Monday, January 26, 2009

Ghosts and Spirits (a review)

In 1945, C. S. Lewis wrote a book entitled The Great Divorce. The story was about a group of people who were given a bus ride from Hell to Heaven. Once there, they had only to express the desire to stay, and they would have received all the blessings Heaven can offer. The fascinating thing about The Great Divorce, besides how few of the passengers choose to stay, is how familiar their excuses sound for not staying. I daresay that anyone who's ever been part of, or privy to, conversations about the Gospel has undoubtedly heard many (if not all) of the excuses offered by the book's characters (and many of us may have used or still use them ourselves). It is a wonderfully written, thought-provoking book.

In August 2007, Seattle native Phil Woodward released Ghosts and Spirits – a concept album based on The Great Divorce. Each of the songs is sung from the perspective of one or more characters from the book. The songwriting, arrangements, and performances are all first rate. The production is immaculate. The lyrics are intelligent, literate, and thought-provoking, yet very accessible. The music is deceptively laid-back (which is to say: there's a lot more going on than may, at first, appear to be the case) – there is an understated urgency and energy that makes for a compelling listening experience.

The album's title refers to the state of the various characters in the book. The passengers are thin and insubstantial (like ghosts) – everything in Heaven causes them some kind of pain or discomfort, because they aren't real enough to experience it as anything other than unbearable. The inhabitants of Heaven have spiritual bodies, and are able to experience Heaven as it really is.

After leaving some comments at the album website, I realized that (with a little tweaking) I could cobble them together into something resembling a review. This is that something.

The Grey Town:
Great lead-off song. It's got a deceptively bouncy beat (matching the character's deceptively upbeat initial description of the town), but there's just enough repetitiveness to the melody of the last verse to convey the bureaucratic malaise that permeates this place from where the passengers depart (where you can have anything you want – except JOY). Well done.

Safety:
A lilting waltz, this time, as the character dances around Heaven's offer to make him fully alive. I love how the song captures the sense of the passenger's desperate belief that an autonomous delusion is preferable to any Divine JOY that requires a surrender of the lies he tells himself (even if he knows they are lies). As the character says, “I know it's not real, but it's safe.” For some people, God's love is scarier than Hell (perhaps, for them, it is Hell).

The Bleeding Charity:
One passenger (a ghost) encounters a former co-worker (a spirit), and doesn't like it one bit. I like how the guitar tone is a little grittier on this one, capturing the working-class background (if memory serves) of the characters. And there is a looseness to the playing that gives the sense that the ghost's reasons for resisting the 'Bleeding Charity' aren't terribly sophisticated. (I'm very impressed with the care taken to make the components of each song work together to paint a fuller picture of the character being portrayed.)

Thirst for Water, Inquiry for Truth:
As a fan of the old Moody Blues albums of the late '60s/early '70s, this one brought a smile and a chuckle. I've always been a fan of spoken-word pieces on albums (when they're done well), and I think this one is great. Backed by only a string quartet, it's a striking contrast to the previous song's grittier tone and characters. The smug intellectual dismissal of anything meaningful or Divine; thinking himself wise, and all that.

Trust In A Sigh:
Another deceptively happy sounding song – but there is a wistfulness to the melody that belies that happiness. Cynicism is, too often, a coward's refuge. And like most cynics, the character in this song thinks he's that way because he's seen too much. But the truth is: he's seen too little. Still, he's content to coast along – secure in the conceit that he sees the world as it really is. Nicely and subtly done.

The Teacher:
There's a playfully funky vibe to this one. Guitarist Myron Marston's ebullient fret-work really carries the song as it dances and shines – unfolding, with a barely contained exuberance, the invitation to open our eyes and see the glorious offer that Grace extends. The interplay between the musicians really starts to percolate towards the end. And Ann Edwards' backing-vocals are a delight.

First Love:
Here we encounter an artist who has lost touch with why he started painting in the first place. I love how the melody and vocal on the primary verses convey the artist's weariness. I think every artist, who's tried to balance making a living with being true to their art, has felt the pressure to compromise to the point of selling out – and it's amazing how it can kill the JOY of creating.

I also love how the secondary verses, where he remembers the JOY of inspiration (or was JOY the inspiration?), express that JOY so well. They just seem to come bursting to life (does the music shift from minor to major chords there?) – but then it's back to his lament over what he's lost. Like everything on this album, it's incredibly well done.

(Only) A Mother:
This has to be one of the most powerful songs on the album. It's beautiful – but chilling. A mother won't see how misguided her professed love for her son is, and rejects the glorious bliss of Heaven, rather than admit that her “love” for (and control of) her son has become her god. It is hauntingly tragic.

The Lizard and the Stallion:
It's a little hard to describe this one – but not because I don't like it. The lyrics are kind of darkly abstract (which is always cool with me), and the music is heavy with weariness. For the first part of the song, you really get a sense of the depth of the character's struggle with his lust. It's as if you can feel his inner turmoil.

But when the second part of the song starts to take off, as the character is transformed, the music vividly expresses the sense of liberation being described. The way the music and vocal build up perfectly captures the celebratory praise of the new man he's become. The simple, ringing guitar lead makes this part of the song dance with JOY. I hope people don't skip past this one because the first part is so dark and serious (which it has to be), because they'll miss the euphoric second part. Good stuff.

Saint Sarah:
Keeping the music kind of simple really brings out the lyrics, and captures the graceful simplicity of the song's character. She's so full of Grace and Love that everyone, and everything, around her is transformed (isn't that kind of what Christians are supposed to be like?). She was seemingly a nobody on Earth – but in Heaven she's celebrated like royalty. Beautifully done.

Vetoing Heaven:
This is probably my favorite song on the album (although I really, REALLY like them all). Maybe it's some of the proggier touches, but this one really gets me. The way it takes off and jams, about half-way into the song, is an exhilarating little kick in the pants. Then – about 2/3 of the way into the song – it skids to a halt (great guitar note there), and transitions into a beautifully orchestrated final movement (honestly, it's one of the most moving pieces of music I've ever heard – I listen to it over and over). Then the last two verses – as the character realizes he can no longer manipulate people in Heaven as he did on Earth – are so pathetic it's devastating. Wow! A very moving and powerful (albeit sad) song. Amazing job. (I can only imagine how it would sound live!)

The Sunrise:
I love how the music builds slowly on this one, like the breaking of a new day. The lyrics are spare, but have a praise-like intensity. JOY seems to bubble up and overflow from some deep holy place. I also love how it breaks off unexpectedly – as if awakened suddenly from a beautiful dream – leaving only the pipe organ playing, like the haunting after-glow of a Divine encounter. What a wonderful finish to a wonderful album.


One needn't have read The Great Divorce to enjoy Ghosts and Spirits. But if you have read the book, I think you'll have an even greater appreciation of the songs.

You can can listen to the entire album at www.ghostsandspirits.net. Please do.

There is also info about where you can purchase the CD or download it directly (I downloaded mine from Amazon.com).

If you love great, thoughtful music – that can be listened to again and again without ever wearing out it's welcome – then please give Ghosts and Spirits a chance. This is the kind of album that deserves to be heard by a much wider audience. It just gets better with each listen.

2 comments:

Myron said...

Thanks for the kind review! I've added you to our press page.

Ricky H said...

My pleasure. I'll probably post it at a few other places, just to spread the word. It's an amazing album.