The Church of Philadelphia, We’re Gonna Dance Tonight
I found it really difficult to write this review, a whole lot harder than I’d ever expected I would. Now, in case you’re one of those people who only reads the first paragraph of a review and makes their mind up then and there, let me clarify that I don’t mean this review was hard to write because I don’t like The Church of Philadelphia’s long-awaited second album, We’re Gonna Dance Tonight. On the contrary, I absolutely love it, and I’ll get to why soon, so bear with me.
The difficulty didn’t come from the band or from the album, but from me. See, I’m not at all a religious person; I’ve got my own views on spirituality and the divine, to be sure, but I’m more of a Deist than anything else, and churches and temples hold no appeal for me. If I want to touch something bigger than myself, I’d rather go to the ocean or the woods or the mountains than sit inside and pray. It’s just not the way it works for me.
As far as other people go, however it works for them is great, too. I’ve got friends who are religious and spiritual at pretty much every level imaginable, and I don’t begrudge any of them one bit for it. We just view the world in different ways, that’s all.
That said, I spent my high school years in non-Austin central Texas, and therefore was exposed to a ton of what was called “Christian rock” back then (is it still called that now? not a clue…). And yeah, I thought — and still think — that 99% of it was absolutely terrible. It felt insipid and sappy, like a Hallmark-card version of belief, with smiles that were obviously fake and plastered on to sucker money out of people.
Was that actually the case? No, probably not, at least not for most of that generation of musicians, but that was definitely what it looked like from my outsider perspective. They were the theme music for a club I didn’t have any inclination to join, and nothing I heard changed that feeling for a very long time.
Flash-forward to this time last year (and yes, I know that it’s taken me an unconsionably long time to write this), and I’m sitting listening to We’re Gonna Dance Tonight, excited and psyched to hear what the Church of Philadelphia gang’s been up to this past decade or so. And what the album is, simply put, is a collection of hymns, of songs of praise to God and Jesus, the kind whose lyrics might not sound too out of place on Sunday morning at a church somewhere.
So, how does a heathen like me provide feedback on something that’s completely outside my own sphere of knowledge and expertise? I mean, I’ve read parts of the Bible, but it was mostly to read the creepy stuff in Revelation back when I was a teenage metalhead; I’ve been to chapel services, but mostly because it was part of my employment at Boy Scout summer camp. I don’t know the musical tradition beyond the awful stuff I heard growing up, and I don’t know the philosophical tradition because, well, it’s not something that I’ve ever believed in.
I was afraid, to be honest, that any review of this album would come off as trite and touristic, like some commentator on TV who rants about hip-hop despite very obviously having no background or knowledge at all of the genre. I was afraid anything I said would come out sounding ignorant or silly or bad. So I stalled; I stalled a good long while, procrastinating like crazy. I’m not happy or proud of that, but it’s what I did.
But I kept right on listening, and in the end, I realized it was better to at least speak my piece than say nothing at all. And while I don’t know the Christian faith from the inside, heck, I do know music, and We’re Gonna Dance Tonight is simply stellar, music-wise. The songs the band has crafted here are gems, one and all, and happily, they sound not a thing like the crappy, insipid “Christian rock” I mentioned earlier.
Before I go too much further, though, a quick caveat: I really, truly wish the band had picked a different song to open with. Kick-off track “Because of the Name” is a fine song, sure, starting off slow and murky and thoughtful and finally revving up near to the end, but it’s far, far too much of a slow burn to get things going.
For my money, We’re Gonna Dance Tonight should instead start with the title track, which itself begins quiet and distant but quickly moves in and explodes into a fervent backwoods-gospel raveup of a song, soaring triumphantly skywards before collapsing into ashes. No offense, y’all, but when I first listened to the album, I found myself liking “Because of the Name” just fine, but when “We’re Gonna Dance Tonight” hit, I immediately sat up and said, “Okay, wow — that should have come first.” It just feels like it was meant to be the opener, somehow.
But hey, in the grand scheme of things, that’s relatively minor, and given what comes after, I was halfway tempted not to mention it at all. Because once the Church gets going, they’re on fire. There’s “Forever,” a more full-on rock song with a seriously bluesy bet to it — it’s stomping and loud in the choruses, but murky and subtly driving in the verses — and later on there’s “You Are,” which is quieter and more meditative but still powerful, moving steadily along to the end, gathering steam all the while, until the band finally breaks through the ceiling at the end.
