CD Review: I Still Need Him, by Mark Bishop

CD Review: I Still Need Him, by Mark Bishop December 5, 2011

I like Mark Bishop. He may not be a particularly impressive singer or musician, but there’s just something about his music, a quiet sweetness that refreshes me. He’s not even remotely affected or pretentious. His voice is gentle. His songs are simple.

My favorite song of his is “Let The Angels Take the Fallen,” but I wasn’t familiar with his other work except for a few cuts from Fields of Love (which I really need to go back and listen to in full). So I thought it would be a good time to check out his new project. It’s not the best album I’ve heard this year, but I’m glad I listened to it anyway. Here are my thoughts, track-by-track:
1. I’m Listening For the Call: This was an instant favorite. Its carefree ukulele/whistling intro evokes a salty sea breeze. It clocks in at just under three minutes, wafting away almost as soon as it’s arrived. The melody is catchy, but the lyrics are thought-provoking. The singer remembers hearing about the second coming as a child and not giving much thought to it, but now that he’s older he sees the prophecies fulfilling. Now, he is no longer looking for signs, because they are all around him. Instead, he’s “listening for the call.”
2. God Builds Churches With Broken People: A calming, gently heart-tugging ballad. It’s not innovative, it’s just a simple observation: God builds churches with broken people. And somehow, they find strength. And the broken become brand new. The production on this track lifts it up several notches—the violin is particularly evocative.
3. Job’s Wife: The story of Job isn’t very flattering to his wife. After all, she tells her husband to curse God and die. But this brief song takes a fresh perspective and tells the listener to “say a prayer, a prayer for Job’s wife.” She had lost everything her husband lost. When you think about it, it’s hard to blame her for despairing. As is typical of several tracks on this album, Mark has a neat idea but doesn’t deliver it quite as effectively as he could. The music has a cheerful waltz that seems to clash with the sober subject matter, and some lines fall a little flat. The result is pleasant but not a stand-out.
4. My Name is Jesus: I might take a bit of flak for this, but this song has yet to click for me either lyrically or musically. First, to set it up for people who may not have heard it, it’s arranged like a musical theater piece with different vocalists “playing” the parts of biblical characters in the Passion. It starts with Matthew (sung by Mark Bishop), then moves to Mary Magdalene (Lauren Talley), Peter (Ivan Parker), and finally a Roman soldier (implied to be Longinus, the one who said “Surely this man was the Son of God”).
This is a really neat idea. Unfortunately, there are a couple of lyrical inaccuracies. First of all, Mary says “I washed his feet,” but this confuses Mary Magdalene with Mary the sister of Lazarus. She is the only “Mary” who is recorded as washing Jesus’ feet. It appears that there were probably two occasions on which Jesus’ feet were washed by a woman, and the woman described like a prostitute in the other incident is unidentified. However, I won’t come down too hard on Mark for getting this wrong, since he’s not the first. Secondly, the Roman soldier says that he watched the scene between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, but the guards are out of the picture by that time. Besides, they were later bribed to say that the disciples had come and stolen the body. This soldier is made to sound like he completely believed that Jesus rose from the dead.
But my main beef with the song is that it takes far too long to get going and far too long to wind up. Four verses before the chorus is a lot even with key changes. It simply drags too much. But, if you’re very patient, you might enjoy this track.
5. Are You Going Where I’m Going: This track has a fun contemporary kick, less country than the rest of the album. It’s a cool change of pace. Actually quite a lot like Brian Free & Assurance—Mark does some improv at the end that recalls Bill Shivers.
6. I Still Need Him: The title track is a sweet, quiet little gem, by a margin the album’s best song. It had me from the piano intro. It’s got a classic country ballad feel. I could imagine Alan Jackson or someone like that performing it. Mark’s voice is very clear and natural on this track, the perfect complement to the sweet melody. Again, zero pretentiousness. The lyrics possess a childlike simplicity, mixed with startling wisdom. This line in particular, though ungrammatical, still packs a lot of emotional punch: “In agony with every breath, yet even on the verge of death, I needed Jesus more than he needed me.”
7. It’s My Turn: A nice little twist on the Prodigal Son story. Mark imagines the father pushing aside other people who bring him news that his son is coming, saying “It’s my turn to welcome him home.” Then in the second verse, he imagines the son dying first and welcoming his father into heaven. The lyrics are a little awkward (the second verse unnecessarily wordy: “The Word doesn’t give clues to the story—who may have died first, the father or son”), but the concept is nice.
8. Your Easter Sunday Is On Its Way: This is a comforting message from God. The lyrics are very touching.
Yes, I listen when you pray
My heart is touched by every word you say
For I remember how the tears flowed
Oh, their memory will never fade
And child, the years have not diminished
The promise that I made…
The verse uses Good Friday to represent our long, dark nights of sorrow, but the chorus offers the hope of an approaching Easter Sunday that will bring joy in the morning. Three other singers join Mark to form a quartet. I can’t tell who they all are, but I think Chris Allman may be singing tenor. They have a soothing blend. (If anyone knows who handled bass or baritone, I’d be curious to know.)
9. That’s the Sound of a House Being Built On Love: Another song with a strong country feel. While “My Name Is Jesus” looks at the Passion in grand, epic style, this little number takes the perspective of a young boy watching it acted in a play, deacons dressed as soldiers with plastic spears. The boy begins to cry as the nails are hammered in, but the preacher draws him to his side and whispers reassuringly, “That’s the sound of a house being built on love. That’s where grace built the walls and the roof up above.” Great idea, but the next falls a little flat: “It’s the sound of a nail through the wings of a dove.” The poetic imagery doesn’t work for me there. I get it that Jesus was the Prince of Peace, and the dove is a symbol of peace, but I shy away from imagery that sentimentalizes the Passion. This line strikes me similarly to the line “like a rose trampled on the ground” (though it’s not that earth-shatteringly awful). However, the light, upbeat musical touch saves the track as a whole.
10. One Drop of Blood Became a River: Mark really took his time with this lyric. The music is so quiet and laid-back at first that it’s easy to listen to this song on auto-pilot and miss the powerful detail in the words:
Coarse heavy timbers were dragged down the path.
Two rough-hewn beams, fastened together by nails and by straps.
The birds hushed their singing; from the crowd only jeers.
His muscle and sinew glistened in crimson, His eyes moist with tears.
Mark sings the lyric with an honest ache that is completely believable and moving. However, the stillness is broken when things pick up about mid-way through the song with a big choir and strained big production (there’s an electric guitar at the end that’s especially odd and misplaced). And unfortunately, the melody just isn’t as compelling as it needs to be to match the lyric’s force. But it still makes a poignant closing track.
I know it may seem like I found a lot to critique on this album, but I really did enjoy it. As you can see, I’m frequently reaching for words like “sweet,” “simple,” and “unpretentious” to describe the music. It probably won’t blow you away or  make you stagger back in thunder-struck awe, but it will make you smile and say “That’s nice… I like that.” The few moments where it strains for big-ness feel, if anything, a little out of place—like Rafe Hollister in a fancy suit. Mark is most in his element with just a few instruments and little or no background support, which fortunately makes up the bulk of this CD. I would recommend it for quiet, meditative moments when you need to re-focus your mind on the things of God.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Review copy provided by Crossroads.

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