Back in 2011, my friends and I went to the great Cain’s Ballroom venue in Tulsa to experience David Crowder Band on their final tour. It was an incredible show; Crowder and his band seemed incapable of putting on anything but incredible shows. But equally as impressive was one of the bands that opened for them, Gungor, in support of their acclaimed Beautiful Things from 2010. Michael & Lisa Gungor’s band was reduced to maybe four or five members for that tour. I would see them with their full ensemble (again at Cain’s) after the release of their next album, Ghosts upon the Earth, but even stripped down they made memorable music. It seemed appropriate that they were on DCB’s last tour- the greatest Christian band was stepping down just as the next great Christian band was on the rise.
I haven’t seen them live since that second show, but I imagine it’s a different experience now. After Ghosts upon the Earth received praise in 2011, they changed directions for the next album. 2013’s I Am Mountain was far less concerned with traditional styles of worship music. As much as Ghosts upon the Earth experimented and expanded upon tradition, I Am Mountain was that much all over the place. They mixed and matched genres, combining baroque pop, bluegrass, indie rock, electronic, even embracing Auto-Tune on some songs, but these disparate sounds never cohered into one vision. The message seemed a little directionless as well, drifting from concrete biblical truths and exploring a more mystical side of our connections with God. This was all fine; I Am Mountain just seemed like the album of a band in transition, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There was still a lot of good music on Mountain, even if the album as a whole didn’t hold up with their first two.
But 2014 was different. 2014 was the year the zeitgeist (well, the online Christian zeitgeist, which…yeah) turned against Gungor. Michael, in blog posts and interviews, began espousing controversial beliefs and doubts. For example, he posited that he was unable to believe in the great flood or a historical Adam and Eve. And he got LIT UP. It didn’t help that he and Lisa began associating and collaborating with public figures who came with controversies of their own. They began a group called The Liturgists, which included Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans among its number, and many Christians, myself included, began to tear down the favored status we had previously bestowed on Gungor. There were some good, measured responses from sources like Relevant and Christ and Pop Culture, but there were also a lot of histrionics and a lot of clickbait.
Now it’s 2015, and Gungor is releasing an ambitious project called One Wild Life, which is a trilogy of albums spread out over a year. The first, One Wild Life: Soul, was released this month, and it’s breathtakingly good. Gone is the messiness of I Am Mountain. But they haven’t reverted back to traditional worship music by any stretch of the imagination. No, Soul is an introspective pop record. There are still experimental flourishes, but those have always been around on Gungor albums.
The primary characteristic I’d assign to Soul is quietness. “Light” is a humble celebration of the Gungors’ daughter, born last year with Down syndrome. “Us for Them” seems like it should be a huge anthem, and it’s definitely an anthem, with “hey!”s and “ho!”s, but Gungor is holding back, teaching us to turn the other cheek. “We Are Stronger” is the kind of song that would have crescendoed into a chorus of ohhhhhs before, like “The Earth Is Yours” on Beautiful Things. But the climax on “We Are Stronger” is a subdued Michael chanting about all the lives that matter: black, female, soldiers, the unborn, homosexuals, fundamentalists. It’s a sober reminder of the mob-like hate that marginalizes all kinds of people- including, last year, the Gungors.
Full disclosure: I didn’t expect to like One Wild Life: Soul. I was turned off by the moves the Gungors made last year. I was upset at the company they kept. I wanted them to hold to my understanding of biblical doctrine and conform to my understanding of what the Christian life should look like. But the Internet has a way of exposing the sinfulness in our immediate reactions, and, in hindsight, the Gungors never said anything that contradicted the basic tenets of faith in Christ outright.
I imagine if I sat down for dinner with them, we would disagree on some things. But when you listen to the lyrics on One Wild Life: Soul and you expect controversy, you realize that every song is…right. These songs are about many things- their daughter, savoring life, respecting others- but the majority of them point to Christ and His glory. The final song, “Vapor”, is a gorgeous meditation on the indescribable, unfathomable nature of God. They released it last year as The Liturgists, and I dismissed it because of its association with that group. Listening to it now, with the benefit of time’s humility, it confirms this for me: Gungor is still the best.