In the realm of modern prog rock, there are few names more recognized or respected than Neal Morse, and for good reason; be it his more recent solo output, with his Neal Morse Band, or his years with Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic, he’s been a large part of some of the best and most influential progressive music over the past two decades. But along side all the half hour plus epics has always been another side of Neal, that of the consummate song writer. He’s always had an ear for great melodies and has peppered his major releases with well written pop songs, besides releasing several stand alone albums of pop or praise music on his own. His upcoming album ‘Life & Times’ is, however, unlike any of the albums he’s done before. Written mostly while touring 2016’s brilliant ‘The Similitude Of A Dream,’ it is instead a collection of songs that are a slice of life; what he saw on the road, in his own life, and the world in general.
The album is in its heart a singer songwriter album, mostly acoustic based, with flashes of folk and bluegrass tossed in for good measure; it has far more in common with the work of Paul Simon and James Taylor than it does with Yes or Neal’s other work. In a way it is Neal going back to his roots, playing the sort of music he tried to make a go of years ago before forming Spock’s. So it should be no surprise to any longtime fan of his that the songs are excellent and very well written. It is by and large a bright, feel good album. Really, it is the perfect album for a lazy Sunday afternoon, or a long drive on a sunny summer day. The songs are quirky and catchy (my 11-year-old son has been complaining about having a couple of them stuck in his head as I’ve listened to it repeatedly to do this review) and a lot of well performed fun. There is darkness, too, of course, but we’ll get to that in due time.
The album begins with “Livin Lightly” which is fittingly titled as it sets up the light and cheerful feeling that much of the album has. The purpose of the song, as said in the lyrics, is to make you feel a little bit lazy and relax and soak life in basically. It succeeded in doing just that and leads directly into a song that exemplifies another aspect of the album: Having a sense of humor. “Good Love Is On The Way” is a tale of sitting in a coffee shop and watching the people working, looking towards a better life, even commenting on the guy’s “man bun” which I can safely is not something I ever envisioned Neal singing about. But it works well, and the song is an upbeat and positive observance of something we witness every day.
All is not roses, however, and we’re reminded of that with “JoAnna,” a song written for Neal’s son after the end of a long term relationship. It’s a classic breakup type song, but melodically memorable. And not to go song by song, but it is immediately followed by the very memorable “Selfie In The Square,” which I imagine a lot of people will love. The song follows Neal on a day off from touring in Luxembourg and his walking around the town. It was nice, but he thought that it would be like a holiday if only his wife was with him. So he wrote the song to send to her about it. As a side note, if the physical copy doesn’t include the selfie in question in the booklet alongside this song I will be very disappointed.
We then come to the darkness of the album. First premiered at last year’s annual MorseFest, “He Died At Home” is a sobering and powerful song on a painful and tragically ever-important topic; suicide among returning soldiers suffering from PTSD. Inspired initially by a text he received on tour about the roommate of a friend who killed himself, Neal did some research and came across an article about a solider named William Busbee, and wrote the song about him. Afterwards, while preparing to make a music video for the song, they contacted his mother and played the song for her. She was moved enough to share photographs of her son for the video. It is an immensely sorrowful song about what is fast becoming a national shame, in our treating (or more specifically NOT treating) of mental disorders for those who serve, and the proceeds from the video and song have gone to an organization working to help them.
Now as important and hard hitting a song as it is, in terms of its place on the album and the flow it becomes a bit awkward. Honestly, I don’t think it fits the album well at all, musically and thematically. As good as it is it kills the flow of the disk and all momentum up till then; even more so when the following track jumps back into the upbeat and cheerful nature of the rest of the album. Now I don’t know how this could have been avoided and still include the song (it was also the first single released), but I honestly feel that releasing it as a standalone single would have been more appropriate (or even as a bonus track at the end of the album), not only for the sake of the album and its flow, but out of respect to “He Died At Home” and the circumstances surrounding it, as it loses some of its effect and gravity by being sandwiched between two upbeat and fun songs.
The remainder of the album by and large follows the upbeat nature of the first half. “Wave On The Ocean” is probably the most similar to earlier pop based songs, very catchy, and more electric than the rest, with an ending chorus that sounds like something Phil Collins would have penned. Shortly afterwards is one of my favorites on the album, the quite amusing and playful “Manchester” which is the portrait of a rare sunny day in the English city. There’s only one problem; he sings about “Manchester by the sea” only to be reminded halfway through the song that there is no sea there, and the Manchester that is by the sea is in the USA. So it changes itself to “Manchester NOT by the sea” a bit of silly fun perhaps, but there’s not anything wrong with that, and the song is catchy enough to not matter much.
The album ends with the fast paced yet poignant “If I Only Had A Day” which asks what he would do if he only had a year, a month, a week, and finally a day to live. Given that we never know how much time we have left, it’s a good question to ask oneself on occasion. His answers are at times quite personal and moving, and other times amusing (giving the kid next door his fine drum set and then hoping he practices far away) and closes the album out nicely. It also contains the one and only mention of Jesus on the whole album; so those people who are put off by that part of his writing and feared an album of this type would be full of it needn’t worry themselves.
With ‘Life & Times’, Neal Morse has crafted one of the most unique albums in his long and gifted career; a relaxed, mostly feel good album, that occasionally brings up painful and important topics. Given its style it is probably best viewed on its own, and putting it in the larger context of the rest of his work is rather difficult. It is not an album I would suggest for a first time Neal listener (unless it was being given to someone whose primary musical taste is the singer songwriter style) but I would say it is mandatory listening to anyone who considers themselves a fan of his work. As for me; the album grows on me more each time I listen to it; and it makes me smile and feel good. And that’s nothing to sneer at.