Music Review: Creation Sings by Stuart Townend

28 10 2009

Very little introduction or preamble is needed when discussing the musical ministry of Stuart Townend. His contribution to modern hymn writing and the worship life of the contemporary church continues to grow, as does the catalogue of ‘standards’ that flow from his pen. The modern evangelical church owes him a debt of gratitude for placing timeless truth in our hearts, minds, and mouths.

Townend’s latest album ‘Creation Sings’ sees him return to the studio, recording a number of new tracks as well as fresh arrangements of a few of his more well known pieces. The style is mostly English/Irish/Scottish folk with a tremendous blend of sounds and musical textures. The production values on the album are astoundly high, with a compelling clarity and depth of tone to every note and syllable. It really is a pleasure to listen to this album with the headphones cranked up loud!

Lyrically the album is all that one would expect. Timeless, evangelical truths are phrased in plainly poetic cadences, with a steady adherence and fidelity to orthodox expressions – while maintaining a fresh turn of phrase.

The first track Come People of the Risen King, is an open invitation to all who trust in Christ to come and worship. The jubilance of worshipping the Saviour is bracketed by an understanding that not all who come to worship do so with lightness of heart or happiness of circumstance – some are enjoying the blessing of sunrise, others still struggling through the night.

Creation Sings is an extrapolation of Psalm 19 with Townend writing of the sunrise, of God’s breath upon the spinning globe, and granting the newborn baby’s cry. The chief instruments here are banjo (played by Townend) and upright bass. The folksy simplicity of the arrangements belies the depth of truth conveyed here – with Christ’s federal headship lulling along to the sound of light-touch piano and lilting melody!

The Father’s Embrace is a more understated arrangement springing from Psalm 27 with simple confidence in God’s fatherly care set against the encroachment of the enemy.

All my Days (Beautiful Saviour) is a well known standard, set this time against what sounds like a DADGAD arrangement.

O for a Closer Walk with God is a new setting for Cowper’s classic hymn, with new chorus appended (‘O fire of God come burn in me, Renew a holy passion, ‘Til Christ my deepest longing be, My never failing fountain’). Normally I’m no fan of putting a chorus into a well worn hymn, but here it really works, with Cowper’s sentiment sensitively echoed in Townend’s composition.

The Light of the World is the most English-folk styled song on the album. Its a lovely song, with very strong instrumentation. For me it is one of the most audibly pleasing pieces, but lyrically most weak. There’s nothing wrong with it, and I love listening to it, but it just doesn’t carry the same depth and dimension as the other tracks.

There is an Everlasting Kindness (Compassion Song) is simply a piano piece recounting God’s kindness and grace to us – particularly in Christ’s death. It is a beautiful piece.

For many reviewers the highlight of the album is To See the King of Heaven Fall (Gethsemane) and one can understand why. This is typical Townend, stripped down instrumentation overlaid with compellingly powerful lyrics about Christ’s passion. The close of each verse is repeated with creating a refrain effect which emphasises the pathos of Christ’s position in the garden.

There then follow four well known tracks (O Church Arise, Speak O Lord, My Heart is Filled with Thankfulness, Holy Spirit Living Breath of God) in new folk clothing.

My Fault, the closing track of the album, is something of an anti-climax. Having scaled the heights of God’s providence and glory, the depths of Gethsemane, and the inestimable kindness of God in previous trakcs, it seems a shame to end on a very subjective lyrics (the theme seems to be how to communicate with someone who is backslidden) and a disjointed melody and arrangement. It is the only bad track on an otherwise excellent album.

I heartily recommend Creation Sings, this is hymnwriting and Christian recording at its very best. Buy it. It won’t disappoint.


Music Review: Viva La Vida

3 07 2008

I have a confession to make before reviewing this album: I’m a casual Coldplay fan. By that I mean that when a new album is released by them I will more than likely purchase it, listen to it non-stop for about three months, and then put a couple of their tracks on a couple of playlists on my iPod. I saw them live in 2005 and thought they were superb, in spite of the drinking fest that most attendees at the Odyssey tried to turn it into on the evening.

With all of that said, the new album from Chris Martin and pals has made a bit of a stir. It is hard to turn on the radio or lift a music magazine without hearing snatches of Viva La Vida, or seeing the band dressed like bit part actors from an adaptation of War and Peace. I bought my copy off iTunes, and have been listening to little else while driving in the car, or sitting at the laptop futilely hoping that a thesis might appear on the screen.

