Preson Phillips’ new worship album In Our Winters is full of raw-boned electric guitar and instrumental jams that would fit comfortably in the rock section of any music store. Outfitted in a bushy ZZ-top beard with tattoos running along his arm, Phillips looks as unconventional as he sounds. But he composed these songs for corporate worship at Watermark Church in Tampa, Fla., where he also preaches and serves as pastor.
The idea of heavy alt/rock worship music seems like a stretch at first, but Phillips succeeds because of his relentless focus on God’s nature and work. The grungy guitars—while an intricate component—do not overwhelm the lyrics or themes. In reality, these are songs very much in the folk vein, with intelligible choruses and catchy hooks. It’s music that first demands attention by its power but then quickly directs you toward the One who is power.
Phillips’ affinity for folk is clear from the opening track—the classic spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger,” which he remakes into a kind of bluegrass howler. It opens with a reverb-drenched moan joined by a bluesy acoustic riff that summons the Soggy Bottom Boys’ version of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” A booming kick drum and heavy guitar soon raise the music to the level of a rock anthem, but Phillips’ hillbilly quaver keeps it rooted solidly in country and folk territory as he declares, “I will be free from every trial / my body sleeps in the church yard. / I’ll drop the cross of self-denial / and enter on my great reward.”
“Open Seas” is propelled by an electric guitar hook that spins around like a boat dashing through the waves. Guitars stack in a satisfying swirl while Phillips cries out, “Teach me of your ways of love more vast than open seas / Plant your image firmly on my life for all to see.” Phillips’ vocal attack is reminiscent of Caedmon’s Call singer Derek Webb or Neil Young, with whom he shares a decidedly blue-collar, folk-rock sensibility. Phillips resembles Neil Young in another way—the guitar solos don’t hit a lot of notes, but Phillips plays as if he stakes his life on it. It’s that conviction—in his singing and playing—that finally wins over skeptics.
The album’s slow songs allow Phillips to dig deeper into his vocal range and his ideas. “Lift Up The Gates”—based on Psalm 24—reveals subtler, earthier textures as Phillips considers the absurd fact of God using our fallen bodies as his new abode: “Lift up your heads oh ancient doors / this carnal temple, now the Lord’s / prepare for visitation like you’ve never seen before.” Phillips’ unorthodox approach to worship music means he is likely to have felt more than others how “my people build His house so small / with pious righteousness and pride … and my people paint cathedral walls / that He can’t fit inside.”
In Our Winters contains some big, bodacious sounds. But Phillips is not interested in some mindless, head-banging frenzy. On the contrary, he employs the wild possibilities of electric guitar music to express the wilder dimension of God and our perilous journey toward him. It’s music that expresses a bit of what Beaver said of Aslan in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe: “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”