Game Music Saturdays: Control Me by Jay Tholen

At it’s heart, Control Me is an honest expression of my love for the Gospel. Most of the compositions were conceived as humble little hymn-like ukulele tunes. Following my tradition of unnecessary embellishment; I layered the songs beyond recognition until they became what they are now: schizophrenic heaps of sound. Everything from Shoegaze to Prog Rock to Schmaltzy 50’s Pop is emulated beneath layers of manipulated waveforms and vinyl samples.

– Jay Tholen

If there’s anything I totally despised about the Christian Contemporary Music movement (or CCM, for ease of use), it was the derivative nature of every piece of music coming out of that movement. It’s just not all that interesting, and usually it’s latching onto a genre four or five years from its peak of popularity. That’s never to say that CCM hasn’t evolved and improved over the years, but my negative impression led me to drop most Christian music. Save for some Jesus Freak-era dc Talk, I don’t think I’ve listened to much at all.

Jay Tholen, from what I can gather, does not write CCM music. He is, obviously, a forthrightly Christian person and artist who has skill in a number of areas (as his website will attest). Although, you’ve got to ask, how would you hear about him (obvious plug for Original Sound Version and Patrick Gann) if it weren’t for the internet? The purpose of CCM is to sell, after all, not primarily to give glory to God. I’ve always found that a weird conundrum in that sector of music production – a religion based on a message of inclusion and love sells its own products repeatedly. Not that I have problems with capitalism, just Christians become part and parcel of the system.

Tholen, in my mind, doesn’t fall into these traps. He’s created a unique Christian “chiptuen” album, but that sells its short; there’s so many instruments and so many key changes that it’s difficult to get your bearings with all the layering going on here. ‘Time Transcendent”, which regales the listener with the eternal and omniscient nature of a God who exists beyond time, goes on its own pace and timeframe, moving from a catchy NES chiptune theme to vocal chanting by Christine Tholen (his sister) and video game sounds. Seriously, how often did one ever hear that from Newsboys or similar groups? Psychadelic usually gives a negative connotation, but there’s an ethereal feel to Tholen’s music that I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps it’s the ukelele-composed ditties?

God knew the words to this song
before he gave them to me and
He knew that you’d come along
so you could hear what He has to say

I guarantee you, though, that Tholen’s music isn’t for everyone. Tholen, himself, has a sincere and earnest, if unimpressive, voice which is used throughout. Some of the layering choices aren’t just out of the box; they’re downright weird. The jarring nature of these compositions could, in fact, turn off the vast majority of its audience. In the same vein as progressive rock, many songs lack a cohesive signature chorus or element. That doesn’t mean periods of the album aren’t catchy, but they’re elements rather than the focal point (again, like prog rock, some stuff will appeal and some will not). It’s a holistic work that requires one to take time and listen to its forty-two minute opus. My guess, if you’re reading this blog, is that you’ve got more than the average attention span, so this shouldn’t be a problem. For me, it’s finely crafted and unique; so many Christians artists are not, and that dismays me.

so build your altars
and wait for nothing
your gods are all dead
or dying and bluffing
my God answers by fire

Some songs even use plain sound effects from real life; the whole of “Prayer” uses the sound of raindrops as a backing element for the ukulele and the rest of the song. Tholen’s honesty really comes through in the lyrics. In the problem of witnessing or “proselytizing”, as outsides might call it, the whole “Prayers” songs shows our need for courage in the face of disbelief, something even I know all too well. It’s a self-deprecating, yet hopeful lyrical style that allows us to relate to Tholen. The artist doesn’t sit on a special ivory tower speaking to his audience here. He is an active participant in the Christian life, just like anyone else:

God i’m so scared
that if they hear this song
they’ll hear ‘hell’ and take it wrong

but lord i love them
and you do too
so lord please draw them back to you

I’ll just sit here with you, man
yeah I know you’re condemned, man
but you can count on me to never say a word, friend

“A Temple of the Holy Ghost” describes the plight of prayer life: sometimes revelatory and sometimes empty in equal measure. Control Me gives a traditional chiptune song that, somehow, produces a haunting atmosphere. I suppose that’s not quite the attitude – I mean “fear of God”, which has a special connotation. It’s not necessarily that of “fear”, but proper reverence to the Creator and Savior. That’s difficult to capture; many hymns do this, but no modern Christian music really taps this vein. As Tholen says himself in “Control Me”:

you’re the master
i’m the host
all art flows from You
in You i’m engrossed

Heck, any artist who’s going to retell the story of Nebuchadnezzar and his mysterious dream in Daniel (“Eagle Feather, Falcon Claw”) definitely deserves praise. A Christian artist actually depicting Biblical events? For being the most important factor in a Christian’s life, it gets surprisingly little use in worship music, other than a platitude here or out of context line there. It’s exemplary work that sets out to perform a particular task (and theology), suceeding brilliantly

If there’s one thing I think I’ve learned over time, it’s that Christians are to be “in the world, but not of the world”. We don’t follow its standards nor its shifting cultural allegiances; all in all, we are Christ’s alone. As such, shouldn’t our music also reflect this status? Tholen’s music might be “weird”, but it isn’t intentionally so. Our music, I think, should follow this same standard – that is, an otherworldly canon  that uses our unique gifts, spiritual and otherwise, to speak out for God’s glory and power. 1 John 2:15-17 tells us something similar:

15 Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17  The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.

This isn’t music of this world; it’s like Heaven’s noise band or the New Earth’s marching band. Control Me is definitely worth your time! Support Christians who do crazy things!

Jay Tholen’s albums can be found here.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.