In the early days of the hymn resurgence among young (largely evangelical) Christians, only a handful of groups were making records. Red Mountain Music was one of those entities. In recent years, there’s been a kind of diaspora of the original Red Mountain gang. Clint Wells is now in Nashville, making records with people and still setting old hymns to new music. Brian T. Murphy is in New York, heading up New York Hymns. And for several years now, one of the early leaders of Red Mountain, Karl Digerness, has been in San Francisco at City Church. Fragments of Grace is the first official album of Digerness’ City Hymns crew, combining songs from the Red Mountain era alongside new material, including old hymns to new music as well as some original text-writing. City Hymns beautifully carries on the spirit of serious, reverential, meaningful musical settings of theologically rich texts that we’ve come to know and appreciate from Red Mountain Music.
Fragments of Grace straddles the divide between folk/acoustic and classical instrumentation, with a sprinkling of other musical elements, providing some not-so-standard sounds and voicings as compared to a typical “worship album.” Its texts are theologically sound and quite inspiring, being a mixture of old hymn texts and new material. City Hymns is obviously a church-based enterprise because of how singable and accessible all the material is for local congregations. All the songs are great, but the ones I’m most inclined to incorporate into my local congregation’s repertoire are “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart” and “Holy Hands.”
Fragments of Grace could be characterized as a “folk-orchestral” album, with hints of country (the pedal steel on songs like “Come Every Soul By Sin Oppressed”) and electronica (the programmed beat and reversed sonic flickers on “Out of the Depths”). The album, furthermore, is full of the juxtaposition of old and new. You see it in the first two tracks. Track One, “Prelude,” offers a beautiful instrumental setting (complete with accordion and some chilling string harmonics!) of the most popular and lasting tune to William Cowper’s 1772 hymn, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” (tune name: “Cleansing Fountain”). Track Two is the same hymn, sung to Digerness’s new tune, originally heard on Red Mountain’s record, Depth of Mercy (2003). The juxtaposition of old and new shows a respectful deference to past tradition while propelling church music forward. However, the side-by-side placing of old and new extends to instrumentation, as well. Throughout the record is a balance of classical instruments, such as strings and horns, with folk and rock instruments. There is a dominant use of strings throughout, because of the apparent association of Digerness with the Magik*Magik Orchestra in San Francisco.
The arrangement choices of these instruments delicately weave that which is expected and that which surprises. One of the more exquisite musical moments occurs about four minutes into “How Long, O Lord,” when slippery strings and nearly squealing horns, in a series of seventh chords, lift the lamentation of the song from earth to heaven, at once consonant and dissonant (much like biblical lamentation).
Much like the work of Keith and Kristyn Getty, I find the melodies of Digerness to be the kind that are beautiful in and of themselves. They have a melismatic contour which balances complexity and interest with predictability and accessibility. This is best exemplified in songs like “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” “Satisfied,” and “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart.”
In keeping with much of the musical spirit of Red Mountain Music, Fragments of Grace is not an up-beat album. Most everything is mellow, rich, and contemplative. Even the up-tempo backbeat of “Come Every Soul By Sin Oppressed” has a subdued quality to it.
As I’ve said before, it is often (though not always) the case that when a church musician is in dialogue with the Church’s rich hymn tradition, he or she often stands on more sure theological footing. This is certainly the case for Fragments of Grace, which is at once God-exalting, self-abasing, Christ-centered, and gospel-drenched. Take, for instance, the second stanza of “Satisfied,” from the pen of Clara T. Williams in 1875:
Feeding on the filth around me, ‘till my strength was almost gone
Longed my soul for something better, only still to hunger on
Hallelujah! He has found me, the One my soul so long has craved!
Jesus satisfies all my longings, through his blood I now am saved
That City Hymns comes from a more “liturgical” angle is evident not only because many of the songs are old hymns, but because the song selections betray an awareness of the church calendar (such as the themes of Pentecost in “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart” and “Gracious Spirit, Dove Divine”), a high view of the sacraments (“The Feast”), and a usage of more standard service music (“Gloria Patri”).
In setting old hymns to new music a tension exists, because old through-composed forms don’t often fit into the modern verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus structure of today’s songs. Attempts at bridging this gap often drive purists crazy, because one can destroy the integrity of the author’s intent for the hymn by adding to its text or manipulating its structure. In my opinion, this move can be made well in service of both the hymn and the Church. Such is the case for “Holy Hands,” whose verses are from Horatius Bonar’s 1861 hymn, “Not What My Hands Have Done,” and whose chorus is by Digerness. The chorus sits on the end of the original hymn’s trajectory, summarized well by Luther’s articulation of the Christian as simul justus et peccator (simultaneously saint and sinner):
These guilty hands are raised, filthy rags are all I bring
And I have come to hide beneath Your wings
These holy hands are raised, washed in the fountain of Your grace
And now I wear Your righteousness.
As we lift our hands to God in praise, we observe them to be at once “holy” and “guilty.” O, for more “hand-raising” in worship which grasps this reality!
The “heart-melter award,” though, goes to “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart.” Not a time goes by when I sing this song that I am not struck by something new in the text. Verses two, three, and five are my favorites:
I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of the veil of clay,
No angel vision, no op’ning skies;
But take the dimness of my soul away.
Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh;
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear.
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh,
Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.
Teach me to love Thee as Thine angels love,
One holy passion filling all my frame;
The presence of Thy descended Dove,
My heart an altar, and Thy love the flame.
Every once in a while, in a hymn re-setting, a writer strikes gold in their wedding of text and tune. This happened with James Ward’s setting of Toplady’s “Rock of Ages,” and it has happened here, as well. Beauty and “fittingness” can get awfully subjective in this arena, but, for me, this musical setting of “Spirit of God” beats its old tune (“Morecambe”), tugging at places in the heart the previous setting didn’t venture.
In sum, if you’re looking for a typical “worship album,” don’t look here. Both musically and textually, this is off the beaten path. But if you’re ready for something beautiful, lasting, and inspiring, visit City Hymns’ site and pick up a copy. A complete set of all the charts and lead sheets to the songs from Fragments of Grace can be obtained for free here, as well. Support City Hymns, so that Fragments becomes only the first in a long string of recorded offerings, to the glory of God and the blessing of His Church.