Don’t overlook Kindness on the way to Pilgrimage
Artist: Steve Bell (www.stevebell.com)
Label: Signpost Music
Length: 12 tracks/47 minutes
Steve Bell is marking his 25th anniversary as a solo artist with Pilgrimage, a four disc set releasing on September 15, 2014.
In the meantime, I want to look at Kindness (2011), which I failed to negotiate when it was released. Bell’s only recording since then is Keening for the Dawn (2012), a collection of songs celebrating Advent.
If you are a stranger to Steve Bell, he seeks “to encourage Christian faith and thoughtful living through artful word and song.” Mission accomplished on Kindness.
The first and second songs are about the centrality of love and kindness. “Love is patient. Love is kind.”
We can never be reminded enough about kindness. Ravi Zacharias, an internationally known evangelist and speaker, once lamented that in his travels he often witnessed the lack of it between married couples. The quotation featured prominently on the inside of the CD cover reads: “I have sought how I might make God more loved by other souls … And have not found any other or more powerful way than kindness” (Lucie-Christine/1844-1908).
The title track lists Brian McLaren with the writing credit. It is an adaptation of Teresa of Avila’s Christ Has No Body, “Christ has no body but yours/No hands, no feet on earth but yours.”
This, like several of the other tracks, has a peaceful, acoustic sound. Here and elsewhere Russ Pahl’s pedal steel adds to the serenity.
Another standout is Mike Janzen on keyboards, who contributes a delightful piano solo toward the end of “About Love.”
If potential listeners are intrigued by the thought of combining poetry and music, this offers a wealth of it. The wildest form is “Stubble and Hay,” which sounds like the soundtrack for a Flannery O’Connor novel that was made into a Western. There is plenty of grit in sound and sentiment as singing collides with spoken word. This is not a typical Steve Bell song.
In stark contrast to the preceding, when Bell begins the next song with “God is everything to me/I myself can do nothing/Spare nothing, bare nothing,” it’s like following the “All is vanity” of Ecclesiastes with the sublime intimacy of the Song of Solomon. The lyrics, the vocal inflections and the graceful notes in “Birth of a Song” convey wonder and beauty.
Does having a sense of wonder matter? Without it, it’s like having eyes but not seeing, having ears but not hearing and having a heart that is lifeless. “I hear music,” said the character in the film as he tried to describe how he felt about his supposed lover. That describes the power of wonder. “Birth” makes my heart sing.
Listeners descend from that height, as they listen to King David lament in “Absalom, Absalom,” a song written by Pierce Pettis. The light acoustic touch makes this a pleasure instead of something heavy.
I cherish the opening lines, which express the desire for forgiveness: “Come and smear me/With the branches from that tree/Hyssop dipped in innocent blood/To make me clean.”
David admits that Absalom was watching when the former made a series of sinful choices. Absalom became “Caught in the tangles of deceit,” which foreshadowed his “Hanging lifeless from that tree.”
I first heard the closing “Was it a Morning Like This” on a Sandy Patty recording. Strings aside, Bell is not headed for overly inspirational territory. He succeeds in updating a well-written song that employs a device used in Scripture that here translates the joy of the Resurrection: “Did the grass sing/Did the earth rejoice to feel you again/Over and over like a trumpet underground/Did the earth seem to pound He is risen.” Creation, as a stand-in for all things, is depicted as praising God for Christ rising from the dead.
Shortly after I wrote the first part of this piece, I came across the following in an old, forgotten devotional (author not given): “Have you ever had your sad path suddenly turned sun-shiny because of a cheerful word? Have you ever wondered if this could be the same world, because someone had been unexpectedly kind to you? You can make today the same for somebody. It is only a question of a little imagination, a little time and trouble. Think now: What can I do today to make someone happy—old persons, children, servants—even a scrap for the dog or crumbs for the bird! Why not?” I’m sure Bell will be pleased if Kindness produces the kind of softening towards ones fellows that leads toward charity.