Review of The Water and the Blood, by Sojourn Music

Zac HicksAlbum Reviews, Convergence of Old and New in Worship, Hymns Movement News & Reviews1 Comment

The folks at Sojourn Music continue to lead modern church music down a different path.  Each album seems to be more aggressively their own, pushing outward the narrow boundaries of contemporary/modern worship by experimenting with new and old sounds and styles.  The Water and the Blood was produced with a different set of values than the industry standard—in analog, as a whole, and with a vinyl option.  Producer Mike Cosper explains,

While still reflective of a variety of moods and styles that occur at Sojourn gatherings, it’s a recording with a sound, a sense of space, something that’s meant to be listened to as an album, as a whole. It’s meant to be a listening experience, and vinyl, with its added depth, warmth, and presence, has a way of conveying that experience like nothing else.1

The album was recorded largely in Bloomington, IN, with Paul Mahern, who has worked with Over the Rhine, The Fray, John Mellencamp, and others.  Tracks were laid down on tape, not bits and bytes, trading digitized perfection for human warmth.  Herein lies another subtle challenge to the value-system of contemporary/modern worship.  It makes a theological statement about authenticity, humanness, imperfection, and grace.

The Water and the Blood is installment number two of their ongoing quest to re-give the hymns of Isaac Watts to the Church.  The first installment, Over the Grave, was a masterpiece, as well.  “The Water and the Blood” appears to be a phrase codified over time in English hymnody.  It is perhaps most famous in Augustus Toplady’s “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” whose opening verse reads, “Let the water and the blood / from Thy riven side which flowed / be of sin the double-cure / cleanse me from its guilt and power.”  But the lesser-known hymn of Watts, “Lord, We Confess Our Numerous Faults,” which, adapted, appears as the title track, contains the phrase which predates Toplady.  Ultimately, the wording belongs to Scripture (1 John 5:8), but English hymn-writers have given this pairing a strong significance.  And, now, so has Sojourn Music.  We might consider “the water and the blood” poetic shorthand for the entire gospel story, and, given the album’s content, it is a fitting title.

SUMMARY

Musically, The Water and the Blood is superb.  Its production is fresh and original, and its diversity of style is so off the grid of a typical “worship album” that it seems other-worldly.  Textually, one simply can’t find fault with lyrics that pull from Isaac Watts, one of the most formidable theologian-pastor-songwriters of all time.  Sojourn could spend the rest of their musical years retuning Watts’ texts, and the Church would be incredibly blessed for it.  In my opinion, not every song is fit for congregational singing, but the two I’d be especially inclined to bring into my local church’s repertoire are “The Water and the Blood” and “Let Your Blood Plead for Me.”

MUSICALITY

If you have narrow tastes and appreciations, this album is not for you.  If you’re looking for modern worship’s standard sound, this project will be a disappointment.  If, however, you have a taste for blues, folk rock, country, bluegrass, soul, and Americana, you will love The Water and the Blood.  The album bears the hand-print of Mike Cosper’s subtle, soulful, and artistic guitar style—especially electric and lap and pedal steel, though he plays dobro and mandolin as well (!).  The guitar solos throughout aren’t necessarily always flashy, but they are thoughtful, melodic, and musical.  I am thinking particularly of the three songs I will mention next.

One of the first things to note is the album’s use of blues to convey confession and lament.  I have longed to see the intersection of this genre with this biblical expression.  Blues is uniquely suited to convey the hope-tinged anguish of the lamentations of David and Watts.  From the recurring electric line (and complementary bass line) in “From Deep Distress,” to the descending tremolo guitar line and soulful vocals in “Deep in Our Hearts,” to the heavy joy of “Death Has Lost its Sting,” Sojourn shows how powerful a song can be when music and text are so thoughtfully wedded.

The vocals are likewise remarkable.  I sense some different hues of control and expressiveness in Rebecca Dennison’s voice, especially on “The Water and the Blood,” which is a favorite track of mine.  The fact that six additional vocalists (Jamie Barnes, Rebecca Elliot, Kristen Gilles, Brooks Ritter, Megan Shaffer, and Chad Watson) sing on the album is a testimony to the vision of community music-making and anti-rock-star vision for artistry that Sojourn has grown to champion.  (Though not every church has the human resources to do this, I would add.  Sojourn is very blessed in this regard.)

One of the marks of creativity in songwriting for the local church is in the careful balance of innovation and singability.  “Compel My Heart to Sing” is a great example of this.  The melody is melismatic and easy to sing, and the music beneath is far from bland.  The chorus’s progression (C, C/E, Fm, Bb, Eb, Ab, G) is beautiful and different.

