[9 June 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
I happen to like the music of Sufjan Stevens, and it isn’t just a matter of the fact that, when he wants to, he can cut some glorious melodies. I love his approach to Christianity. Basically, Stevens is a Christian and oftentimes writes about Christian themes, but does it in a way that doesn’t feel like he’s shoving a Bible down your throat. He’s basically a guy who has deep seated religious beliefs, but doesn’t feel that he has to peddle or minister to the masses. That, alone, makes him a worthy songwriter in my book. You know, I happen to pray sometimes, and I do believe that there is some guiding deity out there stewarding things on Earth – if you believe in evolution, I’m not sure why humans haven’t mutated to a point where they’ve sprouted wings yet – but I grew up a Roman Catholic, and I don’t go to church these days as I have some issues with that institution’s general disavowal of gay marriage and the fact that women aren’t ordained as ministers. I also have trouble swallowing Christianity: I don’t have an issue with Jesus walking on water or making water into wine, as there may be scientific basis in that, but I do grapple the fact that He basically took seven loaves of bread and fed something like 4,000 people with it. Maybe I haven’t found the right religion yet. Suffice to say, though, what I’m about to say about Half-handed Cloud doesn’t come from a deep seated hatred of all things religious. Far from. I just have a real dilemma taking on Flying Scroll Flight Control, the band’s sixth album, simply because I almost feel that, by the end of it, I feel that leader John Ringhofer makes too big a deal about his religion, and simply doesn’t bring much worthwhile to the table musically.
Let’s be extremely clear: Half-handed Cloud is a very religious band. So much so that if you were to listen to this 18 song album, which clocks in at less than 30 minutes, you could play a drinking game with every time that God, Jesus or Moses, or other religious elements, are namechecked, and be totally blotto by the time the album is over. But there’s more to it than that. A lot of the lyrics feel like empty platitudes in rejoicing God’s (or Jesus’) name. All I felt by the end of listening to this was, yep, Ringhofer is sure very devoted. But he doesn’t make his beliefs feel more universal and accessible in the way that Stevens does. (And it should be probably worth noting that Stevens plays and sings backup on this record, as well as acting as a mixer.) Basically, all of this rejoicing and praising of God’s name just made me feel that Ringhofer is trying to sell me something, which is not a good thing. Perhaps this is an album best for the fully converted, I don’t know. However, all I was able to take away from listening to Flying Scroll Flight Control is that Ringhofer is extremely faithful, which may be a good thing as a practicing Christian, but perhaps not so much if you’re trying to win converts to your music from a very secular pop culture savvy base. If anything, you walk away from this record without an appreciation as to why Rignhofer is a Christian, which might have made this statement a little easier to take.
Which brings us to the music. Now my mother, I think, once told me to never say anything unkind unless you have something positive to say, so I will say this: Flying Scroll Flight Control works in terms of ambition. Even though it is less than 30 minutes long, these 18 songs feel unified into one broader tapestry, with one shard ending and another beginning right after that. And there are some glorious backup vocals probably courtesy of the same choir that sang on Steven’s material somewhere around his Illinois era. But that’s about it. Overall, Flying Scroll Flight Control feels like the cast of Glee run amok with some very psychedelic, almost Neutral Milk Hotel elements. If that sounds messy, it is. There is not one singular standout track on the album, which is probably deliberate as it feels structured more like an album as a whole, but it just ranges too far into experimental twaddle. The press release notes that Ringhofer was trying out rhythms on Ziplock bags, and I swear I could hear this on the album’s final song, the title track, which is a meager 44 seconds in length. What we get here is simply one and two minute fragments, and sometimes less, and the parts are not really equal to the sum of the whole.
Maybe this just wasn’t a record for me. Maybe if you’re into praise and worship music with an experimental edge, you may find much more worth in it. However, to me, this is just a gaudy attempt at merging the sacred with much more untried musical influences. For this listener, it just didn’t work: It felt like it needed a much broader canvas than a mere nearly half hour to really reach out and grab the listener. I don’t want to sound like I’m dismissive of someone’s chosen religion, but there are examples out there of deeply religious individuals who can write a song without resorting to clichés of gospel music – Sufjan Stevens included. Basically, I felt that this was an album that was so overtly Christian that I practically felt the songwriter banging me over the head with it for the length of the whole entire LP. Maybe what this album really needed was more use of God as a metaphor, I’m not sure. But as someone who has doubts about both religion and evolutionary theory – and maybe I’m just the one who is confused – I had trouble taking on the themes of this record. If anything, what Half-handed Cloud really needs is a steadier hand on the more outré musical passages, and a much more even-keeled approach to something that is obviously very important to this musician. And that would be, of course, Ringhofer’s chosen religion.