Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thanks for the memories, Creed

Creed will always hold a special place in my rock-loving heart.

I know that this would no doubt cause some (okay, a lot) of rock critics and those with a more “refined” taste to snicker. I’m fine with that. In fact, I would join in with them, if it were any other band that are currently lumped under the umbrella term “post-grunge.”

I suppose it could have had something to do with timing. Back in 1998, I was a miserable freshman in high school. As with so many other teenagers throughout modern history, music was becoming a therapeutic balm that was helping me wade through the awkwardness and pettiness that defines teenagerdom. I would listen to the radio in my room for hours, particularly a rock station out of Iowa City called KRNA. I credit that station with exposing me to some of the best music that rock has to offer—everything from Led Zeppelin and Tom Petty to Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots.

One day as I sat listening, a new song came on by an up and coming band called Creed. I still clearly remember listening to the song for the first time, and being blown away. Something about that song sounded different then any other song I had heard before, and it wasn’t the tune or a particular guitar riff. It had more to do with the feeling projected by the melody and lyrics. It felt earnest, deeply layered, and most importantly, spiritual. The lyrics spoke of the soul, intentions, and angst. Angst was nothing new in rock music, of course, but this was a different kind of angst—not torment caused by other people, but the torment caused by one’s own personal failings. The song deeply affected me, even though I didn’t know how at the time.

After discovering “Torn,” I later heard more of their songs, such as “My Own Prison,” “What’s This Life For,” and “One,” the latter two displaying the band’s versatility in being able to write about positive yearnings of the spirit as well as darker reflections. My Own Prison would become the second album I ever purchased, and I was soon obsessed with the band. I loved the growl of Mark Tremonti’s guitars, which at times buzzed with a satisfying rawness that didn’t sound overly-produced, and at other times rang out in clean, melodic riffs. I loved the laid-back yet powerful drumming of Scott Phillips, which was often content to be relatively sparse, but at other times would blast with power and speed at just the right moments. I’ll even admit that I liked Scott Stapp’s vocals, which most of the time sounded like he was singing through his nose. But he sang with feeling, and no one can deny the strength of his pipes.

What really set Creed apart in the end, and what I most loved about them, were their lyrics. They were often poetic, evoked Christian imagery and themes, and were always thought-provoking. “My Own Prison” explored the consequences of sin and the way in which it imprisons the soul. It then turns into a plea to the Almighty, complete with a vision of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and a name check of the Archangel Gabriel. “In America” delved into the fake freedom and immorality of our country, even going so far as to explicitly decry abortion. It includes such classic lines as “No one’s right and no one’s wrong in America.” “One” examined the frustration in wanting to change the world for the better yet feeling helpless. It goes on to suggest that our quest to become united is being hampered by political correctness. These were big themes for a rock band to sing about, and it excited me. My parents had recently converted to Catholicism, and I had come into the Church as well, mostly at my parents’ behest. My faith was very young and underdeveloped, but it was nonetheless there, and it was hungering for nourishment. Creed’s music was becoming that nourishment. The music itself was hard, aggressive, and energizing, in a way that I found to be the ultimate self-expression of freedom and something that spoke in particular to my teenage soul. Yet at the same time, the melodies and lyrics were both introspective and positive, both self-examining and compellingly God-aware, which spoke to my faith. It was a combination that I had never encountered before in a rock band.

But as with all good things in life, they must eventually come to an end, or in this case, a steady decline. And for me, that decline started rather quickly with Creed. Needless to say, when their next album Human Clay came out a year later, I bought it immediately, having only heard one of its new songs on the radio. I was disappointed. While the album had its moments, it didn’t grab me like My Own Prison had. For one, it suffered from a common problem that plagues the sophomore albums of bands who have a multi-platinum debut album—overproduction. There was a new sheen on the guitars, and the drums sounded overly crisp and too perfect. The rawness and immediacy that made their debut album so compelling was gone. What made matters worse, many of the songs themselves sounded painfully similar and tended to blend together. With some exceptions (notably “Higher” and “Wash Away Those Years”), the band sounded like they were trying to force out the earnestness and deep meaning through increasingly bombastic lyrics, backed by a whirlwind of intense guitars and drums, as if they felt pressured to prove that their first album wasn’t a fluke. What’s lacking is the honesty and simple songwriting of their debut.

