Music Matters: Two Versions of Aaron Keyes' "Sovereign Over Us"

Last week I shared about some new music I have been listening. This post is a closer examination of one of the songs I linked to.

A few months ago I found out about a worship leader (lead worshipper, song leader, praise and worship artist, church music leader [pick your title]) named Aaron Keyes.  The first song I heard from him was "Sovereign Over Us," a tender and powerful song whose lyrics delicately balanced acknowledging our suffering as people (making it in some sense a song of lament) while also fully giving God his place as being "sovereign over" the trials of life, that God works all things ultimately to his glory (making it a song of both intimate and transcendent praise).  In the same way, the music of the particular version I heard (recorded live for his project In The Living Room) matched the lyrics perfectly.  The music starts slowly and builds throughout but never to the point where it overwhelms.  Instead the music is always inviting the worshippers in, allowing them to sing it themselves and make the song their own.  As are the lyrics, so is the music tender and its a tenderness that brings strength and healing.

In other words the text and arrangement match.  They complement each other.  The song would not work as a loud or quick-tempoed arrangement.  It would not work if the instruments were not sparse.  It would not work if it built up too much so that it became overbearing.

It would appear though in recording the song for the studio album on which the song in contained Keyes and his producers (one of them being Stu G. from Deliriou5?) thought differently.  Here is that version of "Sovereign Over Us" from his album Dwell:

Did your heart rate increase steadily?  Did you wish it was slower, or did you like the fact that it was so fast you had no time to contemplate the lyrics?  Did you wish the piano was not playing that agitated many noted riff throughout most of the song?  Did you like the drum beat which seemed like it was constantly trying to throw us off balance? Did you find yourself actually feeling the stress and burden the song was attempting--according to the lyrics--to lift off us, instead of the peace and sovereignty of God?  Taken by itself, there is nothing wrong with the music--I like intensity--but the music paired with those lyrics simply will not work--they are antithetical to each other, constantly pulling against each other, negating each others' intent.  The live version of the song has been crafted to be sung by people in a congregation; it intends to slow them down and bring them to a place where they are both contemplating and actually dwelling in God's presence.  The studio version was meant to be a radio-ready product.

You see, music matters and music has a meaning.  To Western pop-oriented ears the music told me this is an intense song and perhaps a song where some weighty decision was at stake.  So, despite any lyrical design, the music overpowered; it was the louder voice in the room and drew all the attention to itself. I write out of a state of annoyance and disappointment, but hopefully a greater point is evident: that just as words so obviously convey a message, so also does music convey something actual.  Note that I did not say that any musical work taken by itself can ever have a plain or obvious meaning.  Music does not work this way and any attempt to gain meaning directly from music quickly becomes a muddled  by the listener's subjective experience.  But even words themselves--our most concise and efficient vehicles of meaning--can quickly get tangled in a confused web of diverse and divergent meanings.

I want my point to be clear: a musical arrangement is not a neutral tool; it is itself a statement, even if that statement can be hard to discern or agree upon from one person to the next.  Music causes certain feelings within us, feelings we all (at least all people within a given culture) should be able to share mutually with each other within a certain emotional or experiential spectrum (E.g., when revolving around a song conversations such as A: "This song is really peaceful." B: "Yes, it helps me to relax" should be the norm and not A: "This song is really peaceful." B: "Really? I find it pretty jarring.") It really is as simple as saying fast, loud, or intense songs make us feel a certain way, whereas slow, quiet, and sparse songs make us feel another way--all of which can be beautiful in a good and true way.  Of course there are many variations that alter what a given song can make us feel (for example a slow tempoed song may not necessarily be peaceful depending on its key, inclusion of dissonance, time signature, and any accompanying lyrics), but there must be certain (dare I say!) universals upon which we all can agree.

Needless to say, when it comes to church music and singing in church together, how the music is presented is just as important as the lyrics it is accompanying.  Otherwise we will not have a church gathering where people are worshiping in spirit and in truth, but only a distracted and perhaps even agitated one. Music leaders need to take responsibility for how music is sung in their churches, not feeling the pressure to make the songs they sing sound like radio singles but to arrange the music so it enables their people to sing to the living God. We also need to realize that the music in our hymns and worship songs are not disposable vessels which carry the truly important truth contained within the words--like a Gnostic understanding of body and spirit--but are instead mutual partners each serving their own purpose to the glory of God.

I am glad I heard the live, slower, and quieter version of "Sovereign Over Us" before I heard the studio version--otherwise I never would have stopped to listen to it. I am even more glad that Aaron Keyes had the wisdom and the guts to record a version of his song that was so diametrically opposed to the "official" version.  My suspicion is somewhere along the line, in singing the song in different congregations and worship settings, he had a realization that the music mattered just as much as the words he had put so much time into, especially if he ever expected people to be able sing it with him.

Just for fun, I will leave you with an example of an "intense" song whose lyrics and music compliment each other, Muse's "Take a Bow".  Note: this is not a worship song:

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