Review: The Perrys, Almost Morning
There is no single formula for success in southern gospel when it comes to new music, but in general, most new material that succeeds does so on the basis of how well it makes the listener think or feel. It’s the difference between the head and the heart.
Of course most good music is a mix of both. It’s a matter of emphasis, but that emphasis can make quite a difference. Compare the Hoppers (prior to their current “poor man’s Vegas show” era) and a song like “Anchor to the Power of the Cross” to the subject of this review, the Perrys, and “Calvary Answers for Me.” Each song’s (and group’s) unique appeal, you might say, is the difference between “wow” and “amen,” respectively.
Listening to Almost Morning involved the odd experience of frequently being brought to the height of some great feeling, only to struggle and often fail to locate the basis for that feeling in the song itself. The album is full of soaring orchestrations, impeccable arrangements, and for the most part exquisitely sung songs that provide regular inducements for us to feel very deeply, but without clearly tethering that feeling to lyrical ideas or images that will support it. Take the first verse of “If You Knew Him”:
I walked by the tomb of Buddha
Looked inside and saw his bones
Traveled on to see Muhammad
Still wrapped up in his grave clothes
Then I journeyed to a garden
Where old Joseph left Him lay
The precious lamb God’s own begotten
Was no longer in that grave
On this basis of this verse’s first-person “report from the field of world religion” form, we might naturally expect a chorus whose payoff describes the Christian’s belief in the everlasting salvation of a resurrected Christ, right? Instead we get this:
If you knew him, like I know him
You would know that he’s alive
If you felt him, like I feel him
Resurrection, deep inside
You’d know he’s living and death has died.
The rest of the song is a mix of modes, switching back and forth between the second person direct-address to the listener and first-person testimony established in the first verse, with a borrowed hymn dolloped in toward the end. The song can’t decide if it’s testimonial or evangelistic. Is it declaring the visible wonders of the risen Savior to a world filled with alternative spiritual paths (Buddha and Muhammad), or speaking directly to someone uncertain of what religious living means in felt terms of individual experience?
The Perrys sing all this marvelously, of course, but conceptually confused and confusing lyrics prevent the song from adding up to much. Indeed, that’s a pretty fair description of the album as a whole: lots of rich and yummy – but mostly empty – calories.
The most likely rebuttal to this view will be “Did I Mention,” which is making a big splash live, but it’s actually the best example of the phenomenon I’m talking about here. Not unlike “If You Knew Him,” “Did I Mention” suffers from some conceptual confusion: the first verse explicitly states that the rest of the song will be an occasion for the singer to “humbly testify.” But instead of testimony, we get variations on the already famous chorus: “Did I mention that I love him …,” which is not so much a testimony as a profession.
If you’re inclined to say it’s a distinction without a difference, that you still want to shout hallelujah no matter what the lyric’s formal classification, well, that’s my point. These songs go over so well with audiences not because of the way lyrics merge with the music to make possible spiritual insights reinforced with religious feeling, or the way the music brings out special inflections or textures to the ideas in the lyrics. Rather they work because when the Perrys sing this stuff, “it makes you feel,” as one reader so aptly put it a while back, but “it doesn’t do much else.” (Which reminds me of Bob Dylan’s comment about effective performances being ones that make you think and feel at the same time.)
Think back again to “Calvary Answers For Me,” a song with an original hook whose central idea was consistently and thoughtfully developed in the verses and given emphasis and depth of feeling by the musical score and arrangement (“Wish I Coulda Been There” would work too, if we were doing upbeat tunes). By comparison, the phrase on which this hook is built, “did I mention,” is at its most basic level a throwaway piece of ironic furniture from ordinary conversation – “uhm, did I mention I love love LOVE the new iPhone” – fused to a statement of religious piety so that the result is a lyrical novelty act, equivalent to music built around the idea of “OMG Salvation” or “It’s So God.”
