Though she was one of Christian music’s most popular artists for close to a five-year span, Jennifer Knapp walked away from her successful career in 2002. Despite the Dove awards, Grammy nominations, and over a million albums sold, she says she needed a personal hiatus from the rigors of recording and touring. Now fans can rejoice after a long 6-8 years of hopes and doubts: Jennifer Knapp has finally decided to return to music.
Of course, that news comes tempered with the recent announcement about Knapp’s sexuality, which has undoubtedly alienated many in her predominantly Christian fan base or at least left them wondering what to make of the acclaimed singer-songwriter. This controversy quickly excluded her from Christian radio and retail, but then Knapp had already expressed the intention to write music for a broader audience than the church. Nevertheless, by all accounts, her faith remains intact and remains an important part of her life and music.
So what to make of Letting Go? As a Christian, I’ve always been a fan of Elton John’s music, so why wouldn’t I listen to Jennifer Knapp, especially if her faith-inspired songwriting is more or less intact? If I excluded all the sinners from my music collection, things would become pretty quiet around here. The real question is whether or not Knapp’s songwriting is still honorable—and, of course, whether the music is any good.
No question on that last part. Letting Go offers Knapp’s best work in a long time, and that’s not just in reference to her hiatus. 2001’s The Way I Am felt too rushed and overproduced compared to her more roots-rocking style on her first two albums. This one is at least as good as 2000’s Lay It Down, and often stands up to her landmark debut, Kansas. That’s really saying something, I know.
Producer/guitarist Paul Moak (Mat Kearney, Michael W. Smith) smartly strips Knapp’s sound to a straightforward pop/rock setup with folk and country undertones. Though Knapp’s music obviously owes a lot to Melissa Etheridge (naturally), her sound hasn't dated and remains very much in style today—you know American Idol finalist Crystal Bowersox is bound to release an album like this later in 2010.
Knapp’s spirituality is intact too, though it’s certainly not as prevalent or explicit as on past albums. “Want for Nothing” is a mid-tempo pop song clearly inspired in part by Psalm 23, while the roots rocker “Dive In” makes reference to being “baptized in water and blood” to make an important life change. Other songs are vaguer, but certainly in step with Christian themes. The ballad “On Love” calls for perseverance and hope through hard times, and “Stone to the River” seeks reconciliation with our fellow man rather than stubbornness and distrust.
Some are already calling Letting Go an “angrier” and “edgier” album for Knapp, based in part on a couple of songs that use some light profanity. “If I Made a Difference,” a soaring country-pop ballad ready for radio,” focuses on a broken relationship, with Knapp wryly musing, “Sorry if I ever gave a damn.” More weighty is the hard-rocking “Inside,” very reminiscent of Etheridge, challenging those who Knapp imagines will judge her unfairly (“Who in the hell do you think you are?”) while fearing that “They’ll bury me before they hear the whole story” and ultimately deny her grace. (Those fears have proven founded based on initial responses by many Christians to Knapp's news.)
It’s “Fallen” that will probably give believers the most pause. With beautiful piano-based pop, Knapp reflects on a relationship that she has no regrets over: “Even though they say we have fallen/Doesn’t mean that I won’t do it twice/Given every second chance I choose again to be with you tonight.” Hmmm, she sounds pretty committed to her heart in this matter. But it’s the context that makes the song more troubling than the lyrics itself; there’s nothing specific enough in the lyrics to exclusively personalize it to Knapp and her homosexual relationship. It could just as easily be about a heterosexual affair or the consequences of following your heart too far.
Say what you will about “Fallen,” but I can’t help thinking the title track is a better reflection of where Knapp is at right now. With a dark, alt-pop sound that resembles Alanis Morissette, she generally sings about holding on to her convictions while abandoning the fear that cripples her—it seems to confirm her decision to move forward with her life while clinging to her faith, and we can all certainly relate to that feeling. “Better Off” takes this further, pleading to better understand someone’s will (God’s?) and make changes rather than follow her own plans and impulses: “Please believe in me/Don’t be leaving me.” And with the folksy “Mr. Gray,” Knapp longs to be made clean so it will reveal her need for mercy.
This is some gut-wrenchingly honest songwriting, yet I wonder if Letting Go might not be a perfect starting point for those Christians wrestling with homosexuality (if not homosexuals wrestling with their faith). In some sense, I'm almost glad about Knapp’s controversial news, because in tandem with this album, she successfully gets the ball rolling for a difficult conversation about how the church should respond to gay Christians. Yes, I know some are afraid that Knapp will somehow lead others astray with her lifestyle, but might she also lead some who wouldn’t typically be receptive to the truth of salvation through Christ?
It’s a topic that not all Christians will agree on, for sure. Given Knapp’s broadened songwriting focus, her recent announcement, and all the time that’s passed, it’s perfectly understandable why many will be "letting go" of Jennifer Knapp’s music (if they haven’t already). Nor would it be surprising if others regarded her as a brand new artist for the same reasons.
Time will tell where Knapp is headed through all of this, but this much I know for sure: Letting Go offers the same catchy roots rock and confessional writing that first attracted many of us to her music in the first place. Many of these songs are relatable diary entries about the struggle between faith and doubt, acceptance and rejection, judgment and grace. Though some things haven apparently changed as far as (public perception of) Knapp's personal life, things remain the same as far as her artistic excellence is concerned.
Standouts: “Want for Nothing,” “Mr. Gray,” “If It Made a Difference”