reviews

Review: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Every chapter in this book wrecked me – and inspired me.

If historical films Selma and Loving forced me to grapple with the level of racism and injustice that was still present in the United States when my father was a child, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy forced me to grapple with the level of racism and injustice that was still present when I was a child. The book is a memoir of sorts, describing Stevenson’s work leading the Equal Justice Initiative, representing death row inmates and other disfavored people, especially the wrongfully convicted and disproportionately sentenced, particularly in Alabama and nearby Deep South states.

The book’s primary narrative follows a successful black man wrongfully accused and convicted of murdering a white woman in the late 1980’s, spending several debilitating years on death row. The twists and turns of the story are worthy of a movie, from the shocking actions of local officials to EJI’s dogged efforts to uncover the truth and extract justice for Walter McMillian. (I’ve always been skeptical of the populist liberal narrative that elite whites exploit divisions between poor whites and poor blacks for their own benefit, but the role of the delinquent Ralph Meyers makes for a fascinating parable of that very theme.)

While Walter’s experience is manifestly an outlier for 1980’s Alabama, it is painfully obvious that it would not have been possible without the bigotry of local officials or even of the general white population in the county. Nor is the suffering limited to Walter as an individual. If Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside starkly displayed the compounding destructive effects of gang violence in the inner city on whole black communities, Just Mercy starkly displayed the compounding destructive effects of injustice at the hands of the government through the criminal justice system. A community full of people who were at the barbecue that solidified Walter’s alibi was crushed with a heavy hopelessness that such a blatant miscarriage of justice was allowed to happen, compounding upon their shared historical pain even in spite of the progress of the civil rights movement.

And yet I still believe in that continuing stream of progress, much of which Stevenson has had a direct hand in bringing about. I was inspired by his work as well as encouraged by my (perhaps but hopefully not naive) confidence that most of the local officials’ disgraces toward Walter would not be tolerated today. From Supreme Court decisions to the continually evolving attitudes of the American public, our nation is both progressing and full of opportunities for us to play a part in the progress that still desperately needs to be manifested. Stevenson’s impacts on individual lives, and the radiating influence of those impacts, gave me much to ponder about the tension between pursuing small things and big things in the name of truth and justice.

Stevenson’s tellings of recent history have plenty of relevance for today. The national media’s outside attention to Walter’s case reinforced local opinions against him, reflecting defensive attitudes that could still be felt during last year’s special senate election in Alabama. Yet this bitter divisiveness was contrasted with a beautiful account of a proud Confederate correctional officer who was completely transformed from his hateful attitude toward Stevenson and one of his clients after hearing the client’s backstory, unleashing a powerful empathy from their shared hurtful experiences in the foster system. Time and again, telling people they’re evil racists is far less effective than telling the stories that unlock the irresistible compassion of our shared humanity. (As Stevenson’s grandmother always said, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance… You have to get close.”)

Much of the book is more about class than race. The stories offer a fascinating window into the depths of the American criminal justice system, and all the complications that go behind and beyond a simple “innocent” or “guilty” verdict, and the huge disparities in outcomes that often hinge on whether or not you have a good lawyer. Upon finishing Stevenson’s book, it is hard not to agree with his conclusion that “we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.”

While I acknowledge difficult questions around the nature of justice for victims of violence, the book deepened my personal opposition to the death penalty. “Abstractions about capital punishment were one thing, but the details of systematically killing someone who is not a threat are completely different.” There are probably few examples of the sad incongruence of the evangelical “Bible Belt” and the land of “Jim Crow” that are more searing than the image of a young black teenager climbing into the electric chair and made to sit atop a Bible for his execution since he was too short for the restraints. “Let he who is without sin,” indeed. Yet I also smiled to read of the old Methodist couple who took in a released youngster, determined to redeem him from all the horrors he had lived. That is the sort of neighborly, Christ-like love that is truly our only hope.

The true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned. – Bryan Stevenson

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IndieVisionMusic Review #19: David Crowder Band – Give Us Rest

Here is my review of David Crowder Band’s double-disc opus Give Us Rest!

