Alright, so I’ve already unleashed some of my Christmas music vitriol. But that’s probably why I’m finding Sojourn’s Songs For The Advent quite the refreshing release. Musically, it’s a mixed bag, mixing atmospheric drum n’ bass pieces, somber folk numbers, haunting piano ballads, more rock-oriented numbers, and even a bit of noisy post-punk for good measure.
It shouldn’t work, but what unifies the album and keeps it from being an utter mess is the worshipful attitude that pervades it. This is, first and foremost, a praise and worship album. Normally, praise and worship music is something I tend to avoid. Not because I disagree with the lyrical content, but because I often abhor the way that it’s presented, resorting mawkish cliches and “Jesus is my boyfriend” sentiments.
But the myriad of music styles on Songs For The Advent prevent the songs from resorting to cliches. There are several traditional pieces, such as “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “What Child Is This,” but both are given a breath of life thanks to the passionate voices of Hayley Patty and Rebecca Dennison, respectively. The former is full of fiery, almost glammy guitar solos reminiscent of The Violet Burning’s brightest moments, whereas the latter is a completely acoustic piece, the rich guitar complementing Dennison’s rich vocals.
The album especially shines on the more instrumental pieces. After the fairly contemporary “God Is With Us,” it’s a bit of a surprise to hear the spacey electronics of “John 1,” a spoken word piece that is essentially a paraphrase of the first chapter of John’s gospel. However incongruous it might be, the modern sonic elements actually lend a cosmic vibe to the piece, a nice accent to the cryptic yet awe-inspiring explanation of Christ’s existence and purpose in those verses.
“The Shepherds, Part I” and “The Shepherds, Part II” are acoustic guitar numbers that wouldn’t be out of place on an Over The Rhine album — especially the second one, a so-called “duet for guitar and crickets” that has a meditative quality about it. And then there’s “The Birth, The Visit, The Escape,” a concept piece that is actually mapped out across a series of a Bible passages chronicling all aspects of Christ’s birth that resembles a Roadside Monument song more than any traditional carol.
And finally, there’s “The Advent,” an absolutely gorgeous, haunting, and pensive piano ballad by Nathan Stites. This might be my favorite piece on the entire album, perfectly capturing the humility, frailty, and glory of our Saviour’s birth. The lilting piano cascades at the two-minute mark are especially moving, both sad and triumphant at the same time.
Songs For The Advent is, by no means, your typical Christmas album, though it certainly contains songs that wouldn’t be out of place on any Christian radio station ’round this time of year (“God Is With Us,” “Hosanna In The Highest”). However, there are plenty of moments that feel delightfully out-of-place, where Sojourn goes a bit more astray of the Christmas music norm. And truth be told, by not being afraid to explore and be a bit more creative, these moments are probably some of the most reverent on the album.
It’s a refreshing listen, working within the constraints of praise and worship music yet delivering something much more than yet another praise and worship album. I was completely unaware that I needed a good Christmas album this year — I typically avoid most Christmas music like I avoid most praise and worship music — and yet this album has filled that niche quite nicely.
Note: This album was reissued in 2007 as Advent Songs.