I was not ready to do this.
For a couple of weeks, I've tried to mentally prepare myself to write a proper story about Carter Albrecht's Jesus is Alive... and Living in London, the recently-released solo album that he was in the process of finishing at the time of his death.
I braced myself for the inevitable emotional breakdown or lapse into melancholy upon initially hearing it the first time.
How do you process something this personal without revisiting the initial shock of loss?
Turns out, this record is a gorgeous thing to behold.
I've probably heard it three dozen times now, and each listen reveals another new layer or thread of thematic subtext. The performances are uplifting, yet delicate and understated, at the same time. While there is an definitive immediacy in Carter's vocal delivery, it's still easy to get lost in some of the texture and atmosphere.
This is not a rock 'n' roll album, and I don't think he would mind me saying so. This particular material humbly defies categorization and works on different levels. Just when you think you've got it figured out, you might then reconsider the subject matter as seen through the prism of Albrecht's sense of humor, subtle irony or delicate satire.
Intricate and layered, like an important novel or film.
Older Sparrows songs like "All Time Low" and "My Beautiful Life" once hinted that Carter might take his music to this more introspective and sophisticated place: spacious, elegant and graceful.
Pastoral and personal, his life an open book.
Were we ever aware that such a remarkable poet was in our midst? Carter Albrecht was brilliant at using vivid simplicity to evoke and describe complicated circumstance. These are songs about life and love, about personal freedom and infinite possibility. It was this eternal optimism that so eloquently embraced the myriad possibilities of his fragile devotion. Our brother was wearing his heart on his sleeve.
In fairness, I've kept listening for any weakness or redundancy, for some half-assed vocal performance or pedestrian arrangement. It just isn't there.
The prodigious dexterity of his playing, that gifted and intuitive compositional skill set; Carter Albrecht was putting this music on his back and taking it somewhere else altogether. This was the solo record he really wanted to make.
Soon, I'll be writing a proper story about the circumstances that led to the completion of this album. A lot of people came together to make it happen, but right now most of them would rather not talk about it on the record. I'm hoping that time might change that. More than anything, I really want to get this right.
Like Carter wrote in one of his songs, I'm still "searching for a sign", a moment of clarity or revelation that inspires a graceful interpretation of the story. In the meantime, I've asked a small cross-section of Carter's immediate peer group to discuss their own personal connection to the specific songs from the record. Albrecht loved to give us his two cents about everything, so now we'll return the favor.
No pussyfooting around, you know? It is our obligation to discuss or critique this work on it's own merits, and not within the context of what happened to him. We all know that Jeffrey Carter Albrecht wouldn't have had it any other way.
Jonathan Tyler (Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights): "I bought the album with little knowledge of Carter Albrecht besides an article I read in the Dallas Morning News, the morning after his death, and passing conversations I shared with locals post-mortem. That being said, I was anxious to hear the music of this Dallas icon. The opening track 'Jesus Light' immediately captivated me with its fluid movements and heavy lyrical content. The words 'Glow, glow... Jesus light. Shine right through the night...' seem almost prophetic, or hymnal-worthy; an inspirational and lyrically bold statement to open a record."
Mike Daane (Sparrows): "When we were recording the first Sparrows record back in '02, Carter pushed for a live band feel as opposed to a more produced studio recording, but I didn't always agree. I felt his songs and singing were too evolved and sweeping to be confined to a simple instrumental quartet. Often, when Carter and I were recording demos together, we would take the songs on wild classical or hillbilly tangents that would have made perfect sense if not for the more traditional format of the Sparrows. With this solo record he was freed to explore all the ideas floating around in his head. It's something anyone who knew him always wanted to hear: the unbridled Carter, who pays homage to, yet denies, a style, a genre, a place in time, all tied together by his passionate singing and poetic lyrics. When I first put it on, his presence filled the air and I felt as if he were in the room. I was once again reminded of one of the most gifted musicians, singers, and songwriters I've ever heard, let alone worked with. This time around feels even more confident, content and settled. It's a great way to remember him and I'm so glad this record exists."
