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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Brave Saint Saturn -- The Light of Things Hoped For


In my lifetime I've heard the "we're not a Christian Band, we're Christians in a band" argument ad naseum.  I remember going into Wal-Mart after DC Talk dropped Jesus Freak and seeing it on the end of the isle with a huge sticker that said TO BE FILED UNDER ROCK/ALTERNATIVE.  Even the most audaciously-titled Christian album of all time insisted on not being categorized as a Christian album. Meanwhile, publications make "Greatest Christian Albums Of All Time" lists that further blend the line. In my opinion, Christian music is the same as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's view of pornography: I know it when I see it...or rather, when I hear it.
So why all the setup? Because I'm about to review one of the most unfairly overlooked greatest Christian albums of all time.
In the spring of 2003, Five Iron Frenzy frontman, Reese Roper, was facing the dissolution of his band.  Not only that, but he had been scorned badly by several women, engagement rings rusting in his apartment, and he had lost friends dear to him.  In other words, it was time to make the Dark Night of the Soul album he was always destined to create. Even better (for the listener...maybe not Reese), Roper's side band, Brave Saint Saturn, had already released a semi-concept album about a ship exploring the moons of Saturn.  Why not nab that lingering concept and run with it? On The Light of Things Hoped For, Reese uses the concept of feeling distant from the light of Christ to that of a space crew marooned in the everlasting darkness of a deep space eclipse. If that sounds heady, it's not...or rather, it is not emotionally alienating--it's actually quite the opposite.
I don't know if an actual, real Christian has made an album this honestly harrowing.  When Reese tells his ex-fiance on "Enamel," "Here's to me saying fare thee well, and when you hear this song, I hope it hurts like hell," he isn't trying to shock. He really feels this way. 
Roper and his crew (Five Iron bandmates Keith Hoerig (bass), Andy Verdecchio (drums), and Dennis Culp (various musical contributions, and writer and singer of some songs of his own)) are drawn as astronauts in comic panels in the CD booklet. These panels, along with several segue tracks, flesh out The Light of Things Hoped For's plot. The songs follow the band members' thoughts, first optimism at going home, dark thoughts on failed relationships, the darkness consuming as the ship is lost behind Titan, the eclipsing moon. From there, the crew reflect on and regret moments of their lives on Earth, as death approaches. In the album's final act, 800 million miles from home, the crew attempt one last shot at redemption. 
As I just said, the angrier songs come early, and the second half is more reflective,  lifting off with the so painful it would be unbearable if it wasn't so beautiful, "Estrella." The song is about Reese's friend, Matt Estrella, who died at 25 of Neurofribromatosis.  Reese beautifully and sadly illustrates how Estrella's own life and faith was a bonfire to Reese's tiny hotel match. That most beautiful and mysterious of instruments, the musical saw, makes an appearance in the song, and its ethereal beauty adds yet another cosmic layer to the density of The Light of Things Hoped For. 

The album contains dozens of deft touches like this, breaking strongly from the simple acoustic/electro pop of Brave Saint Saturn's debut. 
Culp's two songs in this latter half are also quite strong: "Heart Still Beats" describes his impotence at being any kind of assitance to a down and out neighbor, while "Recall" remembers that before Culp screwed up everything, there was light in his life.  And finally we get to the final track, "Daylight."
Storywise, the crew is at the end of their rope, making a last chance at seeing the sun again and regaining communication with the world...but the song is about Reese's desperation and last grasp at hope.  If anyone has put more passion in their voice than Reese does at the end of this song, it isn't on record.

Did you hear the news today?
I'm not coming home
And I wished it all away
I felt so alone
And the darkness crept it's way
Like stars we know will die too soon
There is never any sunrise here
in the shadows of eclipsing moons
Crawling on a tightrope
The bravest thing I have is hope

Daylight, save me
Daylight, save me
Tonight, tonight

Halogen, the lights will flicker
Incandescent burning lies
And the silence stands for nothing
Desperate I search the skies
Aching for a spark
Trembling in pitchest dark
Daylight, save me
Daylight, save me
Tonight, tonight

I'm not going to spoil the ending to the song, but above are the lyrics up to the bridge. People talk about "J"s per minute, but I don't think it matters because often it doesn't mean anything but marketing.  Few modern songs, or albums for that matter, have earned or mean their "J" count like this one.  The Light of Things Hoped For is one of the best Christian albums of all time, and a great album all around.  I highly recommend it, and I suggest anyone who likes their music honest and full of feeling should check it out immediately.

2003 Tooth & Nail
1. Prologue 1:12
2. The Sun Also Rises 3:15
3. Binary 3:54
4. Mercury 0:42
5. Enamel 3:32
6. Anastasia 4:18
7. Titan 3:35
8. Gemini 1:06
9. Estrella 4:37
10. Heart Still Beats 4:28
11. Babies Breath 4:07
12. I Fell Away 3:13
13. Recall 4:21
14. Atropos 1:08
15. Daylight 6:24
16. Irides of M 2:06


Jessica said...

I will never forget the FIF concert in Chicago shortly after Roper and the band found out about Matt's passing. Roper (or one of the others, but usually Roper) usually came out to speak a little bit or pray at the end of the concert. At this particular one, we were treated to a full-out sermon of sorts (I knew he was a sometimes pastor at Scum). No FIF concert ended without me bawling anyway (darn them!) because of these little talks and their always ending with END. That night I was there with a friend and her youth group (and had met up for the first time in person with some other friends I had "met" online at 5minutewalk's message board back in the day), so I was planning to be all adult-like, but I ended up sobbing worse than ever. ;~)

This particular album is strong and full of so much emotion that it's hard to dismiss even if you aren't a Christian. That friend mentioned above and I? Neither one of us can listen to "Daylight" without ending up sobbing. I try to sing along and my voice breaks down just as I do. It's potent.

I will also say that I've long known Culp was a gifted songwriter (I have a solo album of his based on the Psalms of Ascent from back when I was in college), but he shines on "Heart Still Beats." The progression of that ballad (since it definitely tells a story) is absolute poetry. The victim? The aggressor? The bystander? Every one is a human being. We are all fallen short -- as the song says, "on both sides of my door." I'm glad Dennis sang that song, because while I love Roper as a singer, Culp brings something to this song (possibly due to it being close to his heart as the songwriter) that I just don't think Roper could come close to. The words "anesthetic apathy, come take the pain away" have often worked their way in my brain when I have taken the easy way out from the world around me instead of engaging. I've been called on it many, many times.

Nicholas said...

After Estrella, I think having Reese sing the next song just wouldn't be possible. His "character" would have to be emotionally exhausted. I love that Dennis' appearance re-enforces the astronaut/spaceship feel. You've been hearing him sing before this in the background like he's been working in another capsule all this time, and the album is now changing POV. I love that moment, and it's also kind of a turning point in the feel of the whole record. Just awesome. I wish Dennis' songs on Anti-meridian were as strong as these two, but I'll get to that when I get another Internet connection.
And Daylight...I have never made it through that song without sobbing. Good grief, Reese.