Reviewing spoken word on a music blog is a strange sensation. The touchstones I usually seek out in albums; the pacing, dynamic movement, melodic content, and genre experimentation inevitably end up de-emphasized, re-purposed, or altogether absent, leaving me to spend most of my time, ironically, in the written word like a literary critic. To this, Chris Bernstorf proclaims in his opening track Swing, “Go ahead, market me/ Count my meter/ Evaluate my rhythm/ Underline every simile”, but to do so to Chris’s poetry, even more so than most spoken word artists, would be a radical disservice to what is really going on.
To understand the enigma that is Chris Bernstorf, you need to encounter him in a dirty, dimly lit basement surrounded by the passionate DIY community he calls home. Here, fenced in by tightly packed human bodies, a single light-bulb mounted on a pole roughly the size of a microphone stand suddenly flashes on and the whole room bursts into a rendition of a recognizable pop song that is always at least five years out of date. Once the first chorus ends, Bernstorf, somehow able to shout over the cacophony with a voice that is already blown out, bulldozes into his first poem with a crazed expression. It is the most joyful chaos you can experience on Earth.
Once Bernstorf has had his fill of crawling under legs, climbing rafters, and waving his light pole like a captain’s saber, he re-gathers the now scattered crowd into a tight circle, dims the lights and transitions into two love poems, delivered much more calmly, but still far too impassioned to be called subdued. Finally he reaches his nearly 6 minute closer, One, that ends with one of the most impactful paragraphs he’s ever written:
Before I can even try to pull all the ravaged ends back together again, He is there like Spiderman on that ferry but better and the web holds flawlessly, and the water begins to feel like solid ground again, and there is nothing and everything, and I am encompassed, consumed, and one, yes and amen and hallelujah the deafening and silent and final and honest and grateful murmur of my prostrate spirit, and then I, the uncertain, thankful, confused, certain, speechless, humbled, rejoicing, scale-less pot, finally say to the Potter:“Keep going.”
It is a deeply spiritual finale to a deeply spiritual encounter, and also, appropriately, the finale to It’s All Joy, the newly released album that Bernstorf’s set pulls from. Though recording such a bombastic performance piece inevitably fails to capture the true spirit of the live experience, Bernstorf manages to succeed in creating a recorded album that is still rewarding despite its missing context. This is because, unlike most similar performers, Bernstorf backs up his whirlwind stage antics with material that is genuinely well written and thought provoking.
In a line that only he could write, Bernstorf asks in Swing: “what if we all took online classes for plastic surgery and secretly replaced everyone’s middle finger with a chocolate cake—crazy, I know, but no more so than holding a knife to the throat of a man holding a knife to your throat and calling it peace.” The statement of Swing is the same as that of the whole album: It’s All Joy. Everything, even the heavy and uncomfortable parts of life, hinges on joy and the love that underpins it. He backs this up with references to everything from Hemingway, to Gadafi, to Spiderman, to Flight of the Concords’ grandmother, and his own mother’s sewing machine. On It’s All Joy the separations between elite and common, the Ivory Tower and the blue-collar world, church and state, logic and disorder, pain and joy all seem to dissolve into an eclectic, but unified voice proclaiming a narrative unburdened by the conventions or expectations of modern man. It takes a truly talented writer to be able to synthesize such seemingly disparate things without losing either his writing voice or his coherence.
Especially today, in a world that often feels to be steadily falling apart, Bernstorf’s proclamation is a bold one, resting on a faith that goes beyond understanding and a trust in something tangible yet not conventionally undefinable. This is both the great strength that makes Bernstorf’s writing so vivid and unique and also simultaneously his greatest weakness, because his alternative brand of Christian expression has the potential to alienate those outside of his religion and also alienate more conservative kinds of Christians. Whether you agree with his stances or not, however, his talent as a spoken word poet is undeniable and It’s All Joy is only the latest of several releases that more than prove he deserves to be recognized within his genre.
Score: 7.2 (Stand-Out)
Released: May 17, 2019