Something interesting is happening on the pop charts. Look beyond the Lady Gaga controversies and the Katy Perry costume changes and you'll find that Americans still have an appetite for music that matters - especially, as of late, music that has an echo of faith.
Of course not all contemporary music worth listening to comes from a specifically Christian perspective, but there seems to be a frequent correlation between artists with a faith echo and art that speaks truthfully to the culture. Here are two that do this well, along with one that misses the mark.
Paul Simon / "So Beautiful or So What"
The legendary Paul Simon returns with a fantastic set of occasionally bizarre, folk-fueled world music with "So Beautiful or So What." Simon, long a curator of international tones, never gets cartoonish on this set, nor does he settle too comfortably into his own legacy. While his impressive catalog has often included some pretty, introspective ditties, this disc is obsessed with ruminations, meditations and philosophizing about heaven, sin, forgiveness, angels, prayer and pretty much all things spiritual.
The tone is lightened by an impressive dose of Afropop in the instrumentation, but the bottom line is an encouraging conversation about faith and hope. It may ask more questions than it answers, but the process has Simon singing closer to the gospel than he ever has before.
The lead single, “The Afterlife,” playfully imagines a heaven full of lines, forms and frustrations. Maybe it’s not heaven at all? Simon’s humor is on display as energetically as ever, but his sensitivity is too. Far from the nihilistic tone of much of his excellent '60s and '70s work, Simon seems to have turned some kind of spiritual corner. This new neighborhood is well worth exploring with him.
Mumford and Sons / "Sigh No More"
Sure, it’s not a new record, but considering its relentless lock on the Soundscan top ten list "Sigh No More" deserves a lot more attention than it has gotten. Unapologetically fusing Dylanesque folk with deep country sounds bordering on bluegrass - and using this Americana-via-London aesthetic to drill aggressively into an often obviously Christian way of understanding pain, loneliness, vision and determination - Mumford and Sons crafted my favorite “Christian” album of 2010.
Sure, there is a mournful lament of a song that drops the F-bomb in the most plaintive way I’ve heard in years, but even that echoes the serious effects our careless actions can have on other people. “Awake My Soul,” frankly, is one of my favorite worship songs in years. Their tone is more parabolic than expositional, but anyone interested in finding a gospel thread in musical tapestry will see one glistening here.
Brad Paisley / "This Is Country"
I’ll admit to having been won over by Paisley’s incredible guitar skills, neo-traditionalist style and equal parts humorous and thoughtful lyrics back on his second album, "Part II." Though certainly not as surprising in country music as it is in rock, his frequent references to faith, unusually clean and marriage-affirming lyrics and his inclusion of a classic hymn on every record added to my appreciation.
As the albums have progressed, however, he’s made it harder and harder to stay a fan. On his latest disc, boldly entitled "This Is Country," Paisley pays tribute to his roots and continues his unapologetic and enormously successful amalgam of pop country production, catchy songwriting and guitar pyrotechnics. His commitment to clean lyrics, however, has been steadily slipping over the years. “Be The Lake,” for instance, acts as a near meditation on lust as the singer fixates on anything that is in contact with a woman’s body, from the water in the lake to her bikini. It’s stupid. It’s disappointing. Somehow songs about Jesus just don’t work next to obsessions over female body parts.
It's interesting that a mainstream country artist who makes claims to faith releases an album marred by too many profane moments, while a secular Jewish folk singer and a brand new British Americana group bring God back into popular music in a big way.
“JJT” has been chasing the thread dangling between eternal truths and temporal creative experiences for nearly three decades. He is a writer, a businessman, a father, an artist and a seeker. Read more about him at JohnJThompson.com.