Citizens and Saints, once a worship band at one of the former Mars Hill church campuses on the west coast has become one of the most creative and passion-filled Christian bands in existence today. They have been on my radar since their album Citizens in 2013. (I listen to a lot of Christian music.) I listen with a critical ear to both music and lyrics for artists that are musically excellent and passionately gospel-shaped. While there is a lot of good music, the trend lately in Christian music is the “we’re not a Christian band, just Christians making music”, and the shape of the gospel is hard to discern at best. Other music (often “worship” music) is so centered on the personal experience of worshiping that it lacks the self-abandoning, self-emptying shape of the gospel and the cross. With that in mind, when I find music that is excellent, married to lyrics that reflect gospel passion, I want the world to know about it. Citizens and Saints nail it.
The music works is excellent. I don’t say that lightly either. It has a strong tonal center with melodies that clearly relate to the chord progressions. They are easy to latch on to on a first listen yet they don’t become quickly boring. Lead singer Zach Bolen knows when to sing clean, when to grind, and when to add the layers of harmony (which are heavily produced and lightly distorted throughout the record, creating a unique vocal signature). My favorites at this point are Madness, Relent, Crown Him, and How Majestic – the last of which I believe will become a part of worship services for years to come.
I hear the influence of everything from U2 to Coldplay, and from Delirious? to Jars of Clay. It is fitting that 2016 marks 10 years since Jars released Good Monsters, and 20 years since Delirious cut King of Fools. This record is a good fit for anyone who fell in love with those records. They are more than individual musicians, they are a strong ensemble with their own voice and ambiance, bringing something new and unique to the table in an age of weak uniformity.
The songs do not fall flat after two times through the verse and chorus. So much of what makes a song good is how it develops; are there fresh ideas infused into the song? Is there something new to hear in the bridge? Does it give us anything surprising? An excellent example of this is the song “Kids” (which did not connect with me on the first play), which explodes in the bridge into new territory with a synth solo. How Majestic keeps it beautifully simple until Bolen lets loose in the bridge with the words “His grace declares His glory!” Mirror Dimly develops songs nicely, and they are carefully spaced at the right intervals throughout the record.
The lyrics are the best part – despite their commitment to strong Christian orthodoxy it is clear that personal faith is an every day struggle. The lyrics balance joy and pain with the hope of eternity in view, like these lyrics from the song Madness:
Cause when I’ve reached, the end of my years
I’ll lift from the grave and I’ll bury my tears
And I will see You face to face
With brand-new eyes and a finished faith
…reminding us that in losing our lives we gain.
You give life that is worth the loss of mine
I surrender all I have to follow You
I’m putting confidence in things unseen
With full assurance that to lose my life is not defeat (from Faith)
…and that God is mysteriously working in us to make us new…
Still I’m never alone, He’s alive in my bones
The ghost of God sanctifies, day by day. (from Day by Day)
I could go on with more examples of what makes this record a stand out to me. It is an excellent example of what I am looking for in Christian music: mature musicianship, good production, and lyrics that honor true Christian faith while admitting our own human limitations. I recommend it strongly. Buy it. Stream it. Be blessed by it.