Justin McRoberts is a musician and a christian. I first learned of him back in 1999 when he was on tour with Bebo Norman. I have followed him from a distance since then… always interested in what he was doing, buying a couple of the nine albums he’s released in that time, but not devoted like I am to some other artists. But when I first heard about his latest project, Through Songs I Was First Undone, I was intrigued.
I learned about it on twitter, when @justinmcroberts was first contemplating the song selection. What’s interesting about this album is that it is all cover songs, and, surprisingly, they are all what is called secular music. An odd move for a musician that, while independent, is certainly in the christian music world. Two names he tossed around were Toad the Wet Sprocket and Nine Inch Nails. Now, these two bands, at points in my personal history, have held the #1 slot on my favorite band list, and so my interest was officially piqued. When I got an email from the people promoting the album, informing me that they would like me to review his latest project, I jumped at the opportunity.
The point McRoberts is making is that God can and does use all sorts of means to accomplish His tasks. These songs, some written by unbelievers, can be used by the Holy Spirit to encourage, strengthen, shape, and mold us into the image of Christ. To rebuff us, and correct our misunderstandings of God Himself, or correct our misapplications of His Word. McRoberts has said that these songs have as much of God in them as do songs by overtly christian artists. I would add that, in many cases, they have more. He believes it is his duty to share and celebrate the presence of God in these pieces of art. You can read his thoughts on this record, the individual songs, and other topics on his blog, at http://www.justinmcroberts.com/blog.
The album opens with a song called “Georgia Lee”, written by Tom Waits. I’d never heard this song before, and I confess I’m glad I heard McRoberts’ version before the original. Waits voice would not have kept me around to be undone by the song. It is about the unsolved death of a poor black girl in California in 1997. The song questions, as do all thinking Christians, how evil can occur in a world where our loving God is ruling. The song doesn’t provide an answer, implied or otherwise. We’re just left with the reality that evil does occur in this world.
The next song, The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, comes as if in answer the lingering question of the first. The only way we can deal with The Problem of Evil is by acknowledging it, and trusting in God. We want an answer that is both easy understand and easy to accept, but it is not forthcoming. Instead, God gives us what we need… revelation through His Son.
“Save Me” by Aimee Mann is the third song, and is another that I had never heard before. And its a fun one, probably my favorite on the album. The cover of Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “Fly From Heaven” is, on the other hand, sitting at the bottom of the pile. This, I’m sure, is due to my sentimental connection to Toad, and can’t be held against Mr. McRoberts. I don’t think anyone else could play the song in a way that would please me. “Wildflowers” is a classic version, fairly true to the original. Next is “Head Like A Hole”, originally recorded by Nine Inch Nails. Before Johnny Cash’s amazing recording of “Hurt”, I don’t think any christian musician considered recording a NIN song. NIN is atheistic industrial rock. McRoberts definitely changes the feel of the song. When Trent Reznor sings “bow down before the one you serve/ you’re going to get what you deserve”, he clearly has a sarcastic, sardonic intent. However, when McRoberts sings this line, you get the feeling that it is a sincere statement. Serve God faithfully, and you will be rewarded.
When “No One To Blame” began, I thought it was a Boston song. I remain convinced someone copied the primary chord progression in the hook. This is followed by “Stripped”, a cover of a song by Depeche Mode. I love the sound of this recording. I can’t help but smile when I hear the various guitar (I think) sounds emulating the synthetic sounds DM originally used. This is followed by a short number called “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want”. I’m interested to read the reasons behind McRoberts choosing this song, as its just a bare bones request for something desired, without much if any detail or context. A good song, in any case, that I find I listen to twice before continuing on with my listening.
The last song on the record (and the longest incidentally) is a cover of George Michael’s “Freedom 90″. I confess to not being a George Michael fan, and not especially endeared to this song. However, it fits nicely on the record and, despite being unfavored by me, is not a skipper.
Sonically, the album situates itself into a mostly acoustic folk/rock genre. I enjoy that style of music, but I especially enjoy other elements that were brought in on some songs to mirror the recordings by the original artists. I recommend the album as one for easy listening and (when you’re in the mood) for not so easy listening.