songs have a personal bent that wouldn't have been appropriate under the old worship-band schematic.
They take full advantage on the aforementioned "You", where Michael narrates his own journey of faith, doubt, and resurrected faith. Over halting acoustic strums and echoing harmonies, the pastor's kid and former teen worship star relates how he "prayed in tongues, was born again" at ten years old. As he grew up, questions pried open the seams of belief, and he eventually realized all the devotional passion had been nothing but hoodwinking himself: "it was only ever me." That is, until he found himself at the feet of "Jesus, Savior, Lord, and King" once again, confessing "maybe it's always ever been You." The song paints a holistic picture of faith where doubt is just a spoke in the cosmic wheel of divine grace drawing us upward.
The emphasis on the soul continues on the buoyant "We Are Stronger", where Gungor locates the ground of human dignity in the imago dei. Using Black Lives Matter as a springboard, it's a deeply Christian recognition of the Creator's likeness in those who are most frequently dehumanized: "Every black life matters/Every woman matters/Every soldier matters/All the unborn matter/Every gay life matters..." But the final article, "Fundamentalists matter" lands artlessly. Leaving aside the fact that some of those fundies might not appreciate the label, "We Are Stronger" proves that the angular word fundamentalist will never, ever sit flush in a pop song. That's not to say that Gungor doesn't have reason for the pejorative - they were, after all, bizarrely divested by the conservative evangelical establishment last year for not affirming six-day creationism.
I Am Mountain saw Gungor flirting with 80's-style synthesizers, but on Soul, they go all out - the track "One Wild Life" finds them in full-on Chvrches synth-pop mode. The album's tremendous, anthemic high point is "Us For Them", and the song's gravity comes from a guttural synthesizer blast that sounds like a tuba from hell. The superb composition is partnered with the most incisive and nearly prophetic lyrics Gungor has ever penned: "Prepare the way of the Lord/Wielding mercy like a sword...If it's us or them, it's us for them". At a time when many American Christians are armoring up for a grueling culture war, it's a profound call to the radical love of our Lord who laid down his life for the sake of those who hated him. The Church shouldn't be a cultural combatant. Instead, she should look like Keshia Thomas, throwing herself in harm's way to defend the dignity of her enemies, even if the "enemy" is sitting in the next pew over.
The Gungors had a child recently who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, and the album's first music video, "Light", is an intimate video diary of her first year, dedicated "to all the of the wonderful adults and children with special needs." While the iPhone footage from the delivery room and a first birthday party are pretty gooey and smack a bit of oversharing, the parents' overwhelmed wonder at this new person who's been given "the gift of life" is shameless. That wonder shows up most poignantly on "Lion of Rock". Michael Gungor, perched upon the titular edifice, espies his wife taking a walk on the beach, and is struck by the fact that she's just a speck, yet of such immeasurable value: "The tiniest body containing a glory of heaven and angels and God". That reverence for the eternal that's laced into these temporary tapestries of flesh, bone, and nerve runs up and down One Wild Life: Soul, but the praise always points beyond, to the source and Creator of it all.