Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
In less than four hours, my friend Bryan Zug and I made the trip from Seattle, Washington, to Vancouver, B. C., for the opening weekend of U2’s “Innocence and Experience” tour. Time flew by. While I assumed we’d probably spend the time talking about our expectations (Would this be another U2 triumph, or another U2 fiasco?), we instead found ourselves digging deep into discussion about what makes a song about faith come alive.
Zigzagging through Friday morning rush hour traffic, we reminisced about Bruce Cockburn’s recent concert at Seattle’s Fremont Abbey. When it comes to crafting art with passion and particularity, Cockburn is an exemplar for both of us; his songs bespeak a poetry of lived experience. Then Bryan mentioned that he’d just seen Josh Garrels play The Neptune in Seattle. I mentioned that I’d liked Garrels’ big breakthrough record, 2011’s Love & War & The Sea In Between, and now I was enjoying Home.
“I was late to the party last time around,” I said. “Lots of my friends had been raving about it for months, so it was hard to hear it without huge expectations. I’m glad to be experiencing Home right alongside his fans.”
It’s easy to praise Garrels’ mad skills: his confident command of so many styles that it’s just unfair; his seemingly effortless musicianship; the way he can plant melodies—not just hooks or earworms, but whole melodies!—in your memory so that you’re singing them in your sleep; the way his voice acrobats its way from rapid-fire rap to a soulful falsetto that would bring tears to Sam Cooke’s ears. (Okay, I’m sorry about that last one. It made sense when I wrote it.)
What’s more, I admire Garrels’ willingness to sing honestly about the complicated journey of faith—that is, a journey of doubt, questions, and struggle, as well as hope and joy and gratitude.
Home continues that journey, reaching new and joyous heights. I’m particularly fond of the chorus on “Colors” and the thick-soled boots that stomp through “Leviathan.”
And yet. (Oh, I hate to say this, but there is an “And yet. . .”)
“The thing is,” I said to Bryan, “I don’t want to settle for just liking this record. I want to love it. It’s tough to find artists who sing about faith with some poetry, with some musical excellence, with some passion. And this record’s themes are important to me: homecomings, the return of the prodigal son, the joys of grace and family and community. I’ve been trying to find the words for why I haven’t caught Garrels Fever. So I’ve been listening closer.”
As we continued, my iPod conveniently shuffled up “Colors.” Its psalm-like chorus becomes irresistibly catchy: “Let all the creatures sing / Praises over everything.”
“Colors” concludes with this:
This is our story,
This is our song.
We’re telling it slowly all life long
Of a Savior and what He’s done —
It’s a mystery.
Churchgoers will recognize the quotation from Fanny Crosby’s “Blessed Assurance.” It seems appropriate. Every track on Home feels like a contemporary hymn for the congregation—music for those who know the vocabulary, who claim the story and the song of a Savior and what he has done.
The lyrics remind me of something Kathleen Norris once wrote about how the Bible came alive for her when she discovered its “concreteness and vigor.” She wrote, “Even when the psalms are at their most ecstatic, they convey holiness not with abstraction but with images from the world we know: rivers clap their hands, hills dance like yearling sheep.”
Concreteness. Vigor. Yes. Maybe that has something to do with it. Most of the concrete details on Home are, in fact, familiar—because they are the stuff of the psalms and praise choruses and testimony songs of my childhood.
As I grew up, contemporary Christian music was coming of age. I noticed in it the concreteness and vigor of the psalms coopted, repeated ad nauseam, blunted and dulled, and relied upon in ways that have more to do with sentimentality than sincerity. I also noticed how selective most musicians were about the psalms they sang: They almost always avoided the anger, the calls for violence, the struggles with doubt, the near despair that blaze through the psalms. As I mentioned in my reflections on Bruce Cockburn’s “Lord of the Starfields,” psalms of praise can become less about an honest response to life’s challenges and more about emotional uplift unless they are willing to give voice to more than just the high points.
