Jamie Barnes, The Mercy Seat
Brooks Ritter, The War (split EP)
Released: February 22, 2011
There is something very special going on in Louisville, and my writing a review about this “happening” is kind of like the woman who was straining just to get a finger on the hem of Jesus’ robe—just a touch is all I ask. God has gathered a whole lot of young talent and put it under one ecclesiastical roof. This is the best summary I can give for what is happening with Sojourn Music. Sojourn Community Church is a multi-site community with a strong vision for how the arts are a part of God’s kingdom-restoration in the community. You don’t see too many churches out there with this vision. But before I heap accolades on the music of two incredible singer-songwriters, Jamie Barnes and Brooks Ritter, for their latest split EP, The Mercy Seat / The War (read Sojourn's description here), let me begin by commenting on something rather unrelated to the music itself.
Jamie Barnes and Brooks Ritter are humble, generous men of God. I met Jamie several years ago when my wife and I took a field trip out to Sojourn in the summer of 2008. I met Brooks just over a year ago at the Calvin Symposium on Christian Worship in Grand Rapids. I was flying solo, and Jamie took the time to single me out and invite me to a few social gatherings where I got to hobnob with Keith Getty, Kevin Twit, Mike Cosper, and other heroes of mine. Jamie’s hospitality in that act meant a lot to me and spoke volumes about him. Brooks engaged me in a bunch of conversations, and he always exhibited the uttermost kindness and humility, even as I told him that he had an incredible, one-of-a-kind voice. These two are men of character, and that is perhaps the most important thing I could say about them.
The album itself is just incredible. It is true artistry, which does not kowtow to simplistic pop sensibilities. It is a “split EP” in the sense that it is a full, ten-song album split down the middle. The first five are Barnes’ songs; the last five are Ritter’s. All songs are either explicitly based in old church hymns, or else they are haunted by the spirits of the great English hymn writers. But this is not a “worship album.” It is definitely solo material, some of which can be (and has been) transposed into the context of corporate Christian worship (e.g. “The Mercy Seat” and “Absent from Flesh”). Recorded live at the 930 Art Center in Louisville, KY, the stylistic diversity in these ten tracks is astonishing. Jazz, gospel (black and white, mind you), blues, grunge, soul, country, rock—they’re all here. Yet this smorgasbord is no hodgepodge. The cohesion comes from its production, themes, and the souls of the singers themselves.
If you can’t afford the whole album, you must at least get Barnes’ “Absent from Flesh” and Ritter’s “The War.” In my opinion, they are the best songs on the album.
Theologically, the album is rock-solid. Texts which are based in time-tested hymns from greats like Isaac Watts are nearly always a slam dunk in the Department of Biblical Conformity. Barnes and Ritter write the kinds of songs that will last in Christian hymnody.
THE MERCY SEAT | JAMIE BARNES
Barnes says, “If we’re being honest, we all have this longing for an advocate, and a lot of the songs on my side of the EP have this hint of desperation in them.” That’s a great summary statement of the textual trajectory and musical edge which unify the five songs. Musically, Jamie provides an aural feast. His songs keep his voice in a modest vocal range, and his smooth, simple singing style perfectly fits the “longing” and “hint of desperation” he intends. My favorite feature of his music here are the use of horns, sergeantly peppered throughout the EP. The slippery, jazzy “Dark Passenger” has some moments of tight ensemble, especially among the horns. There is an exquisite moment, just around 3:44, where the vibrato between two instruments locks into eerie symmetry. Verse two is powerful:
Why do these hands withdraw from worship,
And battle your embrace?
They clinch in anger far too often,
And seldom stretch in faith.
“Jealous Arm” contains a haunting chord progression at the front-end that moves from the major tonic chord to the minor. The ghostly, Coldplay-like piano line accentuates the tense nature of revelry in the jealousy of God. The first verse:
Is this the way we repay our God?
Who among us has he not made?
Forsaking His face for the sculpted things
We have shaped with our evil hands.
And where are they now, our silent golden cows?
His swift and jealous arm has thrown them down.
The choice track, however, is “Absent from Flesh”—roomy drums, earthy claps and slaps, and wailing horns make this an exquisite, original, and inspiring piece. Co-writers Barnes and Watts, though separated by nearly three hundred years, together celebrate the eschaton:
Absent from flesh, O glorious day!
In one triumphant stroke
My reckoning paid, my charges dropped
And the bonds ‘round my hands are broke.
I go where God and glory shine,
To one eternal day
This failing body I now resign,
For the angels point my way.
Hearing the unparalleled hymns of Isaac Watts so beautifully re-dressed and re-given to the modern church simply makes me want to dance naked in the streets.
THE WAR | BROOKS RITTER
Many singers, including myself, shake their fists toward the heavenlies that they were not graced with the golden voice of Brooks Ritter. No joke: the first time I heard his voice, I pegged him for a fifty-year-old, black Mississippi Delta bluesman. This twenty-something has all the soul, presence, and maturity of a voice twice his age, and he stewards his gifts well throughout this EP. “The War,” a grungy blues tune, introduces Ritter with a punch to the belly, and the left-hand-calloused fingerprints of Neil Robins’ axe-work (of Dirt Poor Robins and No More Kings) are all over this number. It’s reminiscent of Soundgarden at the height of their music-making. The text of this song’s chorus characterizes the posture of the whole album—centered upon the gospel of the finished work of Christ:
Though the scars of my sin run deep
They’re washed in the flood brought from Calvary
Remind me O Lord in my hour of deed
The war won for the redeemed!
“Good Day” takes a stylistic leap in a different direction. It is a black gospel number, through and through, full of clever colloquialisms fitting to the genre. This song rocks:
Well, hey, Jesus the God man came to the Earth
He opened his arms to the children of dirt
He was singing a new song, “Child come on I’ll show you the way”
It was a good day when the Lord came
You know it was a good day
My Jesus came through the desert
He walked on the sea and died on the hill of Mount Calvary
He went to the grave but checked out on the third day
It was a good day when the Lord came,
It was a good, good day.
I love the thought that Jesus “checked out” of the grave on the third day like it was a hotel room. The ease with which Almighty Christ sealed His victory over death is worthy of such a thought. The next song, “Waters of Forgiveness,” is a soulful white gospel number that one could hear arranged for an all-male quartet.
In the words of Barnes: “This record, it’s more than just making music for our local church.We want to be a community of artists…So it’s important to us to publish music and to publish books and things of that nature…These songs are just a way for us to point to truth. Hopefully that’s what good art will do, point to a good God who’s the author and creator of everything.” God has given the Sojourn community a unique call with the provision of unique resources. The Mercy Seat / The War is proof that these artists continue to steward such gifts well. A while back I posted on why worship leaders should be theologians and theologians worship leaders. Barnes and Ritter are worship leader-theologians par excellence. Go get this album, people.