Nevertheless, by the time their third album Weathered arrived in 2001, it was clear that Creed were on to something. They had managed to make their brand of spiritual/Christian-tinged hard rock mainstream. The group enjoyed hugely successful tours, over 20 million albums sold, and a Rolling Stone cover, and yet were a band that many loved to hate. They were justifiably seen as the band at the forefront of “post-grunge” rock, along with acts like 3 Doors Down, Staind, Fuel, and others. My interest in Creed had hugely waned by this time, but I still felt I had a connection to the band, albeit a complicated one. I was torn between respecting them for their Christian roots and making My Own Prison and loathing them for helping to pioneer a style of rock that I had grown to despise: the maddeningly formulaic post-grunge sound that had countless imitators who were dominating modern rock radio. All the same, I still got passing enjoyment out of listening to Weathered. Creed had added some variety to their overproduced sound, including strings, a different drum sound, even a Native American chant in one song. I now considered the band to be a guilty pleasure rather than an act to be taken seriously.

Things started to get rocky for Creed over the next few years, and even though I wasn’t an ardent fan anymore, I still couldn’t help but follow what was going on (I guess true love dies slowly). It became clear that Scott Stapp was becoming an alcoholic, as reports surfaced of alcohol abuse and a near suicide, as well as an infamous concert in Chicago where he appeared drunk onstage and slurred his way through the songs. Then in 2004, Creed officially broke up after Stapp’s bandmates could no longer stand his erratic behavior. By that time, the Creed albums on my CD shelf were becoming a bit dusty, as my musical taste was expanding to both old and new indie bands like the Pixies and Interpol, as well as revival acts like the Strokes and the Killers.

When I heard about Creed’s reunion earlier this year, however, a wave of nostalgia hit me, and I felt a small glimmer of hope: “Maybe they can regain their former glory!” Things looked even more hopeful when I read about how Stapp felt remorse for his past behavior, reconciled with his bandmates, and was eagerly creating music with them again. Was it possible that the band could rekindle the old magic and get back to their roots?

Alas, it was not to be. Full Circle, released this week, is without a doubt Creed’s worst outing. Every post-grunge cliché is hammered out relentlessly from start to finish: double-bass drumming, 80’s hair metal guitar solos, and a wall of distortion accompanying every chorus. Even Mark Tremonti’s signature guitar tones that make a Creed song instantly recognizable are gone. Most disappointing of all are Scott Stapp’s lyrics. So over the top, unsubtle, and completely devoid of insight are they that I found myself both cringing and giggling throughout the album, sometimes at the same time. “How is stepping back a move forward?” Stapp barks in “A Thousand Faces.” I don’t know, Scott, you tell me. In “Fear,” Stapp assures us that he is, in fact, passionate: “Feel the passion in my breath.” And in “On My Sleeve,” there’s apparently no debating where Stapp’s heart is, or if it’s a good idea to use all caps in the liner notes: “My heart is tattooed ON MY SLEEVE.” Frankly, I was stunned by such a sharp decline in lyrical depth from past albums. Despite my disappointment in the musical direction that Human Clay and Weathered took, I still found Stapp to be digging deep from time to time. On Full Circle, it’s as if he threw the lyrics together at the last minute, hoping that something profound would magically arise. So much for wisdom coming with age.

Still, I find that I keep coming back to My Own Prison, when Creed were young and restless, wrestling with God, themselves, and the world, and pouring it all into their music, pure and unadulterated. They took a miserable freshman in high school along for the glorious ride, and I will be forever grateful.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Power and the Glory of U2

You can’t get any bigger than U2.

My housemate Isaiah and I were talking about this as we walked along the upper level of FedEx Field, a 75,000-seat football stadium, gazing upon the thousands of people flooding in below and the phalanx of cars lined up in the distance, all no doubt praying for a parking spot. What other band in history, with the possible exception of the Beatles, can routinely fill stadiums of this size? Whenever U2 embark on a tour, they sell out every show almost without exception, and have now been doing so for the past 20 years.

