Mention any genre variant of “Christian,” “gospel,” or “worship” music, and half of the audience will probably drop their drinks and walk out. As someone who used to shudder at the mere mention of Chris Tomlin, I think I have a solid idea why: like sermons and even church itself, music with a religious claim quickly evokes just about every negative gut reaction we have. Whether it’s being told we haven’t been good enough – or being blandly told that God is simply perfect – the old themes wear themselves out before they have a chance to reach our ears. At times it feels supremely pretentious, as though worship music demands our attention if we want to be good Christians. It all seems so superficial, so thoughtless, a rote recitation of a crusty catechism to be left safely in the pew. But Josh Garrels, a singer-songwriter from Indiana, is breathing new life into dead expectations, proving that there’s more to Christian music than anyone ever expected.
“The evergreens, mist, rain, rocky coast, and stretches of uninhabited woods feel wild and untamed. I think the terrain also influences the area’s culture and spirituality. Living here has deeply affected me and my work.” Josh Garrels’ words don’t ring with the empty repetition of a dull youth pastor. The way he speaks, writes, and sings have the distinctive marks of a folk artist, which is where he places himself musically. He has spent years cultivating a sound that gives any Americana artist fair competition. His work is a pleasure to listen to simply for its lush natural feel and emotionally-rejuvenating harmony. And the same craftsmanship he applies to his grassroots guitar style is not lost on his lyrical development. Drawing on his experience as a hip-hop producer, he adds the potent elements of clever rhyme and rhythmic delivery to give his words a masterful flow that so many amateur lyricists simply falter around.
Garrels tends to base his albums around distinct themes, and not the kind that are so readily recycled for mass consumption in modern worship music. Instead of offering the same old praises and testimonials, he actually explores what the Christian life means from a perspective that is nearly mystical. One of his most remarkable albums, Love & War & The Sea In Between (2011) was called “prophetic, incisive, achingly human, and longingly spiritual” by Christianity Today. It honed in on some of the most introspective and overlooked aspects of faith, such as relying on one’s spiritual instincts to navigate times of darkness without clear guidance. His most recent release, Home (2015), plumbs the depths of identity in a world that seems alien.
What Garrels achieves is actually pretty remarkable. In a market saturated by money-making artists who have fine- tuned their appeal to the broad Christian public, it’s refreshing and hope-inspiring to come across one who’s capable of giving a philosopher’s contemplation to life’s most challenging questions. People of any faith can appreciate his approach and his talent, as well as his thoughtful consideration of religion.