Art of the Struggle: Underoath’s “Erase Me”
The latest album release Erase Me from the Tampa-based metalcore giant Underoath has been met with conflicting reviews. While music critics sing its praises, some Christian fans have expressed feelings of betrayal. Back in the early 2000s the band, led by vocalist Spencer Chamberlain, identified as a Christian metalcore band. This identity came with certain pros and cons in regard to fan base and expectation. Erase Me is the band’s first album in eight years after their reunification in 2015.
Though this first album put out by the band in the eight years after their reunification is arguably some of their best work, personally, Define the Great Line is, and remains, one of my all-time favorite albums. I love the energy, the screaming, the distortion, and the creativity. Yet, I am not just stuck in the past, but am intrigued where the band is now considering from where they’ve come. Over the years, drug addiction, plagued communication, strained friendships, struggle with Christianity and belief, and an ill-planned, overworked touring schedule challenged and stretched the band.
Upon the release of Erase Me, Underoath no longer identifies as Christian and, further, some of the band members no longer personally identify as Christian. Yet, I anticipated buying their album anyway because of their ingenuity and creativity as artists, not an outwardly pious Christian identity, which was not blatantly overt on their prior records.
True artists, those who authentically bear their souls through their music, deserve an open ear. Because art reflects the depths of human experience, it can be filled with joyful, peaceful memories, and can be one plagued by darkness, doubt, and temptation. When it comes to darkness in music, I think there is an important difference between darkness that is glorified and supported by the band and the darkness which comes honestly with life’s struggles. In this late sense, singing about darkness in a song is no different than writing about it in a journal. Further, dealing with darkness through musical expression can be more prayerful than anything else.
The Book of Psalms is a great example of how Christianity itself expresses the dynamism of human experience. The psalmist ceaselessly expresses the deepest yearnings and dispositions of the human soul. Further, these yearnings and dispositions of the soul are not always happy and pious. All human beings are subject to and bear in their soul suffering and darkness. Psalm 88 is a potent example of the poetic representation of spiritual darkness and the feeling of an absent God. The psalmist desperately utters, “You plunge me into the bottom of the pit, into the darkness of the abyss. Your wrath lies heavy upon me; all your waves crash over me…All day I call on you, Lord; I stretch out my hands to you. Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades arise and praise you?” (v. 7-8, 10-11)
Flannery O’Connor, the great Catholic writer of the twentieth century, believed true art reaches deeper than a pious, surface level reflection of faith. Faith, at its height and depth, can be brought out in an authentic, artistic way, appealing to the deepest human drives and emotions. The Incarnation, the divine dive into the depths of frail human existence, was the modus operandi for O’Connor’s fictional art especially as it came to its fulfillment on the cross. Many of her stories are not seemingly Christian literature or feel-good experiences, but are grotesque and unnerving. Yet, at the core of her stores there is a truth onto which it is worth latching and contemplating.
In truth, the band’s struggles with faith are not unfounded. I am sure that there are many factors that added to the situation, but in reading through album reviews one stuck out to me in particular. While going through certain struggles, particularly with drug addiction, the Christian community to which Spencer Chamberlain, the lead singer, looked to find strength provided little support. These unfortunate experiences undoubtedly added to the tone of the new album. When interviewed by Revolver Magazine, Chamberlain explained:
“My drug problem was very public and all of the Christian community hated me. I was struggling and all I was getting was hate…That’s not love, that’s not comfortable. The most alone and isolated I've ever been in my life is when I considered myself a Christian, personally. Because I had real issues going on in my life and no one could talk to me about it. There was no help. There was nothing.”
This is a regrettable and distressingly uncomfortable statement about the failure of Christians to live Gospel mercy, and could have understandably led to Chamberlain’s despair. So often we spend time hearing, but don’t truly listen. Throughout the album, despite the band’s public rejection of Christianity, a yearning for God can be heard. Across the tracks there is anger and a desire for an individualistic isolation, but there is also a disdain and uncomfortable existential tension that can be felt in that anger. The deep desire for God written onto each human soul is present even if the band members are individually or collectively seeking him. A great musician expresses the honest longings of their soul, which makes their message worth listening to and contemplating. As the Psalms remind us, struggling with faith does not necessitate an absolute absence of faith. Rather, the struggle can serve to strengthen faith against bland indifference.
In the end, I was not disappointed by Erase Me. After listening through the album a few times the tracks began to grow on me in a way that only certain memorable albums do. Though it can appear quite negative spiritually as it expresses darkness, struggle, anger, and doubt, I don’t believe that Erase Me is merely an album from a faith-based band stripped of its faith. The story isn’t over. This is a real album of real men on a real journey, albeit a darker part of the journey.