Album Review: “One Wild Life” by Gungor
All the love dares us to see: we’ll all be free
Ideas and art that are both huge and nuanced demand of us to pour ourselves into them, our time, attention, listens, readings, contemplation, and most of all, our hearts. My greatest challenge in reviewing this work will be to keep the word count down, because what there is to be said in giving background and connections on this work, exploring the themes and implications, and simply talking about the music itself…is endless. I considered skipping tracks but it seems impossible for this piece. I will drag brevity along as my unwilling companion to lift up and share out this beautiful set of three albums, and as the quote above says, I DARE you to pour yourself into this work and see what you find.
In 2013, the christian music group Gungor released I Am Mountain, an album that blazed a new path for them musically and philosophically. Gungor came up through the ranks of the Christian Music industry, their earlier work fitting the radio-friendly, prepackaged vibe of nearly everything on those charts. Converging factors of changing faith perspectives, disillusionment with the industry, and a desire for deeper, more honest art came to a head in this innovative album that allowed room for both intricate electroacoustical stylings and deep questioning about the metaphysical nature of the world and the faith lenses through which we view it. Among the results of this new work was many conservative christian voices expressing dismay that one of “their” artists would deign to question orthodoxy. What followed was a tumultuous time of disownment, searching, and redefining, which was rather hard on frontman Michael Gungor, his wife Lisa, and the rest of the musical collective and those close to them. This review is not about I Am Mountain, but that album represents a crossroads and you should absolutely go listen to it, it’s beautiful.
In the time since that release and the ensuing identity transformation, Michael and Lisa gungor, along with longtime friend and co-faith-transitioner Mike McHargue have created a media collective known as The Liturgists, reaching out through multiple channels, mainly a highly-rated podcast, to join hands with anyone and everyone who wants to openly trudge together through the muddy waters of what faith does, doesn’t, and can mean to us as we experience life in this world as humans. I can’t spare the words to talk more about the work of the Liturgists and Mike McHarge, but it all runs alongside the crafting of One Wild Life, and it’s all deeply connected. The podcast’s exploration of the first, second, and third part of One Wild Life are essential apocrypha to listening.
One Wild Life
One Wild Life is a long concept album in three parts: Soul, Spirit, and Body. It all explores what it is to be a human: with a mind, memories, emotions, experiences, looking out into the world and contemplating what, why, who, and how.
Soul is about the heart of things. It’s about what we feel about the world. After a rich, mysterious instrumental introduction, Michael Gungor recounts the story of a mystical experience. You’ll find in the apocryphal work I’ve linked that the traditions of Christian Mysticism have become deeply woven into the worldviews of all of the artists involved. In Lion of Rock, Gungor zooms out his view from seeing and loving his own family from a distance to seeing the depth and beauty of the universe and the human condition and loving it in the same way, “…all is beautiful”. Pretty, flowing vocal melodies (with a fair amount of processing) float over deep, grungy electric beats and synths. Moon Song, sung by Lisa, opens with a beautiful analogy of the moon reflecting the glory of the sun, our hearts reflecting a creator’s. A slow, funky groove pulls us into the irresistible chorus, “Love will span all worlds just to get to you”. This is one of the positive, heart-filled mega-jams that punctuate the more elusive material throughout the whole set. (Gungor released a featured video from each part after Body’s release, Moon Song’s video sets the weird, funny, and beautiful trend for the three). An ultrahip title track follows: One Wild Life gives the initial hint that this whole work is a dare to listeners. It also weaves in some of the nerdy sciencey stuff that’s peppered into the set, championing the idea that investing in the technical, the empirical, the dry mathematical truths of what our world is like are NEVER antithetical to beauty, worship, wonder, or love. Gungor takes a moment next to react to the public tumult that lead them here and the deeper, older social trends, religious trends, that created it in the first place. Better Together is a plea for unity, a sharp critique to shed the misguided idea that any of us is different or more special than any other because of any feature, origin, or belief that defines us: “every black life matters, fundamentalists matter”. It is deeply humanist, but not at all a rejection of faith. “All together we are stronger, we belong together” over an almost reggae groove is a great anthem moment.
I could spend a week wrapped up in the fuzzy warmth of Light. It’s written for their beautiful daughter, Lucie. It’s also a beautiful creation reference. For all of the tech-driven tools that make up the energetic and enigmatic sound worlds of One Wild Life, this song draws only on Michael Gungor’s classical background and just features him and his wife singing over a finger-picked guitar line and an intricately throughcomposed string ensemble with some other instrumental ambiance in the background. This song is gorgeous. Give the linked blog post a read before you listen.
