I’ve heard hymns sound staunch, anachronistic, pharisaical, sappy, and above all comically glorious. In pop culture the singing of hymns represents a special brand of puritanical escapism and a retreat to “the good old days” of hard-headed faith.
I’ve also heard hymns sound sleazy, shallow, frivolously syncopated and sloppily paired with an alternative rock band (only churchgoers know this horrific reincarnation of the classics).
Between these two evils, I choose the hard-headed version, as it is at least slightly dignified.
Mostly, I conclude that the hymn played and sung with subtlety and meekness of style is best of all. That way, no brazen human calculations drown out the sweet poetry and theology that I love, that feeds me.
Jon Green’s latest volume of hymns, however, belongs to some new and exciting realm of possibility. It’s not that he avoids tradition or innovation; he doesn’t dodge the mistakes that others have made with interpreting hymns. Instead, it’s as if he were the first to pull out the dust-covered hymnal in a hundred years. And as he reads these songs, sings them, studies them, he is unburdened by the creative strain that they’ve undergone. In them he sees heart and logic; he doesn’t worry about dressing them up. He sees something both godly and human in them, something universally resonant, and something essentially folk-oriented. His variations on these works are so true, that although I’ve never heard them before, they often become the hymn for me; they are written back into musical and spiritual tradition, they are revealed like artifacts.
It’s been a long journey for Jon to live comfortably with hymns. He’s argued with them, fell for them, negotiated with them, and occasionally bashed their brains out. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Volumes I and II started solidifying his approach, but still wavered widely in terms of style, production, and arrangement. They represent his appreciation for hymns, vocal experimentation, folk music, electronic instrumentation, minimalism, polyrhythm, texture, and drama.
Volume III benefits from all of these realms of interest, but they serve together now, to always support the ideas and impressions that Jon wants to communicate. And the album inhales and exhales beautifully, weaving subtlety and energy throughout. Take for instance the re-voiced “Come Thou Fount.” With no awkward stretch of the sound pallet, we are led from gentle plucking rhythms, to a fervent pulse and tasteful trills, to triumphant stamping of bass and crunching guitars. Such thoughtful, organic progressions appear in many of the songs, showcasing Jon’s knack for orchestration and patient development of themes.
The album is both expressive and kind to the listener at a level that Jon has never before achieved. Jon has made the kind of progress as a musician that P.T. Anderson made as a filmmaker from Magnolia to There Will Be Blood. All of the dissonant, spectacular skills that made Magnolia thrilling and confusing made There Will Be Blood articulate, singular, and comfortably earth-bound.
The album satisfies with robust, forthright emotion in “Such Great Love” with its crystal strings and proud horns, and stretches the listener with dissonance and longing in “Two Families,” which opens with a purely auditory “wake-up call” and moves into a bare, pleading shape that sticks to the gut. The album is tribal, folksy, and it rocks in that spacious, gritty way that’s been largely lost in mainstream music, especially in tracks like “Come Thou Fount” and “Just As I Am.”
There are also plenty of pure originals which escape classification. “Joseph” is both hilariously colloquial and thematically profound. The instrumental based on 2 Corinthians provides space and strong instrumental communication. In “3 Years,” acoustic sound and computed manipulations team up nicely to create a meaningful atmospheric space for a striking vocal statement.
The melodies are surpassingly strong whether they are traditional or original, and Jon’s vocal interpretations border between birdsong and gravel. The instrumentals and production are smart and warmly blended. Jon has brought new weight and joy to an old tradition, not only re-clothing but re-embodying the life of hymns.
–Brian James, 2010