Rating: ****

Producers: Jeff Collins, Mark Bishop

Song List: Falling Star; Fields of Love; Big Big World; The Tent Revival; Poor Goliath; Every Memory; What’s So Bad About Believing?; The Prayer; He Never Sleeps; Take Another Step; Tell Me What You See; Blue Skies; Love and Faith.

***

A “concept album.”

Wikipedia defines a “concept album” as “an album which is ‘unified by a theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, narrative, or lyrical.'”

A “concept album” is the sort of thing that has to be defined in Southern Gospel, since its like has rarely (if ever) been seen before in the genre. Similar things have been done before in Christian music, just in other genres. Michael Card has recorded several concept albums covering everything from the life of Peter to a complete album about the Incarnation. Perhaps the closest parallel in Christian music to the project at hand is The Roar of Love (2nd Chapter of Acts), a concept album based on the Chronicles of Narnia (sound clips here for anyone interested).

If anyone in Southern Gospel is positioned to give a concept album a try, it would be Mark Bishop. His story-songs have defined his songwriting, particularly in his solo years. Since Bishop’s dedicated fans enjoy story-songs, they would perhaps be more receptive to an effort to extend a story over an entire project.

Story synopsis: It’s set in a Midwest farm. The farmer’s wife dies in childbirth, but the son survives. The father turns away from God in his anger, and to an extent from the son as well. At the county fair, the son comes across a tent-meeting revival; this prompts a conversation which challenges the faith of father and son. The son has a bout with pneumonia which drives the father to seek God again. This time, God answers with a yes, saving the son’s life. The father turns back to God.

Could this story have been captured in one song?

Perhaps it is something that a songwriter of Bishop’s stature could have pulled off–to a point. But no matter how talented the songwriter, nobody could capture some of the key elements and motifs of the drama that play out over this more extended musical journey.

Bishop’s solos bear some stylistic resemblance to his usual fare, but the album as a whole is more varied. Debra Talley provides several narrations, and there are also some spoken-word parts by Bishop and the farmer’s son (played by Dennis Kuzmich). Reggie Sadler provides guest vocals on “The Tent Revival,” and the Kingdom Heirs make a guest appearance on “Poor Goliath.” The variety helps provide a width and depth to the musical drama.

The album has to be listened to as a whole. Taken any other way, it cannot be fully appreciated. On initial listen, no song grabbed my attention individually. This seemed to be a general reaction among early listeners to the song, prompting the question of whether Bishop would release any singles from the album. He said he would–that he had made sure to include two radio-friendly songs on the project. It’s not immediately evident which songs those are.

I was expecting a somewhat bigger musical conclusion. “Take Another Step,” the conversion song, does have a memorable enough melody to stick with you after listening to the project once or twice. But the three tracks following return more to the musical equivalent of normal, real life. There is enough drama in the story itself to carry the drama to its conclusion without starting to drag, but drama doesn’t really have a big, hanky-waving, triumphant anthemic resolution.

The album as a whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Typically, averaging my ratings on the individual tracks plays a large role in how I rate albums. Doing this produces a 2.8 average on the songs. But the album as whole draws you in in a way the songs don’t individually. Yet the songs weren’t supposed to draw you in individually–they were supposed to draw you in to the overall story. And that is exactly what they do. The project as a whole deserves at least 3 or 3.5 stars. But Bishop, Crossroads, and the other participants in the project deserve extra credit for their innovation in making the first major effort of this sort in our genre, and so I will give this project a 4-star rating.