Joy, and the Music of Jeremy Enigk
We see a great many things and can remember a great many things, but that is different. We get very few of the true images in our heads of the kind I'm talking about, the kind that become more and more vivid for us as if the passage of the years did not obscure their reality, but, year by year, drew off another veil to expose a meaning which we had only dimly surmised at first. Very probably the last veil will not be removed, for there are not enough years, but the brightness of the image increases and our conviction increases that the brightness is meaning, or the legend of meaning, and without the image our lives would be nothing except an old piece of film rolled on a spool and thrown into a desk drawer among the unanswered letters.
—Robert Penn Warren
from All The King’s Men
When I first heard Jeremy Enigk (pronounced “ee-nihk”) sing in the summer of 1994, I wasn’t adequately prepared. Like everyone else in the early 90’s, I was so caught up in Nirvana’s grunge revolution that Enigk’s band, Sunny Day Real Estate, failed to register on my musical radar. Thankfully I had a few friends that pressed the issue. When I finally listened, I realized what I’d been missing. Enigk’s voice was unlike anything I’d ever heard, and the music was so unique and emotionally powerful that it moved me deeply.
I’m not talking about “Jerry Maguire” singing “Freefalling” in his car after writing his manifesto—I’m talking about a deep movement of the spirit. Hearing that music was more than just an experience of happiness, it was a sort of epiphany, and its meaning has grown with time, rather than diminishing.
Blending the lo-fi production and hard-driving guitar of punk rock with multi-layered arrangements, beautiful melodies, byzantine bass lines and plenty of raw emotion, Sunny Day Real Estate (henceforth “SDRE”) quickly became the darling of college radio and live shows like MTV’s now defunct 120 Minutes. Its sound launched myriad copycats in the years to follow, and the band is widely recognized today as pioneers of the popular music genre known as “emo-core” (“emo” for its emotional pop sensibilities and “core” for its hardcore edge).
like Thursday, At The Drive In, Jimmy Eat World, Alkaline Trio, NewFound Glory
and Saves The Day all owe a large debt to the seminal work of SDRE.
But sadly, like many other musical pioneers before it, SDRE fell apart about as quickly as it rose to prominence. In 1995, after only two albums, the original line-up called it quits. Two of the members, Will Goldsmith and Nate Mendel, went on to work with Dave Grohl on the first Foo Fighters release (Mendel is still a member), and Enigk cast about trying to figure out his next step musically.
It was during this time that Enigk made a much-publicized statement of faith in Christ. In a response to a fan question on a SubPop chatboard, he confessed that he had “given his life to Christ” and “wanted to sing about it.” Not only that, but he wanted to redefine his music in the context of his newfound faith-—not an easy task in an otherwise hostile industry. “Jesus isn't anything that I want to compromise with,” he said, “for he is far more important then [sic] this music, financial security or popularity could ever be."
It was in the wake of this break up, and very public conversion, that Enigk began work on his first solo album, Return of the Frog Queen. The album was a stark departure from the in-your-face hardcore fire that characterized SDRE. Flowing like a tapestry of rich orchestrations with acoustic guitar and Prufrockian lyricism, ROTFQ was anything but what fans expected. Electric guitars were virtually non-existent on the album, and the arrangements were quite literally crowded with instruments, many of them of the brass or string variety.
Judged against Enigk’s previous work, ROTFQ was a watershed. It was emo-meets-the-Beatles in an ecstatic carnival waltz, yet still inscrutably punk rock despite the 21-piece orchestra, or perhaps because of it. This wasn’t “emo-core,” it was an entirely new musical course: a highly complex work, full of swelling highs and lows with lyrics that had no apparently discernible meaning. And perhaps more notably, given his conversion and statements about SDRE, there was no mention of Jesus or God or anything overtly spiritual.
The move was downright heroic for two reasons: 1) he didn’t cash in on the popularity of his previous band’s sound 2) he didn’t write praise songs. In the hands of a lesser artist,the project would have been an abject failure. But with ROTFQ, Enigk defined himself as a musician with singular talents who is clearly passionate about life, and art for art’s sake.
His talent lies in the fact that he rarely communicates his ideas directly; they are nearly always mediated indirectly through his art. The music does the bulk of the communication. His lyrics often don’t make sense, or if they do, they only do so poetically, and even then only in a way that paints mental images. There is very little exposition in his work, and he doesn’t share knowledge so much as he imparts an experience. The tool he uses most effectively to accomplish this task is his voice.
Enigk’s voice has an alien quality to it. No one else sounds quite like him. He probably has a 3-4-octave range in full voice, and can move effortlessly into falsetto and back again. This is no small feat for most vocalists. The character of his voice at normal pitch has a reedy timbre that’s dynamic like a choir, and when he sings you get the impression that there is more than one voice singing at a time.
Then there’s a whole different voice that comes out—inordinately high, sharp and piercing—like vocal cord overdrive when he wants to bring a moment home. It hits you with the force of an electrical shock and all the urgency of a prophecy. An imploring howl unlike anything I’ve ever heard.
In its best moments, the music Enigk makes quite literally becomes an invitation to partake in all the joys and sorrows of life, while at the same time pushing us on toward something much larger, and outside ourselves. In this sense, Enigk, as a Christian artist, is like Auden and C.S. Lewis before him; he stands in the mythopoetic Christian tradition, creating worlds with his music that cause us to attend to something beyond the givens of reality.
His last project, a classic rock offering known as The Fire Theft, carried these themes further than any of his previous work. In the song “Summertime,” he employed the concept of joy, and its corresponding longing, to show how Creation can be viewed as a veil (however thick) through which glimpses of ultimate reality may be revealed. In the song he implores,
Lift back the veil that hides you and me
I can run bearing rumors all traced in the past
Painted mirrors all aging with cracks
Which way and how far
I will try to reach the landscape of where you begin
Not the reflection of what I pretend
Lyrically this is a far cry from anything on ROTFQ, and spiritually and musically the song hints at a maturity and confidence that wasn’t present in Enigk’s earlier work (or most of his copycats for that matter). It will be interesting to watch how he progresses as an artist over the next few years.
The last time I saw Jeremy Enigk play was a Fire Theft gig in Los Angeles. The guys that went with me weren’t Christians, in fact, one was an agnostic and the other a Hindu. During the course of the show I felt myself caught up by the music into this larger emotional context that I can only call Joy. After the show, I kept this to myself out of sheer embarrassment, until my Hindu friend turned to me when we were walking out and said, after a long silence, “that was a religious experience man!” I could only laugh. “Yes it was,” I said, smiling.
I’d spent a long time wondering what it meant that Jeremy Enigk converted to Christianity but didn’t sing overtly about God. After I saw that show, I started thinking, maybe it was my lack of vision that kept me from seeing it; maybe Jeremy had found a way to put God in his music after all.
©2006 Christopher Stratton
To learn more about
Jeremy Enigk, visit myspace.com/jeremyenigk or lewishollow.comwebsite. For
further listening, the author recommends the following titles; help explorefaith by following the links to amazon.com.
RETURN OF THE FROG QUEEN Jeremy Enigk
THE FIRE THEFT Jeremy Enigk
DIARY Sunny Day Real Estate