Review: Dig Here Said the Angel, by Daniel Amos (advance copy)

Dig Here Said the Angel cover art

Note: This review was written and posted in hopes of getting positive stuff about the record out as soon after the advance copy release as possible. It contains a few errors, mostly with regard to song interpretation. Be sure to read the comments section below this review, as Terry Taylor himself provides the needed corrections. The two song interpretations Taylor addressed are marked with *.

Daniel Amos has been my favorite band for 33 years. The new Kickstarter-funded recordDig Here Said the Angel, is their first studio album since 2000’s epic double-album Mr. Buechner’s Dream. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a new DA record this much since 1991’s Kalhoun.

Musical/lyrical genius/bandleader Terry Taylor is at his reflective best lyrically, with a collection of lyrics about mortality, suffering, and redemption. Nonetheless, this is not a depressing record. Taylor has always had a way of writing deeply personal lyrics while avoiding crass pulling of heartstrings or shallow sentimentality. As Taylor once said about Buffalo Hills, a song about his son playing Little League (loosely quoting) “I don’t want to write one of those songs that says, ‘My son plays Little League and I really dig it when he gets a hit.'” The similar themes of the lyrics give this album a strong sense of cohesion. Lyrics on this record are less intellectually dense than on some previous projects (Kalhoun and Darn Floor, Big Bite come to mind), but still far from trite or cliched.

Taylor’s voice sounds as good as ever, which is of particular interest since a few reviewers of the 1995 project Songs of the Heart, where Taylor spoke the lyrics on many songs, suspected perhaps his voice had worn out. The production is crisper and cleaner than on MBD where the sound was occasionally a bit muddled, or distorted (intentionally perhaps?), and the bass was often buried in the mix. The cleanness of the production is to be expected, given that DA sought to raise $12,000 for its Kickstarter project, and, as of this writing, they have collected $32,276. Artwork for the cover was done by fans of the band. The lineup is more or less what we have come to expect: Terry Taylor (guitars and vocals), Jerry Chamberlain (guitars and vocals), Greg Flesch (guitars, mandolin, piano, keyboards, etc.), Tim Chandler (bass), Ed McTaggart (drums, percussion), and Rob Watson (keyboards). Official credits have not been released yet, but I know Derri Daugherty did some mixing at some point, and I’m sure I have missed some other contributions.

This is undoubtedly the most personal album Taylor has ever done with DA. If you are familiar with Taylor’s work, you will think you are listening to a solo record lyrically, but as soon as the music starts, you will know this is a DA record. There is precious little commentary on issues Taylor has taken on before, such as the state of the church, war, poverty, hypocrisy, etc. On this album, Taylor trains his keen observational eye on himself.

I’m still the problem
And not some other person, place or thing
So to hell with my excuses
I’ve got no one else to blame, oh no
–Love, Grace, and Mercy

This record is all personal, and it’s all good.

Track by track review:

1. Forward in Reverse — The opening song doesn’t rock hard by any means, but it does set the reflective tone for the rest of the record, with Taylor singing, I found a haystack in a needle, I caught an angel in a lie. I saw a hypocrite in heaven remove a log from both  his eyes. This track, like MBD’s Faithful Street, employs horns, but much more subtly. This soft-start approach reminds me of the opening song from the Swirling Eddies The Midget, the Speck, and the Molecule.

2. Jesus Wept — Some of DA’s critics back in the 80’s (and I’m sure still now) complained that Taylor didn’t mention Jesus enough in his lyrics. Taylor has always avoided doing this casually, or to  meet some JPM (“Jesus”-per-minute) requirement of Christian radio. Even on MBD’s My Beautiful Martyr, a stunningly beautiful song about the death of Christ, Taylor chose to personify Christ as a female (to emphasize beauty and vulnerability?) and never used personal pronouns. But here Taylor sings, I found my masterpiece in a discount bin, I pound against the wall of my aging skin, crying let me out, let me out…Another bad guy wins, more good friends die, They mounted up like eagles, now they’re dropping like flies. I cry, “Let me out.” You say, “No, not yet. Before he danced, Jesus wept.”  [I wonder if the masterpiece Taylor refers to is the previously mentioned 1987 tour de force Darn Floor, Big Bite, my favorite DA album of all time, which says a lot against a backdrop of one creatively fantastic album after another over 30 years. DFBB may have been Daniel Amos at its creative zenith, but sales were deeply disappointing.]