Excerpt:

It has plenty of electronic loops and layers, but this is far from the dance party we experienced in Church Music. It has bluegrass renditions of classic hymns we haven’t seen since A Collision. It has acoustic guitar riff action we haven’t heard since Illuminate. It’s got banjo grooves borrowed from Mumford & Sons, and dynamic instrumental sequences spanning Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Explosions in the Sky. It delivers its theme – a plea for rest – and reprises it throughout the album as it explores a journey that ends by coming home. Pretentious? Maybe. But full of fun and joy and worship? Definitely.

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IndieVisionMusic Review #18: Timbre – Silent Night

Here is my review for Timbre’s excellent new album Silent Night!

timbre-silent-night

Excerpt:

The primary instruments here are the piano and the cello, and it is Timbre’s siblings – appropriately named Tenor, Treble, and Tetra – who steal the show as they flesh out Timbre’s beautiful arrangements with their classical and cinematic performances.

Think you’ve heard enough arrangements of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”? Wait until you here this solo cello calmly trace a hint of the melody, followed by the lilting piano and finally the soft voices, all carried by subtle shifting between the traditional 4/4 and the movement of 6/8. You can almost see the snow falling in a Christmas special – except this recording is simply too good for any cheesy Christmas special.

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IndieVisionMusic Review #17: Smalltown Poets Christmas

It was a real treat to have an opportunity to review the new Smalltown Poets Christmas album. Smalltown Poets was a pleasant little Christian band that disappeared several years ago but has apparently joined the list of random Christian bands coming back these days! Their Christmas album has a lot of nice arrangements of both familiar and unfamiliar carols, as well as a few originals that hint at both the band’s classic sound and where they might be planning to take it. You can read my review here and check out the album on Amazon MP3 here.

Smalltown Poets - Smalltown Poets Christmas

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Analyzing the Lyrics to Thrice’s Major/Minor

Dustin Kensrue has become one of my favorite lyricists in the past few years, as he seems to have a remarkable knack for writing poetic lyrics that are full of Biblical references and themes while being fully embraced by a secular fanbase. Through the last half of the ’00’s I saw Christian bands becoming less outspoken about Christ in their lyrics as they gained more “crossover” appeal, while I discovered Thrice being far more outspoken than them and yet having even more of a “crossover” fanbase. So I was quite excited to hear their latest album, Major/Minor, and analyze the depth of the new lyrics.

NOTE: It seems that some people are finding this post by searching for things like “thrice major minor cuss words.” I’m not sure why, but if that’s you, I do not believe there are any objectionable words on this album. If there is a specific song or line that people are questioning, please let me know in the comments. Thanks.

1. Yellow Belly

You were built for blessing but you only make them bleed,
but you don’t care, you don’t care…

Your hands are made to comfort but they only conjure fear
But you don’t care, you don’t care.
She’s in the closet praying Lord please get me out of here
you don’t care, you don’t you don’t you don’t.

Dustin said there was an “aggressive” song on this record about “bad or abusive fathers,” and there seems to be no doubt among Thrice fans that this is the one. Dustin laments the fear and pain caused by the person he is addressing, contrasted with God’s design for human relationships (“You were built for blessing.. Your hands are made to comfort…“)

Read the SongMeanings.net discussion for “Yellow Belly”…

2. Promises

O, we promise pretty things
And we pledge with diamond rings
We profess undying love

But does that word hold any weight
When we reserve the right to break
Any vow that draws our blood

Our word is so faint and feeble
Broken by the slightest breeze or breath
Our hearts are so deceitful
Sick and filled with lies that lead to death

This is a pretty straightforward song mourning another broken form of relationship – husband and wife – except Dustin turns the accusation from you to we. It’s very thematically similar to Beggar‘s “The Weight,” and it’s even also the album’s second track. “The Weight” recognizes that many people in today’s society make promises about love and then break them when “push comes to shove,” but the narrator expresses his desire to be different and hold to a true commitment, “come what may.” In a similar manner, “Promises” addresses our society’s light treatment of marriage when troubles arise, where “we profess undying love” but “reserve the right to break any vow that draws our blood.” But unlike “The Weight,” “Promises” doesn’t address a commitment to be different, and as such I kind of feel that “Promises” is lyrically weak – reusing thematic material from an old song and not even commenting on it as strongly as before. On the other hand, I very much appreciate the amount of attention that Dustin is bringing to the selfish attitudes about relationships that pervade today’s society, and it’s hard to say too much about it.

