Aaron Neville: “I Know I’ve Been Changed”

There is, on the one hand, gospel– a myth, an archetype, a tall tale that might actually, in the end, be true. Then there is gospel– a shared legacy, a music, a piece of folklore, a music that is handed down, passed from fathers to sons, sung in the fields and in the church house and occasionally the ale house. And there is the Gospel– the story, the song of a person transformed.

I make the definition tri-fold because I think Aaron Neville’s understanding of the term is broad enough to embrace all three– though I hasten to qualify my use of the word “broad” here. Neville’s new recording is a gospel recording– not gospel-pop, not spiritual rock, not folk or blues or church music in particular, but gospel. The songs are the stuff of history and tradition; they are old spiritual numbers, some of which might be familiar to you and some of them might not be. I confess that my primary experience with the song that gives the record its title was, until now, Tom Waits’ recording; Neville’s is decidedly less ironic, as this is seemingly a deeply personal account, not of a particular religious experience or of “spiritualism” in vague terms, but of something that really happened, ostensibly to this singer as well as to the people who wrote and passed down these songs.

I don’t mean to read too much into the specifics of these recordings; perhaps Neville sings these particular tracks simply because they are great songs and he a great singer, performing here with both sweetness and soulful power, the kind of stuff that comes only from a loose, spirited recording session. For all I know, he didn’t even select these songs; the album was produced by Joe Henry, who typically has trustworthy instincts for song selection, so perhaps Neville is just being agreeable. I very seriously doubt it, though. There is not just conviction to these songs, but the sort of simplicity that speaks to a concrete sort of Truth: There is nothing conceptual or metaphorical to hide behind, only songs sung in a passionate first-person.

The details of the recording bear witness to this. I’ve been told that the songs here were bottled in just three short days, with a gospel quartet being recorded and dubbed shortly thereafter. That’s quick work by any standards, and the final result is an album touched by the holy fire of inspiration and improvisation. Henry’s regular musicians provide able support, but the band is anchored by Allen Toussaint, a long-time friend of Neville’s whose work from the piano bench gives the record much of its spirit; his playing is steeped in the down-home grit of a little country Baptist church, but it also has much of the strut and sway of a Crescent City club. It’s a spirited, high-energy set; the most festive, celebratory strands of gospel music are the ones that seem to be picked up on the most here.

Henry’s method of production— locking a bunch of talented people in a room and not letting them out until they’ve banged out a killer record– basically can’t fail. This album, in particular, benefits from the approach, seeming to invoke the characteristics of several of Henry’s past projects without ever sounding like anything other than its own, special thing. There is something of the minimalism and bare-bones rhythms of the Henry/Solomon Burke album, Don’t Give Up on Me, and there are moments that recall the blues-based intonations of the album he did with Mary Gauthier. More than anything, I’m reminded of the Bright Mississippi record Henry did with Toussaint, if only because this kind of music-making carried the uncanny ability to bottle pure, unpretentious joy– something that’s fairly difficult to capture on record, I reckon.

I suspect that it is also Henry’s direction that the songs here are presented at least partly as relics of folklore. I say relics, but there’s nothing about them that smacks of museum pieces; there’s too much integrity to the singing and playing to take this as a historical document or a genre endeavor. But the way the songs were written– and how they are preserved here– emphasizes a structure not at all dissimilar from the blues, certain repeated lines and motifs suggesting that these were songs written to be sung and shared, written for the community and for posterity.

And the power in them is lasting and immediate; they are presented here in a way that enhances their innate strength, if only because the musicians serve them instead of overpowering them. I’m amazed by the reading of “Oh Freedom” here; the album’s only real ballad, it begins with a slow, spare, hymn-like reverence, emphasizing its roots as church music. Neville begins the song by himself, but further voices are added along the way; it builds until Toussaint and drummer Jay Bellerose come in, bringing a sultry New Orleans sway that points the listener back to the spiritedness and joy of the rest of this recording. It becomes something rousing and inspirational, in the truest sense.

Bellerose deserves a special mention, as he always does; his drumming– which I sort of want to describe as “pentecostal,” though I’m fairly certain that doesn’t really mean anything– is as important as Toussaint’s piano work in giving the album its swing. But for the first time on a Henry production, I think I’m equally enamored of David Piltch, perhaps just because the arrangements here leave more room for the sensual pop of his upright bass to be heard. These are the things that make this an immensely joyful and special recording; there is a joyful swing, a contagious affection in the simple sounds of the instruments and the interplay between musicians, to the extent that the instruments don’t sound like accompaniment so much as further additional members of the choir.

And I think there’s room for the rest of us, as well. This is music made for singing, and for rejoicing; it is a decidedly Christian music, not because it is exclusive but because it is specific: These are songs of personal redemption, salvation, shelter, deliverance, hope, and they are presented as such– as testimonies of something real and and irrevocable. In the sense that it speaks to a religious stripe and a spiritual experience with both personal integrity and historical awareness makes it, perhaps ironically, both more honorable in its convictions and more welcoming in its appeal than most anything that we call sacred music these days. But I hasten to add that this music is not necessarily made to fall entirely, or even mostly, under that umbrella; its gaze may be cast heavenward, but its feet are on the ground, locked in step with sensual pleasures and earthly seduction. It is holy, and human, a few simple moments that have been captured on tape and preserved as something timeless.

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