Pilgrimage is a journey worth taking.
Artist: Steve Bell (www.stevebell.com)
Label: Signpost Music
Length: Four CDs
How do you commemorate 25 years as a solo artist in the music industry? If you are Canadian musician Steve Bell you create a four disc box set of new songs plus old ones reinterpreted by yourself and friends.
Pilgrimage by Steve Bell is one of the finest releases of the year. It’s not just the quantity of music and the outstanding packaging that includes a 152 page book. The new collection of songs may be Bell’s best release to date.
If he were to give them a subtitle, it would be From Lent to Love. A number of these tracks were originally intended for an album with that theme. They convey the idea of being off-course and the corresponding need to return. Far from being guilt-inducing and condemning, this encourages that step towards becoming whole.
The music is generally mid-tempo, like being on a relaxed journey toward a desired destination. Interplay of finger-picking on a variety of instruments, including banjo, provides a roots music type of experience. Violin player, Hugh Marsh, a past collaborator, weaves his distinctive playing into several tracks. A touch of mournful pedal steel suggests a rural, even desert landscape. The sounds vary but one constant is expert craftsmanship in lyric and performance.
Maturity is evident. I don’t hear youthful angst. Thoughts expressed are full of gentle wisdom.
“Mercy Now,” a Mary Gauthier song, adapted to fit Bell’s own situation, may be the most moving example. This should resonate with those who have aging parents. If ever a song could move to compassion, this is it. It’s sung with such sincerity and tenderness. As it progresses the scope widens beyond family relations: “Every living thing could use a little mercy now/Only the hand of grace could stay the pace/Of nature’s rage against us now.” It makes for some sublime moments.
In contrast, a joyful sound is heard on the opening, “Think About That.” The banjo reminds me of early Sufjan Stevens. This has a cheerful melody with uncluttered production.
Bell fully intended to write verses to the simple but profound lyric: “Whoever loves God loves all that God loves/Think about that/Think about that.” When the producer heard the words in demo form he said, “It’s done. Leave it alone, there’s nothing else that needs to be said …” No need to distract from the powerful thought.
Hugh Marsh’s electric violin adds to the magic. It’s a brilliant way to start this commemoration project.
“Big Mistake,” the next song, is a rarity in that it deals with the subject of disillusion. Israel is pictured as a bride that has eloped with her husband. The vocal inflections match the change from honeymoon euphoria to uncomfortable distress. How like the Christian life, especially if we have imagined it as the beginning of bliss with little hardship.
“Wayfaring Stranger,” the classic hymn, has always resonated due in part to the sense of longing. Once again the production is perfect, being on the quiet side with Bell singing softly. It enables me to experience the familiar in a new way.
This first disc, titled Pilgrimage, which contains the new songs, may be destined to become my favorite of all Bell’s releases. In every way it’s rich in beauty and meaning.
If that isn’t enough, the other three discs are all excellent. Disc 2, Unadorned, is Bell and his guitar, revisiting fan and personal favorites. It adds timelessness to a selection of his best songs and highlights Bell’s skill on his instrument of choice.
On Disc 3, Good Company, friends and collaborators like Carolyn Arends and Bob Bennett, cover Bell’s songs. This has a wide variety of arrangements, and the fresh takes make me appreciate the songwriting. These songs shine once again through the talents of these admirers.
Lastly, Disc 4, Landscapes, holds up surprisingly well with songs stripped of the vocals. Instrumentals take you to different places, and in this case, if a listener is familiar with Bell’s past work, they are reminded of places they have been.
In this life, we can easily become satiated with the wrong things, lesser things, or perhaps, the things that are not best. When I started playing this album it sounded so delightful that I thought why am I listening to anything else? But if unlike me, someone does not take to it immediately, I want to say, learn to like it. Give yourself a chance to discover how much pleasure can come from what initially might not grab attention. It seems like so many of us are impatient when it comes to experiencing art.
Pilgrimage is a journey worth taking. This video gives a sense of the ride: “Turn it Around.”