Before I went to the concert, I knew U2 were hugely popular. But this hadn’t fully dawned on me until Isaiah and I arrived at the stadium and began making our way through the mass of humanity. As we walked toward the escalator to get to our seats in the upper level, I glanced at the faces of passersby. Was it me, or was everyone either smiling or looking happily content? I could feel a sense of joyous anticipation in the crisp September air.

I then began thinking about how I had been listening to nothing but U2 for the past two weeks. Their music has admittedly become something close to therapy for me as of late. New truths and insights come to me through the music and lyrics every time I listen, in a way that can’t be said for any other band.

And then it hit me: The same thing must have happened to at least some of the thousands of people who are here. Mysteriously, the music has spoken to them in the same intensely personal way that it has spoken to me.

We eventually found our seats, and we were pleasantly surprised at the excellent vantage point we had of the stage despite being in the top deck of the stadium. It was a beautiful, clear evening, and the moon and a few stars shone brightly above. As I sat waiting for the show to start, I began to shiver in the cool breeze. At about 7:45, the lights went down and the opening act Muse took the stage. They proceeded to pummel the stadium with an overly-loud set of industrial metal-style dirges, with the singer’s indecipherable vocals getting lost in the wall of noise. I usually like heavy rock as long as the mood is at least somewhat positive and the band has something interesting to say, but Muse’s songs struck me as rather dark and seemed out of place at a U2 concert. I continued to shiver in my seat, fighting off the urge to cover my ears until the end of their set. It was an inauspicious start to the show.

After almost an hour of anxious waiting, the lights went down again, and U2’s Larry Mullen walked onstage to a thunderous roar and began an extended drum intro to “Breathe.” All my negative thoughts about the show were immediately swept away. When bassist Adam Clayton, guitarist The Edge, and singer Bono entered one by one, I along with the rest of the crowd were immediately transfixed. I was stomping my feet and clapping my hands from the outset, along with most of the stadium. Things really started to heat up when the band grooved into the funky classic “Mysterious Ways,” with everyone singing along in one giant chorus. All sense of being cold was now completely gone.

A surge of emotion overtook me by surprise a few songs later, when the band began their timeless gem “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The song, of course, speaks for itself in its universal theme of our eternal longing for (and falling short of) the spirit, but somehow it struck me as especially poignant, and I fought back tears through most of it. It never ceases to amaze me that such an explicitly Christian song strikes such a universal chord. Bono let the crowd sing a large part of it by ourselves.

And so it was that U2 had the entire stadium in the palm of their hand for the next two hours. Through all the astounding visuals of the gargantuan stage known as “The Claw” to the political messages that included a plea for freedom in Iran and a political prisoner in Burma, none of it seemed out of place or over the top. It all seemed so true and so right, a celebration of the human spirit, an opportunity for emotional release, and a cleansing balm for the soul. It was an experience that I will never forget for the rest of my life, one that gave myself and everyone else a tantalizing taste of the eternal, if only for a few, all-too-brief hours.

Is it possible that a rock band can achieve this in one concert? I didn’t really know, and I hadn’t given it much thought, until I went.

Thank you, Lord, for the gift of U2.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

"High Fidelity"

I watched High Fidelity for the first time a week or so ago, and was pleasantly surprised.

I was expecting a standard romantic comedy with a great soundtrack (which is usually a good enough excuse for me to watch one). What I got instead was a clever, entertaining, and brutally honest portrait of an average 30-something joe (played by John Cusack) trying to figure out why his girlfriend is leaving him, and coming to a profound realization in the end, one that I thought I would never find in a modern Hollywood movie. (Beware of spoilers.)