At Sea returns us to some of the enigmas, both philosophical and musical; the doubt and confusion we can go through as we try, and sometimes fail, to hold an ontology, especially a religious one. Some religious teachings call this type of experience a “dark night of the soul.” The song kind of simmers until we get to the third chorus, when all of the Lisa Gungor stops are pulled open in both the lead and backing vocals over deep, expansive instrumental ambiance. “Waves dance around, we learn to let go, to sing to the moon and awaken the soul.” Land of the Living brings back a critique on what was left behind in a break from conservative American Christianity. Pulsing strings and light, slow percussion undergird the pained message, surrounded by poetry, but succinct nonetheless: “You cannot love in moderation.” This message is expanded in made more explicit in Us for Them. The poetry is left behind and big, dramatic synths blast over quick, funky guitar riffs in a shout of Social Gospel: “0ur only war is love…His judgement is love…if it’s us or them, it’s us FOR them”.
Am I is a favorite of mine. It’s not fun or funky, in fact it’s a drone, instrumentally and vocally. But this poem that Michael recites strips away everything worldly and known. It knows nothing about what the world is really like, but demands no answers either; at the center an important question: “am I alright?” We’ll have to wait two more albums for the answer.
Being the most deeply personal of the set, Soul opens and closes with stories. You is Michael Gungor’s story, his upbringing in religious dogma, his rejection of all supernatural, his discovery of glory and spirit. “I felt the ground, I felt a heart…all the universe was one, just like a Father Spirit Son.” Again the electroacoustic stuff is stripped away for more typical song production with guitars, bass, and drums. He even shreds a solo out during the climax of doubt in the story. I’ve always thought the album should end here, but it ends with Vapor, also featured on a Liturgists release. The song is also somewhat mismatched with the sound and feel of the rest of the album. It does work well as a closer though, the “spirit” discovered in You and lifted up in Vapor, “holy, the impossible and holy…everything rising” sets up the next album in the set.
La la la la la la! The weight of these heady explorations is momentarily cast off in favor of childlike wonder. The many-layered Magic unpacks this wonder, ushering in an album that will let the listener be simply dumbstruck by what the world is like…how fantastically incomprehensible it all is that it just might be divine. This recognition of divinity isn’t a claim to any label or tradition or dogma, rather, this album is wholly Pantheistic, the universe itself is divine and worthy to be glorified, and the music for Spirit adjusts accordingly. The moody beats and synths have been left behind for sonic superlatives, expansive, otherworldly sounds appropriate for a feeble attempt at capturing the universe. Anthem features a driving rock groove, punctuated by synthy stabs: “my heart starts beating like an anthem, run spirit run,” sings Lisa as the excitement at contemplating the universe fills up the rocking instrumentals. Michael gets his melancholy in for the bridge (they joke about this on the podcast), but it’s drowned out by the fist pumping excitement. Wonder continues this album’s already-established tradition of not being remotely shy about its aims. “Wonder, can you see it? Keep believing there is wonder in it all.” Guitar riffs permeate, but the brassy synth blasts under the chorus-out are the defining feature of this track. Spirit Becomes Us steps back for a moment into quiet contemplation on the interconnectedness of all things over layered guitars. It’s a gentler expression of Spirit’s ethos.
I don’t know if anything in all three albums tops Whale for me personally, certainly in ethos; it’s musically wonderful also, but probably exceeded by some of the upcoming funky jams. The verses name our human attempts to describe, label, compartmentalize, create hierarchy, judge. The choruses turn the now-expected synth blasts up to 11 while they list beautiful couplets that dramatically shift our perspective away from all of the nitpicking called out in the verse: “You are beginning, I am the branches. You are the color, I am the sky. You are the ocean, I am the whale.” The word pronunciation on the lyrics gives it a vaguely tribal spiritual feel. It’s a big, powerful, beautiful track.
