This is tricky.
This is what I’d term Christian rock music, Christian worship music rocking out. In Christian circles (especially but not solely the US), Chris Tomlin is one of the foremost proponents of this genre and a veteran of the Christian music scene. He generally sells by the bucket load and Burning Lights has hit the number one spot in the US Mainstream Billboard Chart, selling 73,000 copies in its first week.
Why is this tricky? I’ll be honest. I’m a Christian but I’ve never been particularly keen on Christian rock. I don’t really know why but I’ve always cringed ever so slightly at the category. Maybe it’s because way back when I was growing up in church all that was available were the old style hymns and what is now termed modern and contemporary in Christian music hadn’t even been thought of. Even when the Christian contemporary music scene was in the throes of birth I still wasn’t keen. In my youth and ever since, I listened to much mainstream and indie ‘secular’ rock music and loved it and still do. The closest I came to Christian rock was U2 and a taster of Martyn Joseph who I would have termed as Christian rock-lite and possibly more folk than anything else (others might disagree). The times I did listen to actual Christian rock music I was embarrassed. It just sounded badly produced, ill at ease with itself and, frankly, out of its depth.
So now I’m here reviewing Chris Tomlin’s latest offering, Burning Lights and I confess I was sceptical. Well you know what? I love it!
I’ll admit that I haven’t listened to any contemporary Christian music for a long time, other than the occasionally curious browse through some samples of Christian bands on iTunes.
Burning Lights is well produced, confident, affirming, uplifting. This is worship music to be proud of and not embarrassed by. This is a cd I could reach for as easily as I reach for Muse or Amy MacDonald or any number of other bands. Of course anyone who isn’t a Christian probably won’t like it because of its blatantly Christian message but nothing here is ‘preached at you’. The whole album is rife with Biblical imagery, teaching, reflection, praise…and it draws you in rather than turns you off. It causes you to ponder and reflect rather than reach for the ‘stop’ button. This is important for me because, as I say, I come at this not as a Christian music convert or a fan who will give it top marks regardless of its quality just because it’s Christian. Believe me, if I thought it was rubbish I’d say so. But it’s not. It’s good. It’s been years, literally, since I bought a Christian cd and I wouldn’t hesitate to buy this.
It’s hard to pick stand out tracks because they’re all pretty good, although Awake My Soul, Whom Shall I Fear, Lay Me Down, God’s Great Dance Floor (I can imagine that title if not the song lyrics on a Chemical Brothers cd!) and White Flag are stand out tracks. If I had to choose singles to be released those would easily be top choices. Whether they are actually present or not, I can hear hints of Coldplay and U2 here, with catchy tunes and choruses galore. There are also several collaborations to keep things fresh.
There is a reworking of the traditional hymn Crown Him which works well, showing how a musical reworking, whilst keeping the traditional familiar tune intact, can breathe new life into an old favourite. Sovereign proclaims God’s providential guiding of His people through good times and bad, while Countless Wonders rests in the amazing beauty of God displayed in all His creation.
The simplicity of Thank You God for Saving Me, a collaboration with Phil Wickham, is a testament to God’s saving grace, all the more potent for its lyrical and musical simplicity.
The album ends with the softer tones of Shepherd Boy, “I’m no hero of the faith, I’m not as strong as once I thought I was…Come and lay your troubles down, cause love is breaking through…”. This is a good way to draw the whole experience to a conclusion, leaving us with reflection and a reminder of our own weakness and God’s love to sustain and lift us.
If there’s one thing that I noticed a lack of in listening to this, it’s pain. There are intimations of our inability to conquer through our own strength in White Flag, and acceptance of the fragmentation of our own lives coming together under God’s sovereignty in Sovereign, but on the whole the album errs on the side of life affirmation and lifting the human spirit through praise to its Creator (if you can call that an ‘err’). I didn’t find alot that, to quote The Verve’s classic Bittersweet Symphony, could “recognise the pain in me” but that’s okay, because there’s plenty of other music out there, Christian and non Christian, that does just that, and sometimes it’s good to have our pain subsumed within and redeemed by the simple act of praise and worship.
I suspect I’ll play it for several days then it will sit on the shelf while something else gets an airing (currently Muse’s 2nd Law) before being brought out again. But it will be brought out again, unlike some other albums and, while it sits on the shelf for awhile, its songs will remain in my head, not as irritants but as assets to life affirmation.
Coming from a Christian who hasn’t been the biggest fan of contemporary Christian music, that’s saying something 🙂
Thanks for reading.