God inhabits stark places as well as places of plenty.
Never Look Back
Artist: John Barnett
Label: Vineyard Music (www.vineyardmusic.com)
Length: 13 tracks/53:38 minutes
Never Look Back by John Barnett is everything you would expect from Vineyard Music: original and classic covers of inspired, God-directed songs, solid musicianship and excellent production. But something unusual happened on the way to the recording studio. Barnett and company ended up in the middle of the desert, where tumbleweeds blow through ghost towns, the sky is big as Montana and signs of life are scarce.
It may even seem like God is absent but what is missing is the modern pop/rock sound that has characterized so many Vineyard recordings. Instead you get music that has an earthy, rustic quality. It reminds me of why so many people liked The Band. This sounds like a small group playing instruments without a lot of production or synthesized sounds. It would be easy to imagine that this was produced by Buddy Miller instead of Bobby Hartry.
It is the mid-tempo, sometimes subdued nature of the recording that immediately caught my attention. It leans toward the acoustic with a raw and rugged feel. Drums rumble like distant thunder. Quirky percussion and instrumentation lend charm. There is plenty of strumming but an electric guitar breaks like lightning on “Better Than Life.” Electrified rhythm and solos add weight.
Some songs have a slight country-feel. That is particularly evident on the opening title track, where world-weary lyrics and lap steel give the song a haunting quality. The photos in the CD booklet aptly convey the stark mood. Who would have thought that in our over-stimulated age that this could serve as the backdrop for adoration?
“Our God Reigns” is indicative of the variety that exists. With its use of dulcimer, sleigh-bell like percussion, and Brian Wilson/Beach Boy harmony vocals, this is one of the tracks that veer towards a more indie/alternative sound.
In contrast, grunge-like riffs punctuate “Desperate Heart,” calling to mind Neil Young and Crazy Horse. But this is as heavy as it gets. These songs are more about finesse than power chords.
A wide array of outside-the-norm instruments, including Glockenspiel, Omnichord, SK1, Mellotron, Hammered Dulcimer, Melodica, etc. add uniqueness to predominantly new songs written mostly by Barnett. “Stand in Awe” comes from Jeremy Riddle. Barnett takes a classic, his own “Holy and Anointed One,” and brilliantly recreates it with just banjo and vocals. It is a beautiful and peaceful way to close a recording that provides evidence that less can be more. This is a welcome change, and I hope others similarly engaged will consider how they can offer up something fresh. It need not be complicated to be like water in the desert. These are simple expressions in a desolate context reminding us that God inhabits stark places as well places of plenty.