Hindsight is 20/20, which is why I hate looking back, especially when it comes to the Christian pop I listened to as a teenager. It was mediocre at best, and at worst, practically a parody of itself. BarlowGirl, Superchick, and (gulp) TobyMac are names that make me want to hide my blushing face in my hoodie and never go outside again. They were as derivative as they were pandering. Instead of finding a unique fount of inspiration, they copied and pasted from the Billboard charts to which they claimed to offer a “positive alternative” (thanks, Air1 radio!).
Fast-forward to 2017, and Abraham Gross’ debut EP, “Perfect Equals Messy”. It’s a collection of six mellow synth-driven songs that straddle the line between pop and worship that might surprise you with their earnest embrace of both traditions.
Abraham is a youth minster and worship leader in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, and his spiritual heritage makes itself loud and clear with the first track, “Open My Lips”. It made me uncomfortable, at first. Lines like, “Come into my life, O God / Give unto me a new heart / One that loves You more than me,” echoed the banal radio anthems of my youth, and it made me want to hit pause because I felt manipulated. A second listen revealed the song’s true nature. Abraham’s soothing keyboard creates a tranquil atmosphere that complements these lyrics, instead of amplifying them needlessly. It helps that Gross’ voice, while resonant, is never loud. His steady, thoughtful delivery lets the language of contemporary prayer speak for itself. As an agnostic listener, it’s so refreshing.
That same gentle touch lends grace to the entire EP. Abraham’s synths are soothing, but never boring. They (along with his voice) weave in and out of finger-snapping beats in “Livin’ the Dream”, “Rollin'”, and “Who Am I to You”, slowly and memorably. “Rollin'” and “Who Am I to You” reminded me of a more stripped-down version of Timbaland’s production on Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience” album, a testament to Abraham’s skill for instilling a deep sense of mood as well as an instinct to nod your head. He knows when to let his piano take center stage on “When I Get Clean”. He knows when to let a bright, fuzzy, Passion Pit-style beat dominate “Lighthouse”. Best of all, he knows how to take all of these sounds (along with some traces of R&B) and make them a means to an end. I wasn’t thinking about influences while listening to this EP. I actually wanted to go walk outside on a rainy day and reflect.
That’s partially because Abraham’s reflections are not contained to paraphrasing the Book of Psalms. On “Livin’ the Dream”, we hear his fears of seeing his music “go to waste like the American Dream”. His other, more explicitly religious songs gain a lot of urgency when we hear him croon, “I should be sleeping in the next room / But I’m working on my next tune / Gotta keep it lowkey ’cause victory ain’t what it used to be / When I was 23 and rent was basically free” (“Livin’ the Dream”). It’s not sophisticated, but it gives us an intimate look at Abraham as an artist, and not simply a preacher. When I hear him sing, “there’s something so mysterious about singing out your name / Reminds me of my nature, and chasing life without You,” (“When I Get Clean”) those words mean something tangible, because he’s also taken the time to say, “this rocky road is taking me away from all my doubt / and all my past addictions helped me / and all of my convictions tell me, ‘Don’t wait'” (“Rollin'”).
My teenage self heard a lot of successful artists on KLOVE radio sing fill-in-the-blank arena jams about praising holy names. I’m used to rolling my eyes. “Perfect = Messy” has opened them to a certain degree. It’s not a perfect EP. I didn’t care for Connor Flanagan’s serviceable-at-best rapping in “Who Am I To You”, especially in light of the political and cultural circumstances that hip-hop is currently embroiled in. As a solid release that knows exactly what it wants to be, however, it speaks volumes. It is a tender form of meditation, engaging with pop music but never plagiarizing.
It’s been a while since I enjoyed a Christian artist. In an era of counterfeit charisma and politicized preaching, Abraham Gross has set himself apart. I hope this guy gets a chance someday to play a show with Audrey Assad, who shares with him a talent for authentic contemporary devotion, free from the constraints of stifling Hillsong-style conventions. I do not share their faith, but I enthusiastically wish them well.
Alexander Vu did the artwork, and you should definitely check out his website, because he’s a fantastic photographer and graphic designer.
Best Track: “Rollin'”