Artist’s Turn to Worship Music Leaves a Fan Unsure

Dustin Kensrue performs with Thrice in 2007.			 Dave Shearn photograph

Dustin Kensrue performs with Thrice in 2007. Dave Shearn photograph

Some years ago, I wrote my college application essay about a musician and lyricist named Dustin Kensrue, the singer of an alternative rock band called Thrice. I focused on how his lyrics, evocative but couched in metaphor, inspired me as a writer. I mentioned the religious imagery that he expertly wove through his work, pointing at its meaning without outright stating it.

Fast forward to last month, and Kensrue, now operating as a solo artist, has given us this: “God is good, God is good/ All of the time/ God is good.”

Lyrics like those are partially why The Water & The Blood, Kensrue’s first solo album after Thrice’s disbandment last year, is such an immensely confusing listen for me. It’s not a bad album, and I’m not disparaging the beliefs behind the lyrics, but the cognitive dissonance remains.

Kensrue has never been shy about his Christian faith, to be sure, but Thrice was on the secular side of things, moving over the years from speed-punk in the late 1990s to a ponderous, grungy rock band a year ago, passing through various modes of experimentation on the way.

Kensrue is currently the worship director for the Bellevue, Wash., arm of the Mars Hill Church, a network of churches with 14 locations in and around Washington State. The Wate r & The Blood is meant to be worship music, sung aloud in church. That’s Kensrue’s stated goal. It shows, and that’s fine. I admire his commitment to releasing an album that aligns more explicitly with his belief system than any Thrice album did.

At the same time, though, on The Water & The Blood Kensrue fluctuates between the more straightforward, upbeat and digestible tunes (a pretty stark change from Thrice) and darker, complicated and otherwise ambitious cuts (the scraps of Thrice he’s held on to).

Rejoice, a three-minute jaunt, starts the album and lyrically serves as a statement of purpose: “Come and stand before your maker/ Full of wonder, full of fear/ Come behold His power and glory/ Yet with confidence draw near.” I can imagine hundreds or thousands of churchgoers belting out a chorus of, “Rejoice!/ Come and lift your hands, raise your voice!” If the album was 11 variants of that, I’d accept it on its own terms: not something with a grand artistic statement, but something that serves a purpose, and serves it well.

But I can’t, because the style of his previous songwriting pops up more than occasionally, and some songs seem to satisfy their own end rather than that of a mass sing-along. After Rejoice and Rock of Ages, a re-calibration of the traditional hymn, Kensrue offers Suffering Servant, a brooding, piano-led account of the death of Jesus. The key change leading into the final two choruses hits like a thunderclap.

Then there are more obvious worship songs, the undeniably catchy exaltations. Again, tracks like the dance-tinged Voice of the Lord are solid. They’re short, uncomplicated and don’t stick with you long afterward.

But then, toward the back of the album, there’s It’s Not Enough. Kensrue initially wrote It’s Not Enough for Thrice before the group disbanded, and it’s not hard to mark the song as an outlier. It’s more concerned with atmosphere than the other album cuts, burning slowly via clicking electronics and an anchoring piano line. It ends with a brief moment of emotional exertion, Kensrue howling the final few lines, displaying a chaotic passion that had been tamped down for most of the album.

It is, by most critical accounts (and my own), the best song on The Water & The Blood . It was the first track released to the public, the only one on the album not meant for worship, the only one not given a chord chart on Mars Hill’s website, the only one unconcerned with traditional song structure.

I suppose I take issue with It’s Not Enough being on the album in the first place. The song feels like a bridge between Kensrue’s “secular” work and the worship music on The Water & The Blood meant to attract listeners who’d otherwise shy away from the subject matter.

And in a totally informal Google survey I did, it seems that plenty of online music outlets spread It’s Not Enough when it was released as a single in August, after Kensrue stated his goal for the album but before other songs were released. Actual album reviews are mostly (and interestingly) confined to Christian music sites.

But the fact is the best songs — the best songs , the ones that resonate while divorced of genre label — are the dark ones. They’re the ones that poke at the stereotypical idea of worship music, but they’re also the ones that sound the most like Thrice.

I’m not really yearning for more of Kensrue’s old output, but it still feels strange to be drawn in by some really good music and then pushed away by songs that, because of Kensrue’s desire to stay within the pre-built walls of worship music, just don’t measure up.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.