The Innocence Mission (A&M Records)
“Mom, Brad from church says he listens to secular bands like Mötley Crüe and KISS, and then listens to Christian bands like Petra and Stryper to, like, cancel out the non-Christian music he listens to,” I told my mom. “Pretty cool, huh?”
“Well, I don’t think it works that way,” she replied. “If you listen to music with a worldly message, it will influence you.” “Computer Brains,” the second song on Petra’s Beat the System — one of the first albums I ever bought — came to mind. “Garbage in, garbage out!” yips vocalist Greg X. Volz.
I hadn’t even told her that Brad believed “KISS” to be an acronym for “Knights in Satan’s Service.”
While I understood what mom meant, Brad had managed to straddle the sacred and the secular without becoming, well… a Knight in Satan’s Service. Could I listen to secular music and live to tell the tale, too? Did I even want to, or was I simply feeling around in the dark for healthy boundaries when it came to the culture I could consume?
I would soon learn that sacred and secular did not necessarily exist in mutually exclusive spheres. In fact, unbeknownst to me, my mom, or Brad from church, there were Christians who made music for secular labels without ever uttering so much as a “God,” “Jesus,” or “Moses.”
I learned about this mutant strain of music from two publications: First, Focus on the Family’s magazine for teenage boys, Breakaway — kind of an unlikely source, I know. Bob Smithhouser’s “High Voltage” column introduced me to King’s X, and my Columbia House subscription supplied me with three of the Texas trio’s albums for mere pennies. That same publication also featured occasional album reviews by J. Edward Keyes, who has since written for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, and Wondering Sound, to name a few. Reading his reviews, I thought to myself, “Maybe I could do that, too.”
I did end up writing a few reviews for the second publication, True Tunes News. In my estimation, it was the essential underground Christian music magazine of the ‘90s; no magazine impacted me more. Each issue featured a mail-order catalog offering a seemingly infinite assortment of albums for rabid fanboys like me to purchase. Alongside well-known Christian acts like Petra and DC Talk, the catalog featured albums by established secular acts like U2, The Ocean Blue, Over the Rhine, and The Innocence Mission, to name a few.
Isn’t U2 a secular band? I remember wondering upon first flipping through the catalog’s newspaper pages. What are they doing in here? Who else is in here? Slayer?
Why had True Tunes News editor-in-chief John J. Thompson included these bands in his catalog? What did he know about them that I obviously did not? Were these bands Christians who wanted to avoid the toxic “Christian rock” label? Or were they non-Christians who fortified their music with enough moral fiber to keep one’s soul, well, regular? You know, music with a positive message — stuff that would keep me off drugs and in school.
I conducted my own research, and my findings forever changed my music consumption habits. As I became acquainted with these bands that Brad from church knew nothing about, I began to imagine them as double-agents: Christians working as yeast within the dough of mainstream culture. Covert operatives for Christ.
Which brings me to The Innocence Mission. While the band released Glow in 1995, I only heard the album’s opener, “Keeping Awake,” that year, on an A&M Records sampler titled Paper or Plastic? which someone at school lent me.
Something about “Keeping Awake” resonated with me, but I preferred other albums by underground Christian artists in 1995 — bands I had discovered, at least in part, because of True Tunes News.
I might have gravitated toward Glow in 1995 if “Keeping Awake” had called more attention to itself with its light. Instead, it hung like a lantern, lovely and luminous, unassuming and unconcerned with prevailing alt-rock trends. I would return to the song and explore Glow in its entirety for the first time four years later, after discovering the band’s beguiling 1999 album, Birds of My Neighborhood.
If I could pass a copy of Glow to my seventeen-year-old self, I might have been an earlier convert to the work of Catholic husband-wife duo Don and Karen Peris. As the band’s vocalist and lyricist, Karen has always expressed her faith in a way that attracts listeners without alienating them. The God that powers The Innocence Mission illuminates the band’s music from within like fireflies in a jar, appealing to anyone capable of recognizing beauty when they happen upon it.
“My room is held in someone’s arms/My bed is held in someone’s arms,” she sings on “Keeping Awake” over the warm chiming of Don’s golden Gretsch guitars. The whole song seems to be a reflection on what it’s like to be a child at bedtime — listening to the muffled voices of parental figures and all the while resisting sleep, insistent sleep. The “someone” Karen sings of could easily be God — who else could cradle a room or a bed?
There is a strong sense of place on this album — of places where, presumably, Karen grew up. She sings of houses, rooms, lawns, yards, and bridges, all parts of a world she inhabits. Her world is a small, intimate one, and therein lies its appeal. To listen to an Innocence Mission album is to have a parasocial relationship with Karen and Don — to be invited into their world and experience a closeness to them that they cannot possibly reciprocate.
Karen’s lyrics feel like partially excavated fossils of memory — they are fragmentary, their origins and meanings mysterious. They read a little like poetry, too, and have a sort of dream-logic to them.
She often circles back to thoughts of the person she wishes she could be — a hoped-for version of herself. Take “Bright as Yellow,” for instance — the song that follows “Keeping Awake.” Musically, it calls to mind Mazzy Star, albeit with more hope than Hope Sandoval & Co. have ever mustered. (I mean, don’t kill me, I love Mazzy Star. They just don’t sing about rainbows. The Innocence Mission does.) Lyrically, the song paints a picture of a person who wants more than anything else to shine — to be a light in the lives of other people. It’s hardly a sermon on Christians acting as salt and light, but it manages to illuminate in a way that sermons sometimes do not. I listen to the Innocence Mission and think about the man I wish I could be, too.
The shuffling “Brave” follows “Bright as Yellow,” with its winsome guitar solo drawing from inspirational wells both ethereal and vintage — imagine the Cocteau Twins going country. The subject matter of the song is something I know well: the reality that faith does not necessarily dispel fear altogether.
One of my favorite images on the album appears here:
“You go outside. You see the Holy Spirit
burning in your trees
and walk on, glowing with the same glow.
Still you tremble out and in.”
The protagonist in the song sees God in nature — sees Him blazing in the brush — and glows in His light, but still she fears what she fears. I hope in Christ, too, but cannot silence the shrill sirens of anxiety in my mind. Were a song like this released on a Christian label, it might cause discomfort for the listener who prefers a faith that obliterates fear altogether — or worse yet, have a tacked-on happy ending. Which is why I love that the band had the freedom to express themselves without spiritual censorship on this record.
In addition to the outstanding opening trio of songs, I have several other favorites on the album. “Speak Our Minds” finds the band at its most frenzied — a word I would struggle mightily to apply to anything else in the band’s body of work. “Our Harry” is as sentimental and serene as “Speak Our Minds” is ecstatic. “Go,” “Everything’s Different Now,” and “I Hear You Say So” are testaments to the band’s near-flawless melodic sensibilities.
But when I hear the instrumental outro on “There,” with Don’s discordant guitars seemingly struggling to break free of unseen restrictions, I know what I love best about Glow and The Innocence Mission overall. They never try to “cancel out” corrosive cultural influences with a heavy-handed religious message. The Innocence Mission instead heed the Pauline call to live in the world without being of it, and struggle not against bands like Mötley Crüe or KISS — bands that were never really their foes in the first place — but against the belief that beauty and goodness are too Pollyannaish to have any heft in a world so prone to ugliness and evil.