Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Love & War & The Sea In Between - Review

Josh Garrels is a tough guy to categorize. Mixing folk, electronica, rap, and pop, his music is anything but ordinary, as is his incredibly unusual voice. In 2011, he released his sixth CD, Love & War & The Sea In Between, as a free download on www.noisetrade.com. Accruing over 125,000 downloads, it became Christianity Today’s album of the year. When I heard that Garrels was releasing it (and four other albums) again for two weeks’ free download, I jumped at the chance. 

It’s always hard to find an effective motif for a CD, but Love & War succeeds several times. Throughout the record, as hinted by the title, flows the image of the ocean, the metaphor of marriage, and frequent references to battle—yet the album is held together by the hopeful promise of God: our pilot in the storms; our husband, longing for the wedding day; our king in the chaos of war. Garrels uses these core ideas to form a very strong internal story. There is the additional theme of a journey, while each song remains a separate destination.

The album opens with White Owl, the tale of a believer living in the dark, with the promise that

“Every dream that you have been shown
 Will be like living stone
 Building you into a home,
 A shelter from the storm."

The image of a “living stone” foreshadows the many, many references to the Book of Revelation. In the reworking of the hymn Farther Along, there is another conclusion assuring
“Every knee must bow and tongue confess
That the son of god is forever blessed
His is the kingdom, we’re the guests
So put your voice up to the test
Sing, Lord, come soon.”

In the song Ulysses, my favorite, Garrels turns the story of The Odyssey into both a moving, wistful love song and an allegory for Christ’s journey to us and our journey to Him. (A great examination of that song exists here.) For those of you who don’t know the story, The Odyssey is the tale of Ulysses, a Greek hero who, following the Trojan War, travels back home through the treacherous seas of the Mediterranean, to find his wife, Penelope. He runs into any number of obstacles, including a cyclops, calling sirens, the monster Scylla and the whirlpool, Charybdis, but ultimately returns and is reunited with his bride. Garrels writes the song from Ulysses’ POV, and with gentle irony and aching nostalgia, delivers the beautiful chorus:

“I’m sailing home to you,
I won’t be long.
By the light of the moon,
I will press on.”

It's a truly amazing song, but I won't spoil the rest of the lyrics - check it out yourself.

Beyond the Blue is another reminder of the hope of heaven, and Sailor’s Waltz continues the oceanic theme. Revelator unearths the theme of Revelation overtly, with a dramatic retelling of John’s visions. Pilot Me entreats God to guide us through wild waves:

“I will arise and follow you over
Savior, please, pilot me.

Over the waves and through every sorrow
Savior, please, pilot me.

When I have no more strength left to follow
Fall on my knees, pilot me.

May your sun rise and lead me on
Over the seas, Savior, pilot me.
O Lord.”
It probably shouldn’t be surprising that the album ends with Processional, an acoustic song with keening background vocals – a reminder of the ultimate wedding, at the end of the long voyage home, through the battlefields of Revelation. Very few Christian artists manage to capture me with the strength of their lyrics, though simple catchiness is common. Garrels has achieved both, with a unique and evocative style that, while taking a while to get used to, is captivating.


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