Progrock artist Neal Morse has just released his latest solo album, Solo Gratia, and it has elicited varying reactions from your Spirit of Cecilia editors. Here is a friendly dialogue about Morse’s new opus between SoC’s Editor-In-Chief Brad Birzer, and Arts Editor Tad Wert
Tad: Brad, you know what a big fan I am of Neal Morse’s work, and I was excited to listen to the new album of his last week. One thing you can say about him: he’s never boring or predictable! When I first heard he was working on a new album to be called Solo Gratia, I immediately wondered if it was going to be a sequel to his 2007 Solo Scriptura. It turns out the answer is, “Yes and no”.
Musically, it begins with a reference to a theme from Scriptura, and there are several other musical references throughout (“In the name of God, you must die”, etc.). However, instead of continuing to chronicle Martin Luther and the Reformation, in Gratia Morse decided to go back to the very beginning of the church: the conversion of St. Paul! That was a big surprise for me, and a welcome one.
Brad: Thank you so much, Tad. I always love talking with you. One of the finest evenings of my life was when you, Dedra, and I attended Morsefest together. Morse is exceptional at every level, and no one performs live better than he does. I’m a huge fan of Morse’s work, and I’m pretty sure I have everything (even the fan releases) that the man has released.
That said, I’m never quite sure how to take some of Morse’s more explicitly religious albums. Of course, in one sense, everything since Snow has been religious. The distinction for Morse’s work is not which is religious and which isn’t, but, rather, which is blatantly religious, and which is only merely religious. Sola Gratia, of course, is blatantly religious. Overall, I like the album, but I was struck by two things.
First–and, of course, this isn’t my album, so Morse has every right to make the album he wants to make–I wanted an album about St. Paul. That is, I thought what are the last three songs of Sola Gratia would make up the content of the album as a whole. I’m not really that interested in following Saul through his sordid exploits when he was persecuting Christians. The album, in this way, reminds me of a Stephen Lawhead novel, Patrick. I wanted a novel about St. Patrick, instead, the first 95% of the novel was about what a wretch the guy was before his conversion.
Second, I find Sola Gratia–even for Morse–way too heavy. I have nothing against heavy when it comes to music, and much prog demands a certain amount of heaviness. But, Sola Gratia’s heaviness seems, to me, to just be some unmitigated anger. Again, I suppose the anger fits when it comes to Saul, but I really don’t want an album about Saul.
I do, however, hunger for an album about St. Paul. Can you imagine! A double CD about the teachings of Paul, to Corinth and beyond!
Tad: Brad, I hear you! I think my favorite Morse albums are One (solo) and The Grand Experiment (Neal Morse Band), neither of which are “blatantly religious”. After a few listens of Solo Gratia, I think Sola Scriptura is heavier overall, but In The Name Of The Lord and Building A Wall are pretty crushing. In his notes to the album, he mentions how getting a Telecaster guitar really had an effect on the sound.
I also hear the anger, and I suppose that is Neal putting himself into the shoes of Saul the persecutor of Christians. I think he balances Saul’s anger nicely with St. Stephen’s faith and martyrdom. Seemingly Sincere, Saul’s ruminations on Stephen’s unwavering faith and love, is one of my favorite tracks. Now I Can See/The Great Commission is the other. That said, there really aren’t any melodies in this set that immediately grab me like Neal’s compositions usually do. It may take some more listens to sink in.
To your point about wanting the album to begin with the last three songs, I think conversion stories are very important to Neal. He’s put out two albums that deal with just his own conversion! By spending so much time on the anger and hatred of Saul towards the early Church, he is emphasizing how miraculous his transformation into St. Paul was.
This was recorded during the lockdown, and I wonder how it would have turned out if Mike Portnoy and Randy George could have been with him in his studio while they were bouncing ideas off of each other.
Here’s my takeaway: Solo Gratia is not Neal’s finest album, but it’s not his worst, not by a long shot. It’s a solid effort that I hope sets the stage for more concept albums based on St. Paul and other founders of the Church.