When I hear Garrels sing so fervently, he lifts up timeworn images and reinvests them with passion. As far as that goes, it’s a noble endeavor. But, speaking for myself, I want to hear something more than passion—I want to hear personality. I want to hear some threads in the tapestry that come from the loom of his own experience and imagination.
We listened to “Heaven’s Knife,” a song from Garrels to his wife, which is filled with whole-hearted sentiments—call them “sweet somethings.”
Oh my Lord, she’ s beautiful
Walking up to me
Oh she’s wonderful, standing next to me
Oh she’s all
All that I can see, yeah
She’s beautiful, she’s a part of me
She’s my wife.
It’s lovely. And unusual. Why are songs about spouses so rare? Could it be, perhaps, that most love songs are designed to woo or win over rather than celebrate? You can bet that this—a lovely affirmation of affection and commitment—will be played during wedding receptions for many years to come. But it’s also disappointingly devoid of any details speaking to specific experience.
Perhaps the most arresting moment in the lyrics of Garrels’ Home comes in “The Arrow,” when he sings,
The arrow was sent to intervene,
It pierced my bones and shook me from my dream.
Lord, You know exactly what I need —
Wounds from a friend,
A severe mercy.
Many will catch the C. S. Lewis reference there. These lines remind me of John Donne (“Batter my heart, three person’d God. . .”). How often do we hear a believer rejoicing in a wound, or praising God for the hardship of truth? Contrary to most of this album’s lyrics, those lines get my attention. I hear a real story there. I see pictures of lived experience.
I find myself singing along with much of this record almost too easily, as if they could be decent contemporary Christian lyrics set to music that far exceeds the genre’s standards. I hear so many phrases and images from the big evening-service chorus book, convictions that make all the people say “Amen.” It’s a challenge for an artist to take things that have become ubiquitous and infuse them with new life. I like what Garrels is doing here; I’d love it, though, if it gave me a better sense of a distinct personality.
As the French poet Charles Peguy wrote, “A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.” Another way to say this might be, “A song is not the same with one artist as another. One writes lyrics that come unmistakably from his experience, and people are stopped in their tracks, compelled to pay attention; but others, they compose with what is familiar and pleasing so that it blends beautifully into the wallpaper of a Starbucks.” I am not accusing Garrels of laziness—he pours his heart and soul into his performances, and he has sculpted some beautiful songs here. But Home falls somewhere between those extremes for me—a 3.5 or 4 out of 5, if I’m pushed into giving it a rating online. It would make a stronger impression on me if it bore more specific signs of scars and struggle, if it was more particular than this familiar psalmic vocabulary.
In his video preview of Home, Garrels talks about wanting to make a record that reflects the comfort of being home at last. And he said in an interview at Stereo Subversion that his recent musical successes have led him to feel “troubled by increasing responsibilities, more travels, more voices, and what felt to me like growing expectations from within and without. The kettle was heating up and I didn’t realize that I was slowly succumbing to fear and anxiety, which have a deadening effect on the heart and soul.” He continues, “I was intuitive enough to know that I needed to find my center again, my first love, and prioritize the simple things in life that bring true joy.” There’s nothing wrong with any of this. But a little more of a sense of those experiences might have helped me experience the tidings of comfort and joy more completely.
And this isn’t just about lyrics. It’s even more about a quality of production. The music on Home seems sparkly, shiny—almost gauzy in places, as if the producers sanded down the edges to make sure that listeners wouldn’t feel challenged or uncomfortable. (Call it “Coldplay Style.”) The melodies are glorious and the musicianship competent—but the smooth, layered, processed quality of Home robs much of the music of any aesthetic sense that it’s been hard-won—for this listener, anyway.
As Bryan and I passed through unique towns and particular truck stops, I wished I had a camera to capture the one-of-a-kindness of each one. Meanwhile, Bryan started telling me about a song that he’d recently discovered, one written from a husband to a wife that had stopped him in his tracks. I handed him the cable that would connect his phone to my car stereo.
The song came as a total surprise to me. It grabbed and held my attention. It was alive with particularity. And when I discovered the story of struggle, betrayal, and rebirth that had inspired the song, it all made so much sense. Next week, I’ll tell you all about it.