Thursday, January 29, 2015

Beyonce - Beyonce

I've always thought of Beyonce as more Johnny Cash than Bob Dylan. You know, Johnny was never going to be a critical darling, but no Bob Dylan biopic is gonna win an Oscar. Dylan wrote the songs; Johnny was the star. Both are certainly all-time Hall-of-Fame musicians, but they fall into distinct roles.

This self-titled album is certainly an attempt at more substance. She's not going the full Bob Dylan, likely because she recognizes her need for songwriting help (and there's a lot of credits on this record) - still the production has a serious tone, a noticeable attempt to do something more profound from the very beginning. Beyonce is one of the biggest stars in the world, which already makes an attempt at concept album so much more difficult - perhaps the best thing I could say is that Beyonce is better than I would have expected a Beyonce concept album would be.

My problem comes primarily in the lyrical content. They're good songs, well written, with interesting instrumental tracks and creative production decisions. At the same time, the lyrics are probably more indicative of Beyonce as a person when we only really know Beyonce as a persona. The opening track, "Pretty Hurts" talks about the perils of our beauty-obsessed culture, but they feel incredibly odd coming from one of the most beautiful women in the world. Maybe Beyonce is saying she's not really one of the most beautiful women in the world, that it's all an act - but it's still what we know about her, because it's the image she's (or her management and PR staff) worked fifteen years to instill in us.

This theme recurs throughout the album and I'm more than willing to give Beyonce space to express herself more personally - ironically, her persona has certainly left that option open to herself. We've seen her becoming a more well-rounded, responsible global citizen over time. She speaks out. She treats herself and people around her with respect. We've seen her, as classily as possible, become a mother, a wife, an adult. At the same time, she still has to provide her audience with something familiar (I'm sort of intrigued about the next album - I think Beyonce can go just about anywhere from here).

A good metaphor for this is the hit single, "Drunk in Love," I read someone say (probably Rembert Browne from Grantland) that "Crazy in Love" was Beyonce singing about how great it was she got to have sex with Jay-Z, while "Drunk in Love" in an example of how her star has eclipsed his and she's now singing about how great it is for Jay-Z to be with her. She's able to both assert herself as a person and also subvert the stereotype of the hip-hop girlfriend (which she's already done, in some sense, by becoming THE hip-hop wife).

I haven't really had much experience with Beyonce beyond the songs that get released as singles, so it's more a surprise just how sexualized and stereo-typically R&B a lot of the lyrics on the album are. A song like "Blow" is exactly what you expect it to be - but even here there is a good measure of feminist commentary on the sexualization of urban music culture. (It also makes me wonder why Pharrell's contributions are always on tracks with such overt sexuality - such a departure from the persona he presents in public. Strange.) A song like "Partition," though, is just a tad uncomfortable - it might potentially be a commentary on celebrity and expectations, but I am so absolutely out of my depth there to make any judgements.

I really like the track, "No Angel," very creative choices in a lot of areas. It typifies, I think, what's best about this album: it's so much more about what the songs say about the world outside the song than the song itself (even though the songs themselves are pretty good). We get this picture that Beyonce has tamed the beast, so to speak, bringing Jay-Z into a more refined adult life. Of course, the the infamous elevator video of last year, we know there's a little more drama in the family than they've wanted to let on. To me this seems one way for Beyonce to let the world know they are just a normal couple, despite the very extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in.

The second half of the album has a little more reminder of just how talented Beyonce is as a vocalist. The absence of real singing on the first few tracks, while interesting, feels like withholding in some sense. Maybe that's part of the message, but a song like "Rocket*" really allows her to exercise the pipes. "Mine" feels more like a Drake tune than one featuring Drake, but the hook is pretty darn catchy. "Blue" and "Superpower" and great, and "Heaven" just haunts you. It's a spare, simple track encapsulating all of the best parts of the album. It's tough to pick a favorite song, but this one definitely sticks with you - and could likely be another single if she wants to release it.

?Obviously "XO" is the song everyone knows, for good reason. The production isn't up to the same level as the rest of the album, but the writing is top-notch. Still, it's indicative of this overall impression that Beyonce's not really putting everything she has into the album (although, by the end of the six minute "Rocket" you almost forget about this). As much as Beyonce reveals more about her than we've seen before, there's still some small measure of orchestrated messaging here. It's like 10% ingenuous - not enough to identify easily, but enough to feel. There's just not permission (at least for me) to really let go and believe in the authenticity.

In the end, though, the album is just a bit too repetitive. So many of the tracks are similar - covering similar topics, themes, production choices. It's a well done album, but it seems more a pivot, allowing Beyonce to do something different (and, frankly, whatever the heck she wants) in the future. There's a much better chance her next album wins the Grammy. I don't think this one has much chance outside a sort of career achievement recognition, which Beyonce still seems too young and vibrant to get quite yet.

Still, it is a real album. It's very good. It's inventive and distinct. You can't pick out any one track that's obviously better or designed to be a single. This is definitely Beyonce exploring her independence and personality in ways she's never really done before. She incorporates her history (lots of clips from her younger performing days) along with a real push to give women a voice in hip-hop they've not had before. A win here would be well deserved, but this whole album points to something better down the road.

