Accompanied vocal music is about three things: the lyrics to be sung, the voice and intonation of the singer, and the instrumental music that accompanies the singer. At its best, the three elements are integrated into a taut line tying the spear that pierces your heart to the songwriter. Even when you have two of the three pieces involved, you can still have something powerful, but the three forces combined are overpowering.
Musical tastes vary, but the beauty of having a platform for my voice is that I can make a statement. I’ve been fully consumed by three records so far this year, in order: The Avett Brothers’ I and Love and You, Adele’s 21, and Josh Garrels’s Love & War & the Sea in Between. The first two have gotten plenty of deserved publicity, but I wish to shed a little light on Garrels’s work. Fellow Whiskerino Joshua Neds-Fox pointed me to this record, and because I like a lot of the same things that he likes, I gave it a shot.
Like a messenger of peace, the beauty waits to be released
Upon the sacred path you keep, leading deeper into the unveiling
As you’re sailing across the great divide
Like a wolf at midnight howls, you use your voice in darkest hours
To break the silence and the power, holding back the others from their glory
— Josh Garrels, “White Owl”, Love & War & the Sea in Between
Garrels comes from a Protestant Christian tradition, and on Love &… he weaves the major themes of his faith—togetherness in the struggle of life, our need for Jesus as Savior, the joy of marriage—into strong lyrics that resonate with me.
So much more to life than we’ve been told
It’s full of beauty that will unfold
And shine like you struck gold my wayward son
That deadweight burden weighs a ton
Go down into the river and let it run
And wash away all the things you’ve done
Josh Garrels, “Farther Along”, Love & War & the Sea in Between
Garrels’s voice, in the various ways he implements it on this record, fits the instrumental backing. Contrast “White Owl” with “The Resistance“, which is just mostly-spoken vocals, drums, and some synth loops accompanied by a few electronic guitar rifs.
Garrels avoids the musical pitfalls that many artists who seek to convey the Christian ethos, who seem to consider the vocals and instrumentals secondary to the message. Garrels seems to understand that same-sounding music would leave a listener uninterested, even if he is clearly a folk artist at heart.
There are a number of ports of entry for this record. I chose “White Owl” first because of the availability of that wonderful illustration. I think “Ulysses” is just as engaging:
Trouble has beset my ways, and wicked winds have blown
Sirens call my name, they say they’ll ease my pain, then break me on the stones
But true love is the burden that will carry me back home
Carry me with the memories of the beauty I have known
— Josh Garrels, “Ulysses”, Love & War & the Sea in Between
I’ve spent a lot of time on those stones. [That almost-crying face during the chorus seems to be a tick that he has, but the first time I saw it in this context really tugged at me somewhere between my heart and my gut.]
I wish there was a video for “Bread & Wine“, because it’s my favorite on the record right now. There’s just enough in the drums and strings to keep this from lying flat on the mixing room floor and sounding like something recorded at an open mic night.
If I fall, I fall alone, but two can help to bear the load
A threefold chord is hard to break
All I have I give to you, if you will share your sorrows, too
Then joy will be the crown upon our heads
— Josh Garrels, “Bread & Wine”, Love & War & the Sea in Between
Yeah, I could handle that in my life right about now.