Now the News
- reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2001 1 Jan
Eli is one of those artists whose music I feel I'm supposed to like—and to some extent I've learned to over time. I found his 1998 debut to be a mixed bag of songs, some fluffy and others quite powerful. His follow-up, Second Hand Clothing, was a step in the right direction with songs that were both catchy and occasionally thought provoking. I liked the trend of his work, and I was excited when I heard about Now the News, an album of songs drawn from Eli's personal collection of newspaper clippings. Intriguing! It seemed Eli was going for a concept album, driven by social consciousness reminiscent of the folk singers from the 60s and 70s. Without even hearing the album, I thought this might be Eli's moment of brilliance.
Oh, how expectations can lead us to disappointment! Instead of brilliance, Now the News feels more like yesterday's news, though there are a few diamonds in the rough. The title track skewers the media and our reliance upon it for truth. Although it doesn't feel as angry or original as it could, I'm always for a good media-skewering. I liked "Some Say," a compare-and- contrast song driven by electric guitar, violin, and harmonium about the world's perception of Jesus versus what we know to be true of him. My favorite track is "Better Day," a live recording of Eli's most swing-rocking upbeat song to date. It's brimming with faith-inspired joy, and it shows that Eli could probably do an excellent praise and worship album without resorting to tired clichés.
Unfortunately, the remaining songs are fairly routine and sound like "the usual Eli." They don't stand out musically, and lyrically they aren't the quality of a premier songwriter. While artists such as Bebo Norman or Sara Groves have something profound or clever to say, Eli often goes for the obvious lyric. I see a song like "Million Bucks" and hope that it's not going to use the cliché "I feel like a million bucks" in reference to God's grace—yet sure enough, I guessed correctly. If it seems I'm coming down hard on Eli, it's only because I know he's capable of so much more. I know from past interviews, concerts, and other songs that Eli can be poetic, clever, and sometimes biting in his observations. "Now the News" hints at that, as do the challenging words of "Do What You Say," in which he tells those who will listen to "Take off your stupid bracelet and do what Jesus would!" I was more intrigued by what Eli had to say in his press information than his songs—"In life it takes a lot of manure to grow a beautiful rosebush. And now, thorns and all, I am ready to bloom." Whether or not he came up with that metaphor himself, it's a brilliant one, and I wish more of Eli's lyrics were like that.
One more frustration regarding this project is the inclusion of five "interludes" throughout the album. When I saw these in the track listing, I thought they would somehow lend to the concept-album idea, or something else artsy and clever. Instead, many of them are a distraction to the flow of the album. One of them wraps up "Master's Feet" with something of an altar call, a reassurance that there's room for everyone in Christ's company. The closing track, a live recording of what happened when a cell phone rang at one of Eli's concerts, is a hoot. It would have made a great album closer, as a last track or even a hidden track, except then we would have missed the real hidden track, "Tatio the Liar," which is a fun Mexican folk song.
Many will be happy with Eli's latest album because the songs are fairly consistent, with the folk-flavored pop they've come to expect from his previous efforts. However, most of these songs don't compare well to his best work, and some will be disappointed with the seemingly arbitrary and choppy song flow, as opposed to the concept album many of us expected. I consider Now the News a mixed bag, similar in quality and flavor to a rarities/b-sides album—so I recommend it only for Eli's most diehard fans.