I was introduced to Former Ruins (the musical moniker of Indiana-based artist Levi Sikes) by a friend during the height of COVID-19 in Spring 2020. It was at this time that his debut album, Large Startling, hit the scene. I found personal comfort and companionship with this unexpected (some might even say "startling") album that seemed to ask questions no other artist was asking, as it challenged modern trends - especially in music - of doubt and deconstruction. It was a subtle work of excellence that dripped with biblical wisdom paired with the weariness of hard life experience. It wasn't preachy, but it preached. The only drawback to the record was that its relatively short length of eight songs left this listener wanting more.
With No Creature Is Hidden, Levi delivers... and then some. The sound and lyrics established on Large Startling are given greater expansiveness and depth on this project and the result is an astonishing work. And even better, an astonishing work dripping with relevant Gospel insight.
Stylistically, the album borrows from a vast array of influences, from those as long-tenured as Bob Dylan and Nick Cave, to newer influences such as The National, The War on Drugs, and mewithoutYou. Levi's voice stays at a lower octave for the most part and the sound of the album keeps the mood contemplative rather than bursting with bombastic energy and big melodies. Because of this, the record takes time to let sink in. Opener "The Last Thing I Saw" is maybe the biggest example of the album's "grower" energy. At first, the song doesn't seem to have a discernable core melody beyond some ethereal "ooo's" and feels almost stream-of-consciousness at times. Again, Nick Cave or mewithoutYou (particularly Catch for Us the Foxes-era) is a good example of the kind of lyrical flow to expect. It's the sort of song where the entryway is not, in fact, an immediate chorus or a big guitar riff, but the words themselves. If you're having trouble wrapping your head around the music, a lyric like "You've shown me Your power by where You conceal it" will be enough to keep you coming back until the musical layers start to reveal themselves on repeat listens.
If the opener takes a moment to let sink in, "Sparrow Eyes" is more immediate. Capitalizing on the War on Drugs influence, it's the one song on the record that could also stand with Bruce Springsteen and The Killers with its heartland rock sound. It's still contemplative, but turns up the energy. The lyrics here speak of God's unending faithfulness to His children and His pursuit of them, best summed up in Levi's tender admission in the chorus, "I can't get all the way away from You." The music captures the hope and joy of a child who can't leave the arms of Jesus. It's one of the best songs of the year.
"Uncreated Light" follows with more somber energy and words that beautifully contrast humanity's temporal, created light with the infinite, uncreated light of Jesus. The lyrics on the back end of the song are simply incredible: "So find me reclining against Your most-chaste chest / I'll hear Your resting cadence bear a resemblance to 'repent, repent, repent.'" This followed up by the song's refrain, "We all need to hear hard things sometimes" packs a punch that's rare in any Christian music these days. "Sign" similarly follows with a compare-contrast of how we take up arms against others in our name - without result - but how an innocent Lamb was the only one powerful enough to turn humanity inside out by - in direct contrast to us - laying down His life. The song introduces beautiful orchestral elements and a majestic synth line near the end that brings it into a whole different musical space.
The lighter, acoustic-driven "Lindy" follows as a tribute to Levi's mother. As someone who cared for his own ailing mother up until her death, this song hits particularly hard. The chorus is worth highlighting in its entirety: "Now I'm the one carrying you around every day / wherever I'm gonna go, you are never so far away / and I cannot put you down when you gave me everything / I even have your own father's arms and your children's children on my knee." Following up, "Horses in First Drafts" hits as a mid-album highlight. Lyrically, it's one of the densest on the record, with the refrain winking knowingly at songwriting cliches, but only using this as a metaphor for being unafraid to dive into marital love without overthinking. If I'm reading it correctly, it seems to be a song for those whose morbid introspection gets in the way of simple sacrificial love. The ending feels like the musical climax of the record, with its uplifting synths, big guitars, and Levi's own wife Jennifer Sikes appropriately taking vocal duties. It's magnificent.
After slowing things down a bit with "Our Love is Water," the album picks its pace up again with "False Infinities," a song that takes a darker, biting tone both in its intense looping guitar line and Levi's spoken word in the bridge. The lyrics follow suit, taking to task how happy-go-lucky relativism is just a mask for facing hard truths ("Do you still remember the driver we met from Denver with the ouroboros tattoo? / he said that everything will recur until we all dissolve in time / that's the kind of vaguely spiritual thing you can get away with saying to strangers / but he really didn't like you telling him how to drive") and how ultimately the low stakes and lack of confrontation in relativism carry no weight ("And the capital U universe is here to guide us toward our own inner light / well okay, but just saying that sort of thing never got anyone crucified"). The song contains some of the best lyrics I've heard in a while and presents challenges that are all-too rare in Christian music these days. The word "prophetic" would not be out of turn to describe what Levi accomplishes here, but the words are presented with a deep sense of gentleness and humility.
The album closes out with two of its most beautifully uplifting songs. The first, a rendition of "Doxology" with a twist, is the most straightforward on the record. Levi adds a lot of lyrics to the beloved hymn here, but they all work so well that it doesn't seem out of turn to suggest that, with more exposure, his version could become a staple in churches. Following eight considerably denser songs, this track helps bring things into a simpler, worshipful space at just the right time. "Millefleurs" ends the record on a light, acoustic-driven note, until the drums become more driving and it brings the song into an appropriately big climax. Lyrically, it's the counterpart to "Sparrow Eyes," where if the former is about God's pursuit of His children, "Millefleurs" is about God catching them. It is a gorgeous, happy ending to a record that's not afraid to tackle heavy themes of doubt and deconstruction. You can hear God's faithfulness in Levi's life, not just in the lyrics, but the music itself by the time he gets to the hopeful repetition of, "Come on, bring us back."
If this review is long, it's because there's just so much meat to highlight in this record. I know that, at this point, I've still not uncovered half the lyrical gold that's present here. It's been a very long time since I've heard an album this lyrically challenging, biblically assured, and ultimately redemptive. It's taken a few listens to sink in for me, so don't be afraid if you don't "get" it. Former Ruins has crafted an album made for return visits. Let it overwhelm you with the presence of Christ and assure you that, "If I'm curving in and see nothing but my sins / You're there deeper than I have been, even within myself."
I'll end with this: No Creature Is Hidden is the best album of 2023 thus far.- Review date: 6/20/23, written by Ben Kunz for Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: Slow Embrace Records
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