Ten songs into the new Five Iron Frenzy album, Until This Shakes Apart, comes its most cathartic moment. In “While Supplies Last,” lead singer Reese Roper lambastes the hypocrisy of those who profess faith yet reveal their greed, turn a blind eye to the needy and demonize those who don’t fit into their box.
It’s already an angry song, and it steadily builds in ferocity, as if Roper is a kettle about to erupt. After two verses, he explodes, raging into a bridge that culminates in a nearly unintelligible scream:
You said we all deserve this
For not forcing kids to pray
While your party loots the earth
And you tell us “Jesus saves”
You’re ignoring half the gospel
Wearing clothing made by slaves
You never rendered unto Caesar
Now you, now you fear the fever
Fear the bottom dropping out of your stocks
You voted for the devil
Let that narcissist embezzle
Put the hen house in the mouth of the Fox
I’ll admit that it seems strange that one of the year’s most powerful and indicting albums comes from a band most famous for an ode to Canada and a rock opera about pants. But it’s not surprising.
Honest Christian music
I became a Five Iron Frenzy fan late. During Christian music’s ska phase in the ‘90s, I listened to The Insyderz because they were local and the O.C. Supertones because they played Acquire the Fire. Five Iron flew under my radar. It wasn’t until they called it quits in 2003 that I heard them for the first time. A good friend was a fan, so we trekked to the other side of the state for their farewell concert. As a thank-you, she bought me their live album, and I was hooked.
I’m not a music critic; my reasons for liking the music I do usually lies more with lyrics and emotional resonance than with any technical explanations. I knew right away I liked FIF’s raucous energy, and the silliness that is just as much a trademark as their faith. I quickly purchased their other albums.
The two most common complaints about Christian music are that it’s derivative of its mainstream inspirations and that the writing is anodyne and insipid. With Five Iron Frenzy, I found a band that constantly shifted its style and backed it up with thoughtful lyrics. The band could flow from a bop about nerd culture to a lament for the victims of Columbine before spinning into a heart-bursting worship number. That unpredictably was welcome, particularly for those of us who grew up with Christian music that encouraged us simply to cheer for Jesus and not ask questions.
Soundtrack for a deconstruction
While Five Iron’s most popular songs tended to be its most worship-driven or its silliest, fans knew that the band was not afraid to tackle issues of social justice or church hypocrisy. The first song on the band’s debut album was about Christians’ role in the mistreatment of native Americans, and the band regularly addressed patriotism (“Anthem”), capitalism (“Giants,” “Vultures”), and the media (“Anchors Away”).
That’s one of reason Five Iron Frenzy remained in heavy rotation for me even as my faith changed, my politics shifted and I began my deconstruction. The further I got out into the world, the more I realized subcultural Christianity often didn’t look like Jesus. Would the Christ who told the rich young ruler to sell everything really support hypercapitalism? Why did people who professed a religion of love so easily side with ideologies spewing hate? What if Jesus was serious when he said to feed the hungry and clothe the naked?
The band didn’t shy from these questions, even when it meant falling out of favor with Christian culture. In Five Iron Frenzy’s lyrics, there was room for a God who loved everyone and a place for those who were kicked out of congregations for the way they dress, who they love and how they vote. The fact that it was leavened with songs about dinosaurs, jokes about growing old and other nonsense further fleshed it out. The music proved that a lived-in faith could be joyful and serious, hopeful and sad. Five Iron Frenzy created albums that captured a complex Christianity, not a sanded-off, shiny faith.
Angst, doubt and dark times
In 2011, the group announced they were back via a record-setting Kickstarter campaign. The resulting album, Engine of a Million Plots, is solid, but some of its themes may have surprised fans. While they still had songs about superheroes and a silly jam about irrelevance, angst underscored much of it. “Against a Sea of Troubles” suggests a growing awareness of mortality, and “Tonight We Own the Skies” is drenched in world-weariness. Rather than end in triumph, the album closes with a song about doubt and the haunting question “can you stand the weather if winter lasts forever.”
If I heard this as a twentysomething, I would be troubled. Where was the victory of the Christian life? Why was the certainty of faith replaced by the desperate line “my only hope is that you cannot not be real”? But as someone who regularly endured periods of deep doubt, I appreciated the vulnerability. Some days, “Blizzards and Bygones” echoed the question I asked over and again; other days, I clung to the hope in “I’ve Seen the Sun.” Was I a believer? A doubter? A sinner? Once again, Five Iron Frenzy had a soundtrack for that.
But I didn’t anticipate the despair to come in the decade’s back half, as I watched the same people who introduced me to gospel and the love of Christ align themselves with racism, greed and falsehood. Former Sunday School teachers spouted vile rhetoric, and trusted pastors and writers contorted their doctrine to align with repugnant politicians. I looked to the Christian artists to push back against inhumanity and ugliness, but they largely remained silent. Didn’t anyone see what was going on?
Five Iron Frenzy and righteous rage
I first listened to Until This Shakes Apart just a little more than a week after protestors stormed the U.S. Capitol. I have to admit I was a bit taken aback when Roper sang about riots and storming barricades in “Renegades.” But the song is not about the current civil unrest; it’s about the constant toll of gun violence, and the way apathy and greed cause us to look the other way while innocent people continue to die.
The album is more muscular than anything Five Iron has done in the past, a driven, energetic and openly emotional look at a nation and a religion that is, well, shaking apart. It opens with a song addressing callous treatment of immigrants, and many Christians’ hesitancy to compassion (my favorite line on the album is “why is grace now civil disobedience”?). There are screeds against gentrification and greed (“Lonesome For Her Heroes,” “Bullfight for an Empty Ring”), our nation’s racist past (“Tyrannis”), and the isolation of social media (“One Heart Hypnosis”).
Some complained that the album was overly political. That overlooks Five Iron Frenzy’s history of discussing these issues. I also think it’s unfair. There’s no mention of the former president, no partisan rhetoric. Every lyric is rooted in Christian ethics. These songs aren’t about politics, but honoring the Imago Dei, showing compassion and recognizing that a love of money is the root of all evil. Until This Shakes Apart never couches answers in political terms. Hope is found in the joys of parenthood (“Homelessly Devoted to You”), losing yourself in music (“So We Sing,” “Auld Lanxiety”), and creating a community where all are loved and welcome (“Huerfano”). There is room for anger, but it never overshadows the possibility of joy and the reality of hope.
When I realized what Until This Shakes Apart’s themes were, I was moved to tears. I love the church; I’m thankful that there is music devoted to my faith. But over the years, I felt isolated from that community. Not because I no longer believed in Jesus, but because my convictions seemed out of step. Christian music and culture defined my identity at a crucial time. Watching Christians support hate in Christ’s name broke my heart; when no one stood up to address it, I felt deeply alone. Was I the only one who noticed that the world was going crazy?
Until This Shakes Apart has not left rotation since it debuted in January. I think it is the band’s best album, for both its energy and raw emotion. Five Iron Frenzy prove once again they could provide the soundtrack for those who felt out of step with others.