Archives For Billy Corgan

Strange TrailsI get excited about music, but I have waited for few albums with as much anticipation as I waited for Lord Huron’s second full-length release. When I wrote Resonate, I included a section on Lord Huron’s first album, Lonesome Dreams. At the time, I had listened to that album over 100 times (according to my iTunes play count), and I wrote about the depth and complexity of the album. The album flows gracefully from one song to the next, themes recur and develop, the last song even mirrors the first both lyrically and instrumentally. I included Lonesome Dreams in the book because I see it as a powerful example of music’s potential to draw us in, to make us think, to stir our imaginations, to make us wonder and think and feel—even if we are not receiving propositional statements that tell us what to think and feel. I have now listened to Lonesome Dreams over 200 times, and my thoughts are the same.

So when Lord Huron’s follow up album, Strange Trails, released, I was excited, though a bit apprehensive that Lord Huron wouldn’t be able to create another album at that caliber. Thankfully, they delivered. Strange Trails sounds like a cousin to Lonesome Dreams: some definite similarities in style and themes, but not simply more-of-the-same.

One of the most surprising features of Strange Trails is the process that Lord Huron’s Ben Schneider used in creating the album. Strange Trails has an underlying cast of characters. Essentially, Schneider envisioned a greaser gang, and each song comes from the perspective of one of the characters in Schneider’s fictitious world. The album doesn’t offer a strict plotline, as in an opera, but one does sense an underlying story and movement throughout the album. In an 8-minute radio interview with NPR, Schneider describes several of the characters—including their names, physical appearance, and some back story—and explains how these characters contribute to the album.

Lord Huron

This is similar to Schneider’s method in crafting his first album, for which he created a fictional fiction writer (sort that out), who fictitiously wrote the Lonesome Dreams series of adventure novels, each of which shares a title with a song on Lord Huron’s Lonesome Dreams album. (“Naturally,” Schneider, who is a talented graphic artist as well, created a website for his fictitious fiction writer, George Ranger Johnson, where each novel in his series is featured.) Schneider also created a series of “episodes” as music videos for the songs on Lonesome Dreams. (He is doing something similar for the Strange Trails album.)

Admittedly, this is a quirky approach to songwriting. The listener certainly doesn’t need to know about the characters and their back stories to enjoy the album, but I will say that his approach gives his albums a depth that is often missing in music. The lyrics aren’t bald statements or shallow rhymes, they are as complex and intriguing as the characters “speaking” them. Musically, the album is multi-layered and varied. The songs flow well together (intentionally so), yet there is a range of emotion that highlights the variety of perspectives through which the album “speaks.”

The combined effect is enjoyable and inspiring music with unusual depth. I haven’t figured the album out yet; it continues to draw me in. There are lines that immediately speak to me (“I had all and then most of you / some and now none of you…I don’t know what I’m supposed to do / haunted by the ghost of you”), but lines like these are more suggestive than clearly defined, and they set my imagination to work. In my opinion, this is how an artist taps into the power of music. So much of music’s power is its ability to suggest, to stir, to move. Music is deeply mysterious, so songs that leave no space for mystery or subtlety or reflection betray their art form; they are more sermons lying atop instrumentation than actual songs.

Lord Huron 2

So what can Christian artists learn from Lord Huron? I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should adopt Ben Schneider’s approach to creating art. But I do think every Christian artist, regardless of their particular medium, would do well to learn from the depth of Schneider’s work. Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins recently criticized Christian musicians for simply imitating U2 for the last few decades. Corgan is obviously exaggerating, and he seems to be unaware of some recent trends in “Christian music,” but he is surely right to call Christians to greater originality in their art.

Many Christian artists are extraordinarily creative, and the world has benefited from the creativity of Christians throughout history. But we need to continually be inspired by the beautiful, reflective, mysteriously complex art of people like Ben Schneider. Christians, after all, believe that ultimate reality is the Creator—infinitely complex, deeply mysterious, worthy of never ending reflection and contemplation. And we believe that this Creator formed a world that is itself complex, mysterious, and full of meaning, along with a mini-creator capable of exploring the mystery and meaning that resides in all things. So in my opinion, Christians would do well to listen to the music of Lord Huron and be edified and inspired—not to imitate Schneider’s style or approach, but to create with the same pursuit of depth and meaning.

