Jennifer and I begin 2017 with a year old daughter growing up strong and loved, a forthcoming move to the small-ish/big-ish city of Wilmington this spring, and more creative energy than we’ve known before. Times of plenty. Times of contentment. Times of blessing. It’s not always like this, but the command to “rejoice in hope, give thanks in all circumstances, be constant in prayer” is our straight-as-an-arrow directive in all seasons. God, make us capable of this.
“There’s a place, a garden for the young / To laugh and dance in safety among / The shimmering light in the garden of peace.”
It’s been out since April, but the new record from Josh Garrels has been on heavy rotation in our home and our community of friends ever since. This is fitting, since whether it’s that garden, the arms of his wife, or the embrace of God, home is Garrels’ muse this time around.
His last full-length album, Love & War & the Sea In Between, was an 18-song journey through its very namesake. Love. Conflict. The storms of life and dawning hope. It sprawled a bit but gave us some absolute gems (we danced at our wedding to “Bread and Wine,” “Ulysses” still makes me sing with all my strength, and Jennifer can expertly rap “The Resistance,” a hard-left turn into trip-hop that heeds a call for suffering, costly love). It also garnered an Album of the Year award, so I guess we’re not alone in our admiration.
Whereas Love & War… had Garrels dwelling on the possibility of deliverance out of “Flood Waters” to a hope “Beyond the Blue,” Home meditates on the possibility of enduring rest and lasting love. Garrels sounds, if I can use the phrase, a bit other-worldly, if not for his lion-throat-ed falsettos (which are anything but false), then for the gravity of his words. They pull us into questions and longings common to us all–“I’m my mother’s child / I’m my father’s son“–before pushing us toward a real answer to our yearning–“It took me a while, but my time has come / To be born again“.
His songs embrace the tensions of longing and belonging, earthly heritage and heavenly inheritance, and a life where we don’t feel entirely at home. They are not typical of the Christian music industry, which is no home for Garrels anyway. He recently raised fan support to build a backyard studio at his family’s Oregon home and has released his music through his own label, Small Voice, for several years now. While many of the Christian faithful are making music principally to convey a message–with the message mostly testifying to the benefits of faith or simplistic (though still true) attributes of God–Garrels faithfully makes music. The excellence of the medium he creates is a message itself. I do not sense that he is simply injecting some Christian thoughts into stock arrangements. He is an artist, planted in the soil of a holy mystery, shaken like a branch by the “thrust of grace” (as another favorite artist of ours has sung), and crafting a world of sound where the realities of his life can find a reverent, real expression.
Though the comparisons to Ray LaMontagne, Bon Iver, and Nick Drake have warrant and can attune your musical expectations, Garrels is set apart in some significant ways. He is decidedly spiritual, opening up common experiences to a Higher Power. He is no detached guru, whispering obtuse mysteries into a listening universe. As one fan commented, he “talks about love, joy, home, peace like someone who knows what he’s talking about.” He doesn’t flippantly address these matters, and his voice is noticeably present within them. He sings, as it’s said, like he really means it. I hear a fervent humility. I’d imagine a non-religious listener commenting, “I don’t agree with him at all, but he makes it sound true. He actually believes this.” When skepticism, irony, and obscurity tend to be the day’s themes among the more thoughtful songwriters and bands out there, Garrels stands apart for singing hymns of the holy mystery in places like the Theatre of the Living Arts just last night or the Chicago House of Blues in July.
If you haven’t known this man and his work, the lyrics to the seminal track on Home, “At the Table,” are a taste of Garrels’ craft:
Wondering where I might begin
Hear a voice upon the wind
She’s singing faint but singing true
Son, there ain’t nothing you can do
But listen close and follow me
I’ll take you where you’re meant to be
Just don’t lose faith