I have been attending to my duties as choir director this morning. Although the music in St Mark’s is largely traditional in nature, some of the trendier folk like me to occasionally use ‘modern songs’ and I am more than happy to oblige, as long as said modern songs have a half decent tune and words that mean something. I also prefer to use actually modern songs, not songs that were at the cutting edge of Christian music in the 1970s.
So it is that I have found myself trawling through a CD enticingly called New Songs. Or to give it its full title, New Songs CD Rom 6. It’s not as catchy as Wish You Were Here, but the songs have the twin virtues of being new and included in sheet music form – a perfect resource for worship leaders, as the CD cover proudly proclaims.
Half an hour of pressing the skip forward button on my CD player, and I have been subjected to twelve tracks of absolute bilge.
I’m an open minded guy; I’m not one of these people who are needlessly stuck in the past, I like new music and I welcome fresh ideas in church.
But I know a big load of turd when I’m subjected to it, and I refuse to polish it, even for the glory of God. (Well – unless expressly instructed to polish it by God. Frankly, I feel that God is with me on this one.)
There are several major objections to every single track on this CD:
1. They are all written like pop songs (second rate pop songs, I would add – none of it has the shelf life of a Total Eclipse of the Heart or a Sun Always Shines on TV). Quality aside, the problem with this style is that it’s very soloistic, written for a pop diva (second rate pop diva, at least) to sing with a free rhythm and even sometimes melody (at least, in some songs the audio track bears little resemblance to the music supplied). Churches full of people (many of whom, surprisingly, are not pop divas) just can not manage irregular rhythms (rhythms that change between verses, for crying out loud) – only the simplest syncopation is advisable, as I have learned to my own bitter cost. Can you imagine a whole congregation singing Total Eclipse of the Heart? Yes, that bad.
2. Equally, the words have a pop song quality, in that they’re mostly written for an individual, as an expression of an individual’s response to God. A line like “I remember it well, when I met you for the first time” may well be true for the writer, but not for a whole congregation (especially when many of them are of an age where they can barely remember what they had for breakfast…)
3. In any case, the words are, on the whole, bullshit. At best they’re a collection of unrelated and relentlessly repeated platitudes, sometimes jumbled up to create theologically dubious suggestions (er…when you say “Arise, you’re the everlasting light, flooding through my night” – just who are you talking to? Me? God? Are you sure it’s a good idea instructing God to arise?) At worst, they mean absolutely nothing at all (my favourite anatomically incorrect example is “As we bow our hearts in awe” – as we do what? What muscles have you been exercising???)
4. And it’s all dreadfully written. Sample this piece of obscenely dire poetry:
The beauty of your majesty
Yet remains unseen
But one day you’ll split the skies
And every eye will see.
(Reprinted without permission, but I reckon I’ll get away with it – for a start the author probably wouldn’t recognise it because it’s so similar to a million other worship songs; and in any case, they’re Christians so they’ll forgive me.)
It doesn’t even take a GCSE English student to note certain irregularities in the metre which I feel sure can’t have been intentional. And need I point out the heinous half-rhyme of “unseen” with “see”?
When you’ve finished analysing that one, amuse yourself by drawing a map of this Tolkeinesque landscape:
On the shores of our doubt
On the sands of our pain
We found a river of grace
And it flows with your hope
We come to the stream
Wash us in the river again
Be sure to clearly label the sands of pain and the shores of doubt; you’ll have to make your own decision about whether the river is distinct from the stream, I’m afraid. Personally I think the words describe very different sizes of running water, in which case who knows what the stream is flowing with.
That one I’m not so sure about, in fact. It’s probably silly nonsense, but maybe, just maybe, it’s a clever Christian parody of Finnegan’s Wake with a bit of Bunyan thrown in – in which case, I feel it could have been a little bit more OTT.
5. They all sound the same.
So it’s back to Hymns Ancient and Modern on Sunday. (I also hate Hymns Ancient and Modern, for reasons which I won’t elaborate on here. Oh! for a New English Hymnal!)