Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Where the Good Way Lies - Steve Bell

Bell’s most mature effort makes the Good Way inviting

Where the Good Way Lies
Artist: Steve Bell
Label: Signpost Music (www.signpostmusic.com)
Length: 13 songs/42 minutes

The attitude in “Bring it On” by Steve Bell on Where the Good Way Lies makes it one of my favorites among all his songs. He could not have picked a better way to open his latest recording. It’s the mindset of “come what may” I can handle it. It is a wisdom born of walking with God for many years:
Less to conquer, less to do
Less inclined to suffer fools
Just happy to grow old with you
Bring it on, bring it on

Written with Murray Pulver, who once again in working with Bell is outstanding as a producer and musician, this epitomizes the wit, beauty and excellent craftsmanship that you find throughout this release.

This is probably the finest all-around recording that Bell has done in a career that stretches over 25 years and keeps getting better. I can’t help thinking that this Canadian who cites a legendary fellow citizen, Bruce Cockburn, as an influence, is following in his steps by combining faith and art in winsome and striking ways.

How fitting that once again Bell honors his mentor by recording Cockburn’s “Love Song.” As Bell writes in the liner notes, it is an example of “his beautiful melodies and more gentle sentiments.” That phrase goes a long way towards describing this release, which contains some of Bell’s best writing and music.

Native American chanting and instrumentation open the title track. This leads into some lone keyboard notes and a voice speaking the word, “seven.” It kicks into high gear with a jazz melody and psychedelic noodling on a synthesizer. Before it’s all done, in addition to Bell’s smooth singing, there is more spoken word, rap and then more chanting as it fades. It’s a wild amalgamation that reminds me of an earlier Bell song, “Waiting for Aidan,” but more advanced. I credit Bell and the producer for creatively making it all work together. With its indigenous wisdom, a reference to the seven days of creation, and allusions to what we all share together, you could consider it a song for all peoples and nations.

This adventurous ride is followed by the sparse, finger-picked, “And We Dance” which has a gorgeous hook. I find it arresting. If I’m doing something else while hearing it, I want to stop and listen. It must be one of the most delicate and tender songs that Bell has ever composed.

For those who struggle with feelings of inadequacy and failure, there is “A Better Resurrection,” a poem written by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). The barest of instrumentation, which includes a dobro, gives this a bluegrass-feel. This is the background for lyrics that should resonate with any who are feeling a bit battered and bruised by life.
I have not wit, no words, no tears
My heart within me like a stone
Is numbed too much for hopes or fears
Look right, look left, I dwell alone
I lift mine eyes, but dimmed with grief
No everlasting hills I see
My life is in the falling leaf

One could view these lines as depressing, but I find my heart strangely warmed. It’s a reminder that we are not alone when we feel blighted by the harsh realities of life.

Variations on the next two lines become the chorus after each stanza:
O Jesus, quicken me
O Jesus, quicken me

Direct appeal, spoken or sung, is powerful.

Another simple chorus taken from a quote from Augustine“Love is our way to God, for God is love”fits well with the upbeat, shuffling rhythm on “Love is our Way.” The invitation and welcome spring from a sermon preached by David Widdicombe.
All who carry disappointment come
Those who fear the fire of judgment come
And you who teach the royal way is not for some
Shame on you
Now lovers come

The line “you who teach the royal way is not for some” reminds me that the good news about Christ is for everyone, even those with whom we disagree and/or oppose followers of Jesus. As vigorously as we might need to defend the truth, we should always seek to avoid creating stumbling blocks or obstacles for others. It is more important to win people than arguments.

What freedom and joy are expressed in the final stanza:
The only thing left for us to do is love
If this alone be done it is enough

The cheerful melody is the perfect match for this all-encompassing virtue.

Melody, instrumentation and production wizardry come together beautifully on “Ash Wednesday,” which includes harmonica and banjo. The name comes from a service on that day, which provided the inspiration. Far from solemn, this has a full-bodied sound that strikes harmonious notes as the lyrics reflect on our misbegotten attempts to respond to God’s love.

If you have a record player and can afford to spend a little more, get this on vinyl. Analog equipment, that had long been out of use, was purposely restored for this project. Before the digital age, this was the means of recording, and many believe it provides a greater dynamic range. Even on the digital version, the sound is clear and rich. How much better on black vinyl? If I didn’t already have it, I would buy the record. Some releases are worth the extra investment; this is one of them.
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