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 record, Dig 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.