The Call’s Cry in the Wilderness
by Brent Short
Brent Short is a free-lance writer who lives in Kensington, Maryland. This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 19-26, 1990, pp. 844-847, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The phrase "contemporary Christian music" evokes for many people visions of pious confection and Amy Grant; singers preaching to the converted in an extremely insular subculture. However, a few performers in recent years have brought to the industry a more substantial expression of feelings, thoughts and impressions that center on a seriously considered journey of faith.
Bob Dylan blazed the way in 1977 with a surprisingly overt statement of gospel faith in Slow Train Coming. Dylan has been weaving spiritual issues and observations into his songs ever since. Slow Train Coming forced both religious and secular critics to reevaluate his entire body of work in light of his startling turn toward Christianity. Dylan became the Christian music industry’s and the religious press’s new celebrity convert. Dylan, being Dylan, reacted predictably: after a couple more stabs at Christian rock, he went back to hiding his message in the cryptic, freewheeling lyrics that had led many to canonize him as a brilliant songwriter in the first place, Christian message or not.
Canadian folk-rocker Bruce Cockburn has also gained notoriety for shimmering poetic forays into both geopolitics (in the form of travelogue songs) and spirituality (celebrating nature and inner beauty in its multitudinous forms). Cockburn combines social protest and faith while confronting issues of poverty and violence in developing nations and celebrating the world’s diversity. The hugely successful Irish band U2 has taken a similar approach, using powerful music and images in its rock music with a social conscience. They followed their Grammy Award-winning album Joshua Tree with Rattle and Hum, a deliberate effort to dig deeper into American music roots (blues, gospel and country), recorded in Sun Studios where Elvis Presley got his start.
Closer to home, a California-based band that has been making a similar musical spiritual exploration, with very little notice or fanfare, is The Call. The Call’s music centers on lead singer Michael Been’s powerful vocals (characterized by the same huskiness and theatricality of the late great Jim Morrison’s), and his penetrating songwriting. The Call and performers like U2 and Bruce Cockburn have given the phrase "contemporary Christian music" new meaning and purpose. Been and The Call would probably find the term "Christian music" an awkward one to describe their work. Like that of Cockburn, U2 and others, The Call’s music reflects the beauty and joy of faith, as well as doubt and self-doubt, and the problems of hate and despair.
Unlike much of "contemporary Christian music," The Call uses no religious rhetoric and attempts no proselytizing. Their style is at once driving, confrontational, rhythm-oriented, vulnerable and self-deprecating. On stage they engage in very little banter between songs, nor do they use show-business tactics. Their records show not a trace of the self-righteous theologizing and Bible-quoting that ruins so much "Christian music."
Instead, the band has consciously chosen to use gripping and gritty images of conflict, cataclysm and deliverance, giving their music a genuinely provocative sense of the suffering, struggle and vision of their spiritual adventure. Been and keyboardist Jim Goodwin say this complexity reflects their belief that life contains extremes that cannot be addressed with a pat approach. Almost every one of their songs describes battles with the weapons of love and reconciliation, passing through death to life again in the span of a song. Been says his songwriting hammers away at the spiritual indifference in his own life, and his search for spiritual answers Sounding a little like a voice crying in the wilderness, he said, "I just keep writing the same song over and over." Typical of their approach is "Everywhere I Go," a song from their 1986 album Reconciled (Elektra) :
Raise me up, keep that promise that
Ease me down, -
Their songs express hope in terms of a promise and not ownership, unlike the pious "claiming of victory" that some contemporary Christian musicians extol. The Call seeks to strip away false certainties and hopes, allowing for glimpses of real hope in which, as one song declares, "the language of the heart takes hold." Been seems to be trying to place listeners in the context of his own dilemmas and crises. "I think the best thing you can say about a song -- whatever experience I had writing it -- [is that] all the feelings are so universal," Been remarks. "Experiences everyone goes through, just different circumstances, different names, but it’s all similar. If you can write a song [to which] someone can go, ‘I relate that to this part of my life’ -- then you’ve really done it. That’s the best you can do. The most you can expect is to spark somebody’s life that they’ve got going." Raised in Oklahoma, having sung in radio and television shows since he was a little boy, Been hauntingly evokes his youth in a song named for his home state, about a dustbowl twister that wreaks spiritual and physical havoc upon a town. A fundamentalist preacher calls down fire and brimstone amid a vivid description of impending doom before the dawn breaks again. Recorded completely live in the studio, with only one guitar overdub, the spiraling velocity of the song’s turmoil and tension practically recreates the feel of a real twister ripping through one’s speakers. This kind of emotion and energy makes The Call one of the best rock and roll bands around.