*Miguel co-wrote the song and you can really feel his influence throughout. I'd love to see them do an album together - he seems to know exactly how to write for her, plus it would give him space to sing as well. Ironically, the next best track on Beyonce is "Superpower," with Frank Ocean. Frank got all the press for his debut a few years back, when really Miguel put out the best R&B album of the year. More shades of that competition here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

American Sniper and Selma

Thanks to my brother-in-law and the miracle of cloud-based storage, I've been able to watch all the Oscar Best Picture nominees this year - a first since they expanded the field. I imagine the actual showdown between artsy-indie films (Birdman and Boyhood) will be less than exciting for the public at large. The two movies people seem to care most about are Selma, a telling of the events surrounding the Civil Rights march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, 1965; and American Sniper, the dramatization of a memoir by Chris Kyle, Iraq-veteran and accomplished Navy sniper.

I don't know exactly what to say about American Sniper. It's a good film. There's a humanity involved, despite the horror and death, mental and physical trauma, there is a guy searching for meaning and ultimately finding it. We can debate all over whether he's looking or finding in the right places, but the story is honest and it rings true.

The story in the film, that is. The real story is, as always, much more complicated. Chris Kyle was unabashedly black and white, seeing the world only in terms of good and evil. Clint Eastwood, as blunt and unrelenting as he can often be, really captured the essence of Kyle without necessarily buying into Kyle's narrative. There is plenty of room in the movie to see and judge violence and war in many different ways. I think they did as good a job as they could with the movie while still doing justice to the man at the center of it.

I am not a fan of violence. So it would make sense to be drawn more to Selma, a story on the other end of violence. Black marchers, peacefully assembled, were beaten bloody and without mercy by local police and state troopers, while trying to march from Selma to Montgomery in pursuit of voting rights. I find it interesting to ponder how the Chris Kyle of 1965 would have defined good and evil in that scenario. But that is ultimately beside the point.

Upon first viewing of these films (about twelve hours apart from one another) it seemed easy to parallel the two themes. The war movie, in some sense, justifying (if not glorifying) the "honor" of war becomes a surprise smash hit, breaking all sorts of box office records, while the little, largely African-American production about protest and non-violence goes by largely ignored. It could be seen as a symbol of the way our culture views this issues - non-violence is just a tough sell.

I wanted to write that kind of post. In the end, though, I think these movies are far more similar than we give them credit for - and I'm not sure that's a good thing.

Both Selma and American Sniper put us in the mind of strong, heroic people, summoning great courage to face difficult, near-impossible situations. The stories are not about violence and non-violence, they're about inner strength. Each film is about doing what you think is right, even if it is unpopular and causes great suffering for you and your loved ones. The main drama in Kyle's story is the same as in Martin Luther King's - was the pain inflicted upon their families justified by their higher callings.

I suspect most American would say yes on both counts. King was doing things the right way - conflicts within a society must be handled peacefully; whereas international conflicts, like the one faced by Kyle, require a brute force. We've so often been taught how to recognize justifiable and unjustifiable violence, with just these scenarios as examples, it's easy to fall into line.

Neither movie really challenges the status quo. As a radically peace-loving Christian, I have a hard time glomming on to either film. I don't think war is ever the right answer. War has never, in the history of humanity, brought peace - yet we keep trying. At the same time, it's not exactly Chris Kyle's fault he's involved. Beyond the societal pressure to patriotism, only a heartless soul would expect soldiers to prioritize anything but survival in the midst of a war zone. I say that in reference to Kyle and to those he was sent there to kill.

At the same time, Selma's one extended explanation of non-violence was the opposite of a defense. The argument was, essentially, we're outgunned - fighting back will only make things worse for our people in the long run. The implication being that if there were a chance to succeed violently, then it might be worth it, but this particular battle is not going to be won that way.

In other words, if we're fighting an entrenched insurgency with the greatest military might in the history of the world, then of course we'd fight. Instead we're the rebels and we won't win that way. If you're Chris Kyle, fight; if you're Martin Luther King, you can only resist and pray.

We live in a society that believes this. It is truly the American way. It's not really our fault. Power and might is the way of empire. The man with the biggest gun makes the rules.

The power in Selma, comes from the eyes of the nation seeing innocent, peaceful marchers beaten for wanting to vote. Violence only holds sway so long as it can be justified to the masses. This is the purpose of American Sniper - at least in some measure. We're forced to ask the question: where is the line? How do we responsibly use violence, force, and might in the world. It's a difficult question. But it's easier to make peace with our answer (that war is a tragic necessity) when we have a movie like Selma to justify it. By recognizing the reality of an exception to the rule of violence, we're much more comfortable with the rule itself.

Justified violence is always a means to power. No one ever condones violence for violence' sake. We believe in violence only when it seems the best option to provide some perceived good. Freedom, security, control, peace-of-mind. It is easy, in the same way, to see non-violence as a means to power. Certainly the Civil Rights movement gained great freedom, security, control, and peace of mind without resorting to violence. Our temptation is to leave it there.

One of Dr. King's great legacies - something often lost in the historical priority of Civil Rights - was his absolutely insistence on non-violence as an end in itself. He vigorously opposed the Vietnam War, long before it became the popular sentiment. He did so because war causes suffering - for hero and villain alike (however we may paint them).

Our culture remains one obsessed with power - namely the power of self-determination. That is our idol and thus our culture's artistic expressions keep this front and center. Selma and American Sniper are good films. I liked both of them. I think they're well made and have important things to contribute to our collective conversation. They are, though, entirely within the realm of comfort for an American viewing audience. They're telling us things we want to hear, even if they do it in profound and difficult ways.

