Sunday, June 27, 2010

DC Talk: Jesus Freak (1995)

(As published in Kamikaze ... )

DC Talk
Jesus Freak

For believers who experience vicarious affirmation from the mainstream success of contemporary Christian musicians, this album may seem too good to be true. Not only has it gone where no other Christian album has gone before (number sixteen during its first week in Billboard), but it rocks too, mining from its mixture of grunge, rap, and alternapop-in-general a soulfulness that most young bands--sacred or profane--wouldn't know from Adam.

Of course, Jesus Freak has predecessors. In 1981, four years before Amy Grant's first top-forty hit, Benny Hester snuck a song from one of his Myrrh albums onto the lower rungs of the singles charts, and the next year, After the Fire scored with a Falco song and toured with Van Halen. Somewhere in there, Cliff Richard notched a half-dozen U.S. hits, and even the one-hit wonder Charlene turned out to have a testimony. But these performers weren't nearly as in-your-face about their faith as DC Talk, who by calling their new album Jesus Freak have performed the Christian equivalent of NWA's calling their 1991 album Niggaz4life: taken a term of derision and rehabilitated it into an honorific.

In fact, Jesus Freak's most enduring cultural contribution may be its transformation of derogatory or essentially meaningless religious phrases--"so help me God," the overfamiliar Godspell lyrics of "Day by Day"--into spiritually potent slang, making it harder than it's been in some time to hear such phrases without pondering their deeper meanings. The last time DC Talk attempted such a recontextualization, they chose "Jesus Is Just Alright" and caught some flak for reviving a song that some considered blasphemous. But it worked--so well, actually, that the live version on the "Jesus Freak" CD single upstages "Jesus Freak" itself.

But what will secularized kids who get curious enough about this odd bestseller to buy or home-tape it make of what they hear? Chances are, they'll find plenty to like. "So Help Me God," the title cut, "Day by Day," and "Like It, Love It, Need It" stack shout-along hooks on a solid foundation of programmed percussion, metal guitars (courtesy mainly of the great Dann Huff), and vocal gymnastics ranging from Kevin Smith's Bono-esque wailing and Michael Tait's soulful soaring to Toby McKeehan's precision rapping. And the slow, introspective numbers ("What If I Stumble," "What Have We Become") maintain the creative tension by matching easy-going music with honest meditations on the flesh's demands on the spirit.

The album's only misstep is Track Thirteen. Untitled on the cover, it turns out to be one of Kevin Smith's "poems." Program around it, and hear why, at least for now, more people are listening to Jesus Freak than to almost any other new album in the land.

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