Josh Garrels writes overtly Christian songs that are too idiosyncratic and prickly to fit within the confines of the CCM industry. That probably consigns him to a day job that is, at best, his second choice. But the musical rewards are many, and are readily evident.
On Jacaranda, his third album, Garrels simply does what he’s done before, but better. At heart a gentle folkie, Garrels picks his guitar (and what sounds like the charango, although the instrumental credits don’t tell), and sings his contemplative, mystical songs. His subjects – the wonders of the natural world, the still, small voice of God, the sorrows and joys of life on a fallen, dazzling planet – call to mind a young Bruce Cockburn, drunk on beauty, ripped apart by injustice and casual indifference. They are complex, nuanced, and lovely.
The two instrumentals that bookend the album set the tone: pastoral, quiet, soft enough to allow room for the chirp of crickets and the song of birds. In between the music shimmers and shines and continually escapes easy categorization; a straightforward folkie ballad here, a neo-soul workout with a hint of electronica there, a reggae-tinged spiritual lament here, a Peruvian cumbia there, with a choir of the angelic host breaking in occasionally just to mix things up. Garrels’ voice is wondrously supple throughout, and it’s a joy to listen to him soar into a pure, soulful falsetto. He sings about the birth of a child, the funeral of a loved one, the desert fathers of the early Church, the exploitation of the poor, the soul-crushing demands of the drab and routine, the subtle joys of walking by faith in the darkness. It’s a kaleidoscope of an album, every pattern reflecting an unseen but loving hand. It will probably sell squat, and it doesn’t have nearly enough uplifting choruses and grace/face rhymes. You can remedy that somewhat by buying it anyway and striking a blow for quietly uplifting, sorrowful, real, and transcendently hopeful music.