3. Dig Here Said the Angel — The lyric is based on a poem by St. John of the Cross called Dig Here, the Angel Said, and reading that brief poem really enhances understanding of the song. It speaks of wanting to get out of this world to a place where there is no more suffering. Sings Taylor, There’ll come a time, said the angel, you’ll lose that wrinkled suit of skin. And when you walk up to the big door you can go right on in. I cried then, I’m dyin, I’m dyin, I’m dyin, I’m dyin’, I’m dyin’, night and day, I’m dyin, I’m dyin, I’m dyin, I’m dyin’, I’m dyin’, to see your beautiful face. The first few seconds of the introduction recall the beginning of MBD’s The Staggering Gods, then it quickly morphs into what Terry Taylor fans will recognize as that haunting Writer’s Block feel (from Taylor’s solo album John Wayne), with the bass assuming an upper-register melody. It even has a bit of timpani in it here and there like Writer’s Block. Subtle touches of piano on the chorus stand out.

4. Our New Testament Best*– A mid-tempo rocker about the mercy of God, this track pictures God and the Holy Spirit “dressing up” in their New Testament best and appearing as Jesus — the one who puts most of the love and mercy into the Christian understanding of God. I could’ve gone to war, become a God of Wrath. My fingers snap (Flash!) and baby, you’d be nothing but ash. But I thought better of it. My love had mercy mercy mercy on you. Better of it.

5. Love, Grace, and Mercy — On one of the most catchy tunes on this record (there are quite a few), Taylor unleashes his fantastic falsetto and celebrates the love, grace, and mercy of God, without neglecting the intense suffering which often leads us to it. Now I don’t wanna suffer, But that’s in fact the nature of the beast, If you want to get to higher ground, You got to get there on your knees. Love Grace & Mercy, They shake me to the core, Lift me higher than a kite then, Leave me crawling on the floor.  

6. Now That I’ve Died* — Taylor envisions what kind of person he might be on the “other side,” having lost his faults and flaws, in this piece apparently written as kind of a posthumous love-letter to Taylor’s wife, Debbie. “Let me say baby, (all this missing you aside), I’ve never been more alive, Now that I’ve died!” This track and the Taylor/Jerry Chamberlain collaboration song Waking Up Under Water (sung by Jerry) are the hardest rockers on the album.

7. We’ll All Know Soon Enough — A heavy and intense reflection on uncertainty, faith, doubt, and God’s seeming absence at times. There may be no heaven, no, no, no. There may be no hell, no. There may be no place to go, but We’ll all know soon enough. Try not to feel something urgent when you hear this.

8. Waking Up Under Water — Co-written and sang by guitarist and co-founding DA member (with Taylor) Jerry Chamberlain, this one rocks hard. It shows how we so often dream beautiful things and then wake to find we’re not in a world where those things often happen. I close my eyes and she’s there for me, Our lucky number wins the lottery, I finish my book, turn in my masterpiece, Will wonders never cease?, oh no. A cruel sea is leaking in, This fragile boat I’m sinking in, I need to dream again.

9. The Uses of Adversity — Back to catchy, mid-tempo jangles on this one, also about faith, doubt, and the seeming absence of God. In the days of the nail and nights of the lash, In the season of the quake and the lightning flash, You become a slight impression on a threadbare shroud, While you hide yourself away somewhere behind a thundercloud, And I won’t pray for certainty or faith that’s always free from doubt. This is one song of a few on this album (the verses of Love, Grace, and Mercy being a notable example) where Taylor plays with mashing syllables together quickly, and I like the rhythmic effect it creates.

10. The Ruthless Hum of Dread — Until recently I had assumed the ruthless hum of dread is the constant specter of death, but looking closer at the lyric, I think Taylor is talking about the relentless fear, confusion, and exhaustion of life, how behind every good and beautiful thing there is always heartbreak and fear that we can never quite escape. In a pauper’s field of dreams, I’m walking in between open-mouthed graves, Anxious to be fed, And all my buried intentions are groaning for transition, In the raising of the dead, A skip, a flutter, a stop-and-start, A heart-ruined rhythm driven by the bass drum thump of meds, All the years, every mile, Another upturn on the dial, In my head, here it comes, Ruthless hum of dread.

11. The Sun Shines on Everyone — The album ends with this anthem about grace. I don’t know if DA has plans to tour to support this album, but if they do, this will be an excellent concert closer, much like Taylor has often used Joel at DA and Lost Dogs shows in the past. Referring, presumably, to one’s enemies, Taylor sings, as the song swells to a grand finale, “Baby don’t isolate them, no. Baby, don’t castigate them, no. Baby, don’t eradicate them, no. The angels will separate them, so In the meantime let it go.

The days and weeks after receiving a new DA record are some of the best times of my life, and as I get older it gets better. This morning I was listening to the record in my bedroom when my 17 year-old daughter knocked and said, “Is that the new DA album you’re listening to dad?” I never fathomed when I first heard DA as a kid that that was even a possibility. It is not simply DA’s music that has enriched my life, it is their longevity, continuing to be the soundtrack of my life decade after decade. Here Taylor and Co. have released an album that is a triumph on every level — production, lyrics, musicianship, depth, artistry, and even catchy, singable hooks that are hard to get out of my head. Which is perfectly fine with me.

