Album Review: “Home” by Josh Garrels

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Home is the ninth release to date by Oregon-based folk singer-songwriter Josh Garrels, and it is a soulful gestalt that delivers both thematically and sonically. The 11 tracks that make up the album explore themes of pilgrimage, community, forgiveness, sonship, mercy, and the end of ordinary reality and reunion with the Divine, once again revealing Garrels’ to be a lyricist who is eschatologically astute without being over-complex, and numinous without being exclusionary. Musically, this album unfolds with elements of the familiar atmospheric, neo-electronica, synth-acoustic style redolent of his previous albums; but it it is set apart by a consistent soul-vibe which Garrels (with a voice contoured by a warm, warbling bassiness I can only describe as “molten” and a superhuman falsetto that would have given the late Jeff Buckley a run for his money) lays hold of with characteristic aplomb and ingenuity. Organs, casiotones, wurlitzers, horn ensembles, and other sparkly sounds imbue the album with the warmth of vintage funk. The sound is fresh (and attractive to any casual listener), but hardly incongruent with the musical prowess of Mr. Garrels, who seems to epitomize the sentiment “ever ancient, ever new,” leaving fans old and new alike curious and impressed.
Listening to this album, I imagine that Josh Garrels is a man who says what he means, and means what he says: the lyrics are simple, and articulated beautifully. They express particular sentiments without beating around any esoteric bushes. One of my favorite songs on the album, Colors, is something like a spiced-up, stripped-down Canticle of Daniel (sans dolphins):“So let all the creatures sing/praises over everything/colors are meant to bring/glory to the light,” his sings, with a swell of breath and horns that pneumenously beseeches all of creation to give praise and to rejoice in the coming culmination of paradise. The motif of praise and homecoming figures strongly in Heaven’s Knife, Morning Light, Always Be, Home At Last, At the Table, and Benediction, as well. Another theme that evidently inspires Garrels is the encounter of God within the context of human relationships: sonship, friendship, and spousal love are recurring expressions of the immediacy of Divinity in creation. Garrels cherishes these encounters as being forerunners of what is to come, even as they wound him. In the aforementioned Heaven’s Knife, he sings, “I was cut so deep/by Heaven’s knife/When I awoke from my sleep/O my Lord, she’s beautiful/she’s a part of me/she’s my wife.” Similarly, in The Arrow we hear “The arrow was sent to intervene/it pierced my bones and shook my from my dream/Lord You know exactly what I need/Wounds from a friend/a severe mercy”. You get the feeling that Garrels’ is cut from similar prophetic cloth as that of the likes of St. John of the Cross, who wrote extensively on the burning love of God for the soul, a love which longs for consummation: “O living flame of love/that wounds my soul in its deepest center/O sweet cautery, O beloved wound/that tastes of eternal life” (from St. John’s poem “The Living Flame of Love”). Garrels’ desire to “get in” , to “come home”, is woven throughout all of these songs, whether expressed through the prism of melancholy remembrance of mankind’s fractured relationship with his Creator, the struggle with sin, the transformative power of mercy, married love, or the quiet example of nature.
I read an interview wherein Garrels was described by his wife as being incapable of dishonesty in his music – he is as transparent as a stream. Each song expresses some self-actualizing experience or thought in this man’s life, who describes his own conversion as having been one marked by recalcitrance and heavy-duty interior realignment. While Garrels does wear his autobiographical heart on his sleeve in a number of the songs on this album, ultimately this collection is a work of thanksgiving and doxology, and it skirts away from the navel-gazing many meta-minded songwriters succumb to. Garrels’ eyes were evidently fixed upward when he wrote and produced these songs, and his hands-off (or, maybe more accurately, palms-open) approach to his own masterful, multifaceted artistry leaves the listener feeling receptive almost by accident. The fact that the album is sonically pumped full of soul and grooviness just furthers the upward movement of the themes contained within.
I recommend sitting down some Sunday morning with a mimosa, your breviary, a few good friends, and Josh Garrels’ latest. Leisure is meant to be a celebration of creation. Creation points us homeward, and home is where we want to be.
-AB

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