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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Easter Music: David Crowder Band Gives Us Rest

I've always loved Christmas music. Some of my earliest childhood Christmas memories are accompanied by specific Christmas albums which as an adult I have sought out and purchased on CD. At this writing I have probably a couple hundred Christmas CDs in a box that I usually drag out every November or so with the Christmas decorations. As a Christian, though, I've been puzzled at the lack of albums designed to be listened to during the Easter season. I once worked for a man who told me that he pulls out The Master and the Musician by Phil Keaggy every year. Michael Card's Known By the Scars would be a pretty appropriate choice, and I suppose you could make an argument for something like The Jesus Record by Rich Mullins et al. For a number of years I compiled my own CDs with songs like Michael W. Smith's "Hosanna" and Petra's "It Is Finished". But that was a lot to keep up with, and although I still enjoy those mixtape-style compilations I came up with, I still wanted something with a single vision, something I could share with others without them having to cherry-pick songs from music download services. This year I may have unexpectedly run across a winner: the final double-CD album by David Crowder Band, Give Us Rest (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys]).

In order to appreciate this work of art for what it is, you have to understand what a "requiem mass" is. I suspect most non-Catholic Christians don't even know what a "mass" is - essentially, it's a very structured church service. A "requiem mass" is a mass service in honor of someone who has died. Now, I'm not Catholic, so I'm probably oversimplifying things quite a bit, but I have a bachelor's degree in music composition; in my studies I've come into contact with requiem masses a number of times, because the requiem mass has inspired music composers for centuries. And I'm not talking about some obscure composers with unfamiliar names, either; there are very famous long-form musical pieces based on the requiem mass by Brahms, Mozart, and even Phantom of the Opera composer Andrew Lloyd Weber. These are powerful, emotional pieces of art, typically containing certain sections derived from the traditional Catholic mass, and if there are sung parts, they usually use the Latin texts of the mass. This CD from David Crowder Band uses those structural conventions, and even includes some of the Latin texts. But this is not a mournful album; this album, if listened to closely, deals frankly and completely with the subject of death, but it looks at it in the light of resurrection.

Death, if you think about it, is a very important concept in Christianity. Obviously, especially around Easter, we think and talk a lot about the death of Jesus on the Cross. But in Christian Theology, there are also a number of other critically important deaths. There is the spiritual death of the human race when Adam and Eve first sinned. There is the state of spiritual death that each of us lives in during our life on Earth until we accept Jesus' sacrifice and are spiritually born again. But even after we are born again, our bodies are still in a dying state, waiting for their own resurrection from corruptibility to incorruptibility at the end of time when Jesus returns. And there is the obvious physical death that each of us will one day face until that lucky generation (maybe it'll be us!) has the privilege of stepping from life in this age into life in the next age without crossing that threshold. Maybe the reason that this album is so long is that it deals with every one of those topics, always coming back to the resurrection of Christ Himself and the resurrection that He brings to us every day and ultimately after our own physical death. Not only did they cover all of these Theological topics, but they covered a pretty impressive number of musical genres including rock, orchestral rock a la Muse, big choral pieces, and yes, even quite a bit of the bluegrass music that DCB has always done so enthusiastically and skilfully. It's huge in scope. David Crowder Band bit off a big bite when they took this on, and I see the end result as a humongous work of art.

Let me give you something I was unable to find on the Internet: the track list of the two CDs, organized (as they are on the back of the CD) into the sections of the Mass. I think it's important to be aware of these subdivisions, especially on the first disc, because to my ears, this album is as much a collection of seven EPs as it is one album. Here's the breakdown:

Disc 1
The Entrance (or, the introit)
01. Requiem Aeternam Dona Eis Domine
02. Oh Great God, Give Us Rest
03. Lux Aeternam Shine
04. Come Find Me

The Plea (or, the kyrie)
05. God Have Mercy (Kyrie Eleison)
06. Why Me
07. Fall On Your Knees

The Plight (or, the gradual and teh tract)
08. A Burial
09. Let Me Feel You Shine
10. Reprise 1
11. Blessedness Of Everlasting Light
12. The Sound Of Light
13. Interlude

The Sequence (or, the dies irae)
14. Sequence 1
15. Sequence 2
16. Sequence 3
17. Sequence 4
18. Sequence 5
19. Sequence 6
20. Sequence 7

Disc 2
The Invocation (or, the offertory and the sanctus)
01. Reprise 2
02. Oh My God
03. I Am A Seed
04. After All (Holy)
05. The Great Amen

The Consummation and The Memory (or, the agnus dei, the communion, and the pie jesu)
06. There Is A Sound
07. Oh Great Love Of God
08. Our Communion

The Absolution (or, the libere me and the paridisum)
09. Sometimes
10. A Return
11. Oh My God I'm Coming Home
12. Leaning On The Everlasting Arms'Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus
13. Jesus Lead Me To Your Healing Waters
14. Because He Lives

The first time I listened to this album, I cried. I cried quite a lot. In the past five years or so, we've seen a lot of loved ones die young in my family, and the references to the loss that comes from a physical death were a bit hard to take. But even then I could see the beauty and hope in every song; it's just that kind of album. Let me walk you through the sections and give you an idea of what I see in them; hopefully I won't offend any Catholics or any musicologists who have a better grasp on music history than I do along the way!

