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“When He rolls up His sleeves / He ain’t just puttin’ on the Ritz” must be one of the least promising ways to begin a worship song ever. Nobody rolling up their sleeves is “puttin’ on the Ritz.” The rolled-up sleeve-position used for manual labor is the opposite of the sleeve-position used for an old-fashioned fancy night out. And yet, that’s how Richard Mullins’s best-known song, Awesome God opens. Mullins himself considered Awesome God something of a failure, remarking, “the thing I like about Awesome God is that it’s one of the worst-written songs that I ever wrote; it’s just poorly crafted.” And yet it’s a song many of us remember fondly. Why?
To be fair, the lyrics get better from there: “There is THUNder in His footsteps / And lightnin’ in His fists.” Although not by much. Awesome God alternates patter in the verses with an expansive chorus, and the patter is hardly scintillating prose, much less verse. (“Eden” rhymes with “be believin’” — really?) The patter does, though, address themes often left out of “Jesus is my boyfriend”-style worship songs. God as Judge. Sin and its wages. God as God not just of happy, shiny, fluffy things, but also of the storm. And, when the song is sung at proper tempo (no slower than Mullins himself performed it), the rapid-fire, syncopated sixteenth-note patter creates an effect that surpasses its individual words. Especially when the worship leader delivers the patter in a half-snarled, half-whispered mutter, as if he’s letting you in on the secret of something dangerous — which he is: Aslan’s not safe, after all, just good. Notice I called the worship leader he. That’s important. Awesome God is made for a masculine musical delivery, and the difference between liking the song and hating it can simply be the difference between having learned it as masculine and driven, or crooning and wimpy.
Mullins’s fully-produced release of Awesome God projects a Motown-ish wall of sound, and it’s not bad, but this live recording, imperfect as it is, is more like what I’m used to — and, I think, better reflects what makes the song beloved:
Delivery of the verses must be rough and quick in order to make the expansive chorus satisfying. Else the “uplift” of the chorus becomes cloying. Contrast Mullins in live performance to this well-known Hillsong rendition:
The Hillsong rendition omits the verses entirely, and yet it’s five minutes long — two minutes longer than the original! Mullins’s original is firmly grounded in a folksy natural minor, so that when the chorus blooms into the relative major, it creates an obvious, meaningful contrast with the verses. Hillsong’s rendition, on the other hand, starts with nearly a minute of repetitive, tinkly, slowwww piano riffing on what sounds like Hark the Herald Angels Sing — which you might recognize as a song in a major key. Huh. No wonder so many people hate this song, if that’s what they think it is. And don’t get me started on the wimpy crooning. If you had any snap in your celery before five minutes of this stuff, you wouldn’t afterward.
Mullins uses both rhythmic and tonal contrast to create a sense of uplift and expansion in the chorus. The tempo doesn’t change between verse and chorus, but the chorus feels the beat in more expansive chunks: the rapid-fire patter of the verse emphasizes sixteenth notes; the chorus, half notes. The bloom from minor to major in the chorus isn’t any old transition from minor to major, but specifically dropping the root of the chord down a major third from the tonic, a transition which goes “down” (in the root) and “up” (to the relative major) at the same time, broadening the feel of the music. In the key of E minor, often the key of lead sheets for Awesome God, this means dropping from an E minor chord to a C Major. C Major is the plagal or “Amen” chord for G Major, E Minor’s relative major, so dropping the root like this works an “Amen” sound in there, too.
I know of another song, purely secular — indeed, profane, that immediately caught my ear with the same musical hooks. It alternates aggressive patter in the verses with an expansive chorus containing the same chord-root drop down a major third from the tonic. It’s Mr Hurricane by the (short-lived) Montreal group Beast.
There’s a lot to hate about the hectoring, not-quite-native English in the verses of Mr Hurricane. The songwriter is a native French speaker, and it shows in her casual indifference to syllable stress (how “country” ends up rhyming with “me”). Anyone who’s sung liturgical works in French will recognize Francophones’ annoying insouciance on this point. (Poulenc, Messiaen, guys, I know you’re not alone, but I’m looking at you!)
But then, there’s a lot to hate about the patter in Awesome God, too. Still, driving patter, even bad patter, produces the kind of contrast with a lush, expansive chorus that keeps the chorus from becoming cloying. As a bitter, cynical, secular song of deliverance (from a bad marriage, I believe), Mr Hurricane has the wittier lyrics (odd as they are) of the two. But, as Mullins said of Awesome God, when it comes to worship, “what you want them to respond to is not how cleverly you did that; what you want them to respond to is your message.”
The way to sing Awesome God on our college campus (where I learned the song) was a little bit honky-tonk, a little bit metal, and when we hit the chorus, the guys (yes, guys) let it all hang out. If the chorus didn’t sound like it could have been on the soundtrack of Lynch’s Dune, we were doing it wrong. It was fun. It was not effeminate. And I think that’s why it was so beloved.
You don’t have to be a man to appreciate music with a more “masculine”, aggressive, delivery. Nor do you have to be a woman to appreciate a softer delivery. Neither do you have to be a male musician to produce aggressive music, nor a female musician to produce softer stuff; although, in vocal music, having men deliver aggressive, masculine material is the easier, less-confusing choice — and, especially in congregational worship, not being needlessly confusing or difficult is typically a good thing.
@LesserSonofBarsham observes, Awesome God is “one of the few worship songs in recent memory that I can think of that don’t require me to strain and sing like a tenor. While I love my church, most Sunday’s I’d be perfectly happy skipping most of the music.” @DNewlander also has fond memories of Awesome God. “I love that song. We used to sing it at our Sunday night Bible study. Sadly, I hate all the versions I’ve found on YT” — because the versions YouTube suggests are the wimpy, croony versions. I maintain Awesome God is fun if you ditch the wimpy crooning and go for the jugular. Adds DNew, “That’s what I meant when I said all the YT versions suck.”
Ricochetians who hate Awesome God, on the other hand, tend to have rather different memories of it. Says @Skipsul, Awesome God is
popular because narcissistic praise team “leaders” can exert dictatorial control over congregations by making them repeat the chorus 40 times “this time sing it like you mean it!” while sobbing uncontrollably into the mike and all over their flannel shirts and sandals. (not that I have bad memories of this or anything… or remember the pastor never letting that guy near a microphone ever again…).
Yes, sobbingly repeating the chorus over and over again would be unbearable. I think Hillsong has proven that. Other Ricochetians simply wonder, why be so fond of a song the writer himself admits is poorly-crafted, and which uses what is, after all, a fairly shopworn minor-to-major formula?
On the other hand, formulas become shopworn because they work. They can be employed well or poorly, of course, and sometimes their persistence is annoying — or at least amusing (warning, the Pachelbel Rant is mildly NSFW).
How lame is our Awesome God? Lame enough not only to be mangled and overdone in its own right, but to worm its way into at least one secular hit. Beloved by some, hated by others, our Awesome God is lame enough to be a Battlefield.
This thread was inspired by a conversation in Ricochet’s PIT. Thanks to all partPITcipants, named and unnamed.