The September 15, 2014 release of the four CD set Pilgrimage finds Steve Bell celebrating not only the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of his first solo project, Comfort My People, but also marking a brief stopping place along his 25 year personal and spiritual pilgrimage as a musical truth-teller.
Recorded with a very modest budget and originally released only on cassette, Comfort My People was entirely funded by Steve’s friend and mentor, the Jesuit priest Bob McDougall. When Father McDougall first proposed he record the album, Steve wasn’t entirely convinced. He’d never considered himself a songwriter, and while he was active in his church community, he wasn’t sure he had all that much to say as a musician of faith. Even when the first run of those cassettes arrived from the manufacturer, he more or less assumed it was a one-off sort of project.
Two things, though, were undeniable. Those who heard the album responded very positively, and it wasn’t long before people were asking for more. And in spite of the fact that he’d not previously written all that many songs, as he’d worked on material for Comfort My People he’d found songs coming so quickly that it felt they were being all but given to him. Many of the original songs on that album were built around texts from the Hebrew scriptures, notably from the psalms (23, 90, 126), and so in a real sense it was through his exploration of biblical voices that he’d found his own writing voice.
By and large Comfort My People speaks affirmation and comfort; by and large it reflects a perspective of being safely orientated with God in faith. Yet even at this early stage Steve was also able to voice something of the disorientation often experienced by the people of God. In “You are to be Holy” (based on Isaiah 1 and Leviticus 20:26) he joins his voice with that of the prophet as he writes of how “your country is desolate, your cities burned”, and of the need for the nation to “take your evil from my sight.” “You are to be holy, for I am holy” he writes, echoing the text from Leviticus. “Come to me only, for you are my own.” Though that chorus is sung with gentleness, there is an urgency to the mandate expressed by those words. Come to me only… that’s the only answer to the various desolations of life.
It is a willingness to acknowledge not only affirmation and safe orientation, but also disarming and painful disorientation that has come to characterize Steve Bell’s art. He is prepared to sing an oftentimes-hard truth, in part because he has continued to pay attention to those biblical voices, but also because he has attended to the voices of other wise and trusted guides along the way. The psalms and prophets are still very much a part of his mother tongue, but Steve has also learned to listen to the voices of mystics, theologians, preachers, novelists, poets, and songwriters. Most often those who have caught his attention are the ones unwilling to shy away from expressing or confronting the hardest stuff of life. Steve has often listed Bruce Cockburn, Jim Croegaert, and Gord Johnson as the three songwriters who have most impacted him, and one doesn’t have to dig too far into the catalogues of these three songwriters to see that they are all truth-tellers.
Such voices draw Steve’s because he has long had the courage to acknowledge the needs and wounds both in his own life and in the world around him. He knows something of deep sorrows, hungers and longings, and has learned that all one can really do in the face of being painfully disoriented is to dare to sing the truth. Not that anyone would ever accuse him of being gloomy or dour. On any given Steve Bell album you’ll find a few songs shaped by this kind of truth telling, and yet you just know that he is singing those harder truths as a way of opening up the possibility of being placed back on firm ground. And on any given Steve Bell album, you’ll also find songs that affirm and celebrate, as well as one or two that are downright playful.
That is certainly the case on Pilgrimage, where Lenten songs of aridity and struggle—notably “Big Mistake” and “Lenten Lands,” both collaborations with the poet and theologian Malcolm Guite—and a remarkably poignant cover of the traditional folk hymn “Wayfaring Stranger” share album space with a love song for his wife Nanci and with the instrumental “Pop-Pop and the Lads,” written for his two grandsons. There’s even a hymn to Mary— “Mary (Theotokos)”, another collaboration with Malcolm Guite—as well as a fine cover of Alana Levandoski’s “Felix Culpa,” which she originally wrote for use at saint benedict’s table. Yet for all of this variety, the album still maintains a coherence and integrity. Taken as a whole, what you hear is simply life and faith as Steve is experiencing it at this stage in his still unfolding pilgrimage.
Lenten Lands : Music by Steve Bell, lyrics by Malcolm Guite
While Steve’s ongoing collaborative work with Malcolm Guite has not only resulted in some very strong original songs but has also deepened and nuanced his theological vision, it is his modestly adapted version of Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy Now” that I find most striking. Opening with the line, “My father could use a little mercy now” and singing of how “his work is almost over,” and then continuing in the second verse with a plea for mercy for his mother “shackled to her fears and her doubts,” there’s little question that Steve’s own parents are the ones in view. In fact he says as much in the liner notes. Having recorded his mother’s setting of “The Lord’s Prayer” on Comfort My People, and having so often told stories of the deep impact they’ve had on his life, this cover song expresses a particularly moving point on Steve’s pilgrimage. As he writes in the liner notes, “My parents… are now struggling with age-related complications. It’s a terrible thing to watch your parents suffer. I wasn’t ready for it.” And who of us ever is? Yet once again, in singing of this emotional challenge with such clarity, Steve has given to us a language to speak of things for which we might not otherwise have had our own words. Like a 21st century psalmist, he is persuaded that it is quite acceptable to pray or speak even the toughest things out loud, and so to begin the process of releasing our pains and burdens into the providential care of the God who “never slumbers nor sleeps.”
Mercy Now:Music and lyrics by Mary Gauthier, adapted by Steve Bell
The Pilgrimage album is but one of four discs in the box set that is due for release on September 15, 2014. Also included are a disc of newly recorded acoustic versions of some older songs (Unadorned), a collection of Steve’s songs covered by an array of other artists (Good Company), and Landscapes, a selection of Steve’s songs, remixed without vocals for more contemplative listening. Also included is a written overview of Steve’s work and vision, by the Regent College professor John Stackhouse. All in all it is quite a project. But then again, it has been quite a pilgrimage.
Pop-pop and the Lads:Music by Steve Bell
Jamie Howison is the priest-missioner to saint benedict’s table in Winnipeg. His friendship with Steve Bell had its beginnings in the autumn of 1989, just shortly after the release of Comfort My People. He readily acknowledges that he is not a particularly objective reviewer… though maintains he is not an uncritical one.