It is not all that much of a stretch to compare Susan Werner with David Byrne, Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon--- not musically, but creatively—because the fact of the matter is that at one point in the careers of those three, they stepped beyond their self-imposed borders to rejuvenate themselves musically, just as has Werner on The Gospel Truth. Admittedly, they stepped over international borders and the pretty much accepted precepts of rock at the time and Werner just stepped through the doorways of a number of churches, but the concept is the same. A year of visits to what we must assume was a number of churches of various faiths has taken her on an equally music-expanding journey into the heart and soul of what makes us humans inherently religious. We are, aren't we? Ah, you see, that is the question.
That question is the core of this album, in fact. "I am trying to simply convey," says Werner, "the reality of being a skeptic in a landscape of believers, what it's like to sit there in the pew, and to see what feelings, what songs, show up." To most, what shows up is universal for we are all of us skeptics. Even the most religious of us is a skeptic. If you don't believe it, just read The Bible. The majority of the characters in The Bible are skeptics. But hey, if religion was easy, life would be easy, don't you think?
Werner puts her questioning nature to good use, musically and lyrically. Jumping in with both feet, she starts the album with a bang sure to set hypocrites back on their heels (or at least raise eyebrows of those who see hypocrisy for what it is) with (Why Is Your) Heaven So Small. A feisty retort to those who would live one way and have others live another, she simplifies the all-knowing attitude of those who would use religious doctrine to their own ends with the chorus:
Short and sweet, it asks the question that many of us feel, if not actively asking it for ourselves.
Equally poignant is Forgiveness, an insightful song about loving those who use religion as an excuse to hate. The religious right (no capitals intentional) could easily jump on this as liberal nonsense, the liberals as proof of the right's closed minds, and that alone makes Werner's point. Just how do you forgive those who hate you? I mean out and out hate? You don't. It's just not in human nature to do so.
Speaking of using religion to one's own ends, Werner uses humor like a whip in Our Father (The New, Revised Edition) when she sings:
You have to smile when you hear it because it puts those politicians who claim religion gives them right to shame. A little truth in this case goes a long, long way.
Werner uses biting, intelligent wit to perfection when questioning man's use of religion, but softens her approach regarding the question of religion itself. She gives as fact the effect of religion on herself in Did Trouble Me, pointing out twinges of guilt in everyday life. She misses Sunday mornings in "Sunday Mornings" but does not regret too deeply her split with the organized church. She looks toward the end of life in I Will Have My Portion, wondering what will be her share (don't Christians say we will be rewarded in the end?).
It is not until after the end of the album that Werner ties all of the songs together. In a hidden track not listed on the inserts (the player counts down for some time before the song begins), she asks the question we all ask, regardless of faith: What lies beyond? In the softer style of a Barbra Streisand or a Celine Dion and with only an electric piano for support, she lullabyes After All Of This, an emotional attempt to look through the window to the afterlife through the eyes of Susan Werner, human, dreamer and, at this moment, not skeptic. It is as beautiful as it is haunting and a perfect end to the album.
Musically, Werner covers a wide territory. Gospel drives some tracks, country and folk drive others. They are, after all, the musical premise upon which most of our churches glide. Werner does it all so well, though, that you don't even notice the bump from one style to the other. The theme here is not necessarily the music, as good as it is, but the question. For many of us, THE question, for in the end, what else is there? Is there one among us who has not asked that question?
On the business side, Werner has points as well. "The music industry loves to pigeonhole recording artists," she says, "but I like to see myself as having more of a painter's career, giving myself the freedom to try entirely new things, to incorporate new colors, new language into my songs." That, my friends, is the definition of creativity. That, my friends, is The Gospel Truth.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2007, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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