They are not different, though, only serving to support our underlying cultural structure. We must first understand the ends we pursue before we can really grapple with the means by which we arrive there. I'm not sure these films pull back the curtain far enough for us to find what we're truly looking for.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Morning Phase - Beck

Of course, like any good child of the 90's, I am quite familiar with Beck. I've heard good things about this album since its release, so it's no real surprise it was nominated, especially in what appears to be a "down" year overall. I also feel obligated to mention Scientology here, although I'm not sure it has anything to do with the album at all - I just find real, live human being involved in it to be fascinating.

Morning Phase opens with a slow, smooth, really well produced, guitar-driven "Morning." I've been listing to a lot of pop music lately (I have a two year old), so it may take me a few tracks to get into the spirit of something a little deeper and less straightforward. There's a real melancholy to the song, but a sort of hopeful melancholy. It's comforting in the middle of winter, like the world isn't always the way we want, but it might soon be, and even our present state isn't as bad as we might expect.

There's some indication this album began a decade ago, shortly after Beck's spinal injury. There's a real sense of, not boredom, but perhaps an unwilling patience - the necessity of stillness recovering from such an event. It seems to have given Beck a lot of time to think about the realities of life, but I'm not sure he's come to any real conclusions. "Heart is a Drum" and "Blue Moon" also fit into this category. "Unforgiven" is a haunting track, working the opposite end of the spectrum, using the lyrics to convey hope while implanting them within a slow, knowing instrumental track.

Parts of the album have a real 70's singer-songwriter feel to it (you could totally imagine Jim Croce singing songs like "Say Goodbye", even if you can't imagine him writing them). Beck adds a series of orchestral arrangements in the background to give the whole album a very ethereal feel - perhaps the Morning Phase he's going for.

Beck produced the album himself - it is entirely his labor of love. We wouldn't really expect anything else from a guy so particular about how he expresses himself and how he's (mis)understood by the general public. On a sort of cursory listen, Morning Phase doesn't sound all that different from any number of very good albums produced this year - and I imagine any of them could have filled this "artsy" slot that's seemed to arise at the Grammys lately - but Beck does earn the distinction through intricate production and deftly layered instrumental arrangements, which convey a real sense of depth, but also don't feel overburdened. I wonder if there's just a recognition of the time and effort he's put into the project, the same way Boyhood is being recognized by the Oscars.

"Wave" is an almost entirely orchestral track. Beck adds vocals to it, a haunting, sparse lyric, just eight lines and some repeated words that seem to be riding the strings up and down (which makes the track title quite apt). Beck worked with David Campbell on the orchestral arrangements and they really pay off, giving a unique quality to the album and creating a real sense of mood, evoking similar emotions to the lyrics in alternative, complementary ways.

A number of songs ("Don't Let it Go," "Blue Moon," and "Country Down") have lyrics speaking of return, loss, and longing for reunion. They sound like break-up songs. I don't know a ton about Beck's personal life, but I was under the impression he had a pretty strong relationship to his wife, Marissa Ribisi (twin sister of actor, Giovanni and fellow second generation Scientologist). The lyrics almost make one wonder if he's been missing something else in his life - perhaps a sense of self lost in his injury of just, perhaps, some of the joy of youth.

I think the best track might just be "Blackbird Chain." It's not the most fun to listen to - at least not the most pleasing to my ear - but it features interesting lyrics with a real panache, along with unique and unusual instrumental choices. It captures some of the melancholy on the album, but also infuses the traditional 70's vibe, bringing together all the elements on the album into one place. It's not my favorite track, for sure, but if you're only going to listen to one, pick "Blackbird Chain," knowing some of the other songs you'll like better, others you'll like worse, but they'll all contain elements of this one track within them.

It's hard to chose a favorite - so many of the songs have elements of joy and attraction, but I was particularly drawn to "Turn Away." It uses a harmonized vocal arrangement reminiscent of CSN&Y or Simon and Garfunkle, with a very simple acoustic guitar beat underneath, driving the song along. There's something deeper here, very personal, but also quite accessible. It's not as thought "Turn Away" is so much better than other tracks, but you feel like you have to choose something. I like this one.

Or maybe it's "Country Down," the track immediately following. Beck brings out a distinctly southern rock ballad vibe, using the instrumentation to emphasize the lyrical theme of traveling, escaping, wandering - yet it's also simple enough that the title exactly explains the song. (Ok, I really like "Don't Let it Go" as well. There's a lot of good songs on this album.

Morning Phase is that kind of album - maybe similar to Jack White's from last year, a well-respected music veteran and innovator, making a noticeably good album with nothing that particular stands out above the rest. "Country Down" is probably the only track that could get radio play, although with the homogenization of commercial radio, it'd be increasingly tough to know where you'd be able to hear it.

Morning Phase features two short, instrumental interludes, one at the beginning and one about two thirds of the way through the album. They seem to be precursors to the final track - "Waking Light" - a full song with lyrics that feels like the finale of a sunrise. If Beck's attempting to capture the feeling of morning, this is the sun finally escaping the horizon. There's a positivity throughout the music, with hopeful lyrics, almost an escape from the purgatory of roiling emotions exhibited throughout the album. If this is indeed his process of recovering from a major injury, this is the moment when he's able to get back to music, finish his album and move on. It'll be interesting to see what he chooses to perform at the Grammys, but I imagine it'll be a very stark departure from the rest of the show.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Prayer and Atheism

Listening to Peter Rollins' session on the Pete Holmes podcast last month, I came across an interesting idea. It was a throw-away line, really, from Rollins, but caused some mild joy in my heart. He said, "You have to be a little bit atheist to pray. If you REALLY believed in God you wouldn't need to."

