“The heart is like Pandora’s box, with just a crack it’s opened up to beat anew when all is lost, to run, crawl, come home…”
—from HEART, “Here & There”
You’ve seen the image in a hundred different places: Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, the perfectly proportional specimen of mankind, his arms outstretched in both a circle—symbol of the divine—and a square—representing the physical world. Philosophers, theologians and scholars have long devoured Da Vinci’s copious notes—along with those of Vitruvius, the architect on whose ideas Da Vinci built his drawing—to unpack the measure of a man and what it means to be fully human.
For Christians, the question requires a more crystallized focus: what does it mean to be fully human in light of the what Christ—the only human to literally square the circle—has done?
Set for release on September 3, Juno Award-winning band The City Harmonic reveals its eagerly anticipated full-length sophomore release, HEART, a full-circle progression of its critically acclaimed debut, I Have A Dream (It Feels Like Home). This album—underscored by the cinematic and communal aesthetic so prominent in all The City Harmonic’s music—shifts from the dream of what could and should be to the complexities of how fragile, broken humans follow the true humanity of Christ’s example in the world.
It makes imperfect sense that these young men—vocalist/songwriter and pianist Elias Dummer, bassist Eric Fusilier, guitarist Aaron Powell and drummer Josh Vanderlaan—would look inward for this effort. After all, in the past two years, life has hit them square on. They went from working day jobs to recording and touring full time. Aaron had his first child. Josh got married. Elias had his fourth child. And on top of all the usual struggles that might accompany such huge life changes, Eric was diagnosed with cancer. In a sense, life set the context for them.
“With all this sort of “real life” stuff going on, we set out to write an album ‘on being, and becoming, human,” Elias explains. “But in a way it’s about image bearing. By that I mean that yes, we’re human… and the Bible tells us that we’re made in the image of God and each and every human has an inherited dignity as a result. But there’s more to it than that … God made this universe around us and often refers to the cosmos as a temple. I mean f you stop and think about the role an ‘image’ or ‘statue’ might play in a temple, you begin to see that we humans have quite a role to play. Whatever our present circumstances, the biggest challenge before us is to recognize that in Christ we’ve been given the responsibility and capacity to become like Him in a way, and as we do, we are becoming exactly the kind of humans we were meant to be from the beginning. “
Co-produced by The City Harmonic and Jared Fox, HEART begins where I Have A Dream’s “Holy Wedding Day” ends, with “Here & There,” a sweeping, theatrical metaphor for the entire album. “Here I am, a finite being, juxtaposed against the eternality of Christ, who talks about living in our dying,” Elias says, “and here we are dying everyday, a little further along than than the day before…Whatever comes, we are not called to a life free from suffering, we are called to something bigger than ourselves. We are called to Christ.”
The tracks that follow beg the question, “What does redemption of the human heart really look like?” “Praise the Lord” serves as the call to worship, an entrance to grace in the context of powerlessness.
“In our culture, it can feel sometimes as though we’ve reduced grace to just some transaction between us and God,” he says. “But grace is much more than that. It’s the air we breathe — it’s by God’s grace that we awoke at all this morning. And sometimes, like with Paul in 2 Corinthians 12, grace is a thorn.”
“If I can’t see the light through the pain, tell me how a thorn could ever be grace…”
–from HEART, “Strong”
“Strong,” written by Elias and Eric over Skype with Elias at a show and Eric at home, grew from a place of vulnerability and not knowing in the middle of Eric’s battle with cancer. “I wasn’t really in a place to write anything,” Eric says. “Emotionally, I felt like a child who had been let down by his parents for the first time… I just couldn’t see [my illness] as a blessing. I couldn’t connect with God. To confront that stuff and write ‘I am strong in my weakness,’ was really difficult because I couldn’t deny how I really felt…”
Near the one-year anniversary of the stem cell transplant that saved his life, Eric’s cancer is in remission. He talks openly of the faith of his family and friends who, like the four friends in Luke 5 who lower their paralyzed brother through the roof to be healed by Jesus—their faith carried him when he didn’t have it in him to believe. “That’s what got me through, had no faith of my own, [when I] couldn’t process that on my own. The raw faith of my family, the guys in the band, my sister, my wife and her family… I had to rely on the faith of others…” Now, being on the other side of it, he says, “my emotions line up with what I believe. God really has been there the whole time, using this for the good. It’s a clear picture of God’s people coming together, working together… a profound experience.”
