The Low Drone of Earth

Jay Tholen (2013; Swan City Sounds)

Over the last few years, Jay Tholen has carved out a niche as one of the more intriguing musicians operating on Christendom’s fringes. Like Danielson and Soul-Junk, Tholen’s music is likely to be overlooked and dismissed by many. Which is a shame, because like those aforementioned artists, Tholen’s music is both fascinating in its sheer bizarre-ness and deeply, unashamedly spiritual. Indeed, I daresay the two are intertwined, that Tholen’s musical oddity imbues his songs’ spirituality with added dimension and unique perspective. And if nothing else, it’s often a lot of fun to listen to.

Fun”, however, is not a word I’d use to describe The Low Drone of Earth, which might be the darkest release in Tholen’s discography to date.

Musically, Tholen sheds most of the chiptune and electronica elements that were so prominent on past releases like Control Me and Mud Pies or Bread and Wine?. Psychedelic textures, effects-laden vocals, chaotic rhythms, world music flourishes, ukulele… these are the building blocks of The Low Drone of Earth, particularly on tracks like “I - Voice of the West” and the epic “V - Alone in a Cave”. Gone is the sense of levity and playfulness that often permeates Tholen’s music.

Which is appropriate, given the album’s darker lyrical themes. Whereas Tholen’s previous releases could be described as “worship” music — especially on songs like “Jesus is Real, He’ll Never Fail”, “Though Lamps Are Dark”, and “Time Transcendent” — The Low Drone of Earth is a lament for a soul becoming lost in worldly pursuits. And since this is Jay Tholen we’re talking about, it’s presented as a narrative about a young lad who leaves familiar surroundings to explore the world while accompanied with his robot best friend, with dire results.

On “Before the World Began (Invocation)”, Tholen explores the costs and ramifications of the Incarnation for God:

God, before the world began, You knew You’d come
You knew You’d have to live on Earth
And spill Your blood and give Your Son away
So we could be as one with You
Oh what a price to pay…

…What more could You have done for us?

It’s a beautiful song to open the album with, calling us to consider the divine cost of Christ’s sacrifice. But by the time we get to “IV - The Drone of Earth”, we’re greeted with these cheerful words sung in Tholen’s fragile, warbling voice:

I feel so solemnly alone, always
I feel I’m crumbling like a stone, these days

Tholen plays with vocal effects here, not because they simply sound cool, but in order to add additional heft to the song’s ideas. At one point, he sings “The drone of earth is drowning out my shivering moan for God” and loops the word “God” but distorts and blurs it each iteration, sonically driving home the song’s theme of losing sight of God amidst the world’s cacophony.

The album closes, fittingly enough, with “VII - A Lament” which brings the narrative arc to its sad, inevitable conclusion. Against a backdrop of churning guitars, lonesome pedal steel, and icy synths, he sings “My courage is waning, my talents betray me, and all that I thought that I had is now fading… I crawl from the widening void as it takes me away.” The Low Drone of Earth begins in a place of worship and gratitude, and ends in a place of loneliness and despair.

This isn’t something you hear in Christian circles, where the emphasis is often placed on “triumphant” and “victorious” living, and little room is left for tales of doubt and failure. But The Low Drone of Earth is a cautionary tale, one that is achieved with a clever, off-kilter narrative and psychedelic arrangements that would make Wayne Coyne and Panda Bear proud. Tholen inverts the often-typical Christian music narrative, which starts with feelings of lost-ness and regret and ends with a sense of gratitude for Christ saving us through His sacrifice. It’s a simple thing, this narrative inversion, but it adds to the album’s thematic heft, making for a more thought-provoking listen.

The Low Drone of Earth may be Tholen’s darkest album to date, but it’s also one of his most successful and well-realized. My only complaint is that, at 7 songs and just over 30 minutes, it’s too short. The narrative may seem like sci-fi goofiness (as if that’s a bad thing), but I’m left wanting more detail, and of course, more of Tholen’s inimitable brand of Spirit-infused psychedelia.