The New Faith
Someone who is not Christian described their general experience with white evangelicals as “people who don’t have any questions.”
I immediately knew what they meant, and I’m going to thinking about that statement a long time.
Just over a month ago, Dr. Jamar Tisby, a scholar whose work focuses on the intersection of race and religion, tweeted that provocative statement about white evangelicals. It’s been on my mind daily ever since, prompting me to think about my own upbringing in a tiny country church, my interactions with friends and colleagues with both past and present experiences in white evangelical spaces, and my love for music that is inseparable from expressions of faith. The release of Jake Blount’s The New Faith could not be more perfectly timed, then, as it is an album that wrestles with these exact issues and does so with a clarity of purpose and vision– and a musical skill set– that supports such existential and spiritual weight.
A common theme in much of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM)– what’s most often heard on K-LOVE playlists or in white suburban megachurch worship services– is its certainty. CCM replaced more traditional hymns and gospel music that’s viewed as old fashioned with highly repetitive refrains of “praise music” that function as cheerleader chants for a team that is absolutely sure that they’ve already won: Our God Is An Awesome God, so just Let Go And Let God. There’s no sense of struggle or conflict to it, and there certainly aren’t, as Dr. Tisby notes, any questions, so it’s all just easy. God Is In Control, so don’t second guess any of your own choices or beliefs and just let Jesus Take The Wheel.
The New Faith stands in immediate contrast and, in fact, builds its entire concept around the question of what happens when all of those people who are so sure they’re in the right that they never question it are, ultimately, judged by a God who finds them lacking. What would gospel music and matters of faith sound like in a world left in ruin by mankind’s own arrogance, when God has said, “Enough,” and abandoned humanity to reap what it has sown? Imagine if the War Boys of Mad Max: Fury Road were playing their version of gospel music instead of doom metal, and that hints at Blount’s mission here.
What Blount accomplishes over the course of The New Faith is a genius form of scavenging. He’s found essential bits of musical and spiritual culture– a blues riff or banjo fill here, a traditional dirge or testimonial there– and assembled them into something wholly new. The album draws heavily from traditional forms of folk, country, blues. and gospel– what we’d call our “country universe,” incidentally– but is in no way beholden to those conventions. Instead, there are interpolations of hip-hop and modern noise-rock that disrupt genre conventions not simply for the sake of disruption but for the creation of something vital and purposeful. Blount’s description of The New Faith as a work of Afrofuturism tracks: The album centers the history of black music in its aesthetic while imagining how those traditions can continue to evolve.
“The Downward Road,” for instance, barrels ahead on a skittering beat created not by programmed drum loops but from layered handclaps, with an arrangement that foregrounds Blount’s nimbly plucked banjo and a Cajun-inspired fiddle riff. It doesn’t sound a bit out of place, then, when Demeanor drops a rapid-fire verse into the track. While plenty of acts have attempted to cross-pollinate country and hip-hop over the years to varying degrees of success, “The Downward Road” and, later on the album, “Death Have Mercy” and “Give Up the World” do so in a way that communicates a true understanding of and respect for both of those forms.
This isn’t Big & Rich ironically singing “bling-blingin’” or Sam Hunt using a Webb Pierce sample to create a hook on an otherwise forgettable pop-country song. What Blount accomplishes here– with the assist from Demeanor who, it must be said, contributes some very, very good bars that, among other highlights, include a reference to the Fibonacci Sequence– is a mastery of rhythm and meter that foregrounds the simplicity of the country and folk lyrics by setting them against unexpected beats. This is more akin to progressive works like Nappy Roots’ Watermelon, Chicken, & Gritz, Bubba Sparxxx’s Timbaland-produced Deliverance, or the latter half of Laura Bell Bundy’s Achin’ & Shakin’, but with an even greater command of how and why this type of combination works.
Blount hinted at this on “The Man Was Burning,” which we covered earlier this year and which remains one of the year’s finest singles. That song isn’t included here, though, because it doesn’t fit with the album’s greater concept. “The Man Was Burning” specifically calls a vengeful God down to Georgia, but, with apologies to Jamie O’Neal, there is no Georgia in the land of The New Faith. Blount uses three spoken-word pieces (“Take Me To the Water / Prayer,” “Parable,” and “Psalms”) as interludes to create the album’s post-apocalyptic framing narrative. It’s compelling and makes the concept, and Blount’s view of those who led society to the point of destruction, quite explicit.
What’s all the more impressive is that the album would still tell that story convincingly even without those interludes. The traditional songs he’s chosen fall into three broad categories that highlight the concept of The New Faith. There are songs that focus on the bounty of the physical world as a source of faith (“Take Me to the Water,” “Didn’t It Rain,” “Once There Was No Sun”), songs about how faith manifests in the present, even in the face of death (“Tangle Eye Blues,” “Death Have Mercy,” “Give Up the World”), and songs that question what awaits for us after we’ve died (“City Called Heaven,” “They Are Waiting For Me,” “Just As Well Get Ready, You Got To Die”). Without the framing device, those songs, recorded in such a captivating and purposefully disruptive way, tell a story of how humans have laid waste to the natural world without considering the impact of our actions on our souls.
With The New Faith, Jake Blount demonstrates a peerless command not only of country, folk, and stringband traditions but a sense of questioning and a fierce intelligence that redefines “gospel” music for this exact cultural moment. By taking stock of where we are as a society and seeing challenges to do and be better, Blount leans into the value of questioning as perhaps the highest expression of faith.