I know I've written here before about my journeys with prayer. I'm not the kind of guy who can sit still and (mentally or physically) say words as if there were a conversation happening. It's easy enough in a corporate setting, where we're composing a prayer from a group of people, we're expressing our collective thoughts and desires. It makes much more sense there. In a personal vein, though, it's always seemed strange to me.

There's the childhood question, "If God knows what we're thinking, why do we have to say it or even direct it intentionally towards God?" I'm not sure how some strong Calvinist would answer that question, but having grown up in a free-will tradition I was always told that our requests can influence God's actions. It was also sort of a warning not to ask for the wrong things since God might choose to give them to you.

I don't know if there's time or if my brain has enough capacity to properly discuss the theological problems with that particular exchange, but I'm finding myself more and more in agreement with my childhood self.

As I said, I've never been that kind of pray-er. Perhaps if I find myself in a particular difficult mental or emotional spot, that kind of prayer can be cathartic or provide enough rest and/or perspective to stabilize a person for functional life tasks. But that is ultimately was Rollins was getting at, right? He was saying people pray because they can't entirely believe God knows everything and acts lovingly all the time.

It should be said he's not at all critical of this - and neither am I. Doubt is an important part of faith and the ability to express our doubts in prayer can be vital for us. It's reaching out a hand during a scary movie, just some gesture to remind ourselves there's someone else out there. We're not in this alone.

I've been mulling, though, if some of my personal peculiarities make belief an easier challenge than it is for other people. I really don't feel the need to pray - at least in the way Rollins refers to it here. I commune with God. I spend time in silence or contemplation and, from time to time, I'd eve claim God has spoken to me. I find moments of great spiritual connection that seem entirely in line with the broader view of prayer we find in scripture and Christian tradition.

I don't do a lot of praying, though, in the typical sense. I wonder if that's because I really don't have a bit of atheism in me. There's lots of things I question, things I hold at an intellectual arms length for whatever reason, but I don't doubt God.

I'm not saying this to prove some superiority. On the contrary, I'm saying this to sort of confess some of my failings.

Apparently, the typical person is very in touch with their own feelings, but struggles to translate those feelings into deep belief. This is generally the purpose of counseling or psychotherapy, to sort through the feelings and figure out what's true. Recently I've discovered I may be the (surprise, surprise) opposite, functioning on some odd plane where I reason out core beliefs, determining what's truth without feeling anything at all.

People who know me well have often joked I have Asperger's or some unspecified developmental disorder because of my intense inability to understand how other people think (and often how to relate with them). I've never been officially diagnosed or anything, but it certainly wouldn't surprise me. I do have what seems to be an uncanny ability to act based on beliefs I've worked out nowhere else besides my own head.

I believe all people are good and valuable, that everyone deserves the same treatment without priority or other attachment. It's not difficult for me to treat my family the same way I try to treat everyone or vice versa. (Now there is some difference in terms of responsibility - I have to be a parent and feed and clothe my child, I made promises to my wife - those are different than simply treating people a certain way.) Let's say my brother had some disease that would likely lead to a kidney transplant down the road, but some stranger needed one immediately; I'm pretty sure my only internal conflict would be over the social convention of prioritizing family, not the actual core rightness of the decision.

I'm not saying I can operate completely devoid of emotion, but I certainly seem a lot better at it than most people. This, of course, often makes things difficult. I make choices that seem logical and right to me, which seem to annoy or offend and definitely puzzle those around me. I've sort of gotten used to it by now. As much as it makes some things difficult, it certainly makes others much easier.

I believe God exists. I believe God is at work to bring about the redemption and fulfillment of all that exists and that God will act in perfect love to accomplish this inevitability. Even if this doesn't seem like what's happening in the world around us, I believe it indeed is happening.

Because of that, it doesn't make a lot of sense to ask God for anything. God certainly knows what bothers me. I can express frustration for injustice and impatience in seeing it rectified; I often do. Ultimately, those things will not help change much, since God is doing as much as God can or will do at all times.

I certainly believe God can, does, and will change, based on circumstances and the choices of we humans with whom God interacts. I'm not at all saying things are necessarily determined (shoot, I don't even believe the specifics of the future are knowable, by God or anyone else), I just recognize that God knows and understands the intricacies of my mind and actions regardless of whether I communicate them or not. Whatever God will take into account from me, is happening, whether I say it or not.

Ultimately, what I'm saying is what I think Peter Rollins was getting at - we pray for ourselves. I pause to pray before meals and have taught my daughter to do the same, not because God needs this, but because that pause helps us reflect on where this food comes from and all the way's we're provided for outside our own capacity to survive.

It's not that those words need to be said or that if I don't say them - or even think them - God will some how act differently towards me. I don't believe that at all. I do believe that perhaps I'll act differently towards the world, I may stop believing those things, if I don't pray. Intellectually, practically, those prayers are entirely for me.

This is why there was some joy in hearing Rollins talk this way about prayer being for atheists. It does come at the moment of our weakness, specifically for our personal formation. Prayer can change things - it changes us, based on how we do it and what we believe. If you're never thinking about a larger reality and the way you're supposed to act in the world (and how your beliefs influence those actions), then, yes, you may have a problem. Prayer might be a good thing for you. But if you are taking that time to implement practices of evaluation and formation, working to live rightly in the world, you probably shouldn't feel guilty about your lack of prayer - you may, in fact, really be praying far more than you ever suspect.

