Thursday, February 23, 2017

album review: 'sing it now: songs of faith & hope' by reba mcentire

I don't even know where to start with this one.

See, when I saw this come up on Patreon, I literally went to the guy who requested it and asked politely if I could skip it or he could ask for something else, and I figured I'd have good ground: after all, it's a selection of traditional religious hymns, that's not something any critic normally covers. And there's a very good reason for that, given that the music on a record like this is normally secondary at best, with instead the main purpose being for worship. And again, that's not saying that music can't have religious themes, but when you're considering the art of it all, you're left scrabbling for something that's often not even as relevant, especially on a lyrical level. There are, of course, exceptions, but in certain brand of evangelical gospel, poetry and writing often take a back seat to conviction.

But then it was pointed out to me that there was indeed a second disc of entirely original religious songs... and I still wasn't very satisfied at all, my overall point still stood. But then I thought, 'Well, hey, this is Reba McEntire, the country artist who managed to survive the overly sanitized 80s in order to become one of the most impressive and long-running hitmakers in the 90s, there'd undoubtedly be some quality here'. And hell, I even stand behind her self-titled TV show as being a lot smarter and well-written than so many people gave it credit, and she was an expressive actress. And it wasn't like there wasn't a demand for this album: it debuted at #4 on the Billboard 200, it sold tens of thousands of copies, people clearly were interested. And hell, I still have faith, even though my view of it is a lot more complex and layered than what you typically see in evangelical parishes, so maybe this record could move me despite my extreme skepticism. So are these songs of faith and hope up to that challenge?

Okay, here's the thing: the more I listened through this double album, the more I'm convinced that it really can and should be viewed as two separate projects. The first part, as I described, are the traditional hymns and it's where the majority of what I described above feels appropriate - in other words, the sort of devotional material where artistic criticism doesn't have the same weight or impact, especially when it comes to the writing. The second disc, on the other hand, plays to a much more contemporary religious audience, much more in the spirit of modern Christian music than hymns - and that means I have little qualms to take the gloves off, because while Reba does hit some high notes, there are definitely songs that deserve some harsher analysis. And again, fair warning, I'm coming at these tracks from a slightly unorthodox Christian point-of-view - if you're not religious or abhor the idea of religious music... I'm not going to say there's nothing for you here in terms of good songs or art, but I will say that if I found certain elements of this project preachy, you're probably going to find it insufferable, especially if you've got a more virulent atheist streak.

And here's the other thing: it's going to be impossible for me to adequately articulate my rationale behind any response to this music without sharing some aspects of my faith and attitudes towards organized religion - namely that despite being raised Catholic, I find the structure of the religious congregation doesn't enhance or strengthen any faith experience. My relationship with a higher power is intimate and personal, with the sort of connection that I find manifests itself through quiet humility more than soaring gospel choirs or bombast. That's why I hold Jason Isbell's 'God Is A Working Man' as arguably one of the best religious songs I've heard in a few years: it emphasizes the quiet humanity that came through Jesus' human connection with the world, the unknowable nature of miracles, and the aspect of quiet support that doesn't need or demand any grand statement. What I mean by this is that while I can definitely appreciate the musicality and swell of some strains of evangelical gospel, for it to have greater resonance for me it needs to have a little more homegrown grit - think the final song of Southern Family, for example. And thus when we consider some cuts that Reba includes on this double album, she's building to a brassier, more polished brand of country gospel on songs like 'Oh, How I Love Jesus', 'Oh, Happy Day', and the 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' medley that I can see working for some audiences, but doesn't really connect for me. Now I'm not surprised by this - throughout her history in country Reba's always touched into broader, bombastic theatricality that works for this brand of gospel - more that it doesn't really have the organic texture to stick for me, even despite some decent organ and fiddle tones. Granted, you could make that statement about the majority of the country instrumentation and production on this record - like nearly all of Reba's albums, this is very much a polished, mainstream-friendly record, even to the point where you're hearing drum machines on songs like 'Back To God' and 'Angel On My Shoulder', or more Christian-friendly orchestral swells on songs like 'Sing It Out', 'From The Inside Out', and even the buzzy hints of synth around 'Say A Prayer' that feel a little too sanitized for me.