It’s with “Heart Song,” though, that band members Chris McFarland, Brian Tharpe, Lindsey Tharpe, Joey Mathews, Aaron Tharpe, and Sharla Mathews hit one of We’re Gonna Dance Tonight‘s true high points. It’s a straight-up blast of arena-sized, fist-pumping rawk that makes me want to stand and yell and howl along, and believe it or not, that honestly doesn’t happen all that often for me. The sad reality is that if this song wasn’t about God, it’d be freaking huge. Nope, I’m not even kidding or exaggerating — it’s ridiculously addictive, with a driving beat and chorus that puts most alt-rock on the radio utterly to shame.
Oh, and I cannot play this loud enough; it demands to be blasted at full volume. And I have to mention the “Woo!” in the background during the song’s refrain — it’s just so honest and open, a simple expression of the band’s excitement as opposed to some dumb staged thing, that I can’t help but love it. It sounds like it just, y’know, popped out while they were recording, they were so caught up in the song. Folks, I’m seriously glad you kept that in.
Moving on, there’s what is probably my favorite track on here (and another one of those high points, obviously), “Unto You,” which rides the line between mid-’90s emo — particularly Mineral, but also Camber and Sunny Day Real Estate — and Brit-tinged shoegaze like the Jesus & Mary Chain, with perfectly-buzzing guitars and one of the best basslines since “Cannonball”. It’s gorgeously lush and beautiful, droney and melodic while holding tight to a fierceness and a wide-eyed sense of awe and wonder, and it’s jaw-dropping to behold.
Then we get to “Psalm 69,” which starts off with a wonderfully “crumbly”-sounding guitar and carefully adds in vocals and drums on top of that. It makes me think of a more-vocal Explosions in the Sky, or maybe The Eastern Sea, and it’s completely beautiful. The song also leads into the gentler, softer half of the album, where the band turns down a bit and puts away the guitar pedals in favor of more gentler, folkier arrangements.
“Fixed” acts as a break point of sorts, stepping back completely from the full-band sound to just vocals and piano for a delicate, almost operatic little piece. The Church then moves softly into the orchestral, beautifully layered “Spirit of Fire,” which brings to mind fellow Houstonians (and friends of the band) Holy Fiction, which then shifts into the folky “Let It Glow”.
That track, by the by, features vocals from guitarist Chris McFarland, who was in the limelight for a lot of the band’s debut but who’s otherwise pretty much in the background this time around in terms of vocals. He’s still got a wonderfully husky, expressive voice, though, and here he makes me think of David Ramirez or Keeton Coffman, neither of which is a bad thing.
After that, there’s the vulnerable, fragile “I Cry Holy,” a great duet between (I think) husband and wife Brian and Lindsey Tharpe that ends in a bright wash of glorious, crescendoing vocals and guitars before dissolving into radio static interspersed with pieces of old gospel broadcasts. “Faithful” provides the album’s coda, slow-moving but joyful and warm, just an acknowledgement of love and fidelity, the band ending the album with an open, heartfelt smile on its collective face.
Which brings things back around in my head to the meaning of it all, and whether or not I can truly divorce the music from the message. The answer I’m coming to is that no, maybe I can’t, and maybe I don’t need to, after all. See, despite my misgivings about my own “qualifications,” as it were, for listening to this, I can absolutely recognize and appreciate joy when I see or hear it.
And that’s what We’re Gonna Dance Tonight is full of, more than anything else: sheer, unforced joy, the genuine, wide-smiling kind that can’t be faked. That’s what makes it all work, even beyond the masterfully-done music itself; if the band wasn’t feeling it, it wouldn’t be the same. Unlike the religious music I grew up hearing, this feels completely honest, completely real.
I’ve got to say, as well, that listening to these folks sing and play, I get it. Yeah, I’m still a confirmed heathen who’s not likely to see the inside of a church any time soon, but there’s a part of me that wants to feel that joy, that belief, the same way they do. This isn’t just an album; it’s an expression of the heartfelt devotion felt by six truly talented people set to music, and that’s a beautiful, wondrous thing.