The Entrance

This first section starts off with the sound of someone arriving at a funeral being conducted in Latin. The first song, "Oh Great God, Give Us Rest" is a heartfelt cry for help from God by a person in pain; this musical theme runs throughout the two CDs, being reprised several times. But only a minute and a half into this song, which starts off with just voice and piano crying out to God out of weakness, it bursts into a "Let it shine" section that does indeed shine with the hope that God will answer the prayer; it is very like some of the Psalms, which start in weakness but then end by drawing from God's strength. In fact, this whole section does that, going from that funeral scene quickly through a brief interlude called "Lux Aeternam Shine" into a song called "Come Find Me" that fairly explodes with joy - from the perspective of the recently deceased seeing Heaven for the first time! "Today is the day I rise like the dawn, up out of death, to a Son, to a Son; Oh day, what a day! Oh day, I'm yours! Oh, day of resurrection!" I wish the dead in Christ could send a message from Eternity back to their own funerals. There would be a lot less crying in sorrow, and a lot more crying for joy! The song ends with such a musical finality that there is no question in my mind: this is the first act of a performance of several acts. I actually recommend that you stop the CD after each section the first time you listen and take a breather. Get a glass of water. Think about what you just heard.

The Plea
Those of us who haven't had the "Come Find Me" experience of entering Heaven yet still have to live in a fallen world. This section is a prayer for God's help and protection while on Earth, and a celebration of the life and freedom we live in in Christ. "Kyrie elieson" is Latin for "Lord, have mercy", and we need God's mercy to live for God in this evil age. The middle section includes the lyrics, "Oh God, what have I done?" If you've never wondered that and felt the need to plead for God's mercy because of your sinfulness, then you're just not trying to live for God. "Oh we will bend and break/In such a fragile state/We won't be here long/No, we won't be here long." The second track is a very simple guitar and voice recording of the Kris Kristofferson song "Why Me" which starts off with the line, "Why me, Lord?" but then continues with the question, which is not "Why are bad things happening to me?" but instead is "Why has God given me so many blessings when I deserve none of them?" The third and final song in this section is actually the first song on the CD that sounds like what most people probably expect a DCB song to sound like. It's a worship song that celebrates the life we have been freely given by God's mercy, and it's a song that would not feel out of place in a contemporary worship service or a Christian rock concert. "He spoke and stars came out/He spoke and lighting flashed and thunder broke the quiet/He spoke and my heart, it burst to life!"

The Plight
The third section ("movement"?) once again starts out with a funeral. This one is in English (well, most of it is), and is apparently happening in the rain. The song you may have heard on the radio from this album comes on immediately after this "Burial." Here's the tune:

(Aside: here's David Crowder talking about the circumstances under which this song was written.)

This section of the album asks for light for the living and forgiveness for the deceased. It includes the first reprise of "Oh Great God, Give Us Rest", on strings this time, which reminds us that we are looking to God for our strength as we live life on this fallen world. You'll notice that the song titles in this section deal with light; the song "Let Me Feel You Shine" is about God's light in our lives as we live, and the song "Blessedness of Everlasting Light" is about the light of God in which the dead in Christ live in Eternity. Frankly, I'm still chewing a bit on the odd circus-like arrangement of "Blessedness of Everlasting Light" - it's a little creepy, to be honest. The lyrics are a little odd too, touching on the Catholic idea that the living need to pray for the dead; non-Catholic Christians mostly believe that once you are dead, it's Heaven or Hell for you and no prayers from the world of the living can change that. Maybe the two bits of weirdness are related. The section ends with two brief instrumental pieces, one an acoustic guitar solo over a synth pad, the other a piano solo over a string background, both quite pretty.

The Sequence
The "Dies Irae" section of the Mass, also called the Sequence, seems to always inspire composers. I still remember singing the exciting Dies Irae parts of both Mozart's and Lloyd Weber's requiems back in college. "Dies irae" is the Day of God's Wrath. This is a Bible concept that a lot of Christians are uncomfortable with; we are very used to talking about God's love and forgiveness, but the Bible does teach us that God is also a God of wrath, and one day that wrath will have to be faced. It's a terrifying thought! If you don't believe that there is wrath in store from God, check out the book of Revelations (angels pour it out by the bowlful) or Hebrews chapter 10. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!" (Hebrews 10:31 ESV) BUT: the good news is that God's wrath is not aimed at humans, but at our sin. And the VERY good news is that Jesus Christ took that sin on Himself when He died on the Cross! But when Jesus took God's wrath on Himself, He made Himself the target of God's wrath, again, not because of being Jesus, but because of the sin that had been applied to Him. Just like certain perfume might make you the target for bees or mosquitoes, which aren't interested in you but in the scent, when our sin was laid on Jesus, God's wrath against the sin fell on Jesus. The Sequence part of this CD first gives us a glimpse of what might have happened to the human race had Jesus not taken God's wrath on Himself ("Day of wrath/Oh, day of mourning/See the ashes, cities burning/Hear the final prophets' warning..."), then a section in Latin which is about the trumpet in Revelation which announces the unleashing of God's wrath, but then "Sequence 4" is one of the most beautiful songs about Jesus' sacrifice that I've heard. "God You came, God You came, God You came... down." There's a song about the isolation Jesus must have felt when on the Cross, "forsaken" by God, and then a song about His decision to do what the Father was requiring of Him. The lyrics of that song, in their entirety: "I bow low with all my heart." The final song in the sequence (and on the first CD) says, "When all is done, judgement comes, and we will stand right in front of Him. Spare us, oh God; have mercy, oh God." The music of most of the Sequence section is furious and exciting, but this song ends with a single piano note.