Read the SongMeanings.net discussion for “Promises”…

3. Blinded

I am always one of those blameless,
Or at least that’s what I believed
I never thought I could have been blinded
until I could no longer see.

After addressing a couple forms of broken human relationships, Dustin starts to get personal about sin and redemption. He starts off expressing the common belief many people have in their own righteousness: “I was always one of those righteous / Never lived outside of the lines.” This reminds me of the lines “I’m a good man.. Am I a good man? I thought I was…” from “At The Last” on Beggars.

When he sings, “Kept a close watch on the white wash / disguising the dead bones inside,” he’s referencing Matthew 23:27-28, where Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being “like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” Dustin sings, “I was a child of hell,” referencing verse 15 of the same chapter, where Jesus says that the Pharisees make converts who are “twice as much a child of hell as you are.” By making two references to the Pharisees, Dustin is clearly addressing not simply non-believers who think they are “good,” but self-righteous people who are familiar with the Law or lists of rules and think they are good at following them and “keeping tabs on everyone else.”

Drawing on a metaphor of blindness, Dustin uses light on the chorus as God simultaneously reveals both the depth of the narrator’s depravity and the love that God still has for him:

But you buried me in the bright light.
Yeah, you held my eyes to the sun
till I could see
That I was worse than I ever feared I could be
But somehow, I was loved more than I ever
dared to believe because of you

Read the SongMeanings.net discussion for “Blinded”…

4. Cataracts

Cut these thorns and kick these stones, and keep those birds at bay.
Plant deep and dark, and help my heart receive the words you say.

This is one of those songs that is just dripping with Biblical references, skillfully described by mtamerson on SongMeanings.net. I won’t retread every reference here but I will point out something interesting about the main metaphor. Dustin summarizes the Parable of the Sower in two lines with references to “thorns,” “stones,” and “birds,” combined with a prayer to be the fourth kind of seed that is planted in good ground. Dustin is crying out for God to help him “receive the words you say” because they “are somehow lost on me, they die on deafened ears / when you open up your mouth to speak I hear but I can’t hear.

Of course, this is a reference to Jesus’ explanation of his speaking in parables directly after giving the Parable of the Sower, “though hearing, they do not hear or understand.” So there is a rich layer to these lyrics where Dustin is using the Parable, or the words of the Lord, to express his desire to be able to understand the words of the Lord. There’s also a bit of a progression from the previous song, going from “Blinded” to “Cataracts.” It’s not perfect vision, but it’s the beginning of the never ending process of perfection.

Read the SongMeanings.net discussion for “Cataracts”…

5. Call It In The Air

A coin tossed into the air will come down, it will come down somewhere.
Your life is a coin in the air, it will come down somewhere.

This song is one of the many interesting metaphors on Major/Minor. Instead of referencing an existing spiritual metaphor from the Bible (as with “Cataracts,” for instance), Dustin gives a spiritual meaning to a non-spiritual story that is loosely drawn from a scene in No Country For Old Men, as confirmed by Dustin in this excellent AbsolutePunk interview.

The primary meaning of the song is that “your life is a coin in the air,” and “it will come down somewhere” when you die. “You have to choose” and “call it out” while it’s in the air – “heads or tails.” I like the aspect of the coin metaphor in that you have to decide while you are alive; you can’t wait until you meet Jesus in the afterlife to decide whether or not to give your life to him. I don’t like the aspect of the coin metaphor that almost makes it seem like it’s a complete gamble when it comes to knowing what the afterlife holds, but no metaphor is going to be perfect. The simple aspect of the importance of making that choice is so powerful: “You can’t ignore it; you stand to win or lose everything!” In the AP interview, Dustin says the song is “a friendly push to think this stuff through.”

Read the SongMeanings.net discussion for “Call It In The Air”…

6. Treading Paper

All my life,
I’ve been treading paper in the space between the words.
And there implied
is that I’m but another body for the birds

This is a more straightforward song that reminds me of the ChristianityToday interview where Dustin states that he feels like he writes a lot of “essays in songs.” This track is basically an essay arguing that modern, godless science leads to the postmodern belief that everything is meaningless and that such ideas are wrong. Someone from the SongMeanings.net discussion points out that the lyric “unyielding despair” is a reference to something Bertrand Russell said about atheism.