“Let the Seventh Angel Sound” is a fun arrangement that sounds like it came from the brains of Paul Simon and James Taylor.  The organ is calibrated to a mellow, almost whistle-like setting.  The clean, loose guitar playing, coupled with Barnes’ smooth vocal style, is engaging.  I wonder, though, how fitting the text’s intensity is with the song’s easygoing nature.  I’d love for Barnes to comment and bring insight to that.

Brooks Ritter has written a beautiful new setting of “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”  The music brings out certain hues from the text absent in its more triumphant (and equally beautiful) setting (“St. Anne,” by William Croft, 1708).  Ritter’s tune is a soulful country ballad that highlights the comfort Watts probably intended to evoke in his beloved text.

Some might think that the musical setting of “Let Your Blood Plead For Me” is too playful for the gravity of its content, with its on-beat, honky-tonk-style piano and interlude progression (I, III7, vi, I, IV, II7, V, V7).  I find its light-heartedness an interesting take on the hymn (see comments on the text below).  The Scriptures speak about the human response to salvation being our “skipping like calves” (Malachi 4:2), and this music surprisingly and tastefully colors the text in that direction.

THEOLOGICAL CONTENT

As noted above, the first thing that one should notice about this album, textually, is the amount of verse devoted to the under-used biblical expression of lament.  Verse 1 of “Death Has Lost Its Sting” cries:

My God, how many are my fears
How fast my foes increase
Conspiring my eternal death
They break my fleeting peace

The first verse of “From Deep Distress,” in keeping with the anguish of the opening lines of Psalm 130, records:

From deep distress and troubled thoughts
To You, our God, we raise our cries
If You truly mark our faults
No flesh can stand before Your eyes

I have now heard many a worship theologian proclaim that the church’s song really does shape the church’s spiritual health. Unfortunately, because evangelicals have little vocabulary for lament, when suffering comes our way, we have no theological and spiritual categories to handle it, and we question our faith, God’s goodness, or even His existence.  Lament teaches us to suffer rightly.  Sojourn has given a gift to the church by bringing this to the fore.

The second thing one should notice is the album’s gospel-saturation.  Time and again, the source of delight in the texts is found in the meritorious work of the life and death of Jesus Christ.  “The World Will Know” praises:

Our faith adores Thy bleeding love,
And trust in one that died
We hope for heav’nly crowns above
Redeemer crucified

The world will know the righteousness
Of our incarnate God
And nations yet unborn profess
Salvation in His blood
Salvation in His blood

The chorus of “Deep in Our Hearts” testifies:

Oh gracious God, You’ve heard my Plea [notice the capitalization] A once cursed pris’ner, now released
Those dreadful suff’rings of Thy Son
Atoned for sins that we had done

The gospel is the motivation of all our worship, as “Compel My Heart to Sing” intones:

Jesus, my God and King
Thy wisdom is a boundless deep
What wondrous love has purchased me and
Compels my heart to sing

Sojourn and I share a passionate desire to see modern worship embrace a richer vocabulary of the gospel in our song.  If there continued to be progression in even that one area in contemporary Christian music, the Church would be tremendously blessed.

There are two songs, though, that stand out in their weaving of text and music.  “The Water and the Blood” is the first:

Lord we confess our many faults
And how great our guilt has been
Foolish and vain were all of our thoughts
No good could come from within

But by the mercy of our God
All our hopes begin
And by the water and the blood
Our souls are washed from sin

It’s not by the works of righteousness
Which our own hands have done
But we are saved by our Father’s grace
Abounding through His Son

It’s a simple song of confession, but the words are crafted so carefully and beautifully.  The verses center around minor tonality, and the choruses switch to major, with a lift in the melody to a new tessitura.  It’s all just very well put together.

“Let Your Blood Plead for Me” is the other outstanding song.  It is a song of testimony:

Lord, how secure my conscience was
And felt no inward dread
I was alive without the Law
And thought My sins were dead

My hopes of heaven were firm and bright
But then Your standard came
With a convincing power and light
To show how vile I am

This testimony is starkly (and without much transition) contrasted with the chorus:

Let Your blood plead for me
Let Your blood wash me clean
I believe, Lord I believe
Your blood has covered me

It is a song that aptly exegetes the oft-used phrase (it appears in various forms), “The bad news is I am more sinful and broken than I dare imagine, but the good news is, in Christ, I am more loved and accepted than I dare hope.”  The Law rightly condemns me, but, through Christ, the Father justly pardons me.  This is the essence of the song.  And it’s powerful!

Both for its text and its music, I heartily recommend The Water and the Blood as a fresh and timely work.  I look forward to what’s next from Sojourn Music.  They’ve quickly become leaders in a new kind of evangelical modern worship, and I welcome it!

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