Overall, I think that Viva La Vida is a superb album. Much has been made of the ‘new sound’ that the band have sought to cultivate, and there are certainly welcome variations on 2005’s X and Y offering. The audio texture of the album ranges from the Middle Eastern (“Yes”) to the folksy Irish traditional (“Violet Hill”, “Cemeteries of London”) to the standard Coldplay sound (“Viva La Vida”). This gives the album a sense of freshness, without being too radical a departure from what one expects when purchasing Coldplay offerings.

Lyrically, the album presents few surprises. “Viva La Vida” is laden with references to Louis XVI and has a certain majestic sweep as it describes the transitory nature of power. “Cemeteries of London” carries a macabre edge, combined with the enigmatic image of people searching for “God in their own way”. The much aired “Violet Hill” continues similar themes, although some of its lines are a little banal (does snow come in any other colour than white?).

All in all Viva La Vida is a great listening experience, and I think it will be ringing out of my iPod for some time to come. Enjoying Coldplay is a subversively enjoyable experience, given the lack of ‘cool’ factor heaped on them by the media, and I respect the fact that they are not afraid of good melodies and pounding choruses. There’s also something great about hammering out an MTh thesis while singing out loud about Louis XVI and such like!

Guy Davies over at Exiled Preacher has posted a much more in depth review of the album here. It’s well worth a read, and has a challenging message by way of conclusion.

Van the Man at his very best

19 01 2008

I wanted to put this clip on my blog a while ago, but couldn’t get it to embed. Unbelievably good!

Soulful Timing, Incredible Energy

25 10 2007

During the early hours of this morning, in the dregs of essay writing, I turned up some great Van Morrison resources on MySpace and on YouTube by way of distraction. Morrison was the first artist whose music really struck a deep chord with me, and I can remember my earliest pay packets being poured into building a library of his CDs. I’ve been uploading some of these to iTunes while I’ve been working and have been enjoying his early work in particular, with its energy and fat, soulful vibe. The following clip is from his performance at ‘The Last Waltz’, a fond farewell to The Band. His engagement with the material, Robbie Robertson’s clear enjoyment of accompanying Van the Man, and the escalation of intensity in the performance conspire to make it a moment of greatness…even if Van’s outfit may be a little questionable in today’s terms!
If you enjoyed this, then you’ll love this link even more – unfortunately it wouldn’t allow me to embed it for some reason…

Devotional Dylan?

13 02 2007

Last autumn I bought Bob Dylan’s latest studio offering ‘Modern Times’, and it’s a testimony to the aging icon’s songwriting skills that I’m still listening to it regularly now that we are almost into spring. It’s always a major event for me when a Dylan album is released, and he is one of the few artists who will inspire me to purchase a copy of his music on it’s release date.

To me, Dylan’s greatest strength in this phase of his musical output is the honesty with which he faces the issues in his life. He isn’t pretending to still be 25 (al la The Rolling Stones), nor is he depending on collaborations with young and trendy bands to buoy up a flagging creative impulse (a la most artists of his generation). Instead Dylan reflects on life, on death and everything in between with the at once cynical, and yet indomitably sanguine eye of maturity. Aside from all of that ‘Modern Times’ is a cracking good album!

One aspect of his albums that fascinates and intrigues me is their recurring spritual motif. Whether it be the firebrand lyrics of ‘Saved’ (‘I was blinded by the devil, born already ruined, stone cold dead when I stepped out of the womb’) in the 1970s, or the amoral defiance of ‘Honest with Me’ from Love and Theft (‘I’m not sorry for nothing I’ve done) in 2001, spiritual issues are never far from the surface. Modern Times is no exception.

One can’t help feeling that images and ideas from Scripture were of importance to Dylan in this album, not only lyrically, but also in the structure of the songs musically, and their arrangement in the track listing. The first two songs pack a hefty Pentateuchal punch with ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ carrying obvious overtones of Sinai, and ‘Spirit on the Water’ making reference to creation, and ‘darkness on the face of the deep’. Musically the album begins with a conclusion and ends with an introduction. ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ opens with a crescendo, and ‘Ain’t Talking’ (the last track) ends, only to open again with hopeful tones.

‘Ain’t Talking’ is a spiritual study in itself. The piece finds Dylan in fine lyrical form, with his dusky, blues-ridden voice slurring out doom laden words against the backdrop of a band who seem to understand and anticipate his every intonation. In the song Dylan is ‘in the mystic garden’, and records a number of episodes and experiences, interspersed with deadly humour – e.g. amidst the pastoral scene of the garden he records that ‘someone hit me from behind’ with the menacing tone of Don Corleone! In terms of reflections on God, the track carries a lot of not-so-hidden meaning. Ezekiel is referenced with ‘it’s bright in the heavens, and the wheels are flying, fame and honour never seem to fade’, and against this prophetic image of God Dylan assures his hearers that ‘the fire’s gone out, but the light is never dying, who says I can’t get heavenly aid?’. An admission of backsliding perhaps, but ultimately of faith. This is corroborated by his reference to devotion ‘all my loyal and my much loved companions, they approve of me and share my code; I practice a faith that’s long abandoned, ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road’. Just what these words mean for a lapsed Messianic Jew is difficult to ascertain.

