Album Review: Neal Morse, “Life & Times”

life-and-times-hiresNeal Morse’s music has been a part of my life for almost 20 years now. One thing I have always been impressed with is his ability to play different styles of music but still maintain his trademark sound. Whether he was playing very proggy music with Transatlantic or The Neal Morse Band, or Christian folk songs with his album Songs from the Highway, his distinct artistic voice shines through.

Some of my favorite Neal Morse compositions have been acoustic ballads (“Distance to the Sun” and “June” being among them), so I was excited to hear that he was releasing a new album of music that was oriented toward the singer/songwriter style, called Life & Times. Morse wrote Life & Times during the latest tour for his critically acclaimed progressive epic, The Similitude of a Dream. I would imagine that it was a nice musical respite to be able to write songs that are a bit simpler in form while touring on an album that was musically challenging and complex. What Neal produced with  Life & Times is a heartfelt, wise, sentimental album that is sure to touch hearts and minds.

The album starts out with the charming opener, “Livin’ Lightly”. It feels a little bit like later-era James Taylor, especially with the slide guitar during the choruses. The lyrics feature some clever wordplay, and it’s an overall charming song that sets the tone for the album. The next track, “Good Love Is On The Way”, I think, would fare well on the adult contemporary charts, which I don’t mean as a knock at all. I’ve heard more than a few progressive musicians tell me that it’s just as hard, if not harder, to write a concise 3-5 minute song as it is to write a sprawling 20 minute epic.

This album features several songs that are more reflective and emotional. “Old Alabama” is a touching song that makes me think of the places I’ve called home, featuring lovely guest vocals by Julie Harrison. “Joanna” is a tender, thoughtful song about the loss of a relationship, written from the perspective of Neal’s son. The most impactful track on the record, “He Died At Home”, is an utterly crushing song about a soldier who committed suicide upon his return from Iraq. With almost 20 veterans committing suicide daily, the song brings awareness to an awful public health crisis that is affecting us.  If you can listen to this song without feeling anything, then you should probably check your pulse to make sure you are alive. It’s heartbreaking and challenging and for many, very close to home. I am grateful for Morse’s sensitive treatment of this topic, and though I’ve listened to the song more than a few times now, I still get chills and even tears when I ponder the words and lyrics and their implications.

Many of these songs would do well on pop radio based on their music and melody, but a song like the funny and endearing “Manchester” wouldn’t be something you’d hear from your average singer-songwriter. It has the distinct, humor-filled, no-barriers approach that I have grown to love after decades of listening to his voice and words. The same could be said of the adorable love letter that is “Selfie on the Square”. If another musician was writing a song about taking selfies on a vacation and posting them to his/her partner, it might come across as cheesy, but there is something about Neal’s persona that makes it endearing to hear him talk about that exchange. It comes across as sweet and genuine.

I think Neal has honed, with decades of practice, the ability to express himself an honest version of himself through his music and lyrics, which is a rare skill that can only be gained through lots and lots of practice and refinement. His large and diverse discography is evidence of this. Neal Morse has a tremendous gift for sharing things lyrically in a way that is honest, while still being clever and idiosyncratic.  In case anyone had any doubt, setting the ‘singer-songwriter’ parameter for this particular album paid off, as Neal has successfully made a collection of  heartwarming, introspective, and sweet songs. Knowing that he began his career as a singer/songwriter in Los Angeles makes me smile, because in a way, he’s come full circle with this album.

Many reviews have reiterated that this is not a prog album, but to me, that fact is irrelevant. My criteria for what makes an album good boils down to: Is the music interesting and engaging? Are there solid hooks? Does the music move me or make me feel things I otherwise wouldn’t feel? With Life and Times, the answer is a definite yes on all three.

Life and Times will be released on February 16 through Radiant Records. Pre-order it here.

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