Taylor has been the main creative force behind DA for many years, but I want to give due credit to the rest of the band. Being involved in the Kickstarter project has given me a chance to hear a few songs at a very early, pre-demo stage, when Taylor was still working them out. To hear them completely fleshed out on the album is stunning, and a credit to the creativity, collaboration, and musicianship of the band. Taylor said in an interview around 1986 that on Fearful Symmetry he felt he was able to just sit back and let the band gel and let everyone make their own contribution. Clearly DA is a better band as each player is trusted to do their thing.

On this record, Chamberlain’s often manic guitar is fairly restrained, and he is brilliant with both singing and arranging backing vocals. Those vocals are part of the DA signature sound I have really missed on the albums on which he hasn’t played. Flesch is a talented multi-instrumentalist and plays guitar in a way you have to hear to understand. Clearly nobody plays bass like Chandler, like he’s often about to go completely off the rails, but never quite doing so. It’s brilliant madness. This album renewed my appreciation for the drumming of Ed McTaggart. Several of the songs are quite slow and have him working on toms. When you listen to the record, tell me if there’s a more solid drummer in any other band. One must also appreciate the musicality McTaggart brings to his drumming. I first noticed this in the beat he laid down to I Love You #19 in 1980. He is a drummer who plays the drums. Watson’s keyboard contributions to the band have at times been right out front, almost completely shaping the sound of the band — as on much of DA’s 80’s work — and at other times more subtle. Watson always serves the song, as do all involved with playing in DA.

So when does the next Kickstarter project start? I’d spend $100 every year to get a new DA record if I could. This album is worth every penny. And by the way, that thing I said earlier, about 1987’s Darn Floor Big Bite perhaps being this band’s creative zenith? Only time will tell. At the moment, this record looks like it may be a strong contender for my favorite DA album of all time.

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I am a pastor and licensed counselor in Michigan. I have been a pastor since 1994. In 2002, my wife and I planted the church we are pastoring now. I do casework here and there, and also teach for Spring Arbor University part-time.

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28 comments on “Review: Dig Here Said the Angel, by Daniel Amos (advance copy)
  1. Dave Patterson says:

    Simply……agreed.

  2. David,

    Thanks for the great review. Great to see so much “grace” permeating the album. As a long time DA fan I remember calling the Christian book stores back in the early 80’s to find out when Doppelganger had arrived. Now 30 years later I have some of the same anticipation.

    Can’t wait to get my Kickstarter sponsored copy! Cheers!

  3. John Gordon says:

    Very good. A quick correction: Rob Watson also added keyboards all over this record.

  4. Terry Scott Taylor says:

    Thank you so very much David for the wonderful review. I sometimes wince a bit when there is an occasional “misread” of lyrical intent in any review, but overall I think you’ve done a fine analysis. I would however like to offer a couple of clarifications. “Our New Testament Best” (a title which is intentionally humorous) imagines a very human relationship in which conflict is resolved through humility and love rather than anger and retribution. “Now that I’ve Died” is not, as you write “a kind of posthumous love letter” to my wife. It’s true that I’ve attempted to say something about the unattainability of perfection in this life, but as an “Everyman” not, as it were, in a strictly personal sense. It is a danger to assume that everything I’ve written in the first person must therefore be about myself. I have often played characters in my lyrics or even, from time to time, taken on various identities in order to express points of view that may even be in conflict with my own. As to everyone’s musical contribution on this record I would only point out that Greg Flesch played almost as much keyboard on this project as he did guitar, and that most of what you are hearing on the record in regard to these instruments is being played by Greg. He is a wonderful arranger and his keyboard/guitar parts reflect his multi-faceted brilliance. Rob Watson’s contributions are, as usual, the perfect touches needed to round out the record. As a side note, let me add that I was a bit bemused by your observation that the background vocals you missed on previous DA records are back in full sing on “Dig Here.” I believe if you give “Buechner” a current listen you’ll discover a wealth of said BGV’s…..but hey, I quibble. Again, thank you David for the fine review and for your wonderful, passionate support through these many years. Yer a gentleman and a scholar!
    Yours Under the Mercy,
    T.S. Taylor

  5. […] See my review for the new Daniel Amos record, Dig Here Said the Angel, over at my other blog. […]

  6. Steve Hample says:

    Well, the sun shines on everyone…reviewers alike !! Got the “advance copy” yesterday from the quick starter campaign. Like a fine wine (or as us baptist believe room temp “welch’s grape drink first sunday of the month”) it has gotten better with each listen. Dissecting TST’s lyrics has always been fun but dangerous…lending itself to more my personal application of them. I tried but opted out of comparing this to any other DA album. That is like trying to find similarities between Lost Dogs, Swirling Eddies, TST…heck, even Rap’sures…obviously ALL different people in their respective bands, ha ha. This stands alone on its own as a NEW album…while a long time fan finds comfort with old friends. I appreciate your review David…not being part of the band or in that process of production…I would have reviewed it pretty close to the same way. Though I found Now That I Died sound more STEVE Taylor-ish sounding musically and lyrically…which short-circuited me. So right now because of that I can armchair ref the comments from here. ha THANKS

    Amazing album…long waited for…BUT will listen to long after…enjoying…growing…

    And for you Terry…see you in August in NJ with the Lost Dogs.