*As I was looking for the right image to put with the post above, I discovered this interesting one: 

This is what I mean when I tell some of my atheist friends they might be Christian and not know it. I've got no problem with this at all - you could replace the word "Atheist" with "Christian" and be just as accurate. Life is all about what we believe to be the best way to act in the world and why.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

X - Ed Sheeran

I liked Ed Sheeran's first album a lot. He showed great promise, if not polish, as a songwriter and a confidence to do what he wanted. It's that confidence which has made him a star. He doesn't have the look or manner of a high profile pop star, but he owns it well enough to earn the freedom to do what he wants. This first shows up with the title to this new album - it looks like an x, but is pronounced Multiply. It fits the theme (the first one was a plus sign) and emerges as a more stable, honed performance.

However, the title should have been Division, because as much as Sheeran does what he wants, he doesn't seem quite sure what that is on this record. The album is clearly divided between the flowing, lyrical, love-infused singer-songwriter fare and a more upbeat, rhythm-driven, R&B-infused "above it all" vibe. He does both really well, but you sort of get the notion this album should have been a double, with one set of songs devoted to each, given proper space and separation. So that's what I'm going to do here.

The R&B stuff is pretty tight. Sheeran has Pharrell and Rick Rubin doing production on most of them and it's pretty clear. "Sing" shows off slick, layered production. Although it wasn't the best choice for debut single, this track does have more depth upon further reflection. It's a much better complementary piece than a lead. The second single, "Don't" keeps the vibe going, but unless he's trying to actively crossover from pop and get play on urban stations (which seems far-fetched at best), these songs don't really reflect either the quality of the album, or Sheeran's strengths as a writer and performer. The most valuable part of "Don't" is the mystery over whether this is Taylor Swift getting the Taylor Swift treatment from a male version of herself.

"Nina" combines the rapping, R&B tendencies, lyrics, and instrumentation well enough to present a fully-formed version of what he's clearly trying to put across. That "Nina" wasn't an early single must indicate some internal struggle between Sheeran and label about how to market this album. If you ask Sheeran what the best track on the album is, I suspect he'd pick "Bloodstream." It contains some of his deepest lyrics, a beat-driven vibe, production from Rubin, tender vocals, and depth of emotion. It's a Sheeran kind of song. I'm more partial to "Runaway," from the R&B side of the album. It seems odd, but Pharrell is able to infuse a sense of gravitas in the tracks he produces, which is especially important for someone like Sheeran, who's so naturally devoid of gravitas. Rubin is always precise with his expert balance of individual elements; Pharrell is a master of overall impression, mood.

When it comes to lyrics, Sheeran is quite creative albeit sometimes lacking in depth or insight. You don't see a lot of metaphor or poetry at play. I'm not generally a fan of rhyming for rhyming's sake, but Sheeran manages to pair his obvious rhymes with catchy rhythms well enough to please the ear. That being said, "The Man" is pretty fantastic (how many rappers wouldn't love to sing their own hooks?). Sheeran isn't going to threaten the reputation of any true MC, but he can write lyrics well enough (it's a little shaky in the third verse) to not be a joke (or as much of a joke as a tiny, Ginger British dude rapping will already be).

The other part of Multiply is Sheeran's ballady side, which is clearly his strong suit (even if it's less fun for him). "One" and "Photograph" are classic (unrequited or regretful, nostalgic) love songs infused with Sheeran's trademark blue-collar lyrics. There's much made of the "busker to big-league" narrative Sheeran's publicist has gotten around, but his success seems more about hard work and sheer talent than any rags to riches story. He can write and sing and he knows what he wants, even if he's not quite sure what he wants to be.

This isn't any more apparent than on the sparse, straightforward "I'm a Mess." Guitar and voice, with a driving rhythm reminiscent of those angsty early aughts John Mayer/Dashboard Confessional-type singer-songwriters that I imagine Sheeran always wanted to be. There's still enough polish on this track (and others) to make it real Grammy bait (which the voters seem to have taken).

"Afire Love" is a touching lyric with a great beat and a catchy chorus. It's clearly not about a girl or a night of drinking, which is refreshing, allowing Sheeran a rare chance to hang back and let his work speak for him. "The Devil took your breath away" will be this album's "crumbling like pastries" (although it's, thankfully, not in the chorus). It does make me wonder if Sheeran's independent, do-it-all-myself mentality keeps him from taking as many lyrical notes as might be appropriate.

"Tenerife Sea" is beautiful. Plain and simple. A simple, vivid depiction of the emotions surrounding being in love. Beautifully produced by Rubin, who always seems to know exactly what line needs a guitar cut-in or a short, simple harmony (if you want proof, listen to the album version after one of the many live performances available). It's easy listening in the best possible way.

"Thinking Out Loud," the third single (and the one currently getting major airplay) sounds so unlike Sheeran in almost every way. Still, it is probably the best track on the album. The lyrics are typical Sheeran, up-front and obvious, but with depth and feeling. The production is noticeable, but not distracting. His voice is unique and emotive and much more traditionally delivered. It's the only song on the album co-written with his original collaborator, Amy Wadge (Sheeran's original EP was titled Songs I Wrote with Amy). If this is a sign of what the guy is capable of, we may have some really, really good music in our future (perhaps on "Subtraction" or "%" or whatever he'll decide to call it).