Kiss the Night is another reference to the “dark knight of the soul” idea, but it takes a sort of different tack. It lays bare the imperfection, some of the fiercely rough edges of our human and religious history up till now. Where At Sea described how it feels to go through a dark night of the soul as part of the journey…Kiss the Night considers it an essential crossroads, that all wrong and harmful must be left behind, we must LET GO of dogma and experience what is transcendent without exerting psychosocial control, even if it’s not always an experience that you can make sense of: “consonance isn’t always peaceful, dissonance isn’t always evil”. The track is as synthy and dramatic as the others, but a little more structured. Where Kiss the Night is poetic and subtle with its critiques, Let Bad Religion Die, as evidenced by its title, is as overt and explicit as the whole set gets. This trend exists in all three albums, as well as Gungor’s earlier work, of giving a similar message in a really artsy, poetic song, and also in a more unabashed, soap-boxy track. (See God and Country from I Am Mountain). “With a bomb strapped to his chest, with a bullhorn in her hand” are viewed in the same negative light, the Muslim fundamentalism of today and the Christian fundamentalism of the Crusades occupy the same space, while the subtext is clear that Christianity’s damaging features by no means live in the past. “If it spreads violence more than peace, God let religion cease.” The flowy lyrics of the verse are contrasted by the expansive chorus, “let bad religion die,” all over lilting guitars.
It’s ok if you were left a little uncomfortable by Let Bad Religion Die, Love is All offers groovy, funky solace. We also leave behind exploration of human disconnectedness and return to the theme of a connected universe, in this case the connection is love. The backing strongly resembles a hip hop track with a groovy beat and bass line, and interspersed instrumental riffs, it’s really funky and great. The lyrics focus on the connected nature of life and death and other opposing, yet combined, features of the world. Love is the template we put on it all, it’s how we can encounter the whole process we are part of, “till this hardened earth with love, till we find our peace, lay our egos down.” (this track offers the second abstract featured video). Hurricane is a little more typical in it’s production, but it matches the musical theme of delicate, wordy verses with big dramatic choruses. It again grows out of the previous track and makes its ideas bigger and bolder: “I see love rising like a hurricane.” This track is the weight of hope that love can truly transform the world, an idea which I think could be called “The Gospel” in the absence of all else religious. We Are Alive stands for nothing but the exact words in its title. The musical drama has again ebbed for the opening of this track and the overt production of other tracks is absent. It’s a lush tapestry of guitars, winds, and pianos and woven vocal lines. This track is almost hymn like in it’s structure; it’s inviting, it’s communal. It has also returned to the humanist tones of Better Together, again not antagonistic toward the religious, but focused on the glory of our collective experience.
Body & Blood has left production far behind, and left drama sitting with the climax of We Are Alive. Lisa Gungor sings non-verbals for about a minute, living outside of western tonality, eastern drones and drumming slowly seeping in. The words are brief, but vivid, ready to scale back from the universe and usher in the deeply human third chapter of One Wild Life: Body. “You are not depraved in sin…you are light, you are the love of God…you are body and blood.”
“What is this light…why does it hurt? Where is the beat of the world?” Beautiful. Birth is a visceral depiction of the human experience described in microcosm as the birth process. Guitars are dense and lush, voices are sparing and lamenting. Body explores being human, but less personally then Soul does. Body is detached from one person, it is about personhood. Being more first-person, Soul’s music about the world was often polished, sounding precise almost all the time. The imperfection of reality is represented in Body; the bare, under-produced guitar that opens Step Into the Light heralds this change. Just Michael and his guitar: “imprisoned, deaf, and blind to who I am inside…” Ideas of life, death, change, life, and unity from from the lsat four tracks of Spirit are restated with a plainness and an epistemological bent. The music picks up a bit from this sparse start in Ego. Bass and strings back a derisive diatribe on the self-obsessed inner demons of our nature, “15 minutes, sing me, love me.” It’s likely that if you do come from a fundamentalist Christian background, particularly one in America, that you have yet to identify with anything in One Wild Life…if that’s you, it’s a near certainty that the humor of Alien Apes will be lost on you. A tribal beat that can only be described as phat backs angular guitar/bass riffs and a few synthy stabs. The deep history of the human species crawling its way to now is referenced alongside the damage that came to pass when we stopped adapting to our environment and started adapting our environment to us. It’s equal parts silly and poignant, it’s a lot of fun. “We come from a people with scars, ‘cause life on this planet is hard.” Alien Apes chimes that we will keep evolving, but Already Here reminds us that we are constantly living in a vibrant present, that despite their existence, the past and future are divorced from our real consciousness. The warning is clear to not get lost in either of those thickets at the expense of being fully present in the now. A constant eighth-note is traded among bass, deep percussion sounds, layered pianos, strings, and guitars. This is all broken up by a voice and wind driven bridge: “what if now is the only time that we have, the only peace that is ever found, the truest way to see?”
