Review: Mark Bishop, Fields of Love
Fields of Love
ALI: 40% (with caveats)
Down on the family farm, the saintly matriarch dies in childbirth. The tiny fractured family that remains – the good pious son trying to keep his mother’s memory alive, the grieving father aggrieved at God for taking his wife too soon – struggles to cope with their loss and the suffering that ensues until finally they are delivered from crisis in an anthemic burst of triumphant song. And it all unfolds against a pastoral backdrop presided over by God the impressionist painter of downhome sunsets and fields of plenty and shooting – or is it falling? – stars. Welcome to Fields of Love, Mark Bishop’s new … what? Album? Project? Drama? Pageant? (Remember: you can still download the entire thing for a discounted price.)
Bishop has described this somewhat unconventional album this way:
Instead of a song that tells a story, [imagine] an entire album that tells a deeper more epic story where each song is a chapter in a larger saga.
On this evidence, it’s tempting to call Fields of Love a Christian musical. After listening to it, I’d say maybe more like Christian Disney. Like most Disney productions, Bishop’s album mixes music, lyrics, and spoken dialogue to a tell story whose main emotional meaning and spiritual significance are conveyed through dramatic song.
The central conflict of the story involves the crisis of belief that the father plunges into after the death of his wife (whose part, spoken from beyond the grave, is played by Debra Talley). The stoic, emotionally unavailable father seems to have experienced faith vicariously through his religious wife. When she dies, he turns spiritually sour and projects his bitterness onto their young son. Here is the son, in the first verse of “What’s So Bad About Believing,” explaining things:
Dad told me once that Mom believed
That every shooting star we see
Is an angel with an answer to a prayer
But somewhere along the way he found
Faith is best kept on the ground
And not to place your trust somewhere up there
Even though the father demands to know with bitter sarcasm “what’s so great about believing,” the son is less cynical:
But tell me what’s so bad about believing
Tell me what about believing is so wrong
Kind of like the thought that someone’s watching … over
Kind of like the notion we are not alone
The father and son trade choruses to dramatize their different perspectives and explain the deeper clash between them, a clash keyed to the way the change from “bad” and “great” changes the hook’s meaning, which boils down to something like “Tis nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
This is the album’s High Disney moment, using alternating solos between stock characters in conflict to develop the cast and plot, and soft-pedaling theology in an easy-to-swallow eco-pantheism built around falling stars, guardian angels, and somebody watching over us here on the good, green earth. Imagine Tanya Mousekiwitz singing “Somewhere Out there” in An American Tail and you’ll have the right idea.
True, An American Tail wasn’t technically a Disney Production – it came from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment (the same shop from which ET emerged) – and neither is Fields of Love, obviously. But structurally, conceptually, and expressively, they’re both descendants of the Disneyification of the American imagination and entertainment. Often hokey and lame? For sure. But sometimes pretty good stuff nevertheless? Also, yes.
For those who already doubt Bishop’s theological purity, the Disneyfied moments nearer the beginning of Fields of Love will only solidify those concerns. But in adapting narrative structures and lyrical strategies from American musicals, Fields of Love only makes explicit the longstanding but mostly implied similarity between much of gospel music and the musical theater tradition: namely, the way both characters in a musical and gospel performers engage in related forms of role playing, impersonation, and the use of songs to metaphorically explore deeper questions of identity and personality on stage.
Theological purists, never fear, though. In the third quarter, the album embraces a much more doctrinally orthodox worldview. The father acknowledges his sinful doubts and has a conventional evangelical conversion experience. It’s not a coincidence, I don’t think, that the return to theologically familiar ground near the late middle of the album is also where it gains strength musically. Mark Bishop is a self-professed storyteller in song, but he’s clearly experimenting formally and conceptually during the first half of the album. Here, he doesn’t always seem to be in complete control of his ideas or material, and the result is a certain stylistic and musical unevenness. The pace feels herky-jerky, and there’s too much time given over to narrative spade work early on.
The album could have used a more obviously developed leitmotif (think Andrew Lloyd Weber) and an expressively bigger song nearer the beginning to get the album’s pulse off the flat line quicker and thereby musically foreshadow the ending. As it is, there’s only “Fields of Love” at the beginning and “Love and Faith” at the end bookending the album. It’s not that the style is incoherent; in fact, it has a fairly coherent stylistic feel – whatever the musical equivalent of southern Christian pastoralism is. But there’s no identifiable theme that repeats itself, holds the whole production together, and leaves me humming it after the last big salvation chorus has ended (”Tell Me What You See”).