“Take Heart” continues the idea of grace beyond our human power to control it, the new identity we have as children of God, the risen Christ inside us, and the comfort of knowing we’re not alone in our struggle.
“The Son of God, you calm the seas that rage inside the heart of me, the heart of God is what I need
You’ve overcome the world: take heart.”
– from HEART, “Take Heart”
“Alive, Alive,” a percussion-driven anthem based on Psalm 23, connects HEART’s processional to the reality of what Christ has done. The song opens with a familiar self-soothing mantra, “It’s alright, it’s okay, it’s all gonna be okay” and reveals why the lie we tell ourselves is really true. “One of my favorite lines in that song is “live or die I’ll be alive…” Elias says. “For us, these past two years, we’ve been through the valley of the shadow of death in Psalm 23, and the reality is that apart from Christ, we are all powerless and dead. Maybe it’s time to believe the truth that there’s more to life than just what we see in front of us. We’re living resurrection.”
Perhaps the most personal moment on the album is “Love Heal Me,” a song Eric brought to the table when the band met in Nashville to record. “When it came time to track the song, my voice was shaky and hard to control,” says Eric, who had lost his voice to muscle atrophy while in the hospital and hadn’t sang or played in over a year. “I was a little embarrassed about how it might sound. You can hear the weakness… but it captures an honest moment,” he says.
Grittier and yet sonically proportional, HEART progresses with “Songs of Longing, Joy and Peace,” a poetic introduction to “Glory,” a straight up, liturgically-bent picture of Jesus, the savior of the world who is also the center of it. The intention here is anything but neat and tidy. “I’ve been challenged by how much we’ve been willing to reduce Christ to the cross only,” Elias says of “Glory.” “He behaves there. We don’t have to deal with what he had to say or the implications… but it’s not just a nice picture, a nice baby Jesus. He’s the center of the universe!”
In addition to “Glory,” at the core of the new album is the first radio single, “City on a Hill,” which is steeped in the Beatitudes found in Matthew 5. “’A City On A Hill’ is a great partner to ‘Glory’ in that it takes the high concept view of Christ and brings it down to earth in the form of the very things he said in the Sermon on the Mount,” says Elias. “It also forms a natural transition into the rest of the album, calling the Church to live differently.” “Live Love,” written specifically for the ICTHUS Festival, fleshes out this ‘how then shall we live’ question in real time. “It’s a popular Christian thing to say that the Bible is God’s love letter to the world,” Elias adds, “but Paul paints us as the love letter (2 Corinthians 3:2). We can’t miss this.”
“Discipleship isn’t simply adding knowledge to our lives,” Elias adds, “but it’s to become increasingly more like the human example we’ve been given – to become “little Christs,” and carry our cross through the mud and mire of a broken world in the knowledge that by the grace of God we arise brand new.”
In these and all the songs on HEART, the constant juxtaposition of grace and humanity sets the strong and steady rhythm. From “1+ 1” the waltz-like love song Elias wrote for his wife Meaghan in celebration of their 10th anniversary, to the Beatles-esque discipleship metaphor, “Long Walk Home,” to “Brand New,” written on the fly in front of three thousand people at youth conference… builds on the idea of living out lives as image bearers of Christ, becoming more like him.
“My Jesus, I Love Thee,” completes the circle; a hymn treasure handpicked by Eric and set in a minor
key that encapsulates the bittersweet of our lives here, and, simultaneously, the joy of Jesus as the center of our everything. “We switch over to a major arrangement for the final verse about heaven,” Elias adds. “It’s a fitting and familiar end, a musically symbolic way of summarizing the album as a whole.”
For Eric, HEART represents something bigger than just another album. Something much bigger. “It’s always been a dream of mine to be in a band, to write/say something that matters to people in a spiritual sense,” he says. “But this time it was hugely important to me to get it right,” he says, “to express the raw, gutteral frustration, pain and suffering I’ve experienced, and that people around the globe have experienced even more than me, and to give some kind of hope in the midst of it. I love that it’s called HEART and that it celebrates the joys and sorrows of life. It’s exactly what we needed to write… a beautiful, raw expression of life.”