So much of the traditional, roots, and country songbook, is about death, family, and God, with likely an over-representation of the latter. Ralph Stanley, both with his brother Carter and later in his solo career, seems to rarely about much else, though I don’t think we’d call him a gospel artist. And while I’m not of the flock, I find so much of Stanley’s work compelling. His sense of the gospel seems to come from some other exotic, ancient place. His connection to family, too, comes with a sense of tragic depth. His songs may be about his mother but they have none of the sweetness and shine of Mother’s Day cards. Rather, they are about a desperate provision of care, love, and connectedness, set against all the odds of poverty, hard work, and discord. Each song is a point in a longer narrative. I’d say that his presentation of gospel is much the same: it’s less about the product–a communion with God–than it is the process, the rocky road that leads a person there.
For the secular listener, at least in my experience, the power of the work comes from those longer narratives. We are interested in the sins more than we are the forgiveness. It’s an important distinction, and one that is missing from the material Kelly Joe Phelps’ presents in “Brother Sinner and the Whale.”
The concepts come from the biblical book of Jonah, so says the PR for the release, but the poetry of that book is transformed, at times, into something dangerously close to bible-belt road signs. “Goodbye to Sorrow” is a two-dimensional presentation of a modern interpretation of faith, and in which Phelps sings “In the eyes of the Lord I am redeemed.” Okay. So too in “Hope in the Lord to Provide” where the narrator states “ There are days when I can’t stop singing/let’s say you and I hold hands/keep on for the promised land/ the lord to provide.” Elsewhere he asks, “Why do I choose to suffer when I can live with God?” On “The Holy Spirit Flood” he spends the breadth of the song simply proclaiming that he is a sinner and asking for forgiveness; we’re left to wonder what exactly he’s done or why he should be forgiven for it. To believers, I suppose those are rhetorical thoughts. The rest of us just really want to know what he did. When not preaching to a choir, Phelps’ writing lacks the kind of rigor we’ve grown to expect of him.
That’s perhaps not true of all the writing here, and a standout on the other side of the ledger is the beautiful blues ballad “Sometimes a Drifter.” But even on that track, it’s hard to get beyond the album concept that Phelps has set for himself. In his review of the album, Jason Verlinde of the Fretboard Journal writes “whether or not you consider yourself religious, this gorgeous album is well worth checking out” and from a guitar/production standpoint, that’s exactly correct. Phelps’ guitar playing is a lesson unto itself, with some fantastic slide work—as on the instrumental “Spit Me Outta the Whale”—something that he is returning to from a hiatus of sorts. His brilliant collaboration with Corinne West, “Magnetic Skyline” has left a lot of listeners wanting more, though lacking the harder blues presence that Phelps’ core fan base has grown to love.
But Verlinde mentions and dismisses the gospel aspect of the album in a way that (I suspect) he may not when approaching the recordings of Ralph Stanley. And he does it, I’m speculating, because the gospel concepts, in the way they are handled, provide some very conspicuous stumbling blocks. “I’ve Been Converted” comes dangerously close, or worse, to proselytising. There Phelps sings “I know I’ve been converted, oh, do you?/ God knows I made a change/I’m not afraid to call my Jesus name/ I know I’ve been converted, oh, do you?”
So, yes, it’s worth checking out. Phelps is a compelling musician. For those who share his belief, this album is truly a gift. For the rest of us, it can leave you feeling like you entered the wrong room and wondering how long you have stay before you can leave.