Control Me by Jay Tholen (Review)

What if Anamanaguchi, Susumu Hirasawa, Ronnie Martin, and Sufjan Stevens got together and made a chiptune gospel album?
Control Me - Jay Tholen

What’s that you say? You’ve always wondered what it would sound like if Anamanaguchi, Susumu Hirasawa, Ronnie Martin (Joy Electric), and Enjoy Your Rabbit-era Sufjan got together and made a chiptune gospel album? Well, wonder no more and download a copy of Jay Tholen’s Control Me.

Put simply, these twelve tracks don’t seem like they should work. They ought to be drowning in their own precociousness, choking on their own bleeps and bloops, etc. However, the album works quite admirably given its humble origins and nature.

Musically, it’s a consistently fascinating listen, a kaleidoscope of sounds channelled directly from that old NES you stashed somewhere in the attic long ago. But Tholen weaves in other instruments as well: the aforementioned ukulele, flute, kazoo, and even a glockenspiel or two for good measure. The electronic sounds burst forth with wild abandon while the traditional instrumentation adds a rougher, warmer aspect, as do Tholen’s wavering vocals. Meanwhile, samples from older Christian gospel LPs add a layer of kitsch that’s more nostalgic than snarky. It’s a fascinating mixture, and it goes down some surprising paths, e.g., the pseudo-reggae stylings of “Altars,” the title track’s baroque flourishes, “Curtains“ ‘ Donkey Kong-sized breakdown.

I’ve listened to the opening track, “Time Transcendent,” many times since getting the album, and it’s an incredibly catchy tune — indeed, if I’d known of Control Me earlier, “Time Transcendent” may very well have ended up in my year-end mix. Not only is it a perfect example of Tholen’s lovely cacophony, but it also highlights the other factor that makes the album work as well as it does: Tholen’s earnestness.

Given the 8-bit nature of the music, you might expect lots of pop culture references to Mario, Zelda, et al. But this is a gospel album, one that is intended to specifically express Tholen’s love for the Christian Gospel. In fact, the very first words out of Tholen’s mouth celebrates God’s sovereignty: “Only truly time-transcendent/Only truly independent, ever-past and ever-present God!” But that celebration takes a surprisingly intimate turn in the song’s latter half, as Tholen sings of the complications surrounding his own birth:

They said I couldn’t be born
Hearts were warm as hands were laid
To Jesus for my mom they prayed
She bled…
She bled…

Here, the song reveals itself to be a celebration of thanksgiving to God for nothing less than Tholen’s own life, and so it’s only appropriate that the next song begins with Tholen reverently singing “The name of Jesus is lifted high.” (I should mention that, given the fact that my own birth was fraught with peril, and that both of my sons were born amidst medical complications, “Time Transcendent” has an especial emotional impact for me.)

Later songs continue that sense of worshipful earnestness. “Altars” and “Be Alright” are boasts in the might of God. “Prayer” is just that, a prayer for courage and grace when it comes to sharing the Gospel. “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” wrestles with a story of moribund faith. The haunting “Bleeding Over” offers an interesting perspective on Christ’s crucifixion. And “Eagle Feather, Falcon Claw,” the album’s 10+ minute epic, is a psychedelic 8-bit exploration — think Sufjan’s Age of Adz by way of Susumu Hirasawa’s Paprika soundtrack — of the Biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar’s hubris and downfall.

Control Me is a delightful album: there’s really no other way to describe it. Musically, it’s as clever, intriguing, and even moving as anything I’ve heard lately, with the classic video game nostalgia giving it some bonus points. But it’s much more than the gimmick that one is initially tempted to dismiss it as. This is a Spirit-filled work, one of great humility, reverence, beauty, and joy. Like other “gimmick” acts that have existed on the fringe of Christendom (e.g., Farquar Muckenfuss, Professor Small, Soul-Junk, Danielson Famile), Jay Tholen’s music expands the boundaries of what we might consider to be “gospel” music, and does so in an utterly charming and infectious manner.

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