But linger on, just for a moment,
until we can ascertain if something’s wrong with me –
or the assumptions of these self-indicted brains.
Because I contend that all of this –
is more than just a meaningless charade,

Either I’m wrong, or these other men are wrong in their logical assumptions. I think pointing out that man is not perfect in knowledge is a good argument, although simply saying “there must be something meant for us to be” because “our hearts tell a different story” isn’t necessarily a strong argument for the supernatural. But it’s true enough for a song.

Read the SongMeanings.net discussion for “Treading Paper”…

7. Blur

This image is a night-terror transforming, without the hope of morning.
My nemesis, I feel it coming for me, and it means to destroy me. Why does this keep happening?

This song takes a break from philosophical story-telling and essaying to simply express a dark mood. It still uses a metaphor though – that of a photo with a long exposure that makes everything blurry and confusing. I will defer to Dustin’s ChristianityToday interview for this song’s interpretation:

Our guitar player’s mom passed away about two years ago, and the bass player and drummer’s dad passed away earlier this year. And my dad has brain cancer. It’s just been kind of a crazy time. So we built that song, using those pictures as inspiration. It’s dark all the way through.

I used to try to fit too much into one song, to try to “resolve” it by the end. But I started realizing that as long as I have a catalogue that’s balanced, I can go into a dark spot and leave someone there in that zone, and not try to rescue them from the implications of what I’m getting at in the song.

There is a place for recognizing the existence of pain and hardship within the grand scheme of the meaning of life – as many of the Psalms do testify.

Read the SongMeanings.net discussion for “Blur”…

8. Words In The Water

Standing knee-deep in cold water, swiftly moving
Somehow I knew I lost something

I think this is one of the most interesting lyrical metaphors on the album. It’s completely in story form, with rich imagery about struggling with a book in a river.

Then with water in my eyes
The words began to rise from their place
They were beautiful and dread
I reached for them and fed on each phrase
They were honey on my lips
Then a bitter twist in my side
I knew they’d lay me in my grave
“Is there no one who could save me?” I cried

The honey taste that turns bitter sounds like a reference to the scroll that John eats in Revelation 10. Dustin confirms in the AbsolutePunk interview that his song is about man’s inability to keep God’s Law. While the scroll in Revelation is not about the Law per se, there are other Scripture references to God’s word being like honey (Psalm 119:103, for instance), and it is a clever cross-reference to suggest that it is bitter to fail to follow those sweet words.

As the words threaten to drown the narrator, Jesus comes to the rescue:

When I lost all hope to look
someone took that heavy book from my hands
all its weight they set aside
after they had satisfied its demands

If that’s not explicit enough for you, take Dustin’s words from the interview:

The song is talking about the idea of the Law, which is what God would command. It is beautiful, but it’s also treacherous in the fact that we can’t live up to it. It’s pretty much the difference between the Law and the Gospel. The Law is what God commands and the Gospel is what He gives, and that’s kind of where the song ends, is that transition.

The story in this song makes me think of Dustin’s discussion in the ChristianityToday interview about his approaches to songwriting. He talks about an idea from C. S. Lewis that he called “sneaking past dragons”:

We live in a culture that has some understanding of what the gospel is, but such a small amount there’s this kind of inoculation against it. Lewis talked about that as if there’s a dragon watching for that message to come through, but before it can come past our brains and impact our hearts, it’s like something in our brain is attacking it. Lewis had this idea of sneaking past that, so the dragon wouldn’t know what the thing was, and it could come and impact the heart and then be dealt with in the brain. That way, someone could experience what the gospel is without trying to deny it first.

Dustin is trying to reveal the message of the Gospel – not to those who are already believers – but to those with hardened hearts.

