Steve Bell is one of Canada’s foremost Christian music artists, in a sub-genre that might be termed ‘Christian folk music.’ For my U.S. and U.K. readers, the closest comparison I can offer in Christian music is Michael Card. Steve’s catalog on his own Signpost Music label includes a live album recorded with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, a tribute to the songs of Bruce Cockburn, and albums on which he shares the microphone with his daughter, or other artists on the label. For my Canadian readers, Steve has played back and forth so many times in this country that he is simply no stranger to many of us. So it was with anticipation that I looked forward to what was described as “Steve’s first ever worship album.”
The rest of this review is intended to qualify that statement. This is a different Steve Bell album inasmuch as all the songs were penned by Gord Johnson, a songwriter from Steve’s home church, St. Benedict’s Table, described on its website as, “a worshiping community rooted in an ancient future.” Gord takes some very simple and sometimes very familiar texts — such as the 4th century prayer which begins, “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open and from whom no secrets are hid” — and makes some very beautiful music out of them. In the liner notes, Steve explains that they took about forty of Gord’s songs to producer Roy Salmond, with the result being this album, Devotion. So in some respects, this is not a Steve Bell album, even though it is.
But I’m also not so sure that it’s a worship album in the sense that many reading this would expect. Most of the songs do have a vertical lyrical orientation, but these are not the simplest songs to adapt and sing in your local church. (Although, the inclusion of the guitar chords in the lyric book would certainly help facilitate that…) On the one hand, the melodies and rhythms are not the usual, predictable stuff that passes for modern worship today. That may be a good thing. For most churches that I know, these might be more difficult songs to learn. However, they do sing them at Steve’s church, which makes me think that trying a few of them might be a worthy and attainable goal.
One of our favorites was the second song, Everything We Need, a longer (seven minutes plus) song that is almost chant-like in its execution, and hints at, but never fully maximizes as a two-part song. (The counterpoints are deliberately muted in the mix, though they are clearly there.) We thought this song was reminiscent of songs we’ve heard done at Taizé services. The song Embrace the Mystery is a single stanza of only 17 words, while Who Condemns You Now comprises only 18 words. Praise The Father, Praise the Son is a minor melody which bears a resemblance to the pop classic Scarborough Fair. These are good songs; they are worshipful, but it’s not fair to call this a worship album when the term is usually applied to a ‘certain kind’ of music, and this album is so refreshingly different.
In the end, we started talking about the concept of ‘performance worship.’ There are some songs out there that we, the audience, shouldn’t feel the need to join in on. We should be able to appreciate what is taking place at the front of the church as being offered as worship on behalf of all of us. That’s how things were in era before the present modern worship era. Singers did ‘special music’ which often were songs of testimony and often were songs of proclamation of God’s goodness, grace and mercy.
Maybe an album like Devotion is simply the beginning of the next step, the next era in worship. Perhaps there is a time to allow the better musicians to create something that is beyond the reach of the audience; that we can just sit and enjoy and then say “amen” to. Or possibly we need to stretch the boundaries of what we sing on Sunday morning and take a cue from Steve Bell, Gord Johnson, and the people at St. Benedict’s Table.
The first public writing I did was writing record reviews. I started doing them in The Varsity, the University of Toronto student newspaper, and then there was Deluge our own newspaper, Harmony Magazine – an early CCM magazine, MusicLine, the trade edition of CCM Magazine, and eventually, CCM itself. So it’s good to be back in familiar territory. I hope I did this album justice.
I’m not sure what the U.S. distribution is on this album, but you can find out through Signpost Music at the link in the first paragraph.