“Why Is Grace Now Civil Disobedience?” The Prophetic Politics of Five Iron Frenzy’s Until This Shakes Apart
Since its inception, Five Iron Frenzy hasn’t been afraid of proclaiming woe to the scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites of the American church.
The Denver–based ska outfit’s prophetic voice has been evident since the first track on its first album. From Indigenous genocide on “Old West” to police brutality on “Get Your Riot Gear” Five Iron’s messaging has long stood out amongst its peers in the contemporary Christian music scene. You’re still more likely to see the band’s worship stalwarts on Spotify playlists named something along the lines of “Youth Group Throwback.” Still, the band’s political compass—often pointing decidedly leftward, at least in comparison to the rest of the CCM industry—has always been clear.
Never has this ethos been more evident than in Until This Shakes Apart, the band’s seventh record and first since 2013. The album, crowd-funded through Kickstarter, sparks a late-career renaissance for Five Iron, which has collected its most dynamic, urgent set of songs to date.
While Five Iron generally prefers a “pen is mightier than the sword” approach to lyrical activism, Until This Shakes Apart marks a definitive step forward into full-on activism. Reese Roper, lead vocalist and lyricist, isn’t above harsh and denunciatory language, but rarely have his words felt so blunt.
In “Renegades,” the album’s emotional and sonic heart, Roper decries lobbyists, Congress, and close-fisted billionaires before announcing the intentions of the song’s namesakes: they’ll be “tearing down your barricades” and “storm[ing] your palisades.” All the while, the band behind him deftly swings between skanking reggae beats and driving guitar melodies akin to Rage Against the Machine. The not-so-subtle nods to protest music throughout the years represent a welcome addition to the band’s sonic repertoire, which seemed confused after the long hiatus between its previous two albums.
[I]t’s clear that Five Iron Frenzy hasn’t spoken its last on the political landscape of the American church.Co-opting styles of the past turns out to be a familiar formula, as Five Iron also displays its reggae chops on a number of other tracks. Roper targets greedy politicians in “Bullfighting for an Empty Ring,” to a punchier, more ’90s blend of ska, while allowing swooning, dark brass tones to carry him through the various social tragedies of 2020 in “While Supplies Last.” The band also skews close to its ska-punk roots in “Lonesome for Her Heroes,” an Allen-Ginsberg-inspired track pointing the finger at gentrification and greed in the band’s home city of Denver.
However, rock and pop are just as much a part of Five Iron’s sonic evolution. In the band’s preceding two albums, The End Is Near and Engine of a Million Plots, the outfit took a notable turn away from its early ska and punk influences toward something more driving and hook-friendly. While the change produced mixed results before, the eight-year hiatus has sharpened the group’s songwriting, producing some of the catchiest and most singular songs of its career.
“In Through the Out Door” zeroes in on Five Iron’s favorite target, the hypocritical vein of the American church, while managing to be the best album opener since 1997’s, “Handbook for the Sellout.” Roper doesn’t dabble in lyrical obscurity, always allowing his charismatic delivery to land punches rather than his words. It’s hard to think of a time in modern history when a line like, “Why is grace now civil disobedience” would’ve hit harder, and choosing it as the album’s first track highlights the band’s priorities.
The album’s lead single, “So We Sing,” succeeds as perhaps the record’s best example of a pure pop song, extolling the virtues of art as protest while tapping into the defiance that made the band so relatable to young audiences in the 1990s. Lines like “tell the grownups they can kiss our ass” may seem sophomoric, but they strike at the heart of what makes Five Iron Frenzy so appealing, especially to long-time fans. They’ve never shied away from the youthful, rebellious spirit that made them famous. But in their increasing age, the members of Five Iron seem determined to hold childhood things in spirit, using them to balance the heaviness of the world they so clearly confront throughout the album.
Even amidst all the change, though, Five Iron Frenzy can’t abandon some of its core elements. The band still has a strong punk artery that runs through its heart, and songs like “Tyrannis” and album-closer “Huerfano” show that it’s still pumping blood at a healthy rate. Yes, these songs continue the record’s lyrical maturity, flinging acid darts at white supremacy and calling out to the “wayward souls” that seem to make up Five Iron’s loyal fanbase. But they also introduce elements of familiarity to a record that feels worlds different from anything in the existing discography.
The band also upholds its long tradition of self-deprecation as a means of personal reflection. Roper notes the forgetfulness that comes with age on, “Auld Lanxiety,” a mid-album, alt-rock offering laced with the sentimentality of pre-breakup Five Iron tracks like, “New Years Eve.” The level of comfort the group has with its fans is on full display here, and it’s a welcome breather from the fist-pounding intensity of the album’s first half.
Roper’s well-documented penchant for absurdism, seen in tracks like “Kitty Doggy” or “These Are Not My Pants,” is missing this latest go-round, and it’s easy to see how it would have detracted from the album’s more focused, timely themes. Roper still indulges himself with lines like, “I need a sheet cake of victory,” though he mostly saves the sardonic moments for political commentary. It can hardly be classified as “humor” anymore, but it’s good to see some range from the writer who once wrote entire songs about Canadian tourism and childhood combs.
It’s worth noting that some of these dalliances from political messaging subtract from the overall momentum of the record. No one would expect an album full of protest anthems from a band as dedicated to silliness as Five Iron. But when the band chooses to let up on the throttle Until This Shakes Apart loses direction. “Auld Lanxiety” succeeds as a quick recess but leads into a handful of throwaways tackling technology addiction (“One Heart Hypnosis”) and love songs to the members’ children (“Homelessly Devoted to You”). While these topics of conversation aren’t necessarily ill-suited to the band’s strengths, they feel out-of-place in the overall context.
Luckily, the overall strength of the record isn’t lost in the shuffle. It helps that Roper and company recover their social urgency in the last few tracks; the decision to stick “While Supplies Last” on the back half is a welcome one. Closing track “Huerfano” also taps into the unit’s more sympathetic urges, vaguely telling the story of high school outcasts looking for a place to belong. Even if Five Iron is long past playing to teenagers, the heart behind its formation still beats, an encouraging note of grace in a record so packed with righteous anger.
So, as the Christian music stars of the late ’90s and early aughts age into their silver years, it’s clear that Five Iron Frenzy hasn’t spoken its last on the political landscape of the American church. If Until This Shakes Apart is any indication, it may even be a new beginning for the ska troupe, one defined by a renewed sense of focus and engagement.