‘Ain’t Talking’ (and the entire album) concludes with an elusive reference to the Resurrection. Dylan is back in the garden he describes at the commencement of the song, and states ‘As I walked out in the mystic garden, on a hot summer day, hot summer long, Excuse me M’am I beg your pardon, there’s no one here the Gardener is gone’.

With all of its Scriptural and spiritual references, where does Dylan wish to lead his listeners in this album? In the final assessment, nowhere. He has always refused to be set up as cultural prophet (whether in the 1960’s folk movement, or in more modern exchanges with the music press) and this album is no exception. Dylan hints, alludes, and perplexes us with his spirituality and lyricism. Does he still profess faith in Christ after his ‘conversion’ in the late 1970’s? I don’t know, but certainly the issues of faith, life and death resonate strongly in his intellectual world, and in his recordings. Dylan writes about Modern Times in ancient and elusive language, and for that very reason the album is a treasure.

Paul Simon’s ‘Surprising’ Reflections

30 11 2006

My first ‘grown up’ album was Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ which I bought on vinyl when I was ten years old. I loved the sound, the lyrics (with words like ‘constellation’ and ‘cinematographer’ baffling my infant mind!) and the crystal clarity of his voice.

Its a sign of how things in life change that I got a copy of his new album on CD (not vinyl) and that I was able to borrow it from the local library (50p for a month!). Its entitled Surprise and represents a welcome return to form for an artist who is either spot on, or way off in his concepts and musical execution. What ‘surprised’ me the most about the whole recording are the deep questions Simon raises about God, belief, and eternity.

A sample of the issues he deals with will demonstrate how the mature Paul Simon is thinking about life. In the opening track ‘How can you live in the northeast’ the lyrics force us to analyse the factors which combine to make us who we are as people. As chief interrogator Simon poses the barrage of questions ‘how can you be a Christian, how can you be a Jew, how can you be a Muslim, a Bhuddist, a Hindu?’ and later muses on the fact that ‘weak as the winter sun we enter life on earth, name and religion come straight after date of birth’. Its a powerful point, assessing how much of our identity is wrapped up in nurture and cultural conditioning. Other points of concern about faith are much weaker – ‘if the answer is infinite light, why do we sleep in the dark?’.

In ‘Wartime’ prayers Simon meditates on the post 9-11 world we now inhabit. Prayers offered in peace time have been forgotten ‘gone like a memory from the day before the fires’, and now we are forced to seek God in a way we would not otherwise have done. He reflects on the spiritual thirst which the terrorist outrages inspired in America, lamenting that ‘people hungry for the voice of God, hear lunatics and liars’. Simon humbly states ‘you cannot walk with the holy when you’re just a halfway decent man’, characterising himself as someone who is trying to ‘tap into some wisdom, even a little drop would do’.

All of this positive quest for God is deflated by his defiant manifesto set out in ‘I Don’t Believe’. Here he reflects on what we evangelicals would call ‘common grace’, and whether it should point us to God. The song is infused with deft one liners ‘I got a call from my broker – my broker informed me I’m broke’ as well as evolutionary assertions such as ‘the world was formed in a storm, the waters receded, the mountains were formed, the universe loves a drama you know’. In looking at the evidences of God’s grace Simon concludes that he doesn’t believe in these ‘acts of kindness’ as any pointer to Jehovah’s existence. Nor does he express any love for formal religion caricaturing it as ‘pantomime prayers to the hands of a clock’. His atheism wavers a little in the bridge of the song when he sings ‘maybe, and maybe and maybe some more; maybe’s the exit I’m looking for’.

Ultimately ‘Surprise’ leaves us with fewer surprises than we may at first imagine. Like so many in our culture, religion represents an interesting conundrum to Simon, but little else. He toys with the evidences for God, but finally capitulates to the Romans 1 model of ‘supressing the truth in unrighteousness’. The album is melodically fascinating and lyrically beautiful. In many ways its nice to listen to something which deals with bigger issues than soap opera sentiments, which so often clog our ears and numb our minds in modern music. Its just a shame that Paul Simon didn’t find himself ‘surprised by joy’.