Drawing from Kate Campbell’s decade-old catalog, all but one of these tracks (“Would You Be a Parson” is the sole exception) are re-recorded acoustic versions of songs from earlier albums, here reshuffled for new thematic integrity. Which means that the title track is the title track for a reason, with—by my conservative count—eight of the 13 songs here are about death (I omitted the one where she refers to the protagonist who “lived his whole life” in the past tense, but included the one where the equally past-tense protagonist “found peace within” through the “true devotion [that] will still remain”. It’s a judgment call, but I’d argue the latter concerns death while the former is merely about someone who happens to be dead; anyway, you get the point). Given Campbell’s alt-country (Rodney Crowell alt-country, not Ryan Adams alt-country), such a themed album would, on the face of things, be targeted towards fans of Ralph Stanley or even Skip James. But high and lonesome can, when done too fey or with too much whining or arty obscurity, grate even faster and harder than shallow and “fun” (It’s a poor choice either way, but I’d pick Britney Spears over Jeff Buckley any day. Musically, too).
The good news is that this album doesn’t sound like one long dirge. Though song characters are falling left and right like flies, there’s usually a sense of hope and redemption, a sense that a worthy life has completed its natural cycle and—since we’re all good Christians here—gone on to find a greater freedom of the spirit. And lest you think Campbell always has her head in the clouds, she sings you out praising the scrumptious “Funeral Food” at a wake: “Let’s hit the line a second time / We sure eat good when someone dies”. Nice that the album ends with a reminder that it’s not just the souls going to the Lord who can have a good time.
The wonder—and the bad news—is why I don’t like this album more than I do. Partially, it can be attributed to its Christian theology. Though never overbearing, actual sympathy for its tenets would probably go a ways to redeeming a few of the songs of more questionable merit. While “Who Will Pray for Junior” has an ailing widow’s lament that gets by on poignancy alone (“Who will pray for Junior when I’m gone?”), “This Side of Heaven” outlines the things wrong with this life and concludes with Campbell expectantly “waiting for the say / I won’t be left wondering / This side of heaven”. It’s not deeply moving, it doesn’t tell a story; it’s religious optimism of the subdued unecstatic kind that no doubt helps lots of people get through their lives, just not me with mine. Which is fine, but a work of art should do more than preach to the choir (so to preach).
As it is, there aren’t enough hooks to catch the ear of a listener dubious about the theology about the album. In a song like “Ave Maria Grotto”, Campbell’s echoey voice lifts the lyric up into a mood that envelops the specific words and makes the song feel as transcendent as the words try to be (just like in Gregorian chanting or doo-wop). More often, though, she plays and sings like an old time country singer, only with, unfortunately, more restraint. Thus, the words are left to fend for themselves, which they sometimes do and sometimes don’t. The respectably poised performances don’t do enough to sell the songs to someone whose personal beliefs don’t include associating death with an afterlife in Heaven. But, since—unlike a certain president of a certain superpower—she doesn’t try to force these beliefs into secular law or use them as an excuse for war and torture, Campbell’s stolid performances of her lyrics deserve respect. But an album that gets repeated listenings usually inspires something closer to affection. Or at least fascination.