In C.S. Lewis' famous novel The Great Divorce, travelers on a bus are introduced to the meadows of heaven. As the people in the story are revealed to be ghosts, the land proves to be far more solid than the travelers' bodies, and the realities of God and heaven are painfully real to these ghosts as they travel the landscape, both physically and mentally. With the title inspired by Lewis's masterpiece, Gungor's Ghosts Upon the Earth displays a keen sense of spiritual reality as Michael and Lisa Gungor and friends traverse through moments of awe-inspired worship. The story told is a remarkable result.
As their previous album Beautiful Things demonstrated just last year, Gungor boasts one of the most unique approaches to worship in the scene. With a grand assortment of instrumentation and musical diversity, Beautiful Things was a breath of fresh air for many, balancing both lyrical quality and a matching inventive melodic approach. Some tracks were obvious candidates for corporate church use (the title track as a prime example) and some were far more abstract in tone; it struck the careful equilibrium, never boringly pretentious or cookie-cutter in delivery. If there's a noticeable difference in method that Ghosts Upon the Earth employs, it's further on the side of developing an artistic façade than it is distributing the next worship hit for churches worldwide. This isn't to say that some aren't congregational in tone at all ("Brother Moon" and "Crags and Clay" are both possibilities), but Ghosts Upon the Earth is more about creating a stirring and awakening atmosphere for the believer's ears than making a grand public spectacle.
Musical influences present here are really too numerous to name, but inspecting individual songs gives the most accurate picture. The opener "Let There Be" is Gungor's attempt at musically illustrating the world's creation. The entire song is basically one prolonged crescendo; starting with only Lisa's vocals and ending with a multitude of voices, it's a powerful portrayal to hear. Most songs start with a purely acoustic base ("Church Bells" and "Vous Etes Mon Coure" tend to stay that way throughout their duration), but the majority grow into something more by the end. "The Fall" becomes orchestral fanfare, while "Wake Up Sleeper" introduces murky bass-induced synths to deepen the composition, and "When Death Dies" results with a string section and pseudo-handclap percussion. "You Are the Beauty" is a full-blown bluegrass number where banjos and fiddles abound. Finally, the epic finish of "I Will Love You" boasts the simple, but profound, ambience of a boys' choir.
Not unlike Beautiful Things, Ghosts Upon the Earth isn't an album to skirt by any lyrical themes lightly. As a story, creation is examined in "Let There Be," and "Brother Moon" is straight-up adoration of the LORD through the celestial bodies He has made ("Brother moon, shine down your light on us tonight/Show us the love of God/Sister sun, you bring out the day/you shine in the light of God on your face today/Maker of it all, You provide it all"). Similarly, "Crags and Clay" uses nature to glorify the Creator ("Soil is spilling life to life/stars are born to fill the night.../All praises to the one who made it all and finds it beautiful.../fearfully and wonderfully and beautifully made"). The most convicting track is possibly "My Bride;" told from Jesus' perspective, it describes his caring and sacrificial character ("I found you naked/I found you lying there in blood.../I clothed your body/I washed the blood and earth from your hair"), but also captures the sinner's tragic tendency towards rebellion regardless ("Sold your body, exposed yourself to all/slept with strangers, gave them everything you had"). Seemingly in answer, "This Is Not the End" rejoices in the victory the believer has in Christ's forgiveness from one's unfaithfulness to Him. Overall, the album is a story begun and ended in sheer triumph.
Common logic would state that few if any of the songs in this collection have potential to be radio hits, but Gungor doesn't seem interested in meeting this expectation; instead, they have set a particularly high bar not just for themselves but also for the entire worship scene. Far and away the best worship record of 2011, Ghosts Upon the Earth demonstrates that Gungor is relentless in challenging themselves musically and lyrically and their listeners' hearts spiritually. In the end, that's the definition of true worshipful artistry, and as a result akin to Psalm 96, "a new song" has been sung.
- Review date: 9/18/11, written by Roger Gelwicks of Jesusfreakhideout.com