Walking with our Eyes Closed features a hip, poppy Lisa chorus, over layers of eastern tonalities, poppy drums, and energetic synths. This song is another gentle warning, one that can probably only be issued by someone who has found, lost, and found deep spirituality, as have Michael and Lisa Gungor and Mike McHargue. The warning is to not throw away what is left behind when worldview changes. To avoid burning bridges of spirituality. Learning more, seeing differently, understanding more accurately does not have to destroy the more elusive, transcendent parts of our experience. “We burned bridges long before we knew we’d wanna go back.” (This has the third featured video, which picks up from the middle of Love Is All’s, then brings back elements of Moon Song’s) Breath within the Breath charmingly juxtaposes musical levity and lyrical melancholy. A bouncy bass groove and a uncharacteristically slack-tuned drum kit play under Michael’s musings on liars and cheats and the general slop of living as a human. The chorus opens into a broad, beautiful lament with a nice little symmetrical line: “how long will it be like this, will it be like this, how long?” There’s no answer to that question…it’s all part of it…life and death, good and evil. There were hints of this in Spirit…but Body, the one about being human, is where we really, really recognize this, because it’s us who experience everything along that spectrum and name each experience so. Lovely Broken is there in case you missed it on your first dozen listens. It is a little bit of a caricature of this idea (discussed on the podcast), but it’s also really beautiful, and the over-emphasized nature of the verses is wholly forgiven by the chorus, which recalls the question asked in Am I: “See the night, see the sunrise, see the love, see the heartbreak — you and I, we will be alright.” It’s a beautiful idea; it eschews teleology; it walks us back from the precipice of trying to grapple with ontology and answer for theodicy and reassures us that all of this is part of being alive…if a choice of love is ever possible, we will indeed be alright.
Much of the material in One Wild Life will be evergreen, it will always apply to what human consciousness goes through as being alive happens to it, but some tracks are seated firmly in present times (We Are Stronger, Let Bad Religion Die). Free is that track for Body, and features William Matthews, a friend of the band and Christian musician. He is also black, which means, all politics (seriously) aside, that he and his ancestors have long had a shittier time than most of both being American and being human. The pain and anguish, the confusion and mess of our current (and past) racial tensions, and by extension, all human divisions are SHOUTED INTO THE DARKNESS in this track. It is also the straight jammiest track in the whole set. It’s a bluesy, gospelly anthem where it is (finally) stated that love — global, collective, human LOVE is a choice, and the choice that we all must make if we want to see the world transformed. I am a robot who’s emotion circuits are scarcely ever activated…but this song is all waterworks. With the veil of oblique artistry pulled away, the theme of love blasts unabashedly out for two more tracks. Be The Love is a poem of Lisa’s dropped over a funky, sporadic accompaniment and backed up by Michael’s echoes. “In the sun in the moon is love” (remember Moon Song?), “Out of the ground is love” (remember Alien Apes and the video for Love is All?), “We are a love revolution…love everyone” (remember the last track, Free?). The funky chords under Be The Love are in fact a permutation on the bridge of Moon Song. The same idea is sung differently, again by Lisa, in To Live in Love. It’s a gentle ballad over guitars and drones and with minimal production that can be summed up in the first line of the third verse “better love lived a day then a thousand years of fame.”
Body could end here, One Wild Life could end here, but Body is longer than the other two (so stick with this lengthy review! 😇) and there is more left to say. The present, tangible plea to drop everything and love each other is left in place to move back into the abstract place we went to in Spirit. It’s a re-opening of our scope after Body has continually pulled us into the gut and heart of being human, it reminds us of the vast existence that is a backdrop to our small, short consciousness.
I’ve shied away from calling out really specific musical elements because there simply isn’t time for that kind of analysis, but one warrants mentioning. Tree features a short descending bass riff, four notes making their bluesy way down to the tonic. This riff is pulled straight from a track on I Am Mountain called The Best Part. That song came from an intimate moment of cuddling between Michael, Lisa and their oldest daughter Amelie. It’s about the weight of those human moments, moments and memories that as far as we’re aware, only conscious humans can experience. Tree repeats the bass gesture several times, and also shares with The Best Part an oscillation between two dark chords in a very slow harmonic rhythm. Tree has the feel of a story or allegory — does a tree hate it’s body, wish to be a spirit away from it’s roots and branches? Our lives are visceral, our consciousness is housed in a body. I think what Michael Gungor is trying to pull back from here is the idea that we are something more, something extra, something foreign, and our lives here are just consequential…but as in the deeply personal moment with Amelie, as Lisa penned in the lyrics of The Best Part, life here, in our body, is a deep part of essence of living. “You are spirit, soul, and body, beneath it all the all is one.” We have pulled back from the global human to the personal soul. Universe describes a human in abstract terms, a universe in itself, part of the connected processes of life and death, and certainly not one of useless social categories thrust upon it by individuals and groups. The energy comes back, quick electronic beats and guitar riffs play behind Michael Gungor’s twisting recitation of the lyrics. A deeper beat comes through and the activity increases through the end of the song. This complexity is abruptly countered by only a guitar and Lisa. The Great Homesickness is, like We Are Alive, almost a hymn, it sounds decades old. It has so few words and so much to say, quoting Rilke, a callback to the same quotes in the lyrics of Lion of Rock. It brings personhood back to the divine, uses a pronoun, but is still reticent to categorize or label the wonderment that exists when the breadth of the universe connects to the exploratory nature of the human soul, “the great homesickness we could never shake off.” Michael joins the vocal and another theme of One Wild Life is plainly stated: ontology and religious tradition, while rich ways to encounter life, are not needed and can not fully contain what is glorious about the universe and us living in it.
