Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Album Review: Neal Morse - Life & Times

Between his work with Spock's Beard, Transatlantic, and under his own name, anyone who has been into prog over the last twenty years knows about Neal Morse. He is one of the most prolific artists out there, who also happens to turn in stellar releases nearly every time out. What fewer people know is that in addition to being one of the leading figures in modern prog, Neal has occasionally released albums that fit more in the singer/songwriter mold, and show a different side of him. These albums, like "God Won't Give Up" and "Songs From November" (my #2 album of 2014), are among my favorites from his entire catalog. They show that Neal is a pure songwriter at heart, which is what makes him so great as a prog musician. So the prospect of a new songwriter album was not only a bit of good news, it was as exciting to me as could be.

With many of these songs written while on tour behind the massive double album "The Similitude Of A Dream", Neal goes in the complete opposite direction here, with simple songs that keep a low-key attitude and atmosphere. The release may be in the dead of winter, but this is the kind of album to put on late on a summer night, feeling the temperature dropping from oppressive to comfortable. That's actually the word I would most use to describe the album; comfortable.

These songs are sketches of life as it is, not as we long ago hoped it would be. Observations about cashiers with man-buns are the order of the day here, snapshots of moments in time that catch our eye when we're no longer concerned with trying to be more rebellious than we are. Neal's music here is more relaxed than ever here, with soft acoustic strumming and restrained vocals carrying much of this album. It certainly sounds like the kind of music you would want to hear, and write, in between loud gigs.

The centerpiece of the album is "He Died At Home", the first song that was released. Detailing a story of military suicide, it's a sparse composition that wrenches emotion from the pain-spoken words. It's hard to write songs about such heavy topics without sounding either maudlin or exploitative, but Neal threads the needle and makes a moving piece of music that speaks to a real societal problem. That is commendable on its own.

Things are not always so grave. That track is balanced by others like "Selfie In The Square", which expresses the desire to share a lazy day off with the person you love, and capture them as you only can at arms length. You could say that some of this is corny, but that's sort of the point. We all have some of that in us, and a hallmark of getting older is being comfortable with who we are, and not caring about trying to impress people. These songs were written for Neal to save moments and feelings, not to make himself look cool or important. That's refreshing.

"Life & Times" is the most restrained album Neal has ever made. These songs don't have the pop hooks or bouncy guitars of his other songwriter material, but they're great in a different way. There will be a segment of people who won't give this album a chance because of its subdued nature, but they will be missing out on the charms Neal is putting on display here. "Life & Times" is a different album for him, even among his songwriter albums, but it's every bit as good. It might take a change of perspective, but Neal Morse has delivered once again. "Life & Times" is a great album from a great songwriter, and an album that will grow the more you listen to it.

No comments:

Post a Comment