The Changing of the Guard
(Tooth & Nail; 2010)
By Chris Molnar | 22 September 2010
In his review for 2008’s Dial M, Conrad asserted that “the best move this band can make isn’t stylistic but personal.” In other words, the negative effects of Christianity make Starflyer 59’s persistence within the Christian music industry immoral and inconsistent with their large, quality, and rarely religious body of work. I disagree: for me, as with Conrad, it was the impressive original roster of Tooth & Nail which helped make the bizarre nature of a Christian upbringing bearable. Those bands, including the Danielson Famile, Poor Old Lu, and eventually MewithoutYou, remain common points between me and anyone from a similar background. If I hadn’t heard Pedro the Lion’s Whole EP (1997)—released on Tooth & Nail—in the listening booth at Family Christian Stores, it would’ve taken me that much longer to emerge from the bubble, to grapple with the immateriality of the limits Christian music imposes on itself. Labels like Tooth & Nail seemed to once grapple in secret, hiding bands more ambiguously identified with Christian music behind a brand permissible to religious parents while introducing variety and perspective to music-hungry teenagers allowed precious little. They are, in other words, doing God’s work.
So where does all this leave Starflyer and The Changing of the Guard? In many ways, Jason Martin’s ongoing project chases trends in the same way that Christian rock is often derided for doing so—it’s just that he does it as well or better than many of his secular peers, and with a distinctive flair. Silver (1994), Gold (1995), and Americana (1997) were often impenetrable responses to My Bloody Valentine and the shoegaze movement, heavy albums (with monochrome covers that echoed their walls of guitar) that belied a sly pop sense. When Martin changed altogether for The Fashion Focus (1998), sacrificing heaviness for lush, sweet-spot arrangements, his defiant melancholy emerged as if out of nowhere, buoyed by complex compositions instead of buried by Pumpkins-era riffage. Ever since Focus and its immediate successors, Everybody Makes Mistakes (1999) and Leave Here A Stranger (2001), his productions have grown more assured, if never as transcendent, developing into sophisticated, dark, welcome slices of indie rock. There is a mix of aggression and maturity on songs like “I Win,” a synth-hook dance number from 2006’s My Island, or the squealing power pop of “New Wife, New Life” from 2003’s Old, that infuse the grownup blues of bands like the National or the Walkmen with a youthful tension. Borne perhaps out of slogging for two decades through an industry that would probably be happier without him, one he could probably make far more money outside of, it’s the sound of a man who isn’t just conflicted about his place in society, but conflicted about the fundamental ideas that underlie his musical existence.
In that way, Starflyer is everything the Christian music industry could and ought to be, and The Changing of the Guard is no different: the first and best song, “Fun is Fun,” is yet another in a long line of Starflyer songs that combines unexpected influences with Jason Martin’s thick burden of doubt, leavened by a knack for unlimited hooks. There’s some Panda Bear gamelan in the intro, an impeccable George Harrison-style slide guitar in the chorus; these are inscrutably brought together by the masterfully delivered line “Fun is fun / And done is done.” Martin’s deep, halting, yet ultimately warm baritone is reminiscent now of Matt Berninger while both predating it and outgunning it in depth; the authoritative, half-smiling reprimand could apply equally to sinners, to Christian music, to himself. And still it could mean anything, or nothing, content to exist simply as the catchiest part of a near-perfect pop song.
Starflyer’s koans manage to turn the theological angst of someone like Sufjan Stevens into brooding, populist anthems as opposed to bookish niche fodder. “I was born a trucker’s son” goes “Trucker’s Son,” and while the perfunctory lead guitar might not elevate it into the pantheon of great Starflyer songs, the hard simplicity of the lyrics—Martin really is a trucker’s son, supporting himself throughout his career by driving for his father’s company—inspires questions of class and inheritance that peers like David Bazan or Daniel Smith pose far more concretely…and awkwardly. If anything, the fault of Guard is that finally, maybe, the intelligent dissatisfaction that has produced Martin’s best work is becoming old hat. Songs like “Coconut Trees” race through the kinds of guitar leads and layering that used to be luxurious and patient on such aching, misty pop as Mistakes’s “Play the C Chord” or Fashion Focus’s heartbroken, heartbreaking “Fell in Love At 22,” possibly the apex of his career.
Maybe the balance Martin achieved between Christian insularity, post-adolescent nostalgia, and a wised-up sense of irony has finally started to fail him as he enters middle age. I’m not too concerned, though, as long as he can still whip curveballs like the baroque “Kick the Can,” all no-nonsense guitar and smooth vocals. Even those who disagree with his loyalty to a label associated with the church—and which has long since given up having more than a few decent bands at a time—would be hard pressed to deny that he represents everything that could be and is good about any genre dedicated to an ideology.
Able to work the opposite track of an unabashed proselytizer like Brother Danielson, introducing grown up doubts to Christians instead of child-like faith to atheists, Martin’s one of the best craftsmen in pop, in any industry, still giving Christian teens a glimpse of ambiguously non-secular, forward-thinking music—personally valuable, and definitely a vital artist in my life. “It haunts me in my sleep / And comes back when I’m awake / I think I’m gonna lose my mind,” he says in the closing song. “I’ve got a bad feeling in my bones / Could it be because I went it alone?” he asks, and that, depending on how one comes across Starflyer 59, this could suggest a failure to rely on God, a failure to rely on bandmates (he is the only consistent member of the band), or the end of a romance—or all three—is one of the pleasures in witnessing an artist haunt the rears of a haunted industry.