Veteran columnist John Stackhouse recommends "Wouldn’t You Love to Know"
I remember the first time I heard on the radio the opening bars of Paul Simon’s hit, “You Can Call Me Al” – the lead single from his 1986 hit album, Graceland. All I needed to hear was the opening brass figure, and I thought, “Wow, this is fresh. I wonder if this is –” and then Paul Simon’s voice confirmed my guess.
Graceland marked, in fact, a departure for Simon into “world music.” It didn’t sound much like “Sounds of Silence” or “Bridge over Troubled Water.” Yet his signature style in lyrics and melodies remained obvious.
It’s an unusual pop musician who can establish not just a sound, but a style, so distinctive that you can recognize his or her songs almost immediately. Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was like that, as is James Taylor.
It’s even rarer, however, to find a musician who can grow and change while still somehow having such a distinctive way of composing that you recognize his or her work over many years despite any experiments with new styles. Paul Simon is on that short list. So is Bruce Cockburn. And so is Canadian Christian singer-songwriter Steve Bell.
Bell’s new album Wouldn’t You Love to Know (Signpost, 2020) brings us songs that immediately sound like Steve Bell, even as he clearly breaks considerable new ground.
The title song comes from a sermon by New Testament scholar N. T. Wright. I listen to a wide range of music, but I’m quite sure I’ve never heard critical realist epistemology set to Applachian-style folk music. Somehow, though, in Bell’s inventive hands it works.
“In Praise of Decay” has a daunting title. But shimmering guitar work featuring lovely major7th+9 chords (not typical of music about death) backs lyrics Bell wrote with friend and sometime collaborator Malcolm Guite, lyrics that celebrate the way good things give way to new and often better things. We likely need such assurance as the weird world pulls many good things out of our grasp – a weirdness lightly suggested by the dark, deep drums in the background.
Bell roams widely in his reading and gathers inspiration everywhere. “God Bless the Poor” is a song written by contemporary emergent church guru Brian McLaren that nicely avoids cliché by celebrating what Martin Marty once called “God’s preferential option for everybody.” Bell takes to the flügelhorn on this and several other numbers, an instrument that oldsters will recall jazz musician Chuck Mangione single-handedly reviving and then wearing out in the 1970s. Bell uses it to good effect.
“The Strange Blessing of Bearing” is inspired by another sermon, this one by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “In the church today,” Bonhoeffer writes, “we know much too little about the strange blessing of bearing something…. Whoever avoids affliction discards along with that God’s greatest gift for his creatures.” Bell encourages us to bear up under suffering as he sweetly lauds mothers, martyrs and Jesus himself as inspirations for the rest of us.
Bell reverts to what most fans will think of as his mature classic style – featuring his longtime musical friends Mike Janzen on piano and Gilles Fournier on bass, their only appearances on this album – for his tribute to his late father: “In Memoriam.” He nicely avoids the maudlin in his recollections and celebrations of Rev. Alf Bell.
Family has become more and more a theme for Bell over the years. The theme has been underlined by family members performing on albums, most obviously daughter Sarah’s brilliant work on their joint album Sons and Daughters. Son Micah Bell very competently plays bass on this album and daughter-in-law Diana Pops, a recording star in her own right, co-wrote, “A Heartbeat Away.” Composed to help children with anxiety, it will soothe the rest of us, too.
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It’s a boring tradition by now that pop Christian albums feature at least one lyric from the later Middle Ages…. Uh, no. But “Quia Amore Langueo” is helpfully translated as “Because I Languish for Love,” and is a striking metaphor of Jesus’s love for his betrothed.
The song also is a prime example of a particular Bell trait – music that, when you think about it, doesn’t seem to “go” with the words, at least, not in any straightforward way. Many of his songs, in fact, couch hard-hitting lyrics in light or even comic styles. Here, the hero is suffering and dying accompanied by music that seems like a nursery tune set to a soft-jazz shuffle. Perhaps Bell knows that strong medicine needs to be administered gently and with at least a little sugar.
“The Home of Our God” makes the listener sit up straight as suddenly one is confronted by a vigorous choral anthem accompanied by a brass ensemble. But then the song drops into bluegrass – which is mellowed still further by vibraphone and horns (instruments not commonly found in the hollows of Kentucky). Bell takes to the flügelhorn again, and I suspect he is tipping his hat to his Tijuana Brass-loving father as he ends the song with a seven-note figure from, of all things, their hit song “Tijuana Taxi” (1965).
“Long Shadows” draws on the Psalms to issue an oblique but moving warning about global climate change and the tiny-minded politicians who fail to reckon with it. Sheena Rattai, one of several backup vocalists with gorgeous voices on this album, evokes the long line of prophecy rendered by blues singers for generations.
Malcolm Guite’s poetry shows up again as the lyrics for “Because We Hunkered Down,” a song that seems aimed squarely at COVID-19, although it was composed before the virus had emerged. A wintry time “when even breathing seems to be unwelcome work” will, God willing, lead to a beautiful spring of rebirth.
“Do Not Judge” once again sets a blunt scriptural exhortation in a breezy musical context – more rollicking bluegrass. And then “Together” concludes the album, with lyrics by essayist and poet Kathleen Norris, perhaps best known for her 1993 book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. I found this song to go about 20 per cent too fast for the lyrics – the only quibble I have with an otherwise brilliantly produced album.
The one quality of this and all other Steve Bell music that distinguishes it from popular music generally (besides its debts to Scripture and Christian writers, of course) is Bell’s diction. He enunciates his lyrics with extraordinary care. This is an artist who labours over his lyrics as much as he does over the music and who earnestly wants to communicate with this audience – not merely to entertain us, much less to provide just some more sonic wallpaper.
Treat yourself, therefore, to a serious listen the first time you get this album, as get it you should. And make sure you buy the physical album, because with it you’ll get a booklet of reflections Bell wrote on each song, which will immeasurably expand and deepen your enjoyment. Then the poignant words, as well as the unfailingly beautiful music, will edify as well as delight you – as Steve Bell’s music has been doing now for so many good years.
John Stackhouse is professor of religious studies at Crandall University. Find his regular, less musical, columns at www.FaithToday.ca/ChristAndCulture.