In the sails of the cosmic ship hurtling toward Danielson-land are the names of the collaborators who lent a bass clarinet, trumpet, vocal or hand clap (among other things) to Ships. The print is tiny and the names are plenty. In hindsight, 2004’s Brother is to Son, which was billed as Danielson Famile leader Daniel Smith’s (who took on the clerical nom de plume “Brother Danielson” for the record) solo release but was just as packed with Famile and friend contributions as any other Danielson-related release, truly was a solo record. A listen to any track off Ships by Danielson (dropping the “Famile”) or a squinted look at the names in the liner notes will affirm this. Ships is a monstrously dense vessel, oozing more charisma than a hundred Assemblies of God churches.
But this is nothing new for the Danielson Famile. When have they not been donning nurse uniforms and papier-mâché trees, obliterating audiences with hyperfrantic, joyful noise? Always, of course, but never this consistently, never this rocking. Gone are the breakdown sing-a-longs and dollar store toy instruments. More importantly, (largely) gone is the image of the band as pure novelty, a joke-band that out-Spree’s the Polyphonics in the “are they a cult?” contest. Instead, we see Daniel Smith, incredibly, honing the contributions of the many guests and collaborators to create a cohesive record that bursts with as much energy as other Danielson releases, but, unlike others, keeps the seams stitched tight.
Helping to contain all of Smith’s manic energy is a concept revolving around the “ship” suffix. Opener, “Ship the Majestic Suffix” lays out the credo: Before our time / Upon a noun there stood still a ship / … / It transforms words to be more then they are alone. As much a musical conceit as a conceptual one, Smith uses the “ship” suffix and its inherent familial connotations as a muse to guide his less literal ship.
The places this muse takes him are revelatory. The two years spent working on Ships is audibly apparent in the songs, which are somehow both incredibly raucous yet painstakingly structured. The density of the songs makes Ships a slight addiction; the astute listener will find many nuggets to pick out as their favorite. There are so many little incredible moments on the record: The twinkling barroom piano under girding “He Who Flattened Your Flame Is Gettin’ Torched,” the monstrous chorus on “Cast It At the Setting Sail,” the end-song whistle breakdown on “Bloodbook on the Half Shell,” which segues into a beautifully uncharacteristic crunching guitar coda and Smith’s lyrical quirk on “Did I Step on Your Trumpet" where he refers to his casket as a “body basket.” Speaking of “Did I Step on Your Trumpet,” it’s the closest thing to a radio single on Ships and is being lauded as Danielson’s best song in a long time, if not ever. A song about forgiveness and childhood, it is the most characteristically “Famile” track on the record, with its childlike naiveté and its charmingly catchy call-and-response between Smith and his sisters.
Family, relationships and God have always been popular lyrical motifs with Danielson, and nothing has changed on Ships. Those familiar with the band’s biography and religious inclinations will more cosmically hear Smith calling out to his “papa” on “When It Comes to You I’m Lazy” than will first-time listeners. The secular independent music press loves to point to (and embrace) artists like Sufjan Stevens and Danielson as examples of Christians making good music—as long as they don’t have to confront any of the issues raised by the artists. On the other side, Christians are quick to dismiss these same artists for not adhering to the strict CCM format: mention Jesus in every song, never exhibit doubts about the faith and always sing happy songs.
The sad fact is that Ships is the best record Danielson has made and will likely show up on a number of year-end lists—but the band will never reach Sufjan-like popularity. Danielson will never be name dropped by your po-mo pastor. They are still too “difficult” for most palates. They will always be a cult band. But the issue here is not about making money but that there are few Christians making as creative of music as Danielson and cohorts—they deserve just as much praise and just as many television placements as Sufjan. As Smith yelped in that incorrigible falsetto of his on Brother is to Son’s opener, “Things Against Stuff”: Critics beware! Stand up and dare to shout hooray.