I was introduced to Page CXVI by a Facebook post of this video (which you should watch right now).
I was intrigued by their style so, as can happen often with Youtube, I followed the link chain of all their videos. Their music was refreshing, It was instrumentally simple and quite direct. It presented with the old revered hymns and yet offered them in a setting more akin to postmodern ears, wonderful, theologically rich lyrics with a sound that had influences of Coldplay and Death Cab for Cutie. They did this without all the baggage of trying to be a worship band writing worship songs. They took songs of worship and prayed with them.
I quickly bought their catalog, which was surprisingly quite extensive. I loved hearing fresh ways of familiar things, like looking at your house with a different pair of glasses. I followed them on social media and secretly wished they’d come to New Orleans ( a selfish though, I know). One day in the fall of last year, they announced an ambitious project I honestly wish I had thought of first. They would make three albums following the liturgical calendar: Advent to Christmas, Lent, and Triduum to Easter.
I thought the backstory necessary so that this review doesn’t come out of left field (I don’t review music very often, although I probably should). Today their final album in this series, Good Friday to Easter came out. They were kind enough to offer willing bloggers the chance for a review copy, of which I am one.
My initial impressions were a let down, compared to their previous work. I hoped more time would be spent with Good Friday. After only two of the eight tracks, the album begins its transition into Easter. I wasn’t ready for the Alleluia’s when they came. Furthermore, the first song on the album seems almost verbatim the recording of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” from their B-Sides EP. That choice seemed lazy. Then, I noticed “How Deep the Father’s Love of Us” was also a double from the previously mentioned EP. I can’t fault them for using material again, especially with such a wide cannon in such a short period (Good Friday is their 11th release since 2009), but I still felt let down.
Then, I listened to the Lent album in tandem with this one and my first response was proved harsh. A second and third listen to Good Friday to Easter proved not only more satisfactory but mysteriously delightful. I began to appreciate the artistic and compositional choices they made. So let’s dive in.
The album starts with the sparse arrangement of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” That sparsity gives the feeling of Christ surrounded not by friends but, rather, surrounded by a crown of thorns. It is tinged with sorrow and loneliness even while St. Bernard’s words ring poetry. The song finds its pinnacle in the added chorus, “You bled by our hands.” All of this suffering is caused by our own sins and is a reminder to us why He mounts the gibbet.
Then, we go back in time a night and start at Gethsemane in “Go to Dark Gethsemane.” This hymn is a lyrical guided meditation, accompanied by strings, of the Passion, going from Thursday night to 3pm Friday. It is the most hymn-like of all the pieces in the retention of the melody. The music swells and the added lyrics make a beautiful play on words, “He wept, we wept,” making reference to Jesus in front of the grave of Lazarus.
With “Three” we enter into the grave. This look is unique in its reflection. From the first, through etherial notes, what we hear is mysterious and confusing. Three counter melodies are interposed representing the three days in the tomb. Each of these melodies are somewhat familiar but together they sound foreign. “Lay Your Body Down” is a an English folk song reflecting on the grave. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is an old spiritual reflecting on the transference of Elijah on the chariot of fire, which is itself a foreshadowing of the resurrection. The third though, may not be easily recognizable; it is part of the chorus Page CXVI wrote for the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy, wherein they praise the Lord for liberating us from the captivity of sin. These three melodies play together in a mix of sorrow and hope. I can see why for another reason, they chose to spend not as much time on Good Friday placing this song entitled three as the third track.
Then, we’re moved with hesitant, muted joy into “Roll Away the Stone.” It took me a while to figure out the source material for this one. A Google search came up empty, but I noticed toward the end of the song a reference to my favorite Easter hymn, O Sons and Daughters. It was only when looking at the lyrics did I realized it was an adaptation of that 500 year old hymn. Hearing it anew was both refreshing and jarring like the first cup of homemade lemonade for the summer, its both sweet and bitter. The added chorus gives great hope, the promise has come to pass!
The energy rises in “Christ is Risen.” The joy is still somewhat muted as the mystery of the Resurrection begins to seep into the hearts of the believer. Oh what a mystery, bursting the bonds of death, people must be told! Swell the strain! I especially like the heavenly Gloria in the bridge with all of heaven and earth singing. I also like that there is bass guitar which is absent in most of the songs, which is sorrow for this bass guitarist’s heart.
Then comes the centerpiece of the album. They take the most notable of all Easter hymns, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” and use the 21st Century “happy” instrument, the ukelele, to introduce the song. It almost gives the feeling of the risen Christ eating breakfast on the shore of the sea of Galilee with the apostles, and they sing this song. The joy builds with each verse. Then in a turn so drastic the song moves from beach to the temple with an Hebraic Hallelujah, sung in hope and longing, that one day we to will rise from our graves. What joy! Christ the Lord is Risen Today! Christ has opened Paradise!
Then joy moves to gratitude in “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” This is my favorite song on the album. I can’t listen to it and not cry (baby priest). Although this song has already appeared in their canon, the arrangement is more full and beautiful. Taking poetic license from 1 Peter “by his wounds we have been healed,” the chorus “your wounds have paved the way” just hits me. I well up in gratitude at “you’ve renewed this poor soul after all it has done.” The song builds on this theme of gratitude from Passion to Resurrection. The Church indeed rejoices at the new life in the Resurrected wounds of Christ.
On an apt note, the album ends with a revision of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. Although the album doesn’t mention it as such, I hear this as the words of the angels upon Christ’s ascension into heaven, where He sits at the right hand of the Father to reign. I like the quiet melodic reference to Leonard Cohen’s song of the same title, which has become a sort of contemporary secular hymn. In making those references, the song wishes the kingdom of this world to enter into and be transformed by the kingdom of the Lord.
As I followed along the path with Page CXVI leading me from Gethsemane to the Resurrection I realize how important the lyrics are to the movement of the songs. The lyrics themselves are more integral to the album than the music. The music, like chant, serves the lyrics. If you are not familiar with some of those source hymns you can easily find lyrics through Google. And, although, my initial impression of this album was poor, the more I immersed myself in the mysteries it communicated the more I was moved by it. This is a great album with which to spend time in prayer.
Finally, with a deep look at each track, the more respect musically and ministerially, I had for this trio of musicians and their friends. It is a well thought out mystery play done in lyric, verse, and song all while, in creating a beauty uniquely theirs, pays tribute to the beauty of the past. I have spent much time with Page CXVI over the past two years, returning to their music more often than any other artist. This is by far their best and most cohesive record, and it has become over the past week one of my favorite albums (which is not a title I throw around lightly).