The Nelons: Light of Home
The Light of Home
posted: November 28, 2004 11:32 AM
Perhaps the most telling moment of the Light of Home comes not from the music itself, which often sounds quite good, but from the liner notes. There’s a full page of them on the inside flap of the disc cover and the first half of that page is a personal note about the project signed by Jason Clark - Kelly Nelon’s husband and third voice of the Nelons alongside Nelon and Nelon’s oldest daughter, Amber Thompson. It seemed slightly strange to me that Clark was writing the introductory note and not Kelly Nelon: not only is Nelon the group’s anchor, star, and now namesake, but Clark is the least tenured of the Nelons in their current form (even though Thompson has only been singing fulltime for the Nelons recently, she has been on stage with the group since she was big enough to hold a microphone - certainly long before Clark married Nelon). Clark is, however, the project’s executive producer, so I didn’t think much of it, at least not at first. Below Clark’s personal note is a section titled “The Nelons would like to thank.” And its beginning gave me pause: “I want to thank my girls, Kelly, Amber, and Autumn [Nelon’s younger daughter]. What a privilege and blessing to be able to serve the Lord with my entire family.” I want to thank… This is a startlingly ego-centric beginning to a startlingly ego-centric note, one that doesn’t so much speak for “the Nelons” as much as it relegates them to the status of silent partners in his enterprise, captured in that slightly condescending diminutive “my girls.” Clark continues in the same paragraph:
Amber and Autumn, … you’ve been the best daughters your mom and I could ask for. Kelly - thank you for the endless sacrifices you make on my behalf. I could never repay your tireless efforts … Thanks for being supportive through every transition in our life & ministry.
This is touching and doubtless sincere, but still rather self-centered in its presumption that Clark’s “I” and “my” speaks for every one of the Nelons. Toward the bottom of the page, finally, there is a mention of “Kelly and I” wanting to thank some people, but the whole section, combined with the project it describes - a project comprising mostly tunes written and in part produced by Clark - feels like it could have been more accurately titled “Jason Clark unconvincingly performs the part of Nelon Patriach.”
There are several problems with this performance. For one, Clark is the last of the three vocalists anyone would associate with the name “Nelon.” Furthermore, he is professionally (and literally on the cd cover) standing in Kelly Nelon’s shadow. And if the Light of Home is any indicator, he simply doesn’t have the songwriting chops to lead the legendary Nelons. Musically, the Light of Home is first-rate, thanks to Lari Goss, the lead producer-arranger, and of course the Nelons’s vocals, which are regularly spectacular. But lyrically, the original songs are on the whole astoundingly vapid and amateurish, and such lyrical flimsiness cannot begin to support the awesome weight of the Nelons’s talent.
Though Goss’s arrangements and orchestrations bring the feeling of depth and the sound of sophistication to the Light of Home, there’s no obviously coherent theme in these songs that unifies the project (except, I suppose, in the broadest sense that Christian songs all point in way or another to the “light of home”). The material is just too insubstantial and often downright defective for thematic coherence. It’s difficult to overstate how heavily and regularly the lyrics rely on and are riddled with clichés and tritely meaningless phrases: “no turnin’ back,” “believe it or not,” “over on the other shore,” and on and on. And conceptually, the songs suffer from clichés’ kissin’ cousin: lack of imagination and absence of sensitivity to lyrical imagery. Thus in “I’m On My Way,”
We read of heroes in the Bible
How thy were … slain by the sword for their faith
Wandering in deserts, on mountains high
“On mountains high” is jarring, since it traditionally suggests “mountain-top experiences” of spiritual transcendence while the lyrics are trying to describe periods of darkness in lives of faith. This kind of tone deafness to the basics of creative writing resurfaces in other ways, such as the rhythmically challenged sense of meter and line-pacing. “All that Matters,” for instance, is a nice country flavored number whose sound I like quite a lot, but it makes me wince because of lines like this: “If I had but one breath / I’d use it to praise him with.” That “with” is unnecessarily redundant. But rhythmically the line needed one more word or syllable. So rather than rewriting the lyric to match the musical score, the songwriter (Clark) lazily tossed in a useless preposition to pad out the line, and it conspicuously clangs like a pebble in a tin hub cap. Or take the second verse of “We Need the Lord,” in which the phrase “Caused by philosophies” is married to a musical line that won’t accommodate the word “philosophies” in the plural. Like so many others, this line should have been recast. But it wasn’t, so the vocalists are left to shoehorn lyrics that are syllabically mismatched with the song’s rhythmic patterns, which leaves little pockmarks and hiccups all over the project.
