I think that’s going to be my last album – I think we’re done. The world is done with 10-song records – those days are over.
Michael Card retiring from concept albums is like Handel retiring from oratorios or Bach retiring from counterpoint.
The ten-song record was an oddity. It was the side effect of a technological innovation. For the last seventy years, artists have put ten random songs together. No wonder the format is dying!
But few have ever put this format to better use than Card did. He used it as a vehicle to tell a story bigger than could be told through any one song. The ten or twelve songs he would put on a record would tell a story far greater than any collection of ten random songs ever could.
To the Kindness of God shows that Card is still the master of this craft. In fact, even though it doesn’t have the next “Jubilee” or “Immanuel,” it’s one of his strongest and most cohesive concept albums.
It’s based around the Hebrew word “hesed,” sometimes translated as mercy, kindness, lovingkindness, goodness, favor, steadfast love, loyalty, or covenant love. Or, as Card defines it, “When the one from whom I have every right to expect nothing gives me everything.”
The songs aren’t just ten songs that happen to be on similar themes. They are interwoven far more deeply. The first four songs introduce the concept.
“Come As You Are” is a praise song that introduces the concept of hesed. It’s a call to worship from Psalm 100:5: “For the Lord is good; His mercy is everlasting.”
“Hymn to the Kindness of God” opens up the definition further. There’s more to hesed than mercy. It celebrates God’s hesed toward us as expressed in beauty, loyalty, relentless tenderness, and hope.
The high point of the album is the majestic “The Shelter of the Shadow.” It celebrates God’s revealing of Himself as a God of hesed in Exodus 33-34. Moses asked to see God’s glory, and God revealed himself in this way:
The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation (Exodus 34:6-7, NKJV).
This was how God began the covenant He gave to the children of the Israel under Moses. It’s how He chose to reveal Himself.
As usual in a Card song, there is so much more than meets the surface. For instance, toward the end of this song, he refers to the Mosaic covenant as a “covenant of kindness.” Kindness, we ask? Yes, kindness. Or, better, hesed.
You see, God gave this covenant to Moses right after the golden calf rebellion, and Moses’ reaction by breaking all ten commandments at once. God could have justly destroyed the Israelites on the spot. Yet, out of His hesed, He gave them the Ten Commandments again. And He gave them ways to implement it in their society through the ceremonial law, which pointed forward to the Messiah in countless ways.
Card’s seven original songs are the tightly integrated core of the album. The three covers, “That Kind of Love,” “Jesus is on the Mainline,” and “This Is My Father’s World.” are all nice songs and nicely done. They illustrate various aspects of hesed, but in a less focused way than the originals.
After the introduction to the concept of hesed, the middle portion of this concept album gives several examples. “When Dinah Held My Hand” is a real-life story song of a time Card experienced hesed when he felt out-of-place while visiting an African-American church. The chorus’ opening lines show Card in rare form: “She reached across three hundred years / Of suffering and shame / She reached across the great divide / Of the color of our skins.” It shows how even apparently small gestures of hesed can be life-changing.
“Song of Gomer” is the one song Card pulls from his earlier catalog. But the hesed Hosea showed to Gomer, and that illustration of God’s hesed toward Israel, make it the perfect song to revisit for this album.
The album closes with our response. “I Will Be Kind” is built around the concept that as God has shown us hesed, so we show hesed to others. “Why Not Change the World” challenges us to use hesed to change the world.
But none of these are the most interesting thing about this album. Card has written an entire album about the concept of hesed without using the word itself once!
* * *
…and so it ends.
Michael Card has well earned his retirement. But it is still bittersweet to know that the man who got more out of the concept of an album than any other has released his final one.
Yes, the album format was mostly an accident of technology. But probably nobody ever got more out of this format than Card did. He took an accident of technology and turned it into a canvas for a masterpiece. Then he did it again, and again, and again.
And he ended on a high note.
Is it time to write an elegy for the concept album? Perhaps. But hopefully a new generation will arise to carry the vision forward.
Either way, there will never be another Michael Card.