It’s quite appropriate that just before sitting down to re-listen to Starfield’s 2008 album I Will Go, the band’s third after a self titled debut in 2004 and 2006’s Beauty in the Broken, I gave another shot to U2’s latest album, 2017’s Songs of Experience. That particular album continues to be pretty post-All That You Can’t Leave Behind U2, but that’s not why it was an appropriate lead into I Will Go. The Christian music industry is often (and most of the time rightly) accused of latching onto the rest of the world’s musical trends, and for better or worse, the first several years of the 2000’s were the heyday of the particular trend rearing its head.
U2 is an easy target because the band’s signature sounds–delay heavy lead guitar, driving rhythm section and big, soaring choruses–have essentially become the defining musical characteristics of modern worship music (see: Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman’s records during that period and since then as proof, as well as scores of other worship leader/songwriters). Starfield fell nicely into that box, although an argument can (and will, right here) be made that the Canadian rock band fits better into the modern/alternative rock of the early 2000’s than the lazy U2 comparison.
Certainly there are elements of I Will Go that delve into The Edge’s guitar tones, but that isn’t necessarily because they are influenced directly by Bono and Co. Instead, it’s easy to forget that secular rock bands of that era were also borrowing pretty heavily from those sonic choices, so it makes more sense to say that Starfield were working to implement the most modern rock sounds they could rather than steal from a band whose best recent album came out a full four years before Starfield made its debut.
The point here isn’t to argue that Starfield weren’t trying to sound like U2, though, but instead to make a case for the quality of I Will Go ten years later. The album came out on March 25, 2008, a little less than two years after the band’s previous album, Beauty in the Broken, which was the album that first introduced me to the band. That album was essential for me in 2006, because at the time I was finding myself less and less enthusiastic about the Christian music scene, so it was important that I found a band that seemed to share both my musical sensibilities (albeit a little muted) and my faith. While I think both albums have incredible moments of rock songwriting, the band clearly finds itself of two minds when it comes to song selection and writing, as well as when considering how heavy they allow their sound to become. The album features some noticeably huge sonic choices, especially on the opening track “From the Corners of the Earth,” which features cranked-to-eleven guitars and some electronic textures, and the title track, which almost sounds like punk-rock lite.
On the other side of things, however, is a band that recognizes who its audience is. The lyrics of the record are unabashedly Christ-centered, leaving no room for the band to ever find itself on non-CCM radio stations, which causes Starfield’s sound to often feel like it’s been run through a Christian-radio-friendly filter. The guitars can chunk and chug-chug, just not too much; the vocals can soar, but they better stay clean. This leads to sonically diluted songs like “Reign In Us” and “Great In All The Earth,” which toe the line, but never jump into the modern rock musical space as much as they could. And of course there’s a Sunday morning friendly cover of Brooke Fraser of Hillsong’s “Hosanna,” which features a guitar solo, but a not too crazy one, the perfect compromise for a band that can’t seem to figure out what it wants most.
All that said, listening to the album again is definitely an enjoyable experience. The songs aren’t complex, and I find myself wishing the band had taken more musical risks at several point during the record, but to my mind, they band accomplishes what seems to be its ultimate goal: to write songs they felt connected themselves and others closer to God. The problem with that, though, is that the statement suggests that harder guitars or a different vocal delivery would have precluded someone from that goal, something I take issue with. I get that there is a time and place for different styles of music, but the audacity of people who believe that loud, heavy and even scream-y music can’t also connect the faithful to their creator is beyond me. And I think it often leads to stale, less daring artistic choices.
I want to be clear: this isn’t just a Starfield thing (in fact, amongst the ranks of Christian artists, they’ve done well to continue to at least make attempts to take some calculated risks, especially on their 2012 independent release The Kingdom, probably their most interesting album from start to finish). This is an issue that exists across the Christian music scene, and it’s a difficult argument to dive into, but the question comes down to this: if we’re creating to worship a God who is greater than all things and worthy of our best, why wouldn’t we want to challenge ourselves as artists and as those who experience the art created by others? It’s a wildly complicated issue that I’ve touched on before, and one that I don’t have a final answer on other than to say that I believe God deserves our best, even if it doesn’t fit into a prescribed formula or box.
This took an unexpected turn, but it feels appropriate given the topic at hand. To sum everything up, here’s this: I Will Go is a solid Christian rock album that I’d place in third place behind Beauty in the Broken and The Kingdom as far as Starfield’s albums are concerned (in fourth is 2010’s The Saving One; I’ve never listened to their debut). As far as finding the right balance of music that speaks to my faith and what I want my heart to cry and musical choices, Starfield is always going to be one of my top choices. In that regard, I Will Go is definitely an album worth revisiting.