The movie consists of Cusack's character (Rob) leading the audience through a history of his past failed relationships, in the hopes that he will find out what the key to his failure is so that he can win back his current girlfriend who is leaving him. To make a long story short, he and his girlfriend do end up getting back together, but then something unexpected happens. In the movie's climactic scene, Rob proposes (kind of) to his girlfriend, but in the process of doing so (and in the short scene that precedes it), lays bare the lies of the current "hook-up/if it feels good, do it" culture.

Rob realizes that "thinking with your gut" (i.e. lust) is a dead end. Hooking up on the basis of a "fantasy with no problems" doesn't exist. He is tired of the fantasy.

This may seem pretty basic, but in our culture, it is never discussed. Guys are especially prone to this, and are therefore targeted and tricked by our pornographic culture into thinking that they can find fulfillment in hooking up and doing anything that feels good. Rob has tested these waters, and is now crying "bullshit." He knows that it is an endless cycle unless he settles down, and he is "tired of thinking about it." I don't blame him.

"High Fidelity" indeed.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In An Ideal World...

Don’t get me wrong—I love Jon Stewart. Despite its obvious liberal bent, his Comedy Central show The Daily Show is often a refreshingly honest (and hilarious) respite from the wasteland of modern news shows, as it skewers the political correctness and pettiness of American journalism and politics. Perhaps most refreshing of all, he often has guests on his show who think differently than he does, and he will actually talk with them about controversial topics and have debates, instead of pretending that the only people worth having in-depth discussions with are other liberals… but I digress.

There are times, however, when Jon Stewart just doesn’t get it. One recent guest on his show was Mike Huckabee. Huck was on the show to talk about his new book Do the Right Thing, which delves into the premise that if more people acted how they ought to (as in The Golden Rule), our country would have less crime, taxes, problems, need for government, etc. One would think that there would not be much disagreement on this concept—it’s pretty simple to understand. Unfortunately, Stewart (and many others, I’ve found) have a problem with this idea. “This land you speak of, do the unicorns talk in this place?” Stewart deadpanned in response to Huckabee explaining the thesis of his book. For people like Jon Stewart, expecting society to act how it ought to is akin to believing that fairy tales are true. It just isn’t realistic.

This is just one example of how many people will react whenever the topic of what I will call “living toward ideals” comes up. “You’re not living in the real world,” people will say. “You’re being too idealistic. That’s not how the world is. Not every family has a mom and a dad to take care of a child. People steal and kill. Don’t talk about how people should be because that’s not how it is.” I suppose I understand why people think this way. It sounds logical, indeed realistic. But it seems to me that it is missing the point entirely.

In our panic to appear well-grounded, rational, and “tolerant,” we seem to have lost our sense of ideals. As an example, any talk in the public forum about how a child deserves both a mother and a father would be seen as “insensitive” to single parents and gays, despite the obvious truth of the ideal. Single parents are often put on pedestals, living proof that people can overcome difficult odds to raise a child. It is obvious that single parenthood is better than nothing and often very commendable, but it doesn’t change the fact that the child was deprived of a mother or a father and the essential nurturing that both provide in their own unique way.

In the midst of our rush to realism, an occasional reminder of how we should ideally live is seen as pesky and annoying, something that we inherently know deep down to be true but also know how painful it is to change ourselves for the better. And when people like Mike Huckabee come out with an entire book on the subject, the popular (Stewart) reaction is defensive: “But that’s not realistic.”

I think that we fail to realize how dangerous this attitude is. I submit that the Jon Stewart’s of the world (who is all of us, at one time or another) aren’t being intentionally malicious in rushing to realism, but I would argue that we are unwittingly conditioning ourselves to settle for less than we are capable of. To state that it is “unrealistic” for everyone to treat each other kindly is to indirectly say that there is no hope for the world and that we shouldn’t even try. To cry “unrealistic” is to mistakenly think that one must be successful in every attempt at living toward an ideal; we know that perfectly achieving an ideal is impossible on this earth—the point is in trying one’s best without worrying about the results. It’s in the journey toward the ideal that we improve ourselves and those around us. That’s the whole point of having ideals in the first place.

And so, I say that it’s ok to be idealistic. It’s ok to be “naïve”, as they may call me. To be anything less would be to not only sell myself short, but the world.