Salim Nourallah (musician/producer): "The first song Carter brought in to record with me was 'Jesus Light'. I actually hadn't seen him in a few months and was a bit startled when he introduced the title. I thought, 'Had Carter been re-born while he was away?' I didn't say a word though... he just sat down and played it on his black Gibson jumbo acoustic. The guitar was D-tuned and sounded strangely exotic and menacing. On first listen, I was straining to hear all the words right. Had Carter taken up the Christian rock chalice now? Surely it couldn't be. By the third run through I finally got it. The sly humor was so Carter: 'Here's my apartment he forgaveth/even the garden was a haven for snakes/for me it's cool/for most it's too risque...' I was smiling ear to ear at his lyrics but I never told him that he'd me scared to death there for a second. At the end of the 'Jesus Light' recording session, I asked him about his title. He scratched the back of his head, looked down and smiled mischievously. 'It's about my night-light.' My wife, Jayme, had just bought a Jesus night-light too! We had a big laugh over that."
Chris Holt (Sorta): "'Country Living' is a five-minute masterpiece that holds a very sacred and special place in my heart. From the first moment I heard it, while sitting next to Carter as he played it to a sold-out audience, through every subsequent listen, it has never failed to give me goose bumps. From the shimmering, alternately-tuned guitar to the cascading piano triplets, propelled by the furious, syncopated drumming, the ear candy pales in comparison to the song's greatest strengths: the cryptic, almost anti-nostalgic wordplay, and Carter's deep, unique baritone vocal melodies. Each of these things give the song a powerful soul that most songwriters never come close to achieving. It's a perfect song if there ever was one."
Jesse Hughey (Dallas Observer): "After a slow, simple piano intro, 'Rivers Into Rum' opens with lines that lend a sense of sad history, some unspoken heartbreak, to the love song that follows. "Every word that's spoken is a fancy piece of fiction / until your heart is broken, then becomes the contradiction / of the stuff make-believe is made of / Oh, it's always something." He goes on to sing of a lover who turns rivers into rum, the ocean into cream. Love as a delicious intoxication. It's a wonderful metaphor, beautifully conveyed in one of those familiar-yet-new melodies that come easily to only the most gifted of songwriters. But I can't help but cringe as he sings 'I'm drunk,' in the song's climax. Usually, knowing something about a songwriter's life story can illuminate a song. In this case, though, knowing something about the tragedy that ended that life almost spoils a great song. Almost. But I can't imagine how much more painful this song would be if I'd really known Carter."
Dave Palmer (musician/producer): "'Rome' was one where we muted a fair amount of tracks in certain spots. Initially, we did this for noise reasons but soon found that creating spare areas helped make a larger impact later in the song. Also, I added orchestration in the middle and I think at the end and that broadened the palette a bit. This was not just done because we thought it was cool, but because Dave Monsey knew that Carter was interested in doing so as well. This brings up a good point, which is that everything we did we tried to do with Carter's music and aesthetic in mind. We were striving to highlight Carter and not our own opinions in the course of bringing this incredible song and record to fruition."
Mike Graff (Halls of the Machine/Course of Empire): "'Sparrows' is the kind of song you should listen to whenever you're feeling overwhelmed by life and need to get a proper perspective. Among the lilting strains of acoustic guitar and funky breaks with a banjo, Carter's voice comes to us from the other side as if to say, "Whatever has got you down, know that it really is all gonna be OK." His message resonates in such a peaceful way that it makes me think that on some level, some part of him was already aware that his time here might be short. Carter had the artistic authority to remind us that we really are quite lucky. He was a sweet man. We'll miss him."
Manya Repnikova (Blue Petal): "How anyone could choose just one favorite off Carter Albrecht's album would surprise me. The songs on this album are actual masterpieces. If you listen (and, trust me, you will listen repeatedly), you will realize that not only was a magnificent and captivating storyteller taken from us, but he a truly gifted man, one who had somehow already reached a point of greatness most of us would only dream of aspiring. Carter's vocals are strong and fearless, at times breathtaking. Some songs in particular that I love so much include 'Rome', the title song, and 'Country Living'. They hit the light and shimmer everywhere. Thank you for sharing your gift with us, Carter. You are truly missed."
