Borrowing: “Preacher,” by OneRepublic

Every now and then, I peek through the fingers covering my eyes long enough to see if there’s any music the kids like today that isn’t completely awful. Recently, I was moderately surprised and pleased to discover the band OneRepublic, and even more interested to learn that front-man and producer Ryan Tedder professes Christianity. Granted, it’s a “Bono Christianity” that gives him no qualms about also producing work for other pop artists who are decidedly opposed to all Christian morality. Still, it’s not every day you see an Oral Roberts grad, raised by Pentecostal missionaries, making mainstream pop music. There’s enough interesting material in Tedder’s career choices and philosophy for his very own Christians in Entertainment post, but that’s for another time.

At any rate, it’s clear that gospel music has influenced OneRepublic’s music. Explaining one of his signature production motifs, Tedder says, “Handclaps, always. Why? Church.” Maddy Easter told me that he and his wife are even thinking of covering one of the band’s recent hits for an upcoming project. Today, I’d like to present their most heavily gospel-infused tune as a “borrowing” candidate for another one of our own more progressive artists. While I don’t care for a whole lot of the band’s work, darned if I can’t stop hitting “replay” on this one. It’s titled “Preacher,” and it’s dedicated to Tedder’s grandfather, whose tough love and wisdom inspired him through his youth.

The meaning of the poignant first verse became clear to me in an interview that mentioned Tedder’s parents had divorced when he was a five-year-old boy. Interestingly, Tedder never talks about this in connection with the song, but once you have that bit of knowledge, the whole lyric clicks into place:

When I was a kid, I used to buy and sell gravity.

I knew how to fly, and I would teach you for a fee.

Broke every window in my hotel heart

When I was only five years old, a twelve-year scar.

But I’d hear the same voice echo in my mind:

“See son, you got an angel to chase the devil at night…”

This is the grandfather’s voice coming in, providing assurance and stability as young Ryan works through his hurt confusion. The second verse is about embarking on his dream to enter the music business as a very young man (“I drove to a strange town full of have and have-nots”), yet the preacher’s words still remain with him: “And as I walk through that storybook life, I be lookin’ for an angel to chase the devil at night.” Interestingly, he takes inspiration from what might sound like harsh words from his grandfather in the chorus: “God only helps those who learn to help themselves.” It spurs him on to seize the moment with all its challenges. The uplifting musical backdrop then builds to a soaring, power-packed crescendo, full of gospel heart and soul. [Note: That should be "hands up, heads down" in the bridge]:

Despite the song’s personal, story-song nature, I think anybody with a father or grandfather in the ministry can relate to it. For that matter, anybody who shares that wonderfully close bond with a father figure can relate to it. I like how Tedder introduces the song in concert: “The way I figured it is if you’re 85 years old, and you still got your principles, and you’re still kicking… somebody should write a song for you.” It also carries universal appeal for any young person who’s had to take his faith in his hands, pack it into a car and drive to a strange town—through the risk and the loneliness, there remains the echo of a well-remembered voice, the image of a well-beloved face.

Admittedly, the spectrum of vocalists who could cover the song is limited. The chorus requires a tenor with a very strong, clear upper range. But I think Wes Hampton, whom Tedder resembles a little bit on his high notes, could do an excellent job with it, solo or with the Vocal Band. David Phelps would also be a strong candidate. If the Vocal Band covered it, I could actually hear David on the verses and Wes on the chorus. I could also see Ernie Haase & Signature Sound doing it. Devin McGlamery is very comfortable with pop music, and his baritone would fit naturally on the verses. Then Ernie could pick up the chorus. Brian Free & Assurance also comes to mind. All the guys could share vocal duties, with Jeremy Lile handling the low notes in the verses, and then really either Brian or Bill could do the chorus. I’m actually leaning towards Bill over Brian, because he combines a scarily high range of his own with more substance to his tone.

Fun bonus video: The background vocals being recorded in the French Quarter of New Orleans. I always like these rough around the edges, in the studio type things. Then when the finished version kicks in at 1:50, it’s kind of awesome. Only annoying thing: Ryan’s bright orange, tight-tight pants. Apparently this is what the guys are wearing these days. *facepalm*

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7 Comments

Filed under Borrowing, Songs

7 responses to “Borrowing: “Preacher,” by OneRepublic

  1. Loved this song and its message ~
    Your refreshing and personal style in commentary flavors the message, and plugs in the emotional connectivity to the artist ~

  2. Steve

    I recently purchased their entire album on itunes and really enjoy it. I really like the song counting stars, which is what drew me in to their music. If you want to see something interesting that alludes to the lead singer’s christian, pentecostal upbringing, watch the music video to counting stars.

