Back in February, I got the chance to talk to Bifrost co-founder and director Isaac Wardell for Hopeful Realism (1 & 2) to preview their, then upcoming, worship and arts conference in Philadelphia (The Cry of the Poor) and preview a couple tracks off of their upcoming record: their second anthology of hymns and spiritual songs: He Will Not Cry Out.
Today He Will Not Cry Out was released to the public after a fairly extensive underground listening period in which it was leaked to Kickstarter backers and available to attendees in Philly. I’m writing to greatly commend this album to you and to add a few notes of engagement and critique.
To start, Isaac and team has done an impressive job, in many ways shifting their entire music production ethos from the wonderful cover-laden debut to this collection of original compositions and songs inspired by existing texts (mostly scripture, especially psalms, and a prayer). The Bifrost production team has managed to move beyond or through what they accomplished on their Advent/Christmas album, Salvation is Created (2009) to create a compelling and original set of songs and dynamic recordings that range in theme and mood from intensely introspective and thoughtfully meditative to joyfully assertive and imaginatively extroverted.
Amidst this growth and development has been the growth and development of a fresh stable of guest artists and collaborators alongside some friendly mainstays. The contributions of both Chelsey Scott and Molly Parden struck me as particularly brilliant. Each lady’s voice held its own unique texture of grace and intensity that I, personally, find the typical Christian female voice (if such a thing exists) lacks. Parden’s, in particular, shares with Sandra McCracken, an innate ability to hold together the sweetness and petite-ness of her high pitch, while hinting at real fire and punch.
(An aside: I was surprised in Philly, to walk into the spacious sanctuary to hear Psalm 126 being played over what I assumed was a PA. I had heard this track several days before and it became an instant favorite, so I had recognized it. What was so surprising, glancing up to the front of the sanctuary from the check-in desk, was that it was actually Sandra McCracken’s voice that was filling my ears, and the playing that sounded as good as this great recording was actually being rehearsed by live human beings. An honest mistake and a complement to both Molly & Sandra.)
If this Volume 2, solidifies a sound, a cast, and an ethos for Bifrost Arts’ music, it also pushes into new territory for them and for contemporary (small “c”) Christian music in general. For all intents and purposes, the team has moved beyond (or perhaps backtracked from) their hymnals, to Israel’s hymnal: the Psalms. This isn’t a novel approach. Listen to K-LOVE for any length of time and you’ll find a certain brand of exemplars (I’ll date myself here): Tomlin’s Forever miming Psalm 136 or Redman’s 10,000 Reasons remixing Psalm 103. What is particularly interesting, and perhaps the conference serves as my cipher in this respect, is that a song like Psalm 90 might find its best footing in an ecumenical Taize setting or as a congregationally responsive chorus, firmly embedded in liturgy rather than on a screen-laden stage.
The similar liturgical tag, Bonhoeffer’s Prayer, is short and sweet. A doxological bookend, a wonderful call to worship.
Perhaps inadvertently, but likely with much intention, Bifrost Arts has really tapped into an under-sourced terrain that seems to be ground-swelling thanks to comrades like Bruce Benedict (whose ministry, Cardiphonia, commissions liturgical projects themed both calendrically and topically, and who coincidentally penned the title track to He Will Not Cry Out) or on a much grander scale, David Crowder’s Give Us Rest.
It then is both surprising and not surprising that this collection of songs holds some of Bifrost Arts’ most “singable” compositions and arrangements to date. Surprising, in that these songs are heady, with enormous attention and weight placed on their theological integrity, scriptural foundation, liturgical use, and aesthetic coherence. Unsurprising, due to the fact that most of them are in fact, well, psalms. The work that Isaac and other songwriters have done then is more one of listening well, attending to textual contours, and not gilding the lily too much. More often than not, I think that deft attentive work is what they’ve achieved.
Our congregation (I’d give us a solid “B” in our grace and ability to pick up new tunes in worship, neither spectacular nor inept) has really grabbed onto both We Are Not Overcome and Psalm 126 rather quickly. Both songs (as well as a handful of others) combine easy-to-sing lyrics, catchy and appropriate melodies, and the right mixture of head and heart. In short, hymn book readers and hand raisers both seemed to be able to express and experience worship through these, which is no easy feat.
My criticisms of this album come with a bit of hesitation. I hesitate because I acknowledge that most or all of my hang-ups are necessarily linked with some of the things that are most endearing. Like all of us sinner-saints, some of our greatest strengths also potentially represent our most-notable shortcomings. Virtues and vices are often differing sides of the same coin.
While this album, doesn’t claim to be anything other than an anthology, a loose collection of a variety of songs, it does actually at times feel disjointed. On one hand, I love the diversity of styles and presentation and the fact that most of these choices were made with respect to personnel. On the other, I get a little whiplash between the haunt of By His Wounds, the simplicity of Bonhoeffer’s Prayer, the pomp of Take Us O, Lord, and the operatics of Agnus Dei. Again, I’m not sure how much this sticks, considering the intent of the project.
Similarly, some of the production and presentation pushes the envelope. The chimes on We Are Not Overcome are so forward in the mix that they’re alternately affecting and offensive. Anything DM Stith performs on introduces electronic elements that are alien to many of the other tracks. More often than not they are effective and jarring, sometimes they just trespass.
Finally, even as an anthology, the album suffers a little bit of an identity crisis. As much as I love almost all of the songs, I never really know how to listen to it. It is a media-confusion for me to have such artful and subtle music gracing my eardrums that is actually best listened to in the form of digital playlists. Every bit of the music snob in me wants a consistent aesthetic narrative in album form: let me drop the needle, so to speak, and listen from front to back, “side a” to “side b.”
Again, it’s okay that this is absent. It’s just that these songs stand somewhere in the odd interstices of an invaluable resource to be used and appropriated according to your need, mood, or preference, and an epic proper record. Either way, Wardell and Co. have realized a major artistic accomplishment, for and by the Church. I’ll treasure this “anthology of hymns and spiritual songs” as a real gift, a tool, and a piece of art to behold and be reckoned with.