    • I agree that a direct comparison to any other album would be difficult. I tend to just see snippets of songs on every album that remind me of this and that from past records. But the reason DA has interested me for decades is specifically because they never make the same album twice. Thanks for checking out my review and for leaving some great, detailed comments. I love it.

    • Steve Hample says:

      please forgive my spell check “repair”…KICK STARTER not quick starter…ugh.

  7. Steve Hample says:

    Would love to suggest a GREAT book with a lot of history on DA (as well as connected bands) is Raised By Wolves: The Story of Christian Rock & Roll by John J. Thompson. Follows the very roots of Christian music (not so much CCM bubblegum stuff) to where its at now.

  8. Shawn says:

    Great review. Great album
    I do have to quibble with the title source. That poem “Dig here…” attributed to St John of the Cross is clearly NOT the work of a 16th century monastic. It is in fact the work of Daniel Ladinksy fpublished in Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West.Ladinsky “rendered” the work of St JoC “Dark night of the soul” down to a few lines of feel good self help.

  9. Rob Hire says:

    I have enjoyed this new offering from Daniel Amos at least twice a day for about a week now. Each listen brings new appreciation. Enjoying this album very much. Sonicly soothing at any volume. I hope the time till the next album is shorter than the last, but if not, Like MBD I will be spinning this regularly for the next 12 years, I am sure! Well done DA!! (Standing Ovation).

  10. Rob Neiman says:

    can’t wait till the cd releases. Gonna try to get some to sell at the music store where I work…

  11. rrounds says:

    Thank you, David for the review. As a guy who was introduced and followed the boys in DA closely in the late 70’s at Calvary Costa Mesa and throughout the decades to come, each release by the band has been both a treat and a journey. While production was underway, the kickstarter project brought back thoughts of “is it Christmas morning, yet?” and was delighted to get the advance link and indulge in another treat and start the journey. The boys don’t disappoint and the production – lyrics, score, compositions, and skillful contributions from all involved – make it a feast for the ears and another expedition begins.

  12. Dave Lawson says:

    No mention or comparison to Motor Cycle? To my ear, it’s the DA album Dig most closely resembles. Thoughts?

    • I don’t hear that, Dave! This record didn’t remind me of anything else DA has done on the whole, though of course certain parts of certain songs evoke certain comparisons.

      • Steve Hample says:

        Hey there, just saw Terry (and new DA guy Paul) at a Lost Dogs show this past Friday. While there I picked up the newly reissued and remastered ALARMA…second disc had lots of new goodies on it. Terry and the boys were in rare form especially after being lost/stuck in NY just minutes before the show in NJ. Speaking of Motorcycle…they did do Grace is the Small of Rain, of course the Dogs did that on Mutt as well…BUT with Paul joining on the Lost Dogs tour, TWO DA guys rounded it out.

    • Shawn says:

      You know, I hear a bit of Miniature Girl (from Terry’s 10gallon hat) in Ruthless hum

      There’s a miniature girl
      who orbits ’round my world
      (this mass known as My Head)
      She’s feeling at home
      knows to launch out on her own
      is to be alone or dead

      and

      I opened the wrong door
      Got somewhat famous for
      Getting all my wires crossed
      I nod to give the impression
      I’m clearly hearing the directions
      Can’t admit when I get lost
      Fake like I’m up to speed
      And I don’t need the help to read
      That blur of writing on the wall
      But I’m not fooling anyone
      I’m always tired and on the run
      In my head, here it comes
      Ruthless hum of dread

      not quite the same tune, but the same pattern

    • I just don’t hear a lot of Motorcycle in it!

  13. […] Review: Dig Here Said the Angel, by Daniel Amos (advance copy) […]

  14. Howard B says:

    Wow. What a great review. As a 50 yr old 32 yr fan of all things DA I am thrilled to hear DA back again. They had me back in the 80’s when I heard “The Hollow Men” poem put to the artistry that is DA. As a music educator and professional musician DA has always been one of the spiritual & artistic sources of my life. Thanks Terry & the DA crew for the unique perspective you always share through your music.

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