and the Music of Jeremy Enigk
see a great many things and can remember a great many things,
but that is different. We get very few of the true images
in our heads of the kind I'm talking about, the kind that
become more and more vivid for us as if the passage of the
years did not obscure their reality, but, year by year,
drew off another veil to expose a meaning which we had only
dimly surmised at first. Very probably the last veil will
not be removed, for there are not enough years, but the
brightness of the image increases and our conviction increases
that the brightness is meaning, or the legend of meaning,
and without the image our lives would be nothing except
an old piece of film rolled on a spool and thrown into a
desk drawer among the unanswered letters.
from All The King’s Men
I first heard Jeremy Enigk (pronounced “ee-nihk”)
sing in the summer of 1994, I wasn’t adequately prepared.
Like everyone else in the early 90’s, I was so caught
up in Nirvana’s grunge revolution that Enigk’s
band, Sunny Day Real
Estate, failed to register on my musical radar.
Thankfully I had a few friends that pressed the issue. When
I finally listened, I realized what I’d been missing.
Enigk’s voice was unlike anything I’d ever heard,
and the music was so unique and emotionally powerful that
it moved me deeply.
not talking about “Jerry Maguire” singing “Freefalling”
in his car after writing his manifesto—I’m talking
about a deep movement of the spirit. Hearing that music was
more than just an experience of happiness, it was a sort of
epiphany, and its meaning has grown with time, rather than
the lo-fi production and hard-driving guitar of punk rock
with multi-layered arrangements, beautiful melodies, byzantine
bass lines and plenty of raw emotion, Sunny Day Real Estate
(henceforth “SDRE”) quickly became the darling
of college radio and live shows like MTV’s now defunct
120 Minutes. Its sound launched myriad copycats in
the years to follow, and the band is widely recognized today
as pioneers of the popular music genre known as “emo-core”
(“emo” for its emotional pop sensibilities and
“core” for its hardcore edge).
like Thursday, At The Drive In, Jimmy Eat World, Alkaline
Trio, NewFound Glory and Saves The Day all owe a large debt
to the seminal work of SDRE.
But sadly, like many other musical pioneers before it, SDRE
fell apart about as quickly as it rose to prominence. In 1995,
after only two albums, the original line-up called it quits.
Two of the members, Will Goldsmith and Nate Mendel, went on
to work with Dave Grohl on the first Foo Fighters release
(Mendel is still a member), and Enigk cast about trying to
figure out his next step musically.
It was during this time that Enigk
made a much-publicized statement of faith in Christ. In a
response to a fan question on a SubPop chatboard, he confessed
that he had “given his life to Christ” and “wanted
to sing about it.” Not only that, but
he wanted to redefine his music in the context of his newfound
faith-—not an easy task in an otherwise hostile industry.
“Jesus isn't anything that I want to compromise with,”
he said, “for he is far more important then [sic] this
music, financial security or popularity could ever be."
was in the wake of this break up, and very public conversion,
that Enigk began work on his first solo album, Return
of the Frog Queen. The album was a stark departure from
the in-your-face hardcore fire that characterized SDRE. Flowing
like a tapestry of rich orchestrations with acoustic guitar
and Prufrockian lyricism, ROTFQ was anything but what fans
expected. Electric guitars were virtually non-existent on
the album, and the arrangements were quite literally crowded
with instruments, many of them of the brass or string variety.
against Enigk’s previous work, ROTFQ was a watershed.
It was emo-meets-the-Beatles in an ecstatic carnival waltz,
yet still inscrutably punk rock despite the 21-piece orchestra,
or perhaps because of it. This wasn’t “emo-core,”
it was an entirely new musical course: a highly complex work,
full of swelling highs and lows with lyrics that had no apparently
discernible meaning. And perhaps more notably, given his conversion
and statements about SDRE, there was no mention of Jesus or
God or anything overtly spiritual.
move was downright heroic for two reasons: 1) he didn’t
cash in on the popularity of his previous band’s sound
2) he didn’t write praise songs. In the hands of a lesser
artist,the project would have been an abject failure. But
with ROTFQ, Enigk defined himself as a musician with singular
talents who is clearly passionate about life, and art for
talent lies in the fact that he rarely communicates his ideas
directly; they are nearly always mediated indirectly through
his art. The music does the bulk of the communication. His
lyrics often don’t make sense, or if they do, they only
do so poetically, and even then only in a way that paints
mental images. There is very little exposition in his work,
and he doesn’t share knowledge so much as he imparts
an experience. The tool he uses most effectively to accomplish
this task is his voice.
voice has an alien quality to it. No one else sounds quite
like him. He probably has a 3-4-octave range in full voice,
and can move effortlessly into falsetto and back again. This
is no small feat for most vocalists. The character of his
voice at normal pitch has a reedy timbre that’s dynamic
like a choir, and when he sings you get the impression that
there is more than one voice singing at a time.
there’s a whole different voice that comes out—inordinately
high, sharp and piercing—like vocal cord overdrive when
he wants to bring a moment home. It
hits you with the force of an electrical shock and all the
urgency of a prophecy. An imploring howl unlike anything I’ve
its best moments, the music Enigk makes quite literally becomes
an invitation to partake in all the joys and sorrows of life,
while at the same time pushing us on toward something much
larger, and outside ourselves. In this sense, Enigk, as a
Christian artist, is like Auden and C.S. Lewis before him;
he stands in the mythopoetic Christian tradition, creating
worlds with his music that cause us to attend to something
beyond the givens of reality.
last project, a classic rock offering known as The Fire
carried these themes further than any of his previous work.
In the song “Summertime,” he employed the concept
of joy, and its corresponding longing, to show how Creation
can be viewed as a veil (however thick) through which glimpses
of ultimate reality may be revealed. In the song he implores,
back the veil that hides you and me
I can run bearing rumors all traced in the past
Painted mirrors all aging with cracks
Which way and how far
I will try to reach the landscape of where you begin
Not the reflection of what I pretend
this is a far cry from anything on ROTFQ, and spiritually
and musically the song hints at a maturity and confidence
that wasn’t present in Enigk’s earlier work (or
most of his copycats for that matter). It will be interesting
to watch how he progresses as an artist over the next few
last time I saw Jeremy Enigk play was a Fire Theft gig in
Los Angeles. The guys that went with me weren’t Christians,
in fact, one was an agnostic and the other a Hindu. During
the course of the show I felt myself caught up by the music
into this larger emotional context that I can only call Joy.
After the show, I kept this to myself out of sheer embarrassment,
until my Hindu friend turned to me when we were walking out
and said, after a long silence, “that was a religious
experience man!” I could only laugh. “Yes it was,”
I said, smiling.
spent a long time wondering what it meant that Jeremy
converted to Christianity but didn’t sing overtly about
God. After I saw that show, I started thinking, maybe it
my lack of vision that kept me from seeing it; maybe Jeremy
had found a way to put God in his music after all.
Enigk is currently touring in support of a new solo album, World
Waits, due in stores on October 10th 2006.
learn more about Jeremy Enigk, visit myspace.com/jeremyenigk
For further listening, the author recommends the following
titles, which can be purchased at amazon.com. These links
are provided as a service to explorefaith.org visitors and
RETURN OF THE FROG QUEEN
THE FIRE THEFT
Sunny Day Real Estate
Sunny Day Real Estate
SUNNY DAY REAL ESTATE
Sunny Day Real Estate