Grappling with the highs and lows of the Christian life, from disappointment and disillusion to forgiveness and hope, Juno and GMA Canada Covenant Award-winning singer/songwriter Elias Dummer recently released his much-anticipated sophomore solo set, The Work Vol. II. The 10-song recording laments the failings of humanity while ultimately amplifying God’s lavish grace—His finished work on the cross which offers new mercies each day. Dummer co-wrote the entire project and co-produced The Work Vol. II with Brent Milligan (Steven Curtis Chapman, Tauren Wells). The album also features songwriting collaborations with David Leonard; Tim Timmons; Benji Cowart; Zach Bolen (Citizens); Eric Fusilier (The City Harmonic); and Gary Rea (Land of Color), among others. In this TCB Exclusive, Dummer reflects on choosing the title for his new worship collection, how the balance of hope and lament is on full display on this record, and how two pre-pandemic tracks have taken on new meaning in this modern world.
Can you share a little about the conception of The Work Vol. 2 and how it continues the themes from The Work Vol. 1?
I wish I had this really creative answer. The idea I’ve had all along is that at the end of the day the worship songs we write are a liturgy of sorts, maybe for Sundays or Monday-Saturday, depending on the people and the song and what they need. And the word ‘liturgy’ means ‘the work of the people.’ So I’ve had this idea that for my solo worship stuff I would call the records “The Work.” And if I ever record a live album, it will be called “Of The People.” Otherwise, I would overthink the album title forever.
How do you hope this project will impact others?
The last few years have been crazy. It probably is best understood, strangely, as a sense that things were crazy before it got real crazy. I met my co-producer Brent Milligan years ago and we became friends and really wanted to work together on this record. We already had a sense musically, artistically, lyrically, a bittersweet album that would be as much lament as it is celebration and hope. The words we landed on are ‘stubbornly hopeful.’ It feels to me like we are in this moment in time where the behavior of a lot of Christians in public and public Christians is such that many reasonable thinking believers are left with the choice only between collapsing into insanity or total deconstruction – left with this really hard-core binary. Whereas if you read a few church history books and learn that this isn’t the first time the world is weird, then it can help. And most importantly for me, what some people call deconstruction, looking at beliefs that are Christian all along or recent additions to the faith that I was incorrectly taught, is a healthy thing. So I can’t say this record is a deconstruction record because it is not, but it is a hopeful clinging to what I do know to be true – some really difficult emotions and feelings about the church in public.
Is there a track that means something different to you now than when you first wrote it?
Several actually. There are two tracks that were written well before COVID that bizarrely ended up infinitely more relevant when everything with COVID and beyond has taken place – “The Gospel Is Rest” and “We’re Here Because You’re Here.” Both took on new meaning after churches were needing to be in lockdown and how that worked. And experiencing something near to burnout myself in that process, “The Gospel Is Rest” really took on a new angle. These could be things that were coming and maybe I could have had a better eye out for, but they definitely evolved in how they were understood. I think that the degree to which people have connected with them – those are my two most popular songs from this record at this point – have a lot to do with where people are at.
Has there been a lyric that has stood out from the impact in listener feedback?
People are asking a lot of questions right now, and not necessarily ‘do we need to be the church,’ but ‘what does the church need to be?’ Some of what is at the heart of “We’re Here Because You’re Here” is really asking those questions. I’m not anti-lights and against production. I quite enjoy playing music live. However, when we lean merely on the mechanisms themselves and don’t look at those mechanisms as a mode of prayer or communing with God, we lose a lot. And maybe the entire thing. And there are lyrics in “We’re Here Because You’re Here” that really wrestle with that. ‘Earnestly’ is a word that characterizes this record for me – it’s hopeful and lamenting and complicated and in that sense feels very honest and earnest. And in my friends’ words, not mine, it’s in a way that worship music sometimes doesn’t. I think that’s something that we’re praying prayers for people to pray, but if I read the Psalms, I don’t often get a sense that David is merely writing a thing for people to pray, but you get a sense that David is in it. There are quite a lot of songs where my life is in the song. I think I’m more ok with that now than I ever have been.
Are there any personal highlights that stand out to you about the collaborations during the writing/recording sessions?
One that stands out the most to me in that area is probably “Kyrie Eleison (It’s Mercy We Need),” with Citizens. I co-wrote the song with Zach Bolen of Citizens; he’s a friend, and we had been talking about our similar experiences – him at Mars Hill with Mark Driscoll and myself at a much smaller church but with a very similar personality. We were saying how people are quick to jump to easy explanations for these things. Someone like Mark Driscoll exists because of the power and scale and the megachurch, and I had an experience with a pastor very similar, and I still have a complicated relationship to that part of my life. I see so much good and hurt in that too. I think the reality is that human beings are a complicated mess, and Zach and I experienced that both in the ocean and the puddle. At the end of the day, there is a reason that at the heart of the Christian story is the call to receive and give mercy. That doesn’t justify bad behavior, and I think it’s pretty clear in the song what our angle on that is, but I don’t think we can come at things in a purely them-oriented manner as believers. It requires us to look deeply at what is broken in ourselves. We can’t hold court without confessing.
Are you looking to pair the recorded album with any visual components to continue the conversations?
Once upon a time, if you didn’t have a smash hit the day the album was out, your album never existed. I think that’s changed a lot. TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube have changed the game entirely in that street week with streaming is the beginning. I thought about music videos, and do plan to keep the story rolling with that, but almost the biggest part for me is coming to enjoy TikTok and Instagram reels. Not just from the musical standpoint, but talking about what is important for me in worship and life and faith. I love the two-way conversational element of it. I plan to do that more. Maybe I’ll irritate people with how long I talk about this record, but I plan to keep finding ways to tell the story better and more creatively.
Who, or what, is currently providing inspiration for you, either musically or spiritually?
The things that sits on my dining room table is the ‘Book of Common Prayer.’ I really enjoy podcasts a lot. Musically – I’m all over the place all of the time. There’s a certain beauty to losing the fear of having to look and sound like a certain kind. I hope that I remain relevant because I’m aware of what is happening in the world and am connected to that, but I don’t really sit down every week and look at the Christian music being released each week.
What are you most expectant for in the remainder for 2022?
Personally, we’re settling in in Canada, which is a big change after ten years in Nashville. I’m really excited to reconnect with friends. Musically, the album is the beginning of the story. We have shows coming up that is exciting, and I’ve put out two records and a B-sides EP, so I think we now turn our eyes to what a live record looks like. I don’t know when that will be but that’s where I think we start to look.