Summer has officially begun for me, and I’m excited! I have many plans, but writing more is certainly among them. I decided to kick it off by answering a request from some readers to review David Phelps’s new solo album, Freedom. I poked some fun at the album cover a couple weeks ago, but people wondered if I was actually going to comment on the music. So, for the first time in a long time, here’s my track by track take on the project. As you all know, I’m unfailingly honest in my reviews. So I’m anticipating that some Phelps Phans may read some of my feedback and get upset, even though I’m preparing to compliment many things about this album. Be it known, therefore, that I intend to monitor comments closely. With that out of the way, let’s talk about the music!
1. I’m Coming Home: This opening track is just odd. The lyrics are telling a hopeful story of a wayward prodigal finding his way home again, but the music has this elaborately ominous, epic minor-key feel. If this is what it sounds like for the speaker to be on his way home, I don’t know if I want to be there when he arrives! Memo: Always make sure your music actually fits the story your lyrics are trying to tell. It may sound cool, but that’s not the same thing. (As an example of how this should be done instead, listen to Keith Green’s “Prodigal Son Suite.” The percussive, angry-sounding themes are for the parts where the son is leaving his father. The part where he comes home is tender and wistful.)
2. Who Do You Say That I Am: Despite its promising title, an obnoxious throwaway cut. The writing is cliched, and the production is aggressively poppy. Cindy Morgan was involved on this one, but she must have been having an off day.
3. Rain: The Beatles vibe is agreeable, but Ken Medema’s “Sonshiny Day,” this is not.
4. Ghost Town (Freedom): This epic Old West recasting of the salvation story is a grand set piece. The lyrics are imaginative, but somewhat like Phelps’s other show-stopper “He’s Alive,” this one suffers from a repetitive melody in the build-up to the explosive climax. I also thought the production could have been reined in better in the earlier parts of the song. By the time the big hook lands, it feels like the arrangement has already been amped up to a ten for a while, so the pay-off isn’t as huge.
5. Little White Church: While it’s hard to picture David Phelps in a little white Texas country church, the fact is that he did grow up in Texas, so he kind of is writing what he knows here. Which is a little strange but sort of cool at the same time. From a songwriting perspective, this is the best-written original on the album. I think David should pitch it to Little Big Town.
6. Ain’t No Grave: This arrangement simmers just under the surface of boiling over, with David putting some grit in his voice and some ominous dobro in the background, along with some really cool bass singing BGVs.
7. We Shall Behold Him: Because David’s voice occupies that slightly uneasy middle ground that’s a bit too pop for classical and a bit too classical for pop, he sounds most at home with old-fashioned inspirational classics like this. That way, he can put a theatrical spin on the song while still retaining some pop overtones. This Sandi Patti chestnut fits him like a glove, though for those who are wondering, he does not sing it in Sandi’s original octave.
8. What I Need Is You: Two thumbs up for a piano-only track and a well-crafted lyric. This song explores the uncomfortable but necessary truth that we must be completely honest with God, offering ourselves to him completely even when our heart is not in it, and even when we don’t experience his presence in a tangible way:
I don’t need a voice of thunder
For me to believe it’s true
I don’t need a sign or wonder
Jesus, what I need is you
The only thing that doesn’t quite work for me on this track is David’s husky vocal delivery. The best way I can put it is that he’s not a naturally sincere singer. Please understand that I am NOT saying, “David Phelps is insincere.” I realize somebody will inevitably write an irate comment accusing me of this anyway, but just so I can have something to point back to, let me repeat in all caps that I’M NOT SAYING DAVID PHELPS IS INSINCERE. In fact, I’m saying that he wrote a very good song and a very honest lyric about dependence on God. And I believe that he felt moved while delivering it. But the delivery still feels affected.
9. Holy (Sanctus): This is David’s own setting of the Sanctus. I really like the melody and the clean, resonant way he sings it with his backup choir for the first half of the song. I almost didn’t want the drums to come in for the second half. It might have been even more powerful had the production been kept simple with the piano, in the style of one of Fernando Ortega’s chorale pieces.
10. Parable of the River: This First Call cover is another smart old CCM pick. Musically and vocally, it may be my favorite track on the album. The melody is very strong, and Phelps’s exciting orchestral arrangement lifts it out of its original, heavily synthesized 80s setting (although some electric guitars show up unannounced at the end, almost clashing with the orchestra). The acapella breakdown in the middle is quite exhilarating. However, while the lyrics are an inspiring metaphor for the body of Christ, the metaphor becomes a little confused in the opening verse. It starts with this picture of a city that’s being fed by a river, but outside the city walls lies a desert. The chorus calls the smaller streams and rivulets to come add their flow to the larger river, so that the water can reach the desert (i.e., reach people who haven’t heard the gospel yet). But the verse describes the desert people’s plight by saying, “The life in its water was there for the taking. No one drew.” Wait, I thought the whole point was that the water HADN’T reached the desert yet. This particular line seems to apply better to people who are NOT in a remote location far from the gospel, but rather have grown up in a Christianized culture and simply rejected it. I think the writers needed to take another pass at this verse. Otherwise, nice job.
11. Your Time Will Come: This is an encouraging anthem for discouraged Christians, much like something Steve Green would have sung in the old days, except it’s yet another new song penned by David himself. I especially like the arrangement’s use of church bells.
12. The Lily: This short piece based on Jesus’ description of himself as the lily of the valley is exquisitely paced. There are several very strong arrangements on this album, but this one would be right up there.
13. Heaven’s Shore: What a neat idea to take “Shenandoah” and put new words to it, along with a new chorus. The result sounds triumphant and hymn-like, with some beautiful vocal touches. I disagree with the way Phelps slid into the last note instead of hitting it right on, but otherwise, really nice.
14. When the Saints Go Marching On: It’s kind of fun to hear Phelps trying on more soulful, bluesy vocal flourishes for size on this album, and this track brings the fun to a high point. It’s enough to make even a Baptist bust a move or two. I look forward to seeing Bill Gaither choreograph a Homecoming moment around this one.
Closing thoughts: When Steve Green released an album called Woven in Time, an interviewer asked him to sum up the style of the project. He laughed and said, “It contains all the music I like!” I get the feeling that David Phelps has done something similar with Freedom, except he wears more creative hats than Green by also writing and arranging most of the music himself. In a surprising twist, some of the songs that I would have thought should fit his voice the least well were actually some of my favorite moments. I also enjoyed getting to know David Phelps the songwriter as well as the singer/producer. I’ve liked what I heard of his writing before, but this is the first time I’ve heard more or less a whole album of it. I appreciate the fact that he consistently comes up with imaginative ideas but puts in the effort to craft lyrics that rhyme and hang together cohesively. While some of his ideas turn out better than others, he shows a refreshing combination of creativity and discipline that southern gospel could use more of. In fact, there are times when his writing almost sounds more disciplined than his singing. (If only he could resist the temptation to slide into his notes as well as he resists the temptation to create lazy rhymes!)
At 14 tracks, the album does feel a bit over-stuffed, and there’s no question that several of them could have been left on the cutting room floor without being too terribly missed. Then again, I’m not sure I would have preferred an edited cut of the album, since there’s no guarantee that David’s ten favorite tracks would be my ten favorite tracks. So perhaps it’s for the best that he gives listeners such a wide array of options to choose favorites from. The finished product may not be perfect, but it hits enough home runs that it’s probably worth buying the whole thing instead of track-hunting on iTunes.
Rating: 4.5 stars