Release date: June 11th
Record label: Don Giovanni/Anyway
Genre: Indie pop
Formats: Vinyl, digital
Pull track: Kroger Twilight
Despite catering to a portion of American culture that is more prone than others to vent about “political correctness” and “cancel culture”, the contemporary Christian music industry certainly has very strict rules about what can be marketed as “Christian music” and how musicians labeled as such should behave. One should be unwavering in one’s faith, and questioning it is off-limits. Swearing is off the table. All of one’s music should be about the glory of God and Jesus; singing about worldly concerns is, to say the least, frowned upon. Politics (unless they’re, you know, the right kind) are out of the question. Oh, and you probably shouldn’t be gay. Which brings us to St. Lenox’s fourth album, Ten Songs of Worship and Praise for Our Tumultuous Times, his self-described “progressive, queer, spiritual record” made by a man who admits he is not particularly religious in several of its songs. It is a more honest portrayal of religion and how we interact with it because of this freedom.
Album opener “Deliverance” finds Andrew Choi, the man behind St. Lenox, driven to consider the questions surrounding religion and the afterlife by both his own mortality and that of those around him. Admitting that the catalyst for his curiosity in religion is something other than an inextinguishable love for God is not the idealized version of American Christian passion, but is a more accurate depiction of those who begin to consider religion later in life after drifting away from it. When Choi sings “I’m ready to believe in something these days / Maybe I can believe in deliverance now,” he’s after the same thing that animates the most devout: hope in something greater. “Bethesda” is about Choi’s religious upbringing, growing up going to a Lutheran church in Ames, Iowa. Although the song doesn’t directly connect the scenes from his childhood to his present-day queries, I do find the potential seeds for deliverance hidden within them. Choi describes boredly scribbling on and counting spelling errors in church programs and mouthing the words to hymns because he hated singing in front of others. It is not lost on anyone paying attention that Choi, decades removed from Bethesda Lutheran, is now a musician singing a religious-themed album featuring songs that approach scripture from an intrigued perspective (like “The Great Blue Heron (Song of Solomon)”). After finding himself receptive to things later in life that his younger self probably couldn’t imagine, perhaps the door is only opening for Choi.
Of course, not all of Ten Songs of Worship and Praise… is about Choi’s relationship with religion, at least not directly. “What Is It Like to Have Children”, in the middle of the album, is a direct rumination on the question its title poses, and a good deal of the song touches on Choi’s relationship with his parents in a way that hearkens back to his 2016 album Ten Hymns from My American Gothic. That album detailed Choi’s experience being the son of Korean immigrants, and as “Gospel of Hope” from his new album makes explicit, much of Choi’s experience with religion is derived from how it shaped his parents’ lives as they uprooted themselves into an unfamiliar country. It follows that any meditation on religion by Choi would lead to his parents, which in turn informs his own goals and fears when thinking of his potential children (“Could I be a great and mighty fortress never failing / And could I do better than my father did before me?”). It’s also perhaps relevant in that having children, raising something that one hopes lives beyond one’s own life and passes on some part of them, is its own form of finding something greater in this world, and could also be seen response to the theme of mortality that pops up throughout the album.
Choi has received comparisons to John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats and Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, and thematically Ten Songs of Worship and Praise… is certainly in the same realm as those writers’ Biblically-informed verbosity, but the influence that I can’t stop thinking about ever since I noticed it is Michael Stipe, whose band Choi has cited as a formative influence. Choi’s writing may be the Midwestern-direct mirror image to Stipe’s Southern Gothic-opaque lyrics for the most part, but one can draw a direct line from the themes on “Nightswimming” and “Gardening at Night” to this album’s “Kroger Twilight”. In addition, musically, Ten Songs of Worship and Praise… kind of sounds like if R.E.M. had made Up at the peak of their confidence as a band, rather than at their nadir.
St. Lenox is one of the most “lyrics-forward” projects around, but I do not want to overlook Choi’s musical and vocal choices, as they undoubtedly shape how one hears Ten Songs of Worship and Praise for Our Tumultuous Times. In several places, Choi’s backing music feels like a step forward for the project, like the way the sleepy synths in “Kroger Twilight” help create the late-night grocery shopping experience contained within the song, or the buzzing in “Deliverance” helps kick off a record that traverses a lot of ground over its ten tracks. There are no solo acoustic songs on Ten Songs of Worship and Praise… like Choi has brought out in the past (like “The Public School System” and “Don’t Ever Change Me New York City”) and the structures feel looser than St. Lenox has been in the past, letting Choi’s vocals sprawl out over the music—there’s nothing as tightly-constructed as, say, “Korea” here. Whether these slight but notable changes are due to an increased confidence by Choi in his “beats” or just more fitting of the material covered on the record I’m not certain, but it does help make Ten Songs of Worship and Praise… a distinct entry in the St. Lenox discography.
This confidence and Choi’s freewheeling style can be a lot to take in all at once; I haven’t decided if Ten Songs of Worship and Praise… is the best St. Lenox album, it already feels like the most St. Lenox album. At times Ten Songs of Worship and Praise… seems to nearly careen off the rails, straining under the weight of everything the album seeks to encapsulate. Choi has moments where he sounds like an over-excited professor whose mind is traveling even faster than his mouth: the speedy “Teenage Eyes” zips along, with Choi’s tale of holding on to one’s frequently stamped-out youthful passions undergirded by a Dwight Eisenhower speech whose significance in respect to the song’s lyrics I haven’t yet ascertained. Album closer “Superkamiokande” is similarly curious, using the titular Japanese neutrino detector to turn Choi’s religious musings to both the galactic and molecular, but Choi isn’t forthright in how these pieces all fit together for him, if at all. And yet, “Teenage Eyes” and “Superkamiokande” are two of my favorite songs on Ten Songs of Worship and Praise for Our Tumultuous Times. The concerns Choi spends the bulk of this album singing about don’t come with easy explanations or neat resolutions. As much as we’d like to view religion as a pure or absolute force, it’s not—it’s complicated, influenced and altered for each individual by the people around them, society, and their own personal growth. And Ten Songs of Worship and Praise… is informed by this: it’s a singular album that could have only been made by Andrew Choi. Much work on religion caters to either the extremely devout or extremely un-devout—groups who may not enjoy the indefinite nature of this album. For all of us who fall somewhere in between—and for those in those two extremes who still keep an open mind— Ten Songs of Worship and Praise… is a rewarding album that deftly navigates questions as old as humanity itself with fresh eyes.