Sounds like … an eclectic mix of sounds and styles that have
been characteristic of the alternative folk pop band for the last
decade.At a Glance … despite a shift in songwriting style, there's
enough here to continue recommending Caedmon's Call as one of
Christian music's smartest and most appealing bands.
Ten years already? Have we known Caedmon's Call for that long? Actually, most people, including me, have only known the band since the release of their label debut in 1997, but we can't deny the strong impact this alternative folk pop band has left on the Christian music industry with every release since then. With a sound that has changed ever so slightly with every album, what
can be expected of Back Home, their fifth label release? The title has a double meaning, referring not just to the Christian desire to recommit our lives to the Lord, but also to a reflection of the band's desire to create a folk pop album reminiscent of their earlier recordings.
Back Home certainly recaptures the spirit of a group of talented musicians joyfully performing together, but the album is more accurately an amalgamation of the sonic variations found on all of Caedmon's Call's previous releases. Depending on which track you listen to, it has the simpler acoustic rock sound of their earlier albums, the polished pop folk found on 40 Acres, the eclectic experimentation of Long Line of Leavers, and even the worshipful sounds of In the Company of Angels. Each of the three lead singers (guitarists Derek Webb and Cliff Young, along with Cliff's wife Danielle) offers some of personal best vocal work, and the rhythm section of the band (Garett Buell, Todd Bragg, and Jeff Miller) continues to distinguish itself.
But Back Home raises some interesting questions about the band's identity. If the songwriters change, does the artist change? Said differently, do the band members or the songs ultimately define the sound of Caedmon's Call? And in this case, does it matter since the band members generally never wrote their own songs in the first place? Only one track on Back Home represents the familiar songwriting regime of the older albums — "Beautiful Mystery" by Aaron Tate, Derek, and Cliff is a pleasant folk pop track that ponders the mysteries of God. In the case of Derek, the band's most consistent songwriter in the past, he undoubtedly concentrated his prolific efforts on his first solo album (due this March), and sings on just a few of the album's tracks. Now more than ever, Caedmon's Call represents a "guild" of gifted songwriters and musicians who write for the band but aren't necessarily in it.
The album's greatest revelation is the Caedmon's keyboardist / multi-instrumentalist Josh Moore. This guy's just barely out of his teens, but he plays more instruments than anyone in the band, wrote four of the songs, and produced some of Back Home apart from the band. His song explanations in the press materials are so intellectually worded they'd make your head spin! Josh's worshipful "You Created," inspired by David's relationship with the Lord, sounds very much like "God of Wonders," and just as intelligently conceived. Speaking of which, the writers of "God of Wonders" (Steve Hindalong and Marc Byrd) join Josh in writing "Never Gonna Let Go," a very catchy folk pop song of Jesus'
Even more impressive is "The Emptiest Day," a song wonderfully sung by Derek that desperately searches for God to fill the emptiness caused by the monotony of everyday life — "The thoughts I find impossible to mention are written on a star / They say
that I can find You in a flower, but I need You in the car." Then
there's "The Kingdom," an absolutely mesmerizing track because of
its poetic lyrics and unique sound, which melds the band's folk pop
with an exotic orchestral Middle Eastern influence. The title is
a metaphor for selfishness and vanity, the idol we make of our
own lives — "I'm watching my kingdom crumble and fall / You're building Your kingdom over all / I'm cursing my wisdom, while the angels I call / To take me away from here." In just three albums, Josh has become an integral and career-defining member of the band. Cliff certainly remains the heart of Caedmon's Call, so if Derek is the soul and Danielle the voice (one of them, anyway), then Josh now represents the mind.
Also contributing reliably to the band for two albums now — enough to be considered an honorary member — is Sandra McCracken, Derek's wife, an independent artist in her own right. She contributes four songs of her own, all sung by Danielle,
including to no one's surprise another contemporary folk
adaptation of an 18th century hymn with "Awake My Soul." However,
Sandra flexes her artistic muscle more with a poetic, Psalm 23-
inspired "Walk with Me — "Walk with me empty, walk with me strong
/ The hush of our voices, when the day seems long / It is like a
balm, it is like a jewel / It unravels all I thought I knew." Two
other superbly written songs are "Manner and Means," about a
tired and weary heart longing for renewal and attention, and "The
High Countries," which borrows from C.S. Lewis's The Great
Divorce to express our natural inclination to resist salvation
and embrace the things of this world.
Three other folk artists lend their writing skills to Back Home. Most are already familiar with Andrew Peterson who co-wrote tha album's most memorable song, "Mystery of Mercy," with Randall Goodgame — the surprisingly symphonic sound features a terrific melody, Andrew's sharp lyricism, and one of Cliff's best vocals to date. Randall also contributes "Only Hope" (an adaptation of the Charles Wesley hymn "Depth of Mercy") and "Hands of the Potter," which mixes metaphors to tell the story of the prodigal son as told from the clay's perspective. Finally, Aaron Senseman contributes "Thousand Miles," about grappling with God's grace and our lifelong struggle toward holiness.
Returning to the earlier questions about a band's identity, Back Home seems to indicate that songwriting doesn't necessarily define an artist's sound, but it most certainly affects it. In some ways, this new album is everything a fan could want from Caedmon's Call, but at the same time, the results don't generally measure up to their previous work. Though smartly written, the songs aren't quite as lively or memorable — the band's first two albums were much more catchy, and the eclecticism was more effective on Long Line of Leavers. There are nevertheless some outstanding moments to be found here, so let us not miss the key point. It may not be the band's best work, but Back Home is a stimulating and worthy effort from one of Christian music's most consistently thought-provoking, reverent, entertaining, and creative bands.