This post gives me a chance to comment on an intersection of faith and music, a love of mine I’ve had to put away in the final stages of my PhD writing.
The incredible Nikki Lerner has brought out her third album ‘Things we Never Say’ and I’ve been privileged enough to get my hands on a pre-release copy. It launches on Feb 19th 2016, after which you can get it here!
You would be forgiven for thinking Nikki’s music is the release of just another uh-mazing, silky, drop-dead-gorgeous vocal Diva. Which I hope other reviews highlight, because her singing brings together the sweet tones of jazz greats (like Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, Eva Cassidy) with dark ones reminiscent of soul singers (such as Alicia Keys, Whitney Houston, Lalah Hathaway).
I’d here like to pin my hopes to the wall, and believe we’re looking at the the actualization of a revolution in worship music. Not gospel. a new genre of worship music. Because Nikki is the worship pastor of Bridgeway Community Church in Baltimore, Maryland.
You see, while Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) is constructed on the market-proven formulas we’ve grown to love (or accept) on Christian radio, this is something.else.entirely. Sonically, it’s reminiscent of Israel Houghton & the new breed’s release in 2010 : a sophisticated musical fusion that moves from African-American genres back and forth into more Hipster-friendly ones. You could call this musical acts of cross-cultural generosity. But lyrically, it is closer to Michael and Lisa Gungor’s vision outworked in their CD I Am Mountain. And thus, it shares a lot in common with the projects of Mute Math, and of Sufijan Stevens: those who want worship to include more than the small vocabulary we can sing together in our congregational choruses. Which I guess is why its title fits it so well.
That Nikki has done this is significant. She is one of the founders of the Multicultural Worship Leaders Network, a network of over eight hundred worship pastors in various cities forging local musical dialogue across various lines. And church for her is not a gig on the weekend – she’s a genuine Christian in word, heart and deed. So my hope and prayer is that this may hail the return of Christian musicians into their regular music industries, both at a local city level and I guess hopefully eventually, a global one.
Because as a model of where ordinary worship pastors and leaders are going, it provides important breakthroughs. This is not going to be an album you play once only. Let me explain:
It’s a big thing to release a CD, particularly when your performance and identity is located primarily in the church. There are a lot of excellent big congregational music publishing houses competing for the tiny four-song-list of an ordinary church. So, unless you’re pitching to them or happy to die wanting, worship choruses are kind off the table, and any music you make is really because you want to perform it live on your own, and to distribute it among those you love, as your message.
But the Christian church has moved further and further away from the radio music that speaks of love, of sex – the words of classic poetry, or of mystery and questions. As in, the music that many ordinary people want to listen to.
Well – this is exactly that. Music you’ll want to listen to. Musically, Nikki is influenced by a range of genres, including R&B, jazz, soul. In others, she’s tapping into the alternative scene in Brooklyn (or Baltimore, I guess). It’s a feast of sounds. Selah begins as a jazz guitar ballad, but as it gains tempo it twists in steel drum and Afro-Caribbean sounds. This leads into the piano intro of Can We Start Over… Notable is the experimental electronic soundscape of Never Gets Old, perfectly matched with its layered vocals. The band nailed the rhythmic crescendos that underpin her vocals. I can only describe this as a shifting sonic palette.
Now for the faith content, which I think is totally worth highlighting, because at first look, you could gloss over it entirely. Track #1 Selah sings “I can barely say your name”, reminiscent of the ancient Jewish awe and respect for YHWH. A sultry Sarah McLaughlin-esque verse in I Rise sets its scene inside a bed, complete with “wine coloured sheets”. This moves into a classic gospel chorus, into a rock guitar solo, and back into a gospel choir. Which seems somehow to epitomize faith lived out within community, doesn’t it? Faith, prayer, sex, honesty, fear and love mixed together into a musical collage that is a snapshot of a real waking up as a Christian in the urban space.
The song Let us Talk Through the Night speaks of love lost and honest conversations, “It is you who has loved me back to life”. Much of the content of this CD evokes something more to a marriage union than simply bodily intimacy. In Choosing to Fall it speaks of loss and grief, falling out of love and choosing to fall back again. The song Tell Me evokes questions of faith posed from a younger woman to an older one. Things We Never Say has such a catchy chorus that Hillsong should sing it ;).
And healing flows
Pressing through the pain
It’s peace I know
Reaching for a love I can’t refuse
Because love pursues
The honest musings in One of These Days are directly God-ward discussions about the responsibilities of having talent. Ah, yes – the pain and joy of being creative.
So to be honest, if these are Things We Never Say, then we’re better off for saying them. Or at least, turning them up REALLY LOUD on the stereo and letting Nikki say them for us.