Every Sunday, the elite indie music kingmakers at Pitchfork publish a new review of an album from the past that was overlooked by the outlet upon its release. It’s a chance for Pitchfork to do a deep dive on music that wasn’t on their narrow radar at the time but has proven to be significant in the ensuing years. Last Sunday, the site righted a historic wrong and turned its critical eye to an album that needs no introduction around these parts. dcTalk’s 1995 opus Jesus Freak finally got the Pitchfork treatment, along with a deep dive into CCM’s mid-90s salad days.
So, how did the album fare? Critic Brad Shoup gave it a respectable 6.7 (for context, the Smashing Pumpkins’ classic Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which came out the same year, got a 9.3). The review notes the enormous waves Jesus Freak made in terms of sales, forcing mainstream music execs to sit up and take notice. Shoup also notes what a wild pivot the album was for the band, which had trafficked in hip-hop for its first few albums before making a very sudden shift to the broad swath of genres that make up Jesus Freak.
Shoup keenly observes that TobyMac, Kevin Max and Michael Tait spend a lot of time grappling with their own faults and doubts on Jesus Freak, a fairly revelatory attitude at the time for the squeaky clean CCM machine. “For a generation of evangelical listeners, hearing Christian music’s biggest stars acknowledge their struggle to live a holy life was, paradoxically, profound encouragement,” he writes.
But the review also delves into the brief, strange era Jesus Freak found itself in, a time that seemed to bode so much promise for Christian crossover success. “CCM journalists had already taken to calling DC Talk the Christian Beatles,” Shoup writes. “Now they called Jesus Freak the group’s Sgt. Pepper’s: a generational work that suggested new possibilities for the genre.” This was bolstered by the success of bands like Jars of Clay, MxPx, Switchfoot and Sixpence None the Richer, all of who found themselves with real hits that suggested CCM’s time had finally come. And, for a little while, it had.
But things changed. CCM began its pivot to praise and worship music, a far safer investment for the Nashville scene with a weekly, built-in audience. The alt-rock bubble popped around the dawn of a new millennium and dcTalk itself kicked off the year 2000 with a self-proclaimed “intermission” that continues to this day. The era is over. But it was a wild time to be alive, if only to see the biggest dreams of CCM briefly realized, and Pitchfork’s review is a reminder that Jesus Freak made real waves.
You can read the full review here.