 

A while back, Billy Corgan, rock legend and frontman of the band The Smashing Pumpkins, gave an interview in which he said that God is the future of rock n’ roll and acknowledges that this is what he has been exploring in his music lately. See the interview below:

Those are pretty big statements from someone who once sang, “God is empty just like me.” But ever since his 2003 album with the band Zwan, Billy Corgan has indeed been singing about God. His lyrics won’t always make evangelicals feel comfortable with his orthodoxy (e.g., his most recent Smashing Pumpkin release begins by addressing God alongside Hindu gods), but he also has some startlingly Christian lyrics. On that Zwan album, he comes out and sings “I declare myself of faith” (on the song “Declarations of Faith”) and ends the album by covering a hymn—yes, a hymn—“Jesus I’ve taken my cross, all to leave and follow Thee.”

All that to say, Corgan was doing more than stirring the pot in that interview. He has indeed been exploring God in his music over the last decade. None of us will feel comfortable enough with his formulations of Christian doctrine to make him our pastor, but through his music he has jumped headlong into life’s most important questions and is addressing the concepts that mean most to us Christians.

When the interviewer asks Corgan what he would say to Christian rockers, he says, “make better music.” Now, my guess is that about half of my readers will burst out laughing at that and the other half will be offended. But here’s the thing. Corgan is giving a sound bite, he’s not taking the time to qualify his statement. But he does offer some explanation. He basically says that U2 has a great sound, and that tons of Christian bands are trying to sound a lot like U2. And he’s right. To an extent.

Corgan also tells Christian musicians that Jesus would want them to make better music. Again, half are laughing, half are irritated. But think about it. Would Jesus be condescending and tell Christians their music is not as cool as The Smashing Pumpkins? Probably not. But would Jesus want every Christian to whom he has given musical abilities to make the best music they possibly can? Of course. Would he want every Christian musician to follow the same musical template? Of course not. So add a bit of salt and Corgan’s got a great point.

But here’s where I’ll add a touch of encouragement. I think many Christians are “making better music.” Sure, there are plenty of worship bands that want nothing more than to sound exactly like Hillsong and plenty of Christian musicians who want to sound just like this or that band (U2, most typically). But I’ve been encouraged recently as I’ve found several bands that I think are making more than good Christian music—they’re making good music. We’ll all disagree on which bands fall into this category, but I’m telling you they’re out there. And there are other Christians making great music that have never been invited (or have simply chosen not to enter) into the world of Christian music.

Here are some that I appreciate:

Valley Maker – This band isn’t a part of the Christian music scene, but their first (self-titled) album sings through the narratives of Genesis. Their second album also explores some great Christian themes, among other things. Both albums are very good musically.

The Welcome WagonI’ve written on these guys in the past. It’s a Presbyterian minister and his wife singing hymns, and yet they’re not a part of the Christian music community. But they do have a significant following in the broader music world because their music is honest, creative, and oddly compelling.

Gungor – Gungor has been around for a while, and they refuse to fit into the mold of what Christian music is supposed to sound like. I’ve enjoyed their music, but what I’d consider to be their best album just came out a few weeks ago, and I think it’s excellent.

Josh Garrels – A lot of people I know LOVE Garrels. I like him, and I genuinely enjoy his music, but I haven’t been able to get myself to love it yet (though many whose musical taste I respect do). But without a doubt, Garrels is rejecting common templates for Christian music and making some very cool music.

Future of Forestry – This band has a long history with the Christian music world. They continue to explore and evolve musically, and in my opinion, each release gets stronger. This is just my judgment, of course, but I’d say that everything since the Travel EPs has been excellent.

Neulore – I’ve only heard their first EP, but it’s songs from the Garden of Eden as Adam sings to Eve. It’s pretty cool. I don’t believe they’re part of the Christian music community, but there’s something Christian going on there.

And then there are the many Christians who are making music in the broader music scene, who are being faithful to Jesus and diligently creative in their music, but whose lyrics don’t include the word “Jesus” enough to get them a consideration under the heading “Christian music.” That’s ok.I’ve explained in the past that “Christian music” is difficult to define and that based on current definitions, many Christians will need to make music outside of that arena. But we need to acknowledge that solid Christians are out there making solid music, and have been doing so for a long time.

That list could go on, but you get the idea. We could all point to several Christian musicians who are doing what Billy Corgan challenges Christian musicians to do. Good for Corgan for calling us out, and good for many of our musicians for beating him to the punch.