Sometimes the best way to process grief is to stare it full in the face, engaging all of the emotions it brings to the table. For the friends - and now for the fans - of singer/songwriter Rich Mullins, this project does just that while also accomplishing so much more, and it's that "more" that would ultimately have interested Mullins himself.
Though he'd finished writing and creating the concept behind his next project, Rich Mullins' untimely death in a car accident last September left his work incomplete.
Until, that is, an idea was hatched this past winter to finish what the late dulcimer-playing artist began. In stepped close companions/all-around scruffy musician types (a.k.a. Mullins' Ragamuffin Band), who picked up their friend's mantle and completed his final musical legacy, an album he wanted to dedicate to telling the story of his Savior, as best as he could remember. The outcome? A two-disc project that sings loud and long and, most importantly, with passion of who Jesus was and who Jesus is.
The first disc, The Jesus Demos, features the stripped-down, roughly-recorded original song treatments Mullins made for his new record label two weeks before his death. Then The Jesus Record, produced by Ragamuffin Rick Elias, boasts performances of the same songs from Elias, fellow Mullins' bandmates Mark Robertson, Aaron Smith, and Jimmy Abegg and veteran artists Michael W. Smith, Ashley Cleveland, Amy Grant, and Phil Keaggy. While the voices may not be Mullins', the songs leave little doubt as to the identity of the writer. Opening with the penny-whistle blessed My Deliverer, Elias -backed by an eight-member children's choir, an adult choir and vocal licks from Smith and Cleveland -sings out, "My deliverer is coming/My deliverer is standing by/He will never break His promise/Though the stars should break faith with the sky."
Grant's turn on the string-driven Nothing is Beyond You sheds new light on an all-knowing, all powerful Messiah, while a lonely, longing piano accompanies Cleveland's rich and somehow powerfully understated take on Jesus. Smith tackles Heaven in His Eyes with great aplomb thanks in part to appropriate touches on the B-3 and Wurlitzer, and a chorus of voices unite to take the listener All the Way to Kingdom Come. The steel guitar-tinged You Did Not Have a Home may be about Jesus, but the quirky verses sound a lot like Mullins right up to the irony-filled chorus: "The hope of the whole world rests on the shoulders of a homeless man."
The only two cuts Mullins didn't have a hand in writing still reflect the humble nomad's eccentric and sincere outlook on life. Robertson and Beaker use appropriate irony in Surely God Is With Us to ask, "Where's He from?/Who is His daddy?/...The whores all seem to love Him/And the drunks propose a toast." Meanwhile, Elias runs to the other end of the emotional spectrum with a tender performance of his own tune, Man of No Reputation, a hallmark musical testimony of Christ's modesty and meekness.
That Where I Am, There You... lifts Mullins' voice off the demo recording and unites it with a variety of voices to close out the project, as a postscript lone hammer dulcimer bids the album's end.
While much credit must be given to all involved (Elias and the Ragamuffins in particular, who stay true to the spirit of Mullins' fine catalog of music), what makes this project exceptional are the songs themselves. No one but Rich Mullins could pose such honest and revelatory thoughts (see the lyrics to my favorite cut, Hard to Get) and still be so thoroughly embraced. No one but Rich Mullins would dare put the word "ass" (as in donkey) in a song and still expect it to find airplay on Christian radio. No one but Rich Mullins could make such a radical record about Jesus that forces us to re-engage our notions of what -and who -this Christian faith is all about. Through this last collection of songs, Mullins continues to haunt his listeners with a truth seemingly too hard to bear and too beautiful to ignore. The Jesus Demos and The Jesus Record begin and end where they should: pointing us all to look long and hard into the person of Christ.
Copyright 1998 by CCM Magazine
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