The fact that only ONE of those examples is fake illustrates the issue I’m trying to get at, an issue that goes way beyond the Perrys. In fact, the Perrys might be said to succeed because they are among the best in the industry at transfiguring just about any lyric they decide to take up and making their audiences (I count myself among the crowd here) feel something that simply wouldn’t be there in the hands and voices of lesser talents.
This is a rare ability. So much of the new music being written and recorded in southern gospel today is often all heart and no head, or the religious-music equivalent of cheap grace. While faith without feeling is pretty purposeless, and piety sheared of any emotional belief risks drifting off into empty religious gestures, the near total absence of all but the most conceptually simplistic lyrics in popular southern gospel raises the possibility that the Praise & Worship phenomenon is creeping into all corners of evangelical pop culture. Horrors! Really.
The point is not to turn musical concerts into theological disquisitions, but it doesn’t seem like too much to ask that new music at least attempt to do more than open the floodgates of pious tears.
Of course, that’s not all Almost Morning is about. For one, it’s about Kyla Rowland. At least, there are a lot of Kyla Rowland tunes. A. Lot.
There’s also a mid-tempo Zydeco number featuring Troy Peach early on. It’s a paint-by-numbers tune that relies almost totally on instrumental hanky-panky to get by, but the song does fit Peach’s voice well, giving him short phrases that don’t require sophisticated phrasing or precise tone placement, and then allow him to slip back into the supporting role he is so well suited to with the Perrys.
One of my favorite tunes is an old Stamps-Baxter song, “I Love to Tell,” that the Perrys sing with magnificent ease and grace in straight-ahead style … an amply enjoyable quartet number. Joseph Habedank’s voice is special bonus feature of this song. For whatever reason, it’s much less covered and textured than it normally is (and the melody line when he has it is refreshingly unembellished). He backs off the vibrato and lowers his soft palate a bit, creating a brighter tone without nasalizing it (pay particular attention to his voice in the ensemble and his solo in the last chorus), the resultant sound more like Broadway than Stamps-Baxter, a neat stylistic intermixture.
Habedank applies this style to parts of “Almost Morning,” the title track, and a solo for him. The melodies are thoughtful and evocative, carefully crafted, and the vocal delivery and arrangement are by turns pleasant and powerful. It’s easy to imagine while listening to this song what a Joseph Habedank solo gig might sound like, which is just a way of describing the song, not career advice or anything; the last thing we need, mind you, is another sg soloist.
But alas and again, there’s no lyrical center to anchor the song. “It’s almost morning, joy will replace all your fears” etc. It’s not that any one of these phrases are intrinsically flawed or should be off limits by themselves, or that they don’t express some genuine belief or statement of faith, just as no one of these songs with worn-out phrases abounding would be bad in small dosages. It’s that, taken together, they begin to overwhelm in an underwhelming way, like eating too many rice cakes.
Good songwriting isn’t about inventing an entirely new lyrical idiom or creating a completely new imaginative landscape every time you sit down to write. The key is to lead your listeners down familiar pathways and then guide them into new and unexpected territory at some key point.
The lyrical conceit of “Almost Morning” is full of potential: light and dark, the misleading shadows of near night and the becalmed beauty of early dawn, the moon describing its arc in the vastness of space above, our lives cast in dim and shifting shadows of night below … so many possibilities for the writer of religious songs. But instead here we simply are told that “joy will replace your fears” and “it won’t be long till the dawn” and “tomorrow’s another day” and God’s love rhymes with home above, and at some point it becomes disappointingly clear that some varietal of the same flaccid-lyric syndrome is broke out all over this album.
That doesn’t mean these kinds of songs don’t sell well live and won’t, for instance, light us all up at NQC next week. The Perrys are among the industry’s finest artists on stage – simultaneously sincere in their piety and sophisticated in their understanding of performance art. And for this reason, the Perrys die-hard fans will be tempted, I imagine, to cite Almost Morning as proof of the group recapturing the spirit of This is the Day and Changed Forever, perhaps their best albums. It is true enough that like those earlier albums, Almost Morning packs a big emotional wallop across a set of stylistically various tunes. But the comparison only holds up if you don’t think too hard about it for very long.Email this Post