But that's not saying there aren't some more restrained cuts that do connect for me, mostly on the first disc like the fiddle, pedal steel and piano of 'Jesus Loves Me' or 'In The Garden/Worderful Peace' or the acoustic guitar and gentle accordion of 'Amazing Grace' or especially the restrained atmosphere of 'How Great Thou Art'. Hell, I could even get behind the more traditional banjo rollick and fiddle of 'I'll Fly Away', even if I wish the production picked up a little more organic bite to match the warmer textures. And yeah, a big part of this is Reba herself - there's a reason she's been celebrated in country for decades now, her vocal tone and expressiveness gives her earnestness a ton of bountiful charisma that means I find it hard to outright condemn any song here. And while of course I'll have a soft side for the darker brand of her firespitting that showed up on songs like 'Fancy', she's just as credible in this lane and she can easily hold her own opposite Kelly Clarkson and Trisha Yearwood when they team up for 'Softly And Tenderly' at the end of the first disc that features a flute interlude of all things that I really did like. That said, even despite the stiffer programmed percussion, the song that really caught me off-guard was 'Angels Singin', mostly because it plays in darker minor keys with a more folk-inspired melodic cadence, and Reba's nails the intensity.

Granted, another reason that song works is the lyrical subject matter, and as I said earlier, the majority of my focus here will be on the original compositions - there's not a lot to be said about the hymns on the first disc, most of which fall either into passable or good territory, not quite great or on the level of 'favorites', for as much as you can have those. Now as I've said in previous videos, one of my biggest issues with modern Christian and evangelical music is that it's written from a perspective that's either relentlessly sanitized and always knowing the answer, or a confrontational brand of preaching to the non-believers that does far more to alienate than convince. For me, the intimacy of faith requires acceptance of humanity's flaws and failings, particularly within oneself, and that's a huge factor of why 'Angels Singin' works - it's an acknowledgement that at one's darkest moments and failures and conflicted emotions, one's faith can sustain you to face sin and not turn away. The best religious songs get to the roots of that human drama... and it's a damn shame that more of this record can't grasp that sort of nuance. At its best we get innocuous songs like 'God And My Girlfriends', which seems like a stab at making a religious themed girlpower anthem, or 'Hallelujah Heartache' or the increasingly broad 'I Got The Lord On My Side', which plays to a mode of thanking God for everything but never dares to tap into any real darkness. At its worst we get the LeAnn Womack cover 'There Is A God', which decides to take swipes as scientists who just can't get the God-given marvels of the natural world and simply write things off to probability - which given that I have a science degree is a maddening simplification of the situation - or 'Back To God', which goes for the sort of self-flagellation of 'prayer will solve everything' that I can't stand, mostly because completely ignores that God gives us the capacity to fight against evils of the world if you want to drive change. But what bothers me more is that reportedly Reba was driven to finally make a gospel project because of her renewed faith after her divorce - and we see so little of that growth or change manifest in real detail on this album. I know that Reba has seldom ever written her own songs, but on the back half of this record she had a real opportunity to tell a faith-driven story with personal detail, and we only get a single writer's credit on an otherwise conventional song that wouldn't be out of place on most mainstream country projects, which only further pushes away that feeling of intimacy that for me has always underscored this sort of spiritual pursuit.

So to summarize all of this... look, I find it hard to rate an album like this, even when ignoring the artistry of it all and placing it within the context of my own personal faith. The overall intent of an album like this, especially the first disc, is to capture that religious resonance with the audience, and there's a lot of this record that didn't get there for me, but that's because my own faith doesn't fall into a conventional niche. But at the same time, just like any theme to which I cannot directly relate, the best art and music can transcend those boundaries, and while I don't doubt Reba is throwing herself into this with the best of intentions, the production and writing don't really approach the faith experience in a way that challenges or hits deeper insight. The second disc arguably takes more risks, but it also hits more low points by playing to bad tropes in modern Christian music with the exception of 'Angels Singin'. In short, for me I'm giving it a light 6/10, but it feels weird even grading a record like this. If you're a fan of Reba and a big fan of Jesus, you'll probably like it more than I do, but as it is... it's the sort of niche sideproject that plays to a very specific audience and is more fit to satisfy than challenge them. And while I could make a snide comment comparing such to modern religion... eh, to each their own.

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