When Taylor Swift won her Best Album Grammy, it was entirely on the back of potential. If the voters want to go that route again, Sam Smith surely has the highest ceiling, but the chances of him fully reaching his potential are dwarfed by Ed Sheeran. He's always known where he wants to be and proven a single-minded determination to get there. I don't know if his whims will take him where I'd like him to go, but if they do, he's almost sure to get there.

That being said, the album is bifurcated in strange ways. It's not a diversity of styles like we saw with Sara Bareilles last year, but simply one guy doing two things on the same album. They're both good in their own way, but I don't know too many people who will latch on to both well enough to sell all the albums Multiply deserves. It seems almost like one of those albums desperately deserving of a nomination, but with no business winning.

P.S. - I can't help but comment on "I See Fire," the closing credits track from the final Hobbit movie, written, produced and performed by Sheeran (and included on the Deluxe edition of Multiply). It's the perfect song for the movie, capturing the emotion and imagery of the story perhaps better than the movie itself. I tend to like spare writing and recording. "I See Fire" is not a world-beating song or anything, but it's so well done. If Sheeran ever decides he doesn't want to be a pop star, he's got a lot of potential as a collaborator on projects like this.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Suffering and Persecution

I've had this post stewing for a while. I'm sure I've mentioned something like this before - perhaps in relation to all the Chik-fil-a backlash last year - but it deserves another visit, especially with all the religious discussion happening after the attack in France and further talk about persecution and suffering. It's not so life and death here in the USA, our persecution discussions seem to be more about principle and comfort, but it's time for us to face reality.

It is NOT persecution to be required to follow the same rules as everyone else - that's not persecution. Persecution is being singled out for different treatment based on religious beliefs. We've come to call it persecution in this country when we're asked to do things we don't like, even though everyone else is required to do the same thing. That's not persecution, it's society. Expecting the rest of the world to cow to your beliefs and opinions is selfishness. It's not persecution.

For eons, people of faith (all kinds of faith and moral persuasions) have been exempting themselves from all or parts of society to maintain purity or conscience. Passing a law that forces some measure of self-exemption is not persecution. It's life. We are not guaranteed the opportunity to have our cake and eat it too.

What's more, as a Christian, this sort of sacrifice is expected, it's promised to all followers of Christ. Christianity is a different way of looking at and interacting with the world. It is, by definition, contradictory. To expect anything different is a sort of narrow, short-sighted perspective.

Last month, demi-hero Brian Zahnd wrote a blog piece addressing torture and Christian perspective on such. In the midst of this piece (which, overall, has little, if anything to do with my post here), there's a shortened version of the historical position of Christianity as it relates to world power.

For three hundred years everyone knew that it was dangerous to be a Christian, and therefore knew what it was to be a Christian. Then things changed and Christendom was born. Christendom was the subordination of Christianity to the sovereignty of empire. More to the point, Christendom was an attempt to invent a risk-free Christianity. And it was a “success.” But it came at a price. The price was that no one quite knew anymore what it meant to be a Christian. How can you be a Christian when there is no risk? How can you take up your cross and follow Jesus if there’s no danger of suffering? Removing all risk makes Christianity incomprehensible.

We've reached a point where we're so removed from any sort of suffering, it's become a bogeyman. We call suffering persecution because it impedes our self-determination. Pleasure, ease, and comfort have become the gods we serve. Anything that feels bad or unsafe or risky becomes the enemy.

I'm not saying we should go out looking to suffer, but we shouldn't be afraid to choose suffering if it makes sense to do so. I watched Unbroken last week and recoiled at the kind of suffering people endured. I kept saying to myself, I'd rather die than suffer. Why? Because it's the easy way out. It used to be that life was suffering (life is pain, highness), now life is all about avoiding suffering, putting it off, or pretending it doesn't exist.

I think the gospel message is supposed to be something about peace, forgiveness, love. Somehow we've twisted that into lazy self-indulgence. Peace is hard work. It takes sacrifice. It's not easy. If you want your life to be easy, stop standing for anything. The path of least resistance is often really successful in our time and culture (just ask a Kardashian).

There is real persecution in the world. Being forced at gunpoint to don a yellow Star of David, that's religious persecution. Being forced to claim a religion to get an ID card or medical care or to vote, that's religious persecution. Getting your head chopped off for what you think is religious persecution. Having to choose between following the same laws as everyone else or violating your conscience - that's just life.

As much as we recoil against it, choosing to suffer is not always the wrong choice. The example of humble, patient suffering is a profoundly strong one in our self-gratification culture. Pope John Paul II chose lengthy, painful public suffering as a testimony to the grace of God and his belief in something deeper. People might disagree with him, but they certainly respect his commitment to the cause.

When we ask for special treatment so it's easier to live our faith, we've gotten well off track. Anything real in this life, anything worth doing, anything of value, is worth suffering for. Peace is tough. We must be willing to work hard; we must be willing to sacrifice.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

In the Lonely Hour - Sam Smith

Often, Saturday Night Live is the vehicle by which I get first exposure to a hip new artist I've heard of from music people, but never actually heard. This has been true in recent months for acts like Hozier and Haim (who was really impressive). Then one unassuming Saturday evening, March 29, to be exact, I sat back to watch a musical act I'd never ever heard of. Sam Smith blew me away. He's got an amazing voice, very smooth, with great range and a unique character. He sang, "Stay with Me," the first hit single off his forthcoming album and blew the socks off the place.