Read the SongMeanings.net discussion for “Words In The Water”…

9. Listen Through Me

Listen to me
Though I speak of sober things
Listen through me
Though a man of lips unclean

I think this is one of the most interesting songs that Dustin has ever written. He cuts out the essays and the stories and he speaks directly to the listener. “Call It In The Air” speaks to the listener, to be sure, but it’s still wrapped in metaphor. “Listen Though Me” is a raw plea to the listener. It feels like a commentary on all of his other songs, like he’s summarizing his previous song about the Gospel – and the other songs on the album, and even all the albums before this one. It’s as if Dustin knows that he has a largely secular audience, and he is pleading with them to not just listen to the cool music or think the stories are cool but to actually “Listen to me!” and to think about what Dustin is singing about.

A man of lips unclean” is a reference to Isaiah’s description of himself in Isaiah 6:5 when God called him to speak his words to the people, and it almost feels like Dustin considers himself a sort of “prophet” called to speak to his secular audience. The line “I speak truly what you only think you’ve heard” recalls his interview statement about “sneaking past dragons” and encouraging his listeners to understand the true gospel message and not just what may be a false perception of what the gospel is. Dustin pleads with the listener to “get down off that fence” and follows with one of his most explicit gospel summaries in a modern hymn-like fashion with beautiful poetry:

He laid aside his crown
All our crimes he carried
Was lifted from the ground
With our burdens buried
The shadows all had flown
In the light diminished
He emptied out his lungs
Crying it is finished

Read the SongMeanings.net discussion for “Listen Through Me”…

10. Anthology

Our life’s built of tin cans and string
But the cornerstone laid is a wondrous and beautiful thing…

‘Cause our love is a loyalty sworn
If we hold to our hope then I know we can weather the storm

This song, as the name suggests, is a composite of previous Thrice songs. Dustin explains in the AP interview that it is meant to be a “love song” as a “compilation of all these other loves songs I had done,” and I will defer to the good Thrice fans in the link below for the exposition of the six or so songs referenced within.

Read the SongMeanings.net discussion for “Anthology”…

11. Disarmed

We were sons of insurrection
Doomed to face the dark alone
Til vicarious perfection
Dearly won was made our own

So where’s your landslide
Where’s your victory
Tell me now, where’s your sting

The album closes with yet another exploration of Christ’s sacrifice, this time expressed at Death itself in the manner of 1 Corinthians 15: “Where, O Death, is your victory?” The final line is “Now that you have been disarmed / We will cross over unharmed,” and it almost feels like a reference to The Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian crossed over the river into the Celestial City as a metaphor for death. (I feel like that metaphor may have originated in the Bible itself but if it does I can’t think of the reference.)

Once again, I will refer to the AP interview for Dustin’s own words:

That whole part is really talking about this idea of the vicarious price dearly won, what Christ has won for us on the cross. That sting of death is gone now, we’re passing over unharmed.

Read the SongMeanings.net discussion for “Disarmed”…

And that concludes the Thrice album Major/Minor. Dustin had an interesting response to the ChristianityToday interviewer’s question about songwriters that want listeners to find their own meaning in their lyrics:

I don’t think that’s what you want to be doing with your songs, to be saying willy-nilly that whatever someone gets out of it, that’s what they get. I think you want to intend a meaning, but I also think there are layers of meaning that you can implant. I’m often writing on multiple levels where I’m saying, okay, there’s this layer that people who have these understandings will get, and then there’s a layer a little further up that someone with other understandings is going to get. I think the more you open up a well-written song or book, there should be enough clues to draw something concrete out of it and get somewhere close to where the author was going.

I agree with Dustin on that one, at least where I am in life right now.  I think it’s almost an act of laziness on the part of a songwriter to write random lyrics with no intention of meaning behind them – almost like an abuse of the gift of words (although this would be a great topic for discussion). To continue with a previous allusion, Jesus’ parables may have had confusing meanings, and they may have had multiple, rich layers of understanding, but they were not “willy-nilly.”

Major/Minor is full of Biblical references and metaphors, as is usual for Thrice, and it feels like Dustin takes his intensity up a new notch on this one, pleading with his listeners to actually listen to what he is saying and to recognize their sin and need for the Savior. Dustin Kensrue has been one of my favorite lyricists since I discovered Thrice with The Alchemy Index, and their latest album is another job well done.