Behind their dark iconoclastic fervor is a simple love of music and its power to heal and transform. That healing might first require experiencing the self-paralysis Been describes in the presence of his apocalyptic whirlwind, or simply the painful tearing down of old personal barriers, trying to get a grander scheme and purpose in the process, as described in a song called "The Woods" from the album Into the Woods (Elektra) :
Painful to see love without action
Thousands of plans, I’ve made many
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In almost every song, The Call somehow forges the personal experience of hurt and anger into an instrument of healing. Rock music began as a musical expression of thoughts and feelings that society deemed subversive. Using rock’s intense energy and direct immediacy (be it expressing a personal or a social critique), Been stares anger and hurt in the face, confronts it and directs it into a more productive direction.
In "Sanctuary," The Call addresses the dislocation of war by looking at life in a refugee camp through the eyes of both a refugee worker and a refugee. Both are far from home and both wonder what happened to their lives; the chorus rings out a response, "We’re all the same here, you and I." In a "there-but-for-the-grace-of-God" song, Been attempts to stand in the shoes of the homeless, the prisoner and the unfortunate soldier caught up in the futility and absurdity of war. An earlier album, Modern Romans (Mercury) , is an album-length picture of the assault upon the spirit in our violent hollow culture.
Coming from a completely different set of circumstances and musical experience, Goodwin expresses the substance of this band’s lyrics and its spontaneity without resorting to the trappings of a big production on stage. Having joined The Call in 1984, Goodwin has brought a beneficial melodic flair to the band; for example, his use of cascading synthesizers in an ode to faithful perseverance and struggle, "I Still Believe":
I’ve been in a cave for forty days
I’m flat on my back out at sea,
"I played in this band [Sparks] for two years that was just this goofy pop band with funny clever lyrics -- never anything remotely spiritual or deep in any way. Goodwin remembers. "It was just sheer entertainment music. We played to 5,000 people in Los Angeles. And these kids would be just jumping up and down, screaming and having the best time. It didn’t do anything for me to see this. It was fun seeing them having fun. There’s a difference between that, and being on stage playing a song like ‘I Still Believe.’ There’s very few bands that go up and play the way we do. We don’t do anything. We just go up there and play with as much emotion as we can. That’s part of why we do it that way. We don’t want to distract people from the lyrics, from the music itself."
So they offer gorgeous songs with gorgeous melodies, and a deeper and deeper appreciation for, as one song puts it, "the life that goes unseen." Good enough that Time named Into the Woods one of the best rock albums of 1987. Their 1989 release on MCA, Let The Day Begin (which received wide commercial airplay), focuses on intimacy, communication and personal transformation with a unique force, something admirers of The Call have come to expect and appreciate.
From the very first song on their first album to their present work, The Call’s music has reflected a furious understanding of the evidence of sin and grace. As one of the songs from Let The Day Begin declares, "You can’t escape the reach of love." With the new songs for a new album already well on their way to completion, and several well-known names being discussed as possible producers (including Peter Gabriel, Daniel Lanois, T-Bone Burnett and the Edge of U2) , the future seems to hold bright possibilities for The Call.
Not willing to cater to a superficially defined contemporary Christian music market, The Call will have to take their chances like everyone else in the mainstream record market, where formulaic music and demographics-concerned record companies prevail. Refusing to conform to the security and comfortable clichés of the "Christian music scene, The Call have carved out no easy niche for themselves. To do otherwise would not complement the personality of this band, or the intent of’ its members. Reflecting on the commercial aspect of the record industry and the place that The Call’s captivating, spiritually introspective music might have in the future, Been remarks, "We don’t expect music to owe us something, owe us a living. I never looked at it that way. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have a hit record.. That’d be great, but it has to come out of us naturally."