Saturday, December 6, 2008

Devotion - Steve Bell

Singer/songwriter worship with a Taize influence

Devotion
Artist: Steve Bell
Label: Signpost Music
Length: 12 tracks/59:24 minutes

Steve Bell has recorded many inspirational and praise-oriented songs, but Devotion marks the first time that he has created an album for use in worship settings. But unlike his other recordings, Bell has not written any of the songs. Most are by Gord Johnson, whom Bell acknowledges as one of his greatest influences.

Johnson recently started to write simple but elegant songs that were being used in their Winnipeg church. “These contemplative song-prayers have so often gently led us into the presence of the Holy that several of us felt we needed to offer them to the wider worshipping community,” writes Bell in the booklet that comes with the CD.

Don’t get the idea that everything is quiet. The CD opens with “Almighty God,” which explodes with background vocals from Bell and Carolyn Arends and rock that hasn’t been heard in awhile on a Steve Bell record.

The music styles vary. “The Lorica” is as light and catchy as a Celtic reel. “Praise the Father, Praise the Son” has a strong melody and a full-bodied sound. There’s even a gospel and blues-influenced communion song (“Embrace the Mystery”). “Who Condemns You Now” has few words and a sparse sound that includes an English horn.

This is one song that strongly shows the influence of Taize worship on Johnson's writing. Taize music reflects the contemplative nature of an ecumenical and monastic community founded in France by a man known as “Brother Roger.” This style often uses simple phrases from the Psalms or other parts of Scripture, which are repeated as an aid to meditation and prayer. Some lyrics on this release have a little more depth, but they all mirror this style, which is growing in popularity.

Bell dresses the words with acoustic picking and creative musical interludes. Producer Roy Salmond’s ethereal guitars and synth work give some tracks a more ambient sound. One can find similarities with the recent releases of Jeff Johnson, who has also been inspired by Taize worship.

“Gone is the Light” is one example of just how good the result of this influence can be. It’s a haunting reflection on our brokenness and Christ’s suffering. It’s part of a song cycle that is somewhat liturgical. It starts with a view of God’s attributes, which segues into our need for the redemption spoken of in this song. It then shifts to a celebration and nurture of the new life within, followed by the closing “Benediction.”

The cover is a hoot, with Bell looking like a Jewish rabbi chasing his hat that is being blown by the wind. He sees it as a picture of his relationship with God, who he continually pursues but “playfully (maddeningly)” remains just beyond reach.

Devotion is an enhanced CD that contains printable lead sheets and lyrics. This has everything needed to use the material in one’s own setting. The enhancements also include a video of Bell performing “Deep Calls to Deep” with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.

Even though I can appreciate contemporary praise and worship, I find this type of music more appealing. It merges Bell’s acoustic singer/songwriter bent with songs that are simple enough to facilitate worship that gets beyond words and music.

Jesus spoke of those who worship in spirit and truth. If the Church has been strong on the truth side, this could help balance the scales by inspiring more worship in spirit.

The originality and creativity on this CD make it one of Bell’s best recordings. Don’t be surprised if it gets a Juno award, the Canadian equivalent to a Grammy.
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