References

reviews

Josh Garrels – Love & War & The Sea In Between

The music industry seems to be in decline these days. Album sales have been plummeting for years and major record labels are in disarray. Bands are turning to fans to raise thousands of dollars so they can afford to record ten-track records every two or three years. Well, independent Portland musician Josh Garrels makes those guys look like sissies. After releasing the masterful 15-track, 58-minute Jacaranda in 2008 – his fourth album – Garrels followed up in 2009 with a 10 track almost-EP called Lost Animals. Now, two years later, he’s back with an 18-track, 66-minute creation that is neither fraught with filler nor compromised by subpar production. Oh yeah, and he’s releasing it for free.

Love & War & The Sea In Between begins with a classic Garrels acoustic guitar groove that quickly fills in with an atmosphere and drum pattern. Josh’s rich voice illustrates nature, using animals as metaphors for a child growing up to embrace his call. The loose themes of nature and travel continue on “Flood Waters” and “Farther Along,” where Josh sings with a subtle songwriting that often weaves together two or three Scripture references per stanza: Skipping like a calf loosed from its stall / I’m free to love once and for all / And even when I fall I’ll get back up / For the joy that overflows my cup. Throughout the peaceful poetry, Josh freely lingers on various syllables, carrying them across multiple notes like a bird from his songs with his trademark vocal wobble, occasionally even straying into “soul” territory. A light female harmony adds a nice layer in places as well.

After a well-crafted instrumental, we are treated to one of Josh’s more upbeat deliveries on “The Resistance”: Lesson number one, overcome / Every fear of regret and confusion / It’s all illusion, delusion / Sent to disconnect the holy fusion / of the spirit and the flesh… But God can restrain the madness of a fool / He can bring His truth through the mouth of a mule / You can move a mountain without any tools / It just takes the faith of a little seed… The song doesn’t quite pack the power of Lost Animals‘s praise anthem “All Creatures,” but it’s still full of energy and definitely an album highlight. The next track is a polar opposite – a slow, melancholy plea of regret for betrayal. And for the most part, Garrels opts for less intense sounds on Love & War, delivering his poetry – sometimes slower, sometimes faster – through relaxing grooves full of sequencing, string trios, a flute, french horn, and more.

The nostalgic “Sailer’s Waltz” leads into “Ulysses,” a soft song that references the Odyssey: Sirens call my name, they say they’ll ease my pain, then break me on the stones / But true love is the burden that will carry me back home. I really like the vocals on that one, from the ascending melody on the verse right down to the way he pronounces mem-o-ries. “For You,” a song from Jesus to his followers, has a more restrained folky-country feel similar to parts of Lost Animals.

Throughout the songs, Josh’s clever songwriting breaks down the walls between natural and spiritual as he simultaneously explores the beauty of God’s natural creation, his supernatural glory, and his personal working in our lives. On “Beyond the Blue,” he sings, Yellow and gold as the new day dawns / Like a virgin unveiled who waited so long / To dance and rejoice and sing her song / And rest in the arms of a love so strong.

After a couple nice songs expressing commitment to his wife (these deserve more attention, but this review is getting long), and an instrumental, the album could have ended at track 13 without lacking anything. But it picks up again on the courageous “Rise,” which has a strong melody on the chorus (can someone please use this track for the inspirational training montage of an old-fashioned hero film?). Then there’s a march, a track about God’s glory in Revelation, and a simple worshipful island jam with a call to “Pilot Me,” led by a ukulele-like instrument called a charango.

Overall: Josh Garrels has done it again, using his well-developed creations to sing (and occasionally speak) about the richness of God’s creation. The first third gives us more of the layered indie sound of Jacaranda, the middle section hits on some of the folky campfire sounds of his older work or of Lost Animals, and the last act shows Garrels continuing to develop himself as an artist with soundtrack-worthy offerings. The musical grooves would still be interesting and encouraging without the lyrics (there aren’t many musicians who can get away with five wordless tracks on an album), but it’s the poetry that really sets Josh Garrels apart, expounding upon oceanic themes to celebrate adventure, life, love, community, and home. This would be a highlight of the year even if it wasn’t free. Unless you just don’t enjoy folk music at all, I think you’re going to enjoy this album a lot. You have no excuse not to.