I’ve just finished reading a chapter from the book Jesus > Religion by Jefferson Bethke in which he states that
The problem with the… Christian subculture is that our art and glorification of Jesus begin to weaken because we lose all sense of comparison. For example, a lot of Christian musicians no longer shoot to be the best musicians; they shoot to be the best Christian musicians. The standards have been lowered. (pg.173)
I have found this to be generally true. It’s why my relationship with what is termed “Christian music” has always been frustrating. However, Irish-folk group Rend Collective have often managed to defy such criticism through their original and poetic lyrics, genre-busting sound, and level of musical quality. For the most part, they sit quite naturally and comfortably alongside other folk-pop-Americana groups in my playlist. I like them. Not because their Christians. But because they are brilliant musicians. Which is why their latest release Good News delights even as it leaves me a little frustrated.
To begin with the good (and there is much of it): And after some positive and feelgood vibes played in typical Rend Collective style on opening track ‘Life is Beautiful’, ‘I Will be Undignified’ blasts us off across the water to experience some high-class Irish folk. It will have you dancing a jig wherever you are and is the perfect song to lift the spirits. It is a sound that shows that the band remain committed their homeland for inspiration and proves that their national culture is still an influential factor in their music-making. Thank goodness! Because as the album progresses, you can’t help but feel them descending into more standard fare. This is after the fabulous tracks ‘Rescuer’ and ‘Counting Every Blessing’. Both prove that Rend Collective remain capable of producing top quality songs. Here, the lyrics, instrumentation and arrangement combine to create two brilliant pieces of music. In particular, ‘Counting Every Blessing’ combines a powerful vocal with a soulful sound that also showcases some of the lyrical poetry that, in my opinion, makes them stand out from the rest of the “Christian music” crowd. With hints of The Wandering Hearts, Rag ‘N’ Bone Man and Calum Scott, this is a track that highlights the mainstream potential of their sound.
Following this, the songs strike a familiar chord with seasoned listeners of the band. There is something oddly compelling though about ‘Hymn of the Ages’ and ‘True North’ – the former starting slow before gently building into something quite beautiful; while the latter starts fairly sweetly with its single ukulele and vocal before taking an unexpected turn into some quite different, yet equally delightful, territory. There are a couple of hidden gems planted in the middle of this record too, with ‘No Outsiders’ and ‘Weep With Me’ being positively beautiful and deeply reflective respectively. Both evoke powerful emotions in their own way and again salute the brilliance of Rend Collective‘s creativity. So it’s a shame when the album ends with some rather generic “Christian music” tracks. OK, ‘Marching On’ still feels like an inventive sound on this album, and gives credence to their belief, written in the album notes, that ‘this album [is] to be Good News to people in every season and circumstance’. But the next, ‘Yahweh’, resembles a laziness that feels at complete odds with their originality and authenticity. With sub-standard, recycled and, quite frankly, boring lyrics, this is not what one would expect from a Rend Collective songwriting session. Such personal frustration here can be explained, to a large degree, by the listing of that well-known but creatively-uninspiring force known as Bethel Music in the credits.
Despite this gripe (maybe I just need to get over myself!), Good News is an album that has been brilliantly produced and features songs that are, for the most part, wonderfully and organically made. Yes, there are a couple of slippages into unoriginal lyrics and moments where authenticity feels like it gives way to a more commercial vibe. However, I remain convinced that Rend Collective are committed to making great music, shooting to become better musicians rather than just aiming to top the “Christian music” pile. Certainly, they are too good to lose themselves in the more generic, congregation-friendly sound of Hillsong and Bethel. Thankfully, many of the songs on this album suggest that they are far from blending in. They remain an outstanding group. Good News is, well, good news.
To find out more about Rend Collective, click here.