Dave Little (comic): "The song that affects me deeply is 'When You're Younger'. Anybody who goes onstage and presents their vision of what they think is funny or interesting or worthwhile can identify with the lyrics 'I've got music in my ears/ but now I'm older and follow orders'. Do we filter our creativity as we get older in order to get more recognition, more money, more acclaim? Are we following the orders of the public? Can we spend our whole life spinning our wheels as we churn out songs and books and jokes and ideas and movies? 'I promise you, you can change the world/ and they'll just change it back again'. Carter, I believe you."
Jonathan Tyler: "'When You're Younger' stands out as another powerful indication of Carter's lyrical prowess. Revealing his old soul and angst: '...you can change the world, and they'll just change it back again'. The title track is a powerful and fresh dose of ideology in disguise as a light-hearted story. In short, this record is hauntingly powerful. I don't believe Carter could have left a better keepsake or reminder of his light and uplifting spirit. My only regret after listening to this record is never having the chance to know him. But for those who did and those who didn't alike, he sings 'Come back, come back/ I'm always, always waiting...'"
Alan Levy (friend): "Godot" was written back in 2003, when Carter was preparing songs for the Snowflakes CD by his group Sparrows. It didn't make the full-length CD but was included on an EP the following year. Performed live in those days, it was a mesmerizing song with a heartbeat behind the verses--and what sounded to me like the most desperate heartache during the chorus and bridges. Carter was a soul shouter, and this song stood with the best of 'em. I was taken by the chorus of 'Come back to me, Come on! I'm always waiting.' It was the plaintive wail of the old man from George Jones' 'He Stopped Loving Her Today' before he found his peace; it touched me to the core and moved me to tears on more than one occasion. What's the song really about? Certainly there are overtones of religion and Carter's famous struggles with faith and absurdity, most obviously referenced to Samuel Beckett's famous play Waiting for Godot. The version on the new CD is a revelation, and we perhaps see the song for the first time as Carter intended. Gone is the heartbeat, replaced by what I can only describe as a 'shimmer'. Phantom sounds float in and out and give the verses an almost otherworldly quality. The guitars sound like tiny bells. What's not gone is the strength and magnificence in the way the chorus/bridge parts are sung, like a Hazzan leading the faithful in prayer: 'Time may stop at the tick of a clock/ Just when you least expect it / I'm just a sheep in your aimless flock /How can you redirect it?/ How can you resurrect it? /When can I expect it? /Come back, to me...' It very well may be Carter has those answers now. Oh, that he could let us know. Come back to us. We're always waiting."
Chris Holt: "Hearing the completed album now is a little bittersweet. There are a few differences that took me a little while to get used to, as I had grown so attached the original roughs. But more than that, it's about what it represents. I wanted it to be the biggest album in the world. I wanted it to propel him upward, and earn him the fame that he so rightly deserved as an artist. I wanted it to be the first of a series of great solo albums. But it is what it is. It's his swan song, his final stroke of genius, and a hell of a good way to go out."
Like Chris Holt and Salim Nourallah and Dave Palmer and everybody else who knew C
arter Albrecht on that creative level, we will now contemplate what this legacy will mean to those who never had the opportunity to hear him do his thing.
Jesus... is an important recording; organic and timeless, devoid of any of the gimmicky bleeps and trendy fake shit that defines so much of the pop flotsam and jetsam today. And despite a title that hints otherwise, this music isn't implicitly religious or overtly spiritual; nor is it tinged with any sort of British affectation.
It's a record about everyday people like you and me, how our lives are intertwined, and how we choose to manifest our feelings toward one another.
So rare is the album that astounds from start to finish and continues to captivate over time. These are songs that will certainly transcend history, style or aesthetic. It feels like "road trip music" rife with inspiration, possibility and courageous abandon.
How fortunate that the music here feels so completely realized, given the gravity of the situation and tragic timeline of events. Now, finally, with the official release of Jesus is Alive... And Living in London", we can once again share the generous gift that is Carter Albrecht's music.
I'm feelin' ya, kid.
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