Saturday, May 25, 2013

Music Review: The Jesus Record by Rich Mullins and Friends

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: More great music from Rich Mullins
Cons: The last of the great music from Rich Mullins
The Bottom Line:
The final part of
Rich Mullins' great legacy
Really delivers

Rich's Last Labor of Love for the Savior He Loved

In September of 1997, Christian recording artist Rich Mullins was killed in a car accident.  I wasn't a huge fan at the time, but I did still feel a loss at the news.  Days before he had recorded nine demos for his next CD.  His band came together after his death, invited some friends along, and recorded studio versions of those songs plus one more.  Then these tracks were released as the two disc The Jesus Record.

Disc one of The Jesus Record is also called The Jesus Demos.  These are the nine tracks just as Rich recorded them.  He'd been in a church and used an old battery operated tape recorded.  It's just him and a piano or guitar.  There are pops in between songs where the tape got started or stops.  There's even occasional hissing.  But this is the disc I find myself listening to the most.  There is something about Rich's vocals that make the songs sound all the more intimate and special.  However, just for the variety it offers, I will be talking mainly about the studio versions from disc two.  The lyrics are the same, so it's only the way they sound that is different.  (As a side note, most of the songs are in different orders on the two discs.  Even twelve years later, I'm still not sure why that is.)

Almost all of the songs on this disc focus on Jesus, specifically his Earthly life.  You could almost use these songs in a musical if you wrote the right script for it.  Some of the songs make me think about things a tad differently, too.

Disc two starts out with "My Deliverer."  The first verse is slow and haunting with an orchestra heavy on the strings.  The first time the chorus is sung, it is sung by a children's choir.  While they do speed things up for the second verse, the tune is so catchy.  It's one of two songs guaranteed to get stuck in your head.  The lyrics are a plea for God's salvation.  Couples with the music, it is truly powerful.

"Surely God is With Us" takes a more pop feel with the emphasis on guitar and percussion.  The lyrics talk about the differences between how the religious leaders of his day viewed Jesus versus how the common people and "sinners" saw Him.  The bridge even incorporates some of the Sermon on the Mount.  It's upbeat and fun.

"Nothing is Beyond You" is the first song to feature one of the guest vocalists.  Amy Grant does a great job on this mid-tempo song that seems to pull its inspiration from Psalm 139.  I've never found a connection between this reminder of God's power and Jesus' earthly life.  But that's not to say I don't love it.  It's a great praise song.

"You Did Not Have a Home" stopped me cold the first time I heard it.  Rich paints Jesus as a homeless man and talked about how that freed Him from earthly constraints and angered those who were beholden to their possessions.  I had never quite pictured Jesus this way.  Yes, it took a little while to wrap my head around this song, but I am better off for it.  This is one of two songs that take a country bent thanks to the harmonica and accordion used in the music.

But the country songs are interrupted by "Jesus..."  This song featured Ashley Cleveland.  I'm not usually a fan of her vocal styles, especially coupled with her very slow singing.  However, it works perfectly for this song that pleads with Jesus to be a real in my life as He was back in the Gospels.  Wisely, they keep the instruments simple with just the piano and strings.  I've not listened to this version of the song in years, and I had forgotten just how powerful it could be.

And we're back to country for "All the Way to Kingdom Come."  Since the instruments here are just guitars and drums, I'm not quite sure why it gives off the same country vibe, although it's not quite as song as "You Did Not Have a Home."  This song reminds us of Jesus' love and how it wasn't at all what we were looking for when He came to Earth.

"Man of No Reputation" is the only song not to have an equivalent on the demo disc.  It moved Rich so much he wasn't sure if he could ever get through it completely without breaking down crying.  It does a good job of balancing the God and human sides of Jesus, talking about how he ruled the sun yet was considered a commoner by the rulers of his day.  Frankly, I think the song might be a tad too slow, although it does help the accordion not take over this ballad.

Michael W. Smith takes his first turn in the spotlight with "Heaven in His Eyes."  This mid tempo song again talks about the contrast between Jesus as God and man - how He could play with children and yet silence His opposition.

It took me several listens to truly get "Hard to Get."  This is the only song where I still like Rich's version from the demos better.  This version is just a little too slow, although the harmonium in the background does give it a haunting nature.  But now that I have listened to the words, it's my favorite song here.  In the first two verses, the singer really does lash out at God for the trials in life, wondering if God has stopped listening to those of us on Earth.  It was this anger that was making me uncomfortable until it gets to the bridge.  At that point, the singer begins to remember what Jesus experienced for us, the pain He bore.  Finally, the third verse surrenders to God's perfect will to help carry him through the pain of the trial.  I have used it multiple times when facing bad things to remind myself that God is still in control no matter what things look like.

Finally comes "That Where I Am, There You..."  This track actually starts with Rich and his guitar from the demo.  After the first verse, they slowly transition into the studio version with Michael W. Smith leading a choir of everyone who has worked on the disc.  It's a nice tribute to Rich, especially since the song borrows from John 14 as Jesus promises us the hope of Heaven.  After the song ends, there are a few second of silence followed by a recording of Rich playing "Nothing but the Blood" on the hammer dulcimer.  This is the other song that gets stuck in my head very easily with its upbeat, catchy tune.  It's a great way to pay final tribute to Rich.

When I decided to review this CD, I pulled out the second disc for the first time in years and discovered just how good it really is.  The lyrics are still amazing, and the studio recordings to add something to the songs.  But that doesn't take away from the demos at all.  They are very rough, but there is something special about hearing Rich's voice singing these songs.

No matter which disc you listen to, you'll find something to enjoy on The Jesus Record.  If you enjoy Christian music of the 90's, you need to track down this set.

CD Length: 46:05

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