Whenever a new and exciting artist shows up in Knoxville, I’m guilty of casting backhanded aspersions at my current hometown.
“Why are you here?” I ask, as though Knoxville has so little to offer, as though any-where else would be better. I should give more credence to this place. It’s a good city.
Regardless, it was with great and geekified delight that I discovered a lady living here, a lady enthusiastic about the arts in the Kingdom of Christ. Rachel Wilhelm is a singer-songwriter on staff at a local church.
Normally, I wouldn’t lead with that. I’d tell you that she had put out several records and been in charge of this or that endeavor—anything except mentioning that she was on staff at a church. Wilhelm’s passion, however, lies in working not as a fringe figure, an outsider maintaining just enough artistic distance from the Body of Christ to speak truth creatively, but as a member and an advocate within the Church, coaching and coaxing good work out of its members while selflessly giving her own talents.
Whenever you dig into the Wilhelm family’s online offerings, you go down a rabbit hole that extends tunnels in all musical directions. Play six degrees of separation and you arrive at both Ben Folds via Fleming and John and Anglican liturgy via the ongoing projects Wilhelm continually takes up to serve her various Christian communities. She is a leader in United Adoration, part of a movement by the Anglican Church which seeks to root artistic sub-creation in local communities of believers and their diverse cultures, rather than leaving artists subject to the vapid impetuses of standalone capitalism.
Wilhelm’s latest project is Requiem, a collection of songs in the liturgical form of a funeral service.
Here on the vague tailings of the pandemic, this record feels like the culmination of an ongoing grind of lyricism worthy of Habakkuk. It is worth an aside here to say that Christian radio fundamentally mistakes either the reasons people sing in congregation or the reasons people tune up the FM dial. The danger therein is a whelming tide of positivist congregational music that ignores our needs both to grieve and to learn as churchgoers. In her recording career, Rachel Wilhelm steps boldly into this gap.
Taking at face value the injunction to spend isolated time at home creating things, she churned out singles and EPs like Speak to Us, How Long, Good Friday, Quarantine, and Advent, all released in 2020. This newest album is meant to offer the chance at a funeral to the bereaved who could not hold one properly or normally—or at all—due to COVID-19.
Requiem steps up to look grief in the eye, and it doesn’t blink. The lyrics by Wilhelm and writer Kate Bluett draw heavily on Scripture, stepping easily from the Psalms to Job to the Gospels. In addition, the record brings the concept of a traditional requiem down out of the rafters of medieval high church transcendence. While the chordal arrangements, both with vocalists and strings, retain an amount of traditional movement—personally, I can hear echoes of Kemper Crabb’s cult-favorite masterpiece The Vigil—the music is folk-infused enough to be highly approachable. In an interview, Wilhelm admits to English sacred music composer John Rutter as an early influence on the project, but the voice of the album feels highly modern, even pop at times. The penultimate vocal track, “Deliver Me,” even ventures out into an organ-driven minor groove, and Wilhelm’s voice retains an overall plainsong quality that renders the music immediate and personal.
We need writers who are willing to venture into the territories of grief and loss. We especially need those who are willing to lead congregations in this way.
Check out Requiem and more of Rachel Wilhelm’s work at Rachelwilhelm.com, and dig deeper into the work of United Adoration at Unitedadoration.com. Meanwhile, I’m vowing to appreciate my town more, and I'm glad to remember that it's helpful to grieve, and that there are those willing to help us do so.