    Some of their older music has some profanity in it, but found this album to be clean (unless I missed something). Also in the same musical styling that I’ve enjoyed is Imagine Dragons.

    It would be interesting to hear a cover by EHSS! I’m not sure if its strong enough theologically for Brian Free and Assurance. Maybe the Mckameys :) haha

    • I think that’s their best album too. I especially like some of the acoustic versions on the deluxe edition (though I liked Ryan’s candor regarding that edition— “Heck no, don’t buy the album again if you have it already!!”) There is a “damn” on one of the songs in that album, but they’re usually pretty good about profanity. There are one or two other instances that I recall on previous songs of theirs.

      “Counting Stars” was the song that also first got me interested in OneRepublic, and it’s actually the one Maddy Easter was thinking of covering. Another heavily gospel-influenced track, which is why it caught my ear. I found the music video to be weird though. I get that it’s a Pentecostal revival with people being “slain in the spirit,” I just don’t see any connection to the song! The random alligator doesn’t clarify matters. I also advised Maddy that lyrically, the song might not be the best choice for a cover, because the lyrics are kind of murky without any backstory. I did some reading around and discovered that it’s about Ryan’s early struggles as a starving musician, trying to make this career happen while grappling with his responsibility to provide as a young married man. So that’s where all the imagery about risk, going against the grain, etc., is coming from, because he was deliberately eschewing a more advisable or “normal” career path to chase his dream. And obviously, it wound up paying off, literally. So that makes the lyrics more interesting, but I think the song is still flawed, because by itself, a line like “I feel something so wrong doing the right thing/And I feel something so right doing the wrong thing” comes off as pointlessly shallow and rebellious without the knowledge that “right” is referring to “expected” or “conventional” while “wrong” refers to something risky or speculative, not “right” or “wrong” in the absolute sense. There’s also the repeated “Make that money, watch it burn” tag. Catchy as all get-out, but what the heck does it MEAN? Is it a lament for past reckless behavior in the bridge (“Take that money, watch it burn/Sink in the river, the lessons I learn”)? Is it an echo of the chorus’s hope that one day the speaker and his wife will have money to “burn” when he makes it big? If so, is that a particularly healthy goal to be striving for?

      See, if you’re going to write a pop song, I think you should write lyrics whose meaning isn’t dramatically affected by whether or not you know the backstory. I wouldn’t mind so much if it were a singer-songwriter thing, where the people listening are “thinky” types, but this was a mainstream pop radio smash. Every schoolkid in America was going around humming it without a clue as to what the lyrics were saying. They just liked the tune. I know if my kid were mindlessly repeating the “right thing/wrong thing” lyric, I would stop him and say “Hold on—what are those words saying? Do you agree with them? Are you even thinking about the words?” That’s just my .02 though. I understand that it wasn’t originally intended for radio, and the choice to single it was unplanned, so it was a surprise hit for the band. Ryan refers to this song when he says that he hopes to write things with more “gravity” to them than your average pop song, but I think there’s still a problem if that “gravity” translates into murky lyrics with a questionable face-value message.

  3. Steve

    I totally agree on your assessment of the song, I think they just lead them to have an open interpretation.

    The music video is quite weird and interesting all at the same time. I tried to find an exact meaning, but can’t find it either. Its good to see that their is still some good, pop music out there in culture.

    Just as a sidenote: one reason I really enjoy your blog is that you find many out of the box things to present to keep it interesting! Keep up the good work!

    • Yeah, and it’s not like I demand that every song I listen to be cut and dried, but I think that when the most obvious meaning is problematic, an ostensibly Christian songwriter should have a little more care. But I would come down harder in that respect on some of his other songs, particularly a few that he’s written for other artists. At any rate, I do find the stuff that he writes for his own band to be very musically rich and interesting.

      Thanks for the kind words, I appreciate it that you like my “out-of-the-box”-ness. I always feel like I’m losing a lot of regular readers when I’m not simply reporting southern gospel news, so it’s nice to know that somebody else is keeping up with my blogging ADD. :-)

  4. I love OneRepublic. I’ve been a fan for a long time.

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