Not your average Christian music

by Matt Komprood

“Evergreen” by Audrey Assad. Released 2018.

As an Evangelical kid in the 1990s, I grew up listening to Christian music. The first CD I ever bought was by a group called “Big Tent Revival.” Before that, I wore out cassettes of Steven Curtis Chapman and Petra. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve seen the Newsboys in concert. Somewhere along the line, I noticed a pattern in the songwriting of most Christian groups. The formula usually goes something like this: problem + Jesus = resolution: I had a problem, but then I prayed/realized Jesus was in control/trusted in God, and now the problem is gone.

If you’ve tired of this repetition, then Audrey Assad’s songwriting will be a welcome surprise. Although her Catholic faith comes through loud and clear in her latest effort, Evergreen, the expression is much more nuanced and deeper. Evergreen opens with the central paradox of the Faith:

God on a cross, who would have thought
This place looks nothing like Eden
But there is no death, here in the ruins
This is the land of the breathing

If there was ever a time in the Church for these words, perhaps it is now. In a time when music is written in a formulaic mode, the poetic nature of Assad’s lyrics is a welcome refreshment, and a reminder that everything need not be right with the world for our faith to be strong. We cannot plumb the depths of God, and many times we don’t understand why things are the way they are.

Active since 2008, Assad has been leading the vanguard of a new wave of Christian music since being discovered by Christian performing artist and writer Matt Maher. A convert to the Catholic Church from Fundamentalism, this album announces the end of the honeymoon of her faith and a move, perhaps, into deeper waters. As a convert, I’m familiar with the journey. Once the Church is discovered, there is the tendency to run to her with arms wide open, thinking you’ve found the answer to every problem. Later, one realizes, that although the truth is closer, problems and questions still exist, and the search for God is not over.

Evergreen, her 10th recording, sees Assad emerge fully into the world of electronic music. Her first albums featured a typical band setup with her masterful piano playing at center stage. This album features a much more contemporary, electronic sound, although this in no way distracts from the contemplative and prayerful nature of her music. I once heard a musician muse that all Christian music sounds like whatever the secular music world was doing 10 years ago. That is not a problem here.

Although Assad’s piano remains central, the overall sound of the album is fresh and new. We are also treated to a magnificent singer at the height of her powers; Assad could sing the phone book and make it captivating, but we’re doubly fortunate that she’s also an extremely gifted lyricist. The best description of blues music I’ve ever heard was “sitting and enjoying your troubles for a while.” This is perhaps a better description of Assad’s songwriting than comparing it to most other Christian songwriting, especially what is heard on the local Christian radio stations. Assad knows that God is there but is still allowing herself to acknowledge that her feelings aren’t always in the same place as her faith, and that’s ok. As she sings in “Drawn to You:”

No clear emotions keeping me safe at night
Only your presence, like a candle light.

Ten years on from her conversion, Evergreen was written in the place that St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul,” during a period where she was wondering where God was taking her next, in a world with little place for Christian artists, much less Catholic ones. Many of the themes in Evergreen deal with the renewal of faith and of looking for God when the world seems bleak and formidable, and the God who created it seems unknowable. In the song “Irrational Season,” she attempts to reconcile the difficulty of reconciling the majesty of God with our feeble understanding of him:

But the light is wider here
Out on the edge of reason
And Love burns bright and clear
Out where I cannot seize Him

The theme of Evergreen is coming to terms with embracing a God whom we can never fully understand. There is more room inside God than outside. Understanding this is difficult but reminds me of walking into St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time and having the uncanny feeling that the ceiling was further away than the sky outside.

Matt Komprood is the business manager at St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center in Grand Forks.