This kind of thing typifies the bad writing that’s everywhere on Light of Home. Over and over again, there is some lyrical tick or rhetorical flaw that throws everything off kilter and mars the real beauty of the Nelons’s sound. “It is the Cause” is a big power anthem with some melodic predictability but nevertheless a tune that may work well live. Yet it’s hobbled by a singsongy caricature of missionary families “living in a foreign land / Being led by the unseen hand.” Similarly, the chorus of “Anything like Him” does little more than repeat itself: “I’ve never seen anything like Jesus / I’ve never seen something quite like him.”
The Nelons, mind you, sing all this fluff wonderfully. And assuming you can get past the lyrics, the Light of Home really is a perfect palliative for anyone tired of vocal histrionics (think IAG singing) and overproduced projects. Kelly Nelon’s voice carries the Nelons at every step, in its balance of power and delicacy, anchoring the complexly rich harmonies with experience and ease - best exemplified by the project’s opening tune, an a cappella arrangement of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” that goes from tight and intense to explosive and forceful with control so careful it could be mistaken for synthesized sounds. Except of course, it’s not. With Thompson taking over as a fulltime member of the group these days, the Nelons are in their third generation of family singing. Thompson’s voice is a biologically engineered perfect-match for the Nelons high, clear ensemble sound, and she’s clearly got solid instincts as a soloist too (though she’s still a touch tinny and thin in the higher registers when she has to carry them on her own, as is the case in “I’m On My Way”). And Clark holds down his vocal part with aplomb (it shouldn’t go without saying that Clark is a first-class bass player, his entrée into sg, even though he does no bass playing here).
The project is not without bright spots: Thompson’s improvisational tag on “My, My, My” is well done, and it’s fun to hear her get a moment or two to assert herself. “I Know I was Blind” has a decently turned phrase in it that is sung fantastically: “Still many things I can’t conceive / But this thing I know: I was blind but now I see” (I’m tempted to say “I Know I was Blind” is the project’s best tune, but I think it only feels that way because its tonal architecture shares so much in common with “We Have Come to Seek His Face”). And the ensemble of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” brings the idea of resurrection to real and audible life.
Thanks to Lari Goss’s perfect touch, the orchestrations and arrangements are impeccable (or as the promotional ads for the cd put it: “impactful”) There’s no point in trying to identify (or spoil) all the golden touches and magical flares that Goss adds to this and every other project he works on, so I’ll restrain myself and point to “I’m on my Way” as the project’s finest example of Goss in action. It’s one of those big galloping Goss orchestrations with cinematic sweep (plus the bass is HOT). The tune is enormous, its energy is contagious and even though it’s sloppily mixed (the line “that fair city,” for instance, sounds like “that there city” because the instrumentation is mixed in too heavily), the song left me slackjawed at Goss’s talent.
But too often the Light of Home feels like the vocals, arrangements, and orchestrations are trying to overcompensate for the lack of any discernable lyrical heft to Clark’s songwriting (songs by the other major contributor of original tunes, Micah Henson, are only slightly less vaporous). The song titles read like a handbook of church-lady clichés: “I’m on my way,” “all that matters,” “my, my, my,” “nothing can keep us from God’s love,” “believe it or not,” “we need the Lord,” “gonna have a meetin’,” “I know I was blind.” Amen, Amen, PTL. And at times, Clark’s songs seem to simply run out of anything at all to say, at which point he appears to resort to lyricizing his own writerly desperation, as in “Gonna Have a Meetin”,” whose chorus says “I’ll think I’ll just sing it again.” PTL PTL.
Hearing the Nelons sing these sorts of lines feels like the equivalent of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing advertising jingles. The effect is exasperating and embarrassing, as the Nelons debase their trademark sound and Goss demeans his unparalleled majesty on these insipid little songs of Clark’s. For whatever reason, Kelly Nelon has, presumably, approved of and encouraged Clark’s increasing influence on the Nelons development. But the Light of Home leaves the distinct impression that Clark was overpromoted too quickly, and because he’s married to The Star, no one wants to tell him that the project succeeds not because of Clark, but in spite of him.Email this Post