Nov 14, 2015

Strength by The Violet Burning (Review)

Arguably my favorite worship album of all time.
Strength, The Violet Burning
Reviewed…

Strength by The Violet Burning

1992, Bluestone Records

If you visit a church that has a “contemporary” worship service (i.e., worship is lead by a band rather than, say, a choir and/or an organ), there’s a good chance that you’ll hear at least one worship song that seems more akin to a romantic pop song than the hymns of old. A prime example of this is “In The Secret” by Chris Tomlin, which includes the following, rather sensual lyrics: “In the secret, in the quiet hour I wait/Only for You, ‘cause I want to know You more… I want to touch You/I want to see Your face/I want to know You more.”

You don’t have to be an ultra-macho dudebro (e.g., Mark Driscoll) to think that it’s a bit weird to sing words like that to our Lord and Savior. Even super-progressive Christians à la Rachel Held Evans might find it strange to sing of our love for God using language that’s frequently associated with the modern notion of romantic love. Or, as Preston Sprinkle puts it, “Something is wrong when I can sing a worship song to God and then turn to my wife with the same lyrics.” But it’s a conflation that seems to permeate a lot of modern praise and worship music.

So what does this have to do with Strength, The Violet Burning’s sophomore album? Well, Strength is filled to the brim with deeply emotional worship music akin to the sort mentioned above. Given that the band emerged from the Vineyard Movement, a denomination that has released a lot of this sort of music, that shouldn’t be too surprising. Over the course of Strength’s fifty minutes, Michael J. Pritzl sings a multitude of super-emotional, surprisingly intimate lyrics, such as:

  • “With my heart, I give anything for you/Everything, I lay it down for you”
  • “Love, sweet love, come rain on me/Come pour yourself all over me”
  • “So, is that the way the story goes? In your arms, I know it’s alright”
  • “I am my Beloved’s and He loves me as I am”
  • “You shine like the sun in all its strength/You are my love, my everything”

And in “Song of the Harlot,” the album’s most striking song — I can only imagine the eyebrows it raised when Strength came out in 1992, when the Christian music market was far more homogenous than it is now — Pritzl takes the story of the woman washing Jesus’ feet and makes it personal: “If I could be anyone at all, let me be the whore at your feet.”

What is surprising, though, is just how well it all works, and how truly emotional it does become. If Strength were a lesser album and The Violet Burning a lesser band, such overwrought lyrics would be an easy target for snark and eye-rolls. But Pritzl is blessed with the sort of dramatic voice that makes you believe he’s been to hell and back when he sings “I am nothing and I have nowhere to turn” or “Sometimes I cry/In a world that’s dark, torn apart at the seams.” You never, for a moment, doubt that Pritzl is singing from the bottom of his heart. Put simply, Strength’s greatest saving grace is the conviction and sincerity at its core.

That conviction shapes and informs the music, as well. Modern worship music tends towards polished, poppy, upbeat songs that contain nary a minor key. Strength, by contrast, is a melancholy album full of dark, moody atmospherics that owe much to The Cure, Echo and The Bunnymen, and especially U2 circa The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. The music’s melancholy adds emotional heft to Pritzl’s words; when he sings “So I lay down and cry for mercy,” the band’s Rickenbackers cry right alongside him. There are even some fiery solos for good measure, which both showcase guitarist Shawn Tubbs’ considerable talents and further drive home the intensity in Pritzl’s lyrics.

The Violet Burning experimented with this sort of songwriting and production on their debut album, 1989’s Chosen, particularly on songs like “There Is Nowhere Else,” “Rise Like the Lion,” and “New Breed Children Rise.” However, Strength surpassed Chosen by every measure possible, and it still casts a lengthy shadow over everything the band has released since. (Subsequent releases, like 1996’s self-titled album or 1998’s Demonstrates Plastic and Elastic, found the Violets moving from Strength’s graceful atmospherics to a heavier, more psychedelic sound à la The Verve and Spiritualized.)

I first heard Strength during those tumultuous high school years. An acquaintance who knew I was A) a Christian and B) into “alternative” music like The Cure and Depeche Mode made a cassette copy and told me it was great music to fall asleep to. Nothing could’ve been further from the truth for me. Rather than a sleeping aid, Strength was a wake-up call; it was like nothing I’d heard before from Christian circles, and the overwrought songs made a lot of sense to my overwrought high school self.

In particular, the album’s centerpiece, the acoustic ballad “As I Am,” became a spiritual balm. I would frequently listen to it when I was at my lowest point and struggling with sin, guilt, depression, or just plain ol’ teenage angst, and in need of comfort and reassurance. As Pritzl and the rest of the band, including vocalist Jamie Eichler, sang “Light of the world, please, come shine on me” in perfect harmony while backed by intricate guitar filigrees and soaring strings, “As I Am” offered encouragement that I often found lacking in “normal” Christian avenues like church and youth group.

Then there’s the band’s powerful cover of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” At first, “Eleanor Rigby”’s story of loneliness and alienation may seem an odd choice for a worship album, but those themes dovetail nicely with Strength’s over-arching theme of how utterly dependent we are on God, and how God’s love is our only hope for peace in our lives. It’s fitting, then, that “Through My Tears” closes the album with these words:

If I descend into the depths of hell, You will find me
And if I climb above the stars, You are there
Through my tears I know, one thing remains
You, always You

Such plaintive, on-the-nose songwriting may seem out of step with our cynical age. But that’s why this album still sounds so vital and refreshing after more than two decades. On Strength, The Violet Burning displayed absolutely no desire to sound “cool,” “relevant,” or “marketable” (desires that Christian music as a whole has frequently struggled with in its relationship with secular culture). Instead, there’s just an earnest desire to sing honestly and faithfully, even about the brokenness, despair, and loneliness we experience in this world. In this regard, Pritzl et al. were simply following in the footsteps of David, who wrote psalm after psalm about his complete and utter reliance on God’s love, mercy, compassion, and yes, God’s strength.


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