Reflections on The Choir

The Choir, Steve Hindalong, Derri DaughertyRecently one of my favourite bands, The Choir, released a new album – Burning like the Midnight Sun (BLTMS).  Since its release it’s an album that has received the critical credit it deserves from album reviewers in the United States.

The first time I heard The Choir was their song “Chase the Kangaroo” on a Myrrh Records sampler in the late 1980s.  The full album was impossible to source in Australia until the Doulos ship docked in Townsville and I was able to get my hands on Chase the Kangaroo album and its predecessor Diamonds and Rain.  And so a long love affair was born for this “Happy Fool”.

The purchase was made in the middle of that phase most church kids seem to go through – the “I don’t (or am not allowed to) listen to secular music” phase.  My phase lasted less than three years at a time when Christian music was dominated by the late 80’s saccharine pop

offerings dominated by Amy Grant, Michael W Smith, Kenny Marks and Kim Boyce.  I’m going to be diplomatic and leave it at this – save from Steve Taylor and then The Choir it all left me cold.

From the first time I heard the haunting opening bars to “Sad Face” I found a home in the music of The Choir.  A band that shunned the sugary ‘victorious in Christ’ sentiment and transparent preachy undertones evident in so much of the material of their peers,  The Choir’s lyrics and music has always tended toward an exploration of the struggle of life in this present evil age.  Much of their content through the years has been an excruciating and honest expose of their own struggles and failings.

For me their music always evokes an atmosphere of empathy and sheer relief that other brothers have walked down dark paths and survived to tell the tale.  To quote a contributor to Wikipedia, the simple power of The Choir rests in their “ever-present lyrical acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God, even when life’s events don’t make sense.”  So often Christendom seems to be about maintaining a mask that we have it all under control lest we betray the supposed victory we have in Christ.   Perish the thought that we share our vulnerabilities and the struggle that life is this side of eternity.

It’s little surprise to me to see The Choir get the well-deserved plaudits for this latest album.  In 2002 they were nominated for a Grammy and were beaten to it by the epitome of sugar saccharine Christian pap – DC Talk.  In my book a travesty that this album must surely have some chance of correcting because  BLTMS sees The Choir at the very top of their game.

They’ve been around for more than a quarter century, and often a band who has been around that long loses creative spark and direction and resorts to desperate self-parody.  There’s none of that here, BLTMS sounds and feels like an album that this band has taken twenty-five years to work up to.  It’s a masterpiece.  The product of five guys who have had a lot of time to become very good at their craft and are sought after by many others as producers and mixers in the music industry.

Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) magazine recently listed The Choir’s 1988 album Chase the Kangaroo (CTK) well inside the top 100 Christian albums of all time.  It’s a sentiment I agree with, and for a long time it’s an album that has comfortably sat in my list of ten favourite albums (which I refuse to prioritise further because I’m so emotionally attached to each that I can rank any ahead of another).

 

Chase the Kangaroo

Image via Wikipedia

 

Chase the Kangaroo (CTK) was also recently listed by Hard Music magazine at number 4 in the list of the Top 100 Christian albums of all time.  CTK features prominently in discussions of this sort because it certainly broke the mould of Christian music at the time and established The Choir as one of the godfathers of the alternative Christian music scene.  To quote Wikipedia again “it singlehandedly pushed contemporary Christian music into lyrical and musical terrain it had never before explored.”

Yet for all that if I was forced to choose between BLTMS and CTK I’d have to take BLTMS, even though I haven’t lived with it for twenty years and had it play as a soundtrack to many memories.  It’s just an achingly beautiful homage to life, friendship, fun, sadness and God.

And this leads me to a reflection on something that has always puzzled me – the relative lack of commercial success of The Choir, particularly given their talent.  And while reflecting on this it occurred to me there’s something to be said about the value of The Choir’s true ‘success’ that is a lesson for anyone in ministry.

Again, without naming names, a lot of very mediocre musical content seems to go an awful long way in Christian circles.  At times it feels like the Christian Contemporary Music scene is a dumping ground for a lot of people who couldn’t make it in the deeper talent pool of secular music.  Which is a shame because with God on their side Christians have little excuse for not being the leaders in any given field, not pale imitators and peddlers of inferior product.  The Choir are proof it’s possible to be consistently excellent.

Yet The Choir don’t enjoy broad popular appeal.  They probably reached their peak popularity a good twenty years ago.  Few people have heard of them, and for many of those they might be little more than a vague memory or a footnote in history.  I’m not sure how much this bothers the band.  In the Director’s cut of BLTMS the band’s lyricist Steve Hindalong confessed a careful analysis of his motivations when it comes to pursuing commercial success (The Word Inside the Word).  Reading between the lines it seems he sees his art as a precious gift and not one he’d countenance exploiting for personal gain.  It’s a sentiment I applaud, and it’s all too rare these days.

In life it seems an awful amount of mediocre dross becomes tremendously popular.  And some of the best thinkers, evangelists, ideas-men, teachers, preachers and spiritual entrepreneurs I know are buried “unknowns”.

Okay, so when it comes to The Choir they’ve plumbed areas of life that most people don’t want to go.  It’s easier to listen to something breezy and light.  But their alienating realness is also tremendously powerful.  And impacting.  The Choir have helped me ride out some stormy waters over the years.  And when I visit the forum on their website it seems there is a fellowship there of like-minded people.  Hard core fans who have been tremendously helped and supported by The Choir’s refusal to shirk the messy side of life.

Which is where my training as an Economist kicks in.  I can’t help but conduct a cost-benefit analysis.  Though The Choir haven’t achieved broadcast success, their success is in their profound contribution to a few – and who knows the ripples of that impact on many others?  The Choir have not sown widely, but they have sown deep, and for that I suspect I and many others will be eternally grateful.

In commercial terms Jesus’ ministry was a commercial failure.  By the end of his time on this earth he’d deliberately alienated the vast majority of the crowd who flocked to him in the early, novelty days of his ministry.  He spent the most of his time and gave his greatest effort to a rag-tag collection of twelve blokes, most of whom were businessmen, not theologians.  And even one of those ‘mates’ turned around and turned him in to the people who killed him.  And maybe only one of the guys hung around for what appeared to be the coup de grace on that Beautiful Scandalous night on Golgotha.

Yet for all that he still stands as the human being who continues to have the greatest impact on the course of human history.

In ministry should our determination be to sow deep, or sow wide?

Postscript: As time allows I intend to go through some of The Choir catalogue and reflect on their lyrics and the part they’ve played in my own personal journey and spiritual development.

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One Response to Reflections on The Choir

  1. Pingback: Visceral « Co-mission

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