“I climbed up a Lion of Rock…” we have returned, Michael describes wondrous life in new worlds, hits touchstones from all the places we’ve been in three albums: “fighting the suffering while seeing the gift, love is a yes to it all.” The End does touch on some themes of death, but certainly within the connected process theme stated throughout the album. A beautiful brass chorale marks the break from the original Lion of Rock instrumentals, then the poem of ending, breathing, being connected continues. It centers around the idea of breath, a connection to Birth, and also to the ideas of being present from Already Here. The chorale is now taken up by layers of both Gungor voices. Death is depicted as a returning to the materials of the world, the question of an afterlife or rebirth or a stopping of consciousness are left open. The final themes, stated in Michael Gungor’s simple a capella, are love, “I hope you lived a life of love and risk”, and the connected universe, “now welcome home.” Strings and drones swell back in, keys dance in arpeggios and the mysterious texture that opened Soul is built from the ground up.
As I listened (and listened and listened) to One Wild Life over its multi-year release, I found each part required more investment to enjoy, but note well, that is not to say the quality decreased, rather, the deepness increased. The push of musical choices and textures grew more complex as the ideas to grapple with grew bigger or more difficult. The words and poems became more nuanced and the angles from which topics were approached became more oblique. But the strength of passion, of love, of hurt and desire for transformation were there all throughout. The satisfaction with the world as-is…the lack of need to define, describe, believe, perfect…are there in every song. Life and the world are filled with beauty, beauty that persists in our mind and heart, regardless of which words and traditions have tried to explore and explain it. Hardship exists; hate, selfishness, and death are all present in the moment with us and with all of the good, but “there’s no life with out a death”. Be present in the universe that contains you, the universe that you are: love is all, live in love, free.
You will be alright. Love dares us to see, we will all be free.
So it’s really great to listen to all three albums as one set, but it does take some time. Here are some ways to skim through and get little cross sections of the whole work.
Moon Song, Wonder, Whale, We Are Alive, Universe, The End
One Wild Life, Am I, Magic, Spirit Becomes Us, Step Into The Light, Already Here, Walking With Our Eyes Closed, Lovely Broken, Tree, The Great Homesickness
We Are Stronger, Land of the Living, Us for Them, Love Is All, Hurricane, Free, To Live In Love
We Are Stronger, Us For Them, Let Bad Religion Die, Ego, Alien Apes, Breath Within the Breath, Universe
Better Together, Anthem, Love Is All, Alien Apes, Breath Within The Breath, Free
One Wild Life, Us For Them, Kiss The Night, Hurricane, Walking With Our Eyes Closed, Lovely Broken
Light, Vapor, Spirit Becomes Us, Step Into the Light, To Live In Love, The Great Homesickness
Am I, Whale, Body & Blood, Tree
Moon Song, At Sea, Anthem, Wonder, Spirit Becomes Us, Hurricane, Walking With Our Eyes Closed, To Live In Love
Lion of Rock, Am I, You, Let Bad Religion Die, Step Into The Light, Breath Within The Breath, Tree, Universe
(one track from each album grouped thematically, just for fun)
- Lion of Rock — Wonder — Lovely Broken
- Moon Song — Whale — Be The Love
- One Wild Life — Anthem — Walking With Our Eyes Closed
- We Are Stronger — Love Is All — Free
- Light — Hurricane — The Great Homesickness
- At Sea — Kiss The Night — Breath Within The Breath
- Us For Them — Let Bad Religion Die — Ego
- Am I — Body & Blood — Tree
- You — Magic — Step into the Light
- Vapor — We Are Alive — To Live in Love
- Lion of Rock — Spirit Becomes Us — The End