The Invocation
The second disc starts off with another reprise of "Oh Great God, Give Us Rest". It does a nice job, especially after the intensity of the Sequence portion, of bringing us back into the present. And then the DCB guys do something totally unexpected: their invocation (an invocation is a prayer) is almost completely prayed in the language of... bluegrass! The songs, which if your heart is beating at all will have you tapping your feet and singing along, have an interesting dichotomy to them: they are musically joyful, and at the same time they talk about how tough it can be to live life in this world. They do a beautiful job of expressing the peace and joy that we as Christians can experience in life, even in the middle of suffering. "I Am A Seed" even talks about how we are planted like a seed in the earth that has to die before it can bring forth great fruit. Sound familiar? I understand that the last full song in this section, "After All (Holy)", will be on Christian radio shortly, so be listening for it. I say the last "full song" because "The Great Amen" seems to mostly just be there to make the point that an invocation is a prayer, by saying "amen." A lot of times. Getting louder and louder each time. They pretty much make their point (you'll see what I mean when you listen to it!)

The Consummation and The Memory
This section has songs that are a lot more like standard standalone DCB songs than most of the album. They are worship songs which you could sing in your church's contemporary worship service, right alongside your Chris Tomlin songs and your Hillsong songs and your Gateway Worship songs and... well, and your David Crowder Band songs. They are about Jesus taking away the sins of the World and a celebration of the spiritual resurrection of the Believer. One of my favorite lines from the album is in this section: "This is not a death, this is us waking, this is a return back to life." And one of my favorite musical moments is in the song "Our Communion" about 1:40 in, when it actually sounds like someone coming back to life. (And hey, who forgot to put that banjo away after the bluegrass set?) That song contains the final reference back to "Oh Great God, Give Us Rest", but this time instead of the world-weary "Oh great God, give us rest/We're all worn thin from all of this/At the end of our hope, with nothing left/Oh great God, give us rest" the lyrics are a  joyfully hopeful "Oh great God give us rest/No more fear from all of this/Oh great God give us rest/Let your light come down on us/Oh great God give us rest!" Worship is a very fitting "memory" of Christ's sacrifice for us, don't you think?

The Absolution
The final section of the album is almost a microcosm of the whole album. "Sometimes" is a song about losing yourself in the love of God in those times when we feel irreparably damaged - when we feel lost in life, we can become lost in Him, and lose our fear in a sea of His love. "A Return" and "Oh, My God I'm Coming Home" invoke the story of the prodigal son, or rather our own prodigal son-like story, when we stray from God but begin to seek Him out and return to Him - you'll be surprised at how emotional you can become over a song that consists of an acoustic guitar, someone singing three lines over and over, and the sound of someone getting into a car and... well, going home.

The last three tracks are songs that wouldn't have felt out of place in the churches I attended as a child - a medley of the hymns "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms" and "'Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus", the classic Bill and Gloria Gaither song "Because He Lives", and in the middle, a new DCB song that would feel right at home on grandpa's back porch after a great Sunday night service. Apparently performed live, they're played in an old timey, traditional country/bluegrass style, very respectful of the way people experienced those songs in decades past. Something about the love that the David Crowder Band puts into these tracks makes them a perfect ending for this album.

What can you say about a musical piece that claims to be about death, but is instead all about life? You can say this: that's what the Bible is about, too. It's about dying to self so we can live for God. Even as I've been listening to the CDs to write this review, I've experienced tears of sadness, but more often tears of joy, because it reminds me so much of what Jesus has made possible. We don't have to experience eternal death. We don't have to suffer the wrath of God. Jesus took that wrath on Himself instead. Isn't that what the story of Easter is all about? I think I may have finally found my Easter CD, the one I can return to year after year.
 I won't sugarcoat it: this isn't lighthearted fare. This is not the CD you'll probably listen to in the car on the way out to a day at the beach. And not all of it is singalong worship music, either. But this album is, unmistakeably and without reserve, a mature work of art. And it is a fitting final album for a band who has brought so much to the world of Christian contemporary worship music. This album essentially says everything that is worth saying about the Gospel: death was our destiny, and in a way it looms over us every day we exist on this planet, but Jesus took the sting out of it. Physical death is not the end of the story; the end of the story for us is not death, but resurrection.

Happy Easter!

1 comment:

Patty7beth said...

Thorough thoughtful review, with good explanations of the sections. Well done analysis of DCB's great final magnum opus -treats it as the massive work of art it is.