I googled him pretty quickly and realized, with his odd (so likely trendy) personal style, young age, overbearing momager, without his SNL performance (his first of any kind in the US), I likely would have written him off as a British Bieber and left it at that. I've written here before how important a good SNL appearance can be in establishing a musical reputation. It's just tough to do live TV well, even moreso when you're just singing. U2 and Arcade Fire do everything right. Britney Spears and the Spice Girls tried top sing acapella, bombing miserably.

So when Sam Smith came out for his second number (Lay Me Down) and tried the same thing (or at least, in my memory, it's acapella), it was almost like watching someone walk a tightrope over the Grand Canyon. He killed it and I was sold as a fan. Dude can sing. His momager might actually be competent if she decided SNL was the right place to unleash her son on the US market. Nailing that performance almost guaranteed a positive reception and, judging by the radio play (not to mention all the Grammy noms), it's worked out pretty well for him.

As soon as his album showed up on Spotify, I was all over it. Even my daughter likes it (and she usually sticks with female artists, unless they're singing about volcanos). It's a great first album. Comparisons to Adele are quite deserved. He's got the vocal chops and is at least credited with writing on each track (although I imagine he gets more help than Adele).*

Loving the guy for his voice, I was initially thrown off by the first track - Money on My Mind, an out and out dance track, but the guy sings enough and the beat is great. You get into it really fast and it helps you remember this kid is 21 when he's recording this.

Smith shows serious songwriting chops, along with a true understanding of production diversity with tracks like Good Thing or Leave Your Lover.

By the time you get to Stay With Me on the third track, you're excited to hear something familiar, but it also stealthily reminds you any track on the album would make a good single. It's the first moment you realize this is a full-fledged album, one that just might attract Grammy voters.

I made hay a few years back when Taylor Swift won the Album of the Year with Fearless. Sure, she was a brilliant songwriter, especially for her age, and she may be something someday - it was just too early. In the end, though, the voters seem to know. Swift has made at least one record worthy of the award (likely two - I haven't heard 1989 yet) and, in the future, no one is going to look past the name. There have certainly been more deserving nominees often, but you have to go back to 1970 (Blood, Sweat, and Tears) before you see a name who genuinely doesn't belong.

There are some places to critique, smooth, and improve on this album. The first half of I've Told You Now is shaky (although completely redeemed by the second half). I have a lot of production questions on Life Support (which has some of my favorite writing on the album). Like Swift's early stuff, there's obvious places you say, "that could be better," but you're genuinely enjoying it most of the time. There's more to saw for Smith than Swift, simply because he's not making a straight-out pop album. This may be the direction pop is headed, but the whole piece seems personal and timely, with such promise to come.

A track like Not in that Way comes at you like a nightclub tune from days of yore, but he infuses his stuff with clearly modern elements that highlight the voice. There are ten songs on the album and seven of them are out-of-this-world gems, the kind of songs that will be covered with sincerity for years to come. It's just a lot to believe from someone so young and so new. It really is reminiscent of what Adele came up with, but it's better than her first attempt, which only makes me eager to get to the sophomore offering.

I'm obviously coming to this with no small bias, which is why I'm reviewing it first, but at the same time, I feigned hope for its nomination back in April. I never expected what amounts to a pretty weak year in album-making (at least on the Grammy's radar), where it is clearly one of the best.

*Speaking of this, Adele is rumored to have a new album coming out this year - if the Grammy producers don't get them to duet (maybe a new school bluesy tribute to the late Jimmy Ruffin with a nominal appearance from Smokey Robinson) it will be a super tragedy (contextually).

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Who Needs the Resurrection?

When I was a wee lad, I heard tell of these darkly magical beings out there in the world who were Christians, even pastors, but rejected the idea that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. They were always spoken of in sort of mournful tones - condemned for sure, but in a confusing sort of way. Rejecting the resurrection was rejecting God, of course, but the fact that they maintained faith claims or worshiped or anything else remotely Christian seemed entirely anachronistic.

My faith, at the time, was pretty securely encamped in the "fire insurance" department. I understood faith entirely in terms of afterlife. We are Christians because being Christians is how we get to heaven. If Jesus didn't rise from the dead, it seems very unlikely I will rise from the dead and that would make faith ultimately as pointless as all get out. Why would I give up sex and drinking and movie theaters and prom if I'm not getting anything out of it?

I look at faith quite differently these days. In fact, my faith no longer has anything to do with afterlife. Gospel, as I see it, is not "good news about heaven," but entirely good news about life here and now. The Kingdom of God has come, Jesus was its first citizen, and we don't have to wait to heaven to join in. My faith moved from something (at least intellectually) useless in the present, to something of utmost importance for the here and now.

I see the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as both teaching us and enabling us to live life as God always intended. Resurrection means that life will continue forever. Not in some disembodied heaven, but in a reconstituted here. I see death as merely a pit stop in the midst of life, not the end.

In fact, if I take stock of what are essential faith claims in my life, I have only two. First, God is at work in the world - active, not passive. The second, Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. If anything, the resurrection of Jesus is even MORE important to my faith now than it was as a formative youngster trying to make sense of those crazy liberal heretics way back when.

Now, though, my attitude towards them is a bit different.

I still disagree, although not with confusion and malice, perhaps with some grudging respect. I still scratch my head in wonder, but I wonder more if it's something I'm lacking as opposed to them.

