For Penguin Eggs
Throughout her career Caroline Herring has regularly looked to literary sources for her writing. Her companion discs of 2010, “Silver Apples of the Moon” and “Golden Apples of the Sun,” gain their titles from a Yeats poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” In 2011 she released an album of songs retelling a children’s story, “The Little House” by Virginia Lee Burton. Other instances are less obvious, such as Eudora Welty, who hovers at the margins of her 2012 release, “Camilla.”
In “Verse by Verse” the source is the Bible, which admittedly is a different project entirely than quoting Yeats. The danger is that the result could feel flat, and veer into preaching or proselytizing. It’s confirmation of Herring’s skill and intellect that the result does neither, even in the pieces that draw from the New Testament, such as “That My Soul May Sing Praise to You” or “Arise My Lord.”
Unlike her earlier work, the use of the source material is more direct and substantial—all of the words are quoted faithfully—and the result is more dire. “I started out trying to write an album in response to the Trump moment,” Herring says, “something in the great tradition of protest and political songs of the American folk tradition.”
Indeed, she’s succeeded in ways that perhaps even she didn’t foresee. She allows the images to come forward, often through repetition of key phrases, as in “Guide Our Feet into the Way of Peace.” It feels like a spoiler to say that the songs—there are 22, all taken from specific texts of the Bible, which are noted with the song titles—build a sense that that our problems aren’t at all new, nor is the moment entirely Trump’s.
“Verse by Verse” is a mediation on justice, desire, doubt, and hope. In other hands, the core concept could easily become trite, but Herring is too good a writer to let that happen here. The songs have a depth that you maybe wouldn’t expect, and the result isn’t a sermon. Herring has called the album an “offering to these times,” and it’s a poignant and brilliant one.