Reviewed by John Potter
Sometimes songs that weren’t written to be sung in church are the ones that connect us to God most deeply. Here are six albums released in the last decade that you won’t find in the “Christian music” section, but that ask profound questions of faith. (Be forewarned: some of the language is not Sunday-school approved.)
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell (2015)
After experimenting with the electronic pastiches of 2010’s The Age of Adz, Stevens returned to his stripped-down folk roots for this
devastatingly honest meditation on love and loss. Written and recorded in the wake of his mother’s death, Carrie often focuses on the weary faith that sustained the singer-songwriter during this dark period. “How could this happen?” Stevens pleads in “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross.” “How, God of Elijah?”
D’Angelo, Black Messiah (2014)
Having grown up the son of a Pentecostal preacher, D’Angelo is no stranger to fiery rhetoric. Although it had been fourteen years since the release of his seminal R&B record Voodoo, last year’s events in Ferguson, Missouri, provided the catalyst for D’Angelo to craft the righteous call to action that is Black Messiah. Over deep fuzzy bass and glitchy drums, the neo-soul icon confronts struggle without losing hope (“Soul prayer / hallowed be thy name / …I believe that someday we will rise,” he sings in “Prayer”).
Cloud Cult, Love (2013)
From the home base of their organic, geothermal-powered farm, Cloud Cult regularly release albums on their own label, Earthology Records. But it was the eight-piece orchestral band’s tenth album that brought them a new level of attention. Spanning chamber pop, punk anthems, gentle folk, and electronic experimentation, Love finds Cloud Cult searching for meaning and finding purpose in a spirituality that connects us all. As “The Calling” concludes, “There’s so much more you’re made to be. / Scream it from the top of your lungs, you have a calling.”
Over the Rhine, Meet Me at the Edge of the World (2013)
Like Cloud Cult, songwriting duo (and married couple) Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist release material prolifically and make their home on a Midwestern farm. Over the Rhine’s twelfth studio LP offers a double-album’s worth of songs that move comfortably from country-tinged folk to jazzy blues. As they have throughout their long career, the band explores the interplay between the sacred and profane—or at least the sacred and the broken (“I have seen the slow corruption / of the best ideas of Christ / in the pulpits of our nation / Gospel turned into white lies”).
David Bazan, Curse Your Branches (2009)
When ’90s indie-rock mainstay Pedro the Lion disbanded in 2005, frontman David Bazan also broke from his longtime faith. What was most surprising when Bazan released his first solo LP wasn’t just that it’s his most musically adventurous effort to date, but how God-centric this collection of agnostic declarations proved to be. Throughout Branches, Bazan is by turns angry, liberated, and questioning, trying to cut ties with his former beliefs but finding that he can’t quite shake God (“The crew have killed their captain / but they still can hear his voice / a shadow on the water / a whisper in the wind”).
Low, Drums and Guns (2007)
For more than two decades, another husband-and-wife team—guitarist Alan Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker—has crafted minimalist indie rock as Low, anchored by the couple’s haunting vocal harmonies. Released in the midst of the Iraq War, Drums finds the band moving further away from the quieter sound they began with, employing a heavier sonic edge to match its warfare-focused thematic content. “Murderer” grapples with the messy ways theology and violence have intertwined throughout history: “One more thing I’ll ask you Lord / you may need a murderer / someone to do your dirty work.”