A complex and musically surprising account of Bryan Simpson's Christian journey.
With his former band Cadillac Sky, Bryan Simpson had a cult following with a non-traditional bluegrass audience. The Whistles and the Bells is Simpson’s new venture, one that’s really a solo act though he had numerous friends and studio musicians helping on this debut album. In “Last Night God Sang Me a Song” Bryan Simpson has lines that counter society’s contemporary axiom that we learn the most about ourselves from often-difficult journeying, journeys that take a while, even a lifetime. Simpson sings, “At the end of the inspiration / We still are just who we are / It ain’t the path it’s the transformation / That carries us out of the dark”. Shaped by Simpson’s transformation -- a sudden conversion to Christianity -- the album charts a strong and unusual direction, Simpson openly discussing faith and believing.
Like many Christian converts, Simpson is concerned strongly with matters of sin and redemption. He begins his opening song, “Mercy Please”, singing “If we are what we eat / Then my future it is scary. / For I have been scarfing down / The pages of the devil’s dictionary”. A mention of the devil’s dictionary by American writers or artists is usually referencing the cynic and satirist Ambrose Bierce’s late 19th century classic, The Devil’s Dictionary, where Bierce counters the common definitions of words. (As one example: Faith: (n.) Belief without evidence in what is told, by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.) But Simpson’s devil is the biblical Satan, who can only be countered with homage to God. “A beggar at your door I will always be”, Simpson sings, then asks God for “a little more mercy please”. The album’s religious framing is impossible to miss, not just because Simpson talks directly about his conversion on his website, or in interviews, but because he has included in his liner notes the following: “My sincerest thanks to all of those who have relentlessly loved and pursued me ... a list too deep to even begin to plumb the depths of ... be assured that God has used your furious light to illuminate the face of the One and Only One who can set the captive free. To Christ, I cling. And special thanks to the one who wouldn’t let it stay my ‘imaginary project.’ And to those I have yet to meet, may this music draw us all ever closer to truth in love. I pray this be a pleasing offering to my King. 2 Cor 3:5.”
You’re in for a big surprise if you think, after reading such notes, that the album is going to sound like predictable Christian rock. Simpson’s new album is anything but predictable. “Mercy Please”, for only one example, has discordant notes, tempo shifts, and unusual arrangements of verse and chorus, which is true for the album as a whole. If anything, there are too many genres at work here. Simpson has said in an interview that he went back to what inspired him as a kid, when he was “switching between Pearl Jam and Nirvana and Bill Monroe and the Louvin Brothers.” He has also cited as influences Wilco and Buddy Miller. In the beautiful and stirring “Canary Cage”, where Simpson sings three times “Oh Father, I believe / Oh help my unbelief”, I hear in sound and lyric a song that would fit on a Mumford & Sons album, and would for them likely be a hit. Rock, pop, gospel, blues, country, jazz: name the genre, and you can hear moments or minutes where a song suddenly incorporates a new sound. And the change isn’t only in instruments or arrangements: Simpson’s voice and singing style are chameleon-like, matched always to the song’s vibe.
Religious art, whether painting, literature, or music, asserts strongly held and unquestioning beliefs, which is why many people hold overtly religious work at a distance, as it usually doesn’t translate to something that moves the non-believer (there are certainly numerous exceptions, such as Bach’s series of sacred cantatas). While The Whistles and the Bells doesn’t document intellectual or emotional struggle in how Simpson understands the world or what he wants from life, we do see the album’s inventiveness coming through the struggle about what his “Christian music” will sound like. My favorite song on the album, “Transistor Resistor”, is a tour-de-force first-person story about the narrator (Simpson?) driving through Arkansas, listening to a hell-and-redemption preacher on the radio. Though the song begins simply and rather softly with a solo mandolin strum and talk about country music as it moves along becomes a rocker, with loud and distorted electric guitar and heavy drumming. “There’s a territory war between God and the world / And the devil plays a mean steel guitar”, Simpson sings-yells, and throughout and here in particular the song sounds like Neil Young. But whereas Young with his skeptical, sardonic wit would sing this same song as an attack on religion’s aggrandizing power, Simpson portrays the story as God revealing the world indirectly to him, and changing him into a believer: “And I laughed driving somewhere between my past and my future / Face soaking wet in my rear view, I drove on changed at 32”.
“Transistor Resistor” is too complex musically and lyrically to give a good sense of it in a short review, which is true for numerous other songs on this album. Songs such as “Ghost Town”, “Skeletons”, and “Cosmic Torpedoes” are not directly religious, though because of the overall context each song metaphorically comments on spiritual matters. We even have love songs: the beautiful “Two Elephants”, where Simpson makes himself vulnerable not only to the beloved, but to any listeners sensitive to sentimentalism tinged in religious sentiment; and “Love in a Minor Key”, which seems like it’s going to plumb familiar pop terrain but surprises in its blues-based rock, electric guitar leads, and surreal lyric.
In “Bad Superheroes” Simpson sings “Life is hard have some sympathy”, within a jaunty arrangement of banjo, guitar, percussive drumming, and trumpets. Perhaps the line stands as comment on those who might judge the direction Simpson’s musical life has gone, but Simpson doesn’t end there, as the last song is one final reminder of what this album has been about. In “Shadow of Death” the first-person narrator uses Jesus’ story of death and redemption to figure the narrator’s. “Oh the shadow of death / Is not the end of my story / For the shadow of death is but my entrance to glory”, Simpson sings. If you’re a believer, this makes absolute sense. If you’re not, it doesn’t. My spiritual beliefs and interests are not in tune with the religiosity of Simpson’s songs, but I admire what Simpson has done on The Whistles and the Bells, a moving, musical religious story.