I’m being no spoiler by telling you how it ends. Like all formula driven drama, you know where this one is going almost from the beginning (it’s Fields of Love, remember; not Fields of Go To Hell). Gospel music purists and strict Christian literalists like to insist that the destination is all that matters, but in Fields of Love the means is treated at least as seriously as the ends, and the reckoning between the self and the soul is writ large enough in the album’s center to rival the salvific conclusion.
This is true of most good gospel songs, but the larger canvas Bishop is working with him gives him a chance to develop the problematic middle – where, it’s worth noting, most of us live most of the time – more fully and with more interest and care than is possible in a single song. Bishop takes the doubting dad seriously (sometimes too seriously: the spoken word portions of the story between the father and son are excruciatingly stilted and hopelessly amateurish and no one has a sense of humor) and that allows him to portray doubt and skepticism as more than oversimple sin or just the work of the evil one corrupting the heart with selfish, willful recalcitrance.
“Every Memory” flatly declares that “every memory ain’t necessarily precious.” Amen to that, mister. It’s a refreshingly honest sentiment from a southern gospel song, even if it’s clunkyly delivered. And despite his humorlessness, Bishop’s farmer is on a balance a likeable guy, mostly because he’s not afraid to speak plainly (“no angels ever worked the back forty”) and because he tests beliefs the way most of us do if we’re honest – by judging, as William James put it, whether they “bake any bread” (or, as our man says: “God never paid a banker’s note that I can see”).
It’s this deeply human middle of the album where the best songs are: One is “He Never Sleeps,” part prayer, part lament, part confession of despairing need met only when we let ourselves be vulnerable enough to admit neediness. It’s gripping, gorgeous stuff. Perhaps my favorite. The over-exposed quality to Bishop’s voice, which often grates on my ears and cries out to be softened with harmony, infuses this particular tune with the felt pressure of lived experience.
Another: “The Prayer,” which serves as the dramatic center of the story. I like it for the quiet song near the beginning. But the number will probably be remembered as the album’s three-hanky special for anyone who emotionally invests in the characters and the story, thanks to the the moment near the end when the father bottoms out, turns to God, and prays the sinner’s prayer. For the record, I didn’t invest, mainly because I couldn’t get beyond the hokeyness of the spoken-word prayer. Bishop as the father saying his sinner’s prayer here is more convincing than the scripted bits between father and son, but I felt like a voyeur reading somebody’s diary and that in turn felt vaguely manipulative.
You need not agree with me. The more important point here is that good songs often get hobbled by bumpy transitions between key moments, and the relationships between one song and the next are too often mangled.
The album could have used fewer songs that labored over advancing the plot or setting up the context for the next tune, and more numbers like “Take Another Step,” another song from the album’s meaningful late-middle that uses the image of walking down the aisle – for religious conversion, for marriage, and for a final glimpse of a dead loved one’s face – to explore the sustaining centrality of community traditions in rural evangelical life. The imagery is crystal clear here, and yet the song works by maintaining a certain ambiguity about the larger meaning of things. As portrayed in the song, to “walk down the aisle” matters – it means – on multiple levels for different people, for different reasons.
Publicly, participation in religious rituals binds a community together as individuals share common life experiences. In this sense, it matters to walk down the aisle not just because it signifies you’re like everybody else, but also because it gives everyone a shared vocabulary of feeling and living to use in ordinary life. Personally, though, these rites of passage mean very different things to the people involved. For instance, whatever significance is attached to orthodox religious conversion by his son, his neighbors, and the church, the father in Fields of Love seems motivated to walk down the aisle at the end of the
show story for somewhat less unorthodox reasons: mainly out of a grieving hope that religious conversion will reunite him with his dead wife in the afterlife.
In turn, the father’s repentance connects them to the wider network of Christian fellowship in their religious community. Most important, the father finds sufficient resources of strength to ward off despair and repair the breach between him and his son. Debra Talley’s disembodied mother-voice presides over all this a little too mystically for my taste, but that doesn’t diminish the larger theme: Her survivors need the objective reality of organized religion to make sense of life after her death, but religious belief matters for them only through the lens of their own experience.
It’s rare that a southern gospel lyric holds all these experiential complexities and interpretive nuances in tension without collapsing. Rarer still when they are joined to a melody in which the rhythms of a certain way of religious life are almost perfectly matched, tone for tone, with the feelings those rhythms elicit: grief and grace, love and happiness, age and loss, death and dying. A song like “Take another Step” is a fine thing for any gospel album to achieve, and a powerful reminder of experimentalism’s pay off, even if Fields of Love has trouble sustaining its own best yield most of the rest of the time.Email this Post