by John Ellis
Three years after Ellie Holcomb released her successful debut LP, As Sure As the Sun, the Nashville based musician delivers a sophomore album, Red Sea Road, that delivers on the promise of excellence embedded in her debut album. Matching its aesthetic excellence, Red Sea Road has a thematic solidity that is rarely found in pop music.
Pop music tends to make me think of Pilgrim Progress’ Vanity Fair, even Christian pop music. The unthinking embrace of the thinnest parts of society and humanity tend to dominate the thematic thread of most pop music. The biggest lie of much of secular pop music is that salvation is found in authentic self-fulfillment – our problems are those things that prevent us from embracing happiness, however we want and choose to define “happiness.” Within that self-centered construct, the problem is never within us; it’s always outside of us. However, according to pop music, the power to overcome those problems mostly resides inside of us. We have the power. By embracing our authentic selves; by refusing to be put into a box or be defined in ways that we don’t want by people or concepts that exist outside of ourselves, we save ourselves. “Shake it off” and YOLO are pop culture’s candy equivalents of “I think, therefore I am.”
Christian pop music also tends to place the locus of salvation inside of ourselves. Except it couches that salvation in trite Sunday School phrases. It tends to steer as far away from the ugliness of sin as possible and into a saccharine self-centeredness. In much of Christian pop music, salvation is an existential feeling of self-fulfillment. Sadly, but not surprisingly, considering the anemic theological framework of much of American evangelicalism, Christian pop music defines “self-fulfillment” in terms that conform to a sentimental Neo-Platonism. In other words, our standing before God is determined by our feelings, and our feelings are salvific as long as our feelings/thoughts are not being polluted by darkness and our self-centered comfort and sense of purity aren’t being intruded upon by sin or the reminders that we are still erecting sinful idols in our hearts. Illuminating the shadows on the wall of our hearts is not welcome in the music of Vanity Fair.
The opening track on Red Sea Road is an immediate signal that Ellie Holcomb isn’t interested in tickling the ears of Vanity Fair’s residents. Following the pattern of many of the Psalms, “Find You Here” is part lament and part praise. Without denying that pain, fear, and loneliness continuously snakes throughout life in this broken word, “Find You Here” recognizes that Jesus is the sovereign Lord over all circumstances. Ellie Holcomb’s struggles, including the cancer diagnosis of her father, are poignantly and honestly hewn within her voice as she sings, “I didn’t know that I would find you here in the middle of my deepest fear, but you were drawing near.”
As opposed to much of pop music, the title track recognizes that Jesus calls his disciples to “bury dreams,” “say goodbye,” and take up their cross and follow him. Without denying “all of this pain that threatens to take over us” and confessing that she’s “scared to follow you,” Holcomb beautifully confesses her faith in Jesus’ divine plan. “Red Sea Road” also rejoices in the fact that even though singing praises is difficult during times of fear and angst, Jesus will teach his followers to rejoice in him.
My favorite song on Red Sea Road is the gorgeously contemplative “Man of Sorrows.” All of our hope and assurance rests in the fact that the Man of Sorrows “bore our suffering, bore all of our blame,” and then “overcame the darkness and walked out of the grave.” Built on the poetry of Isaiah 53, “Man of Sorrows” is a fitting end to an album that celebrates the hope and comfort that can only be found through faith in Jesus.
Music written specifically to proclaim Jesus and what his gospel means requires the ability to meld both joy and sorrow into prayers of confession, supplication, and praise. Much of the best of Christian pop music only manages to find a foothold in one aspect of the Christian life. With Red Sea Road, Ellie Holcomb demonstrates that she not only understands both the fear and the joy that comes while holding the hand of her Savior as she walks through the valley of death, but that she has the God-given talent to sink seemingly conflicting emotions into songs that are as enjoyable as they are edifying. Most importantly, Red Sea Road is Ellie Holcomb’s public confession of her dependency on Jesus as she seeks to follow him in a broken world.
(You can purchase Red Sea Road here.)