By BEN WRIGHT
What is Christian music? How is it different from music made by Christians? Is it different from church music? And why is it usually quite bad? As a worship leader, these are the sorts of questions I like to bore people to death with. However, like most theological quandaries, such questions can be answered simply with a combination of crudeness and arrogance.
So here goes: church music is congregational. Music made by Christians is self-explanatory (U2, Sufjan Stevens, Kings of Mumford or whatever.) And Christian music is bad. Bad, bad, bad. To quote Hank Hill, “You’re not making Christianity better, you’re just making rock ’n’ roll worse.” For a time, Delirious were the exception to that rule. And then they proved it.
Fifteen years ago Delirious released Mezzamorphis. A beautiful, inventive and edgy album, it had British Christians either bopping along or getting their knickers in a twist. Not many years before, Delirious had evolved out of a local youth worship scene with Hugh Grant haircuts and a faux-folk sound. Going full time in 1997, they’d plugged in their guitars and begun to forge a sound that was both Christian and, well, contemporary. The album King Of Fools did well and their single Deeper – a preppy, poppy, praisey nugget of a tune – made the UK Top 20. British Christians had never had a Creed or a Switchfoot, so naturally we took this as a sign of the end times and the coming revival.
But Mezzamorphis was different. It was moody. Jesus wasn’t mentioned by name. The word “hell” was used on one song, causing it to be banned from a smattering of Christian stores. All this ignored the fact that it was a freaking great record. Elements of dance and techno (which like Delirious, were rooted in the UK long before crossing the Atlantic) merged with boisterous guitars, pounding drums and intelligent basslines. The lyrics are thoughtful odes to the insecurities and contradictions of an honest faith. “Ignite a battered flame that once was bright”; “I’ve walked down a road where the devil’s been”; “I’m on a mezzanine floor, never been here before.”
As a 17-year old (with a Hugh Grant haircut and a faux-folk sound) I was blown away. My musical tastes had always lived in two worlds; the awkward acoustic world of Christian praise and the devilish world of Radiohead et al. Mezzamorphis (drum roll) had a foot in each world without (second drum roll) selling either short – what was possible had been opened up for me. I could lend Mezzamorphis to my non-Christian friends and they probably wouldn’t use it as an ashtray.
And indeed, sinners did like it. Q Magazine acclaimed the album’s “anthemic melodies” from a band who (for Christians) were a rarity – “neither Celtic nor crap.” But my youth minister wasn’t so sure. “Why wouldn’t they use their fame and power to say the name of Jesus on the radio?” “Well … hmmm … good point,” I vexed.
Mezzamorphis vexed a lot of people. In a time before social media, there just isn’t the Googlable evidence available to fully document the ranting and raised eyebrows that ensued. One Christian review (archived online) praised the album for “honest powerful tunes” but warned of a lack of “flag-waving type songs with obvious messages.” “Some people think if you haven’t mentioned the word Jesus, you’ve completely lost your faith,” said keyboardist Tim Jupp in an interview.
“‘Can a band that believe in Jesus play good rock-n-roll?” asked lead singer Martin Smith in a letter to UK fans on the eve of the album’s June release in America. Smith was reacting to “a perception by some that we have sold out.” The accusation was that Delirious had piggy-backed their way into the UK charts on the back of the faithful’s buying power, but had forgotten their roots and were poised to ditch Jesus in the pursuit of recognition. Can Christians make good secular music? “Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that it is nearly impossible and creates a big tension between the two camps,” lamented Smith.
Delirious were “misunderstood”, “caught between two worlds” and had “opened up a gulf” between themselves and the church, wrote Smith in his autobiography. They reacted with bi-polar zeal. 2000’s Glo was straight up Praise and Worship. Jesus was back, even if the folk remained forsaken. However, 2001’s Audio Lessonover was weird, wonderful and even more godless than Mezzamorphis. (Multiple time signatures per song; lyrics like “You don’t have to believe to belong”; and a B-side that is rather obviously a satire on George W Bush). Christians balked, talking smack at dinner parties and refusing the buy the song sheets.
Luckily for Delirious, Mezzamorphis and Audio Lessonover hardly made a dent in the US But it wasn’t long before Glo’s My Glorious was being belted out by American youth leaders looking for a good message with a British accent. Whether by design or default Delirious got the message and started knocking out pandering tunes at a brisk clip. World Service, Mission Bell, and Kingdom Of Comfort sold like hot cakes and hit all the right buttons for evangelicals. But they sorely lacked the sincerity and creativity of earlier recordings. “We’ve become our own cover band,” deprecated Smith at one concert I attended. The reality was sadder – they’d become their own caricature. They’d become Coldplay.
Q picked up on it: “Their isolation is shifting them towards polished earnest-period U2”; “the quintet have seemingly given up on non-believers.” I felt they had given up on me too. Now in my twenties, shorn of bangs and burning out fast on the conveyor belt that produces youth ministers, I felt caught in an echo chamber with no way out. Delirious had cashed in and were now adding to the echoes rather than pointing to the exit.
Did they sell out? Probably not. Maybe they just got older, losing that creative naivety that exhibits such a cruel bias toward youth. Besides, sinners weren’t exactly tearing their clothes and asking “what must I do to be saved” in response to contemplating the storm-in-a-teacup tensions bevelled into Mezzamorphis. UK radio stations had always greeted them with a combination of suspicion and hostility, even refusing to play them at times. At one point, Jupp accused the BBC of cynicism and arrogance (Audio Lessonover is a cheeky anagram of “Radio One Loves Us.”) For a band who now had wives, kids and mortgages to think about, America must have seemed like the promised land.
So back to Hank Hill. For a season, Delirious bridged church and culture, making rock better and Christianity no worse. Nevertheless, Delirious practiced what The Times called “covert evangelism” and neither heathen nor hardliner approved. As the mezzanine floor cracked, Delirious parachuted to the safety of Contemporary Christian Music, which is (how shall we put it?) … not Celtic. The mezzanine floor is now a glass ceiling. And that’s okay. We’ll live to fight another day.
As for me, I’ve ditched the guitar. I’ve abandoned the pandering. I’m no longer a youth minister. I’ve now got a side parting. And I’ve just bought a drum machine. I’m messing around with liturgy again. Christian music will never be cool, prophetic or even necessary; but Church music just might be all three. I still want to go deeper. And like the brave d:boys of yesteryear, I’m not backing down.
Ben Wright worships and writes in Austin Texas. He secretly likes World Service.