You see I need resurrection. Not because it's essential to my explanation of God and faith, but because I'm a bit selfish. To me (and I imagine to most Christians out there), resurrection symbolizes confirmation that what Jesus was saying is really true, trustworthy. Jesus said and did some pretty crazy things: love your enemies, give to whomever asks without expecting anything in return, let the dead bury their own dead, don't worry about tomorrow (what you will eat or what you will wear). There's a really radical element of love and non-violence that works against everything our instincts and culture tell us about how to live. It's different.

What's more, it doesn't work out too well in the short term. Culture abhors distinctness. There's a lot of pressure to fall in line. People who refuse to fight often die, they're taken advantage of. Life isn't quite as easy if you go "the gospel way."

So I need resurrection, because then I can at least tell myself this is all for a reason. This world might seem to work one way, but Jesus is God and made this whole thing and it will all be different someday and for eternity; it's already different, we just don't always see it. That's what I believe. It's what I preach every time I step into a pulpit, it's what shapes my life (or what I hope shapes my life).

Now I don't think any of that would be less true without the resurrection. If Jesus is who he says he is and if what he offers as a lifestyle really does work best for life in the world (and I believe both of those to be true), then it doesn't matter if Jesus rose from the dead. It really doesn't. Truth is truth no matter what.

This is precisely the argument some of those magical liberals claim to believe - all the same stuff I do, but without any "proof." Resurrection is at least a hypothetical guarantee. Guarantees are comforting. But the guarantee is only as good as the product being sold. If the Jesus way isn't really the right way, the hope of resurrection is pretty worthless.

That's why I've come to admire those who believe without believing.

Peter Rollins tells a story (which, thanks to Google Books you can read here - starting on page 67 if it doesn't take you to the right place). It's about a group of disciples who leave Jerusalem immediately after the crucifixion, traveling to a far off place and establishing a society where they live in imitation of Christ, not because they believe anything will come of it after their deaths, but simply because they believe his way of life is beautiful.

Not everyone who claims Christ, but denies the resurrection are functioning on this sort of holy plane. Often a skepticism of the supernatural belies a real lack of commitment, rather than a deeper faith. At the same time, I see in myself a real deficiency when it comes to faith. I think I'm lazy enough and selfish enough to just skip the whole endeavor if it won't mean anything beyond this life. I'm sure I'd still be kind and considerate to people when the moment arose - we all want to believe ourselves "good" in that way - but I certainly wouldn't organize my life around a selfless pattern of living. I'd work to get mine. I'd want to do it in a way I could live with, but it sure wouldn't be gospel.

I believe in the resurrection. I'd have no faith without it. I believe the man, Jesus Christ, died and is now again living. I need the resurrection. I need it in so many ways. I just don't believe God needs the resurrection. I believe God used the resurrection for exactly the purpose of promise - showing us what the future entails. At the same time, I believe God could have done things differently and that the life of Christ would be worth the same, even if he'd never been raised from the dead.

I think we have to get there. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday. Because, in the end, if the life we're living only has meaning when it's over, there really is no meaning to life at all.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

It Will Be Okay by Lysa TerKeurst

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

So, I've been a little dissatisfied with the book selections from BookSneeze lately.* This is the company that gives me free books in exchange for reviews. I sent a strenuous denouncement after I saw Suicide Pact - Andrew Napolitano's partisan political screed listed. Apparently, it counts because he claims everything he says is the way God wants the world to work; I simply was asking, if they're not going to stick to strictly religious topics, could they please include good books in the selection - like Shrink, by my friend, Tim Suttle or even the new Rob Bell book (although apparently a book by a pastor about relationships isn't Christian enough to get the Zondervan imprint). Anyway, they don't seem to have been taking my advice - so I got a children's book this time. As the father of a two-year-old, I feel it an appropriate thing for me to review.

It Will Be Okay is a cute book about a seed and a fox who learn God can make beautiful things out of scary situations. The illustrations by Natalia Moore are whimsical and endearing. The story wanders a bit, but my daughter was enraptured the whole time, even though the word count per page is a bit above her normal tolerance level. Unlikely partners, a fox and a seed, become good friends and go through struggles together - ultimate discovering that the benevolent farmer had unimaginably good things planned all along.

I like the theme of friendship that develops - we don't see enough emphasis on our necessary interconnectedness in Christian media today. The notion of using a seed to illustrate the beautiful, unexpected things God can grow in us despite our circumstances is clever and inventive. The drawings evoke the right emotions - sympathy with the characters and proper personification. I suppose kids need the metaphor to be plainly spelled out in the end, but I'd prefer to teach my daughter early to begin picking up on such things.

The biggest drawback for me - and I'm still debating whether to put this on my daughter's shelf or to donate it to the nursery at our nearest Baptist church - is the implication that everything in life is orchestrated by God. The seed goes through a scary ordeal, separated from his best friend, Fox, and planted in the dark, lonely ground, but all the while God has great things in store.

I have no doubt God leads us through challenging circumstances to help us grow, but I categorically reject the notion that "everything happens for a reason." God doesn't lead us into fear, hurt, or loneliness. God is with us in dark times, but God does not lead us there. God leads us out. God's redemptive provision is evident in the book, but it's secondary to a needless narrative frame of "God's plan." Without proper distinction between the bad things in our lives and God's plan of restoration, I can't fully recommend this book.

There are plenty of ways it could have been organized to appeal to a broader theological spectrum (my Wesleyan beliefs are not some minor outlier), but if you can get over the notion that your child will think "everything happens for a reason," then there's a lot to like about It Will Be Okay.

*Note: They've realized how terrible that name was and changed it to BookLook, but no one ever specifically told me that, so I'm sticking with the terrible old name.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”