(Image source: gungormusic.com)
I first came across American art-folk collective Gungor, headed by husband and wife team Michael and Lisa Gungor, a few months ago via an online recommendation.
You should know that I have a mixed relationship with Christian music. I have bought many, many albums and been a fan of not a few artists over the years. But the more time goes on (and perhaps the older I get), the more I find myself frustrated and left wanting by the succession of shallow, safe, cookie-cutter songs that all sound the same and cater to a narrow, conservative market.
The first time I listened to Gungor’s Beautiful Things, I was blown away. As well as being musically rich and varied, it is steeped in biblical poetry and imagery, which it brings to bear on the beauty and the pain of life in a broken world. The slightly more chilled-out and arty successor album Ghosts Upon The Earth is equally enjoyable, though perhaps, to my taste, not quite the feast that Beautiful Things is. So it was with bated breath that I awaited the release of Gungor’s latest offering, I Am Mountain, released on 24 September.
I Am Mountain is an album that defies easy categorisation. Musically, it is even more rich, multi-layered and complex than Gungor’s previous offerings. There is darkness and light, energy and space, disorder and harmonious peace. Pop, rock, electro, alternative, folk… all these styles and more are not only visited but treated with consummate skill and feeling. Not all of these styles necessarily suit my personal tastes, but even so, to listen to this album is to enjoy a veritable musical banquet.
Lyrically is where things get really interesting. Gungor’s lyrics have always been honest, but where previous releases have focused more on worship (Beautiful Things) and narrative (Ghosts Upon The Earth), I Am Mountain wrestles with both the glory and the pain of life in a world created and filled with beauty by a loving God but torn by hatred, war and suffering. The key word is “wrestles”: those who think Christian artists should offer up neatly packaged songs that only ask questions that can easily be answered should probably stay away. There are not many easy answers here; Gungor doesn’t shy away from leaving things unresolved. But those who recognise that much of life is lived in the tension between the now and the not yet, the what is and the what could be, will likely find plenty to identify with.
The opening title track sets the scene, painting the magic and mystery of a life that is at once transient and eternal:
Momentary carbon stories
From the ashes, filled with Holy Ghost
Life is here now, breathe it all in
Let it all go, you are earth and wind
The rest of the album touches on many subjects, ranging from a retelling of a Greek myth (Beat of Her Heart) to America’s obsession with military might (God and Country). And what other Christian artist would sing about being an apophatic mystic (Long Way Off)?
In summary, I Am Mountain is not easy listening. The first time I played it, I found it had much less immediate appeal than Gungor’s previous work. But it is an album that rewards persistence: the more I’ve listened to it, the more I’ve wanted to listen, and the more I’ve been captured by its musical and lyrical depth and its search for truth and, ultimately, for God – not the saccharine God many people use as a portable comfort blanket, but the God who is above, below and inside of His creation in all its majesty and messiness. I imagine Gungor will come in for a fair bit of criticism for daring to stray outside the safe confines of mainstream contemporary Christian music and create something that is not afraid to ask questions and leave room for interpretation. That, to me, is what true art does, and in my opinion, I Am Mountain is indeed a work of art. That’s the highest compliment I could pay any album.
I’ll leave you with the official video from the title track, I Am Mountain.
(Added: a three-track EP from this album is currently available from Noisetrade for free or whatever you want to give, with all proceeds going to disaster relief for victims of the recent flooding in Colorado: go here.)