They are among the most widely acclaimed rock bands of the past two decades. Bruce Springsteen, Russ Taff, dc Talk's Kevin Smith, Woody Harrelson, Mark Heard, director Martin Scorcese, U2's Bono, "Wheel of Fortune's" Pat Sajak, Simple Minds' Jim Kerr, Bruce Cockburn, screenwriter Paul Schraeder, and producer T-Bone Burnett all have referred to them as one of their "favorite bands".
Time Magazine called their music mystical, mythic...and wildly ambitious" while Rolling Stone compared them to Van Morrison, U2 and The Band.
Peter Gabriel was more forthright, calling them: "the future of American music".
But forget the accolades. Forget the ten years of predictions about the "next big thing" in rock music. Ignore the A-list of fans. Just listen to the songs, and you'll find yourself searching for your own list of superlatives. Like redemptive. Like passionate. Like true.
The fact is that The Call are among the most unapologetically religious bands in pop music history. When contemporary Christian music was dabbling with blandly "positive" pop, The Call's mainstream albums dealt directly and passionately with faith, perseverance, grace, sin and redemption. And when many "Christian" artists were deftly avoiding questions about their beliefs, band leader and chief songwriter, Michael Been faxed a copy of the Apostles Creed to music reviewers and radio programmers across the country, saying simply that "this should settle things for good." And yet, despite their commitment to publicly exploring questions of faith and their vast critical acclaim, The Call have remained largely unheard in the traditional Christian marketplace.
This is about to change.
The Call is back with "To Heaven and Back" the band's first entirely new project in nearly eight years, and its first project of new material to be released directly to the CCM marketplace. With the band's original line-up reunited after a seven-year hiatus, and plans to tour nationally in place, The Call is set to finally find a home in the music collections of Christian Music buyers.
"The title of the disc reflects my experience of faith," says Been. "When I first converted, it felt like I'd been transported to heaven. But after awhile, you learn that being a Christian is about life as a lover of God in the midst of the earth - with all its ambiguities and hardships and trials. Faith isn't about escape, it's about 'working out our salvation' everyday." "To Heaven and Back" stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of The Call's material over its 7 album, fifteen year career. The songs are, as they always have been, intense, pounding, hypnotic and melodic.
Grounded by Scott Musick's driving, rock solid percussion and Been's mesmerizing bass lines and raised to nearly transcendent heights by Tom Ferrier's guitar and Jim Goodwin's Keyboards. The songs on "To Heaven and Back" contain echoes of punk's brittle rhythms and harmonies reminiscent of 60s icons like the Animals, while at once reminding us that The Call was a "modern rock" band before the term was coined.
But the heart of The Call's songs are Micheal Been's vocals. Been is the kind of singer whose every word conveys an urgency and power that most singers only dream about. He doesn't need vocal gymnastics or histrionics to sell his songs; rather, he simply sings like his life was on the line, offering passionate, intimate, and finally, unswervingly honest readings of his songs.
For those who need an introduction to The Call, the disc tells the listener everything they need to know about why Been's songs have been so influential: they don't just tell us the truth, they make us face it - in ourselves, in others, and in the world around us.
For this reunion, The Call has assembled eleven songs that serve, for all intents and purposes, as an extended meditation on the nature if faithfulness in a broken world. Everywhere on "To Heaven and Back" we find Been struggling to discern the way of fidelity and hope in the face of faithfulness, betrayal, and despair. And as we might expect from a band as holistic as The Call, that struggle is addressed on every level of relationships - marital, spiritual, and even political.
Out of this conviction, Been is willing to ask questions of himself that few songwriters, of any creed, will face; namely, "How does one remain faithful in the face of infidelity?" and "How does one love when love is rejected?" In an age where so-called "family values" dominates agendas, The Call has the courage to look past the ideal and explore the harsh, real world struggles of living in light of shattered vows and broken hearts.
In "World On Fire" Been sings: I trust my life to providence/ I trust my soul to grace/ But nothing takes away this pain/ I can't forget your face," while in "Compromise" he grimaces in self doubt, "could I ever make you happy? / ? could I be the true love in your eyes?" a sentiment echoed in the disc's stirring final cut, "Confession." In "Love is Everywhere," the first single to mainstream radio, Been confronts the "incredible difficulty - if not impossibility - of seeing and experiencing love that is always presenting itself. It's about our blindness, our pride, our shameful, stubborn selfishness in the face of love that is endless and selfless." For The Call, true love is, even for the believer, as much as the realm of pain as it is of joy.
At the heart of this dichotomy is our infidelity, which spoil the fruit of love, and shatters our hope in the best of ideas. The Call confronts this faithlessness on several levels, including the political. In "Become America" Been stares unblinkingly at the disparity between the rhetorical promise of the American dream and the harsh reality of its practical realities, asking: When will the struggling poor/ walk with their heads held high once more/ children playing on haunted streets/ where dogs and vultures eat/ politicians weave their spell/ promise spoken from the mouth of hell/ when will America become America?"
"We're good at rhetoric of freedom in America," Been reminds us. "But our track record is less than stellar. And at a time when more and more Christians are becoming involved in politics, it's shameful that much of our activism ignores or even scapegoats the weak, the outcast, the widows and the imprisoned - the very ones Christ says are 'the least of these, my brothers."
Been's judgement of himself is similar. In both his love songs and his hymns of redemption, Been unflinchingly faces not only the infidelity of those around him, but also his own. "Heaven's door is locked from the outside" sings Been in "Musta Been Outta My Mind" and its implication is clear: If we fail to know love and grace and hope, it is because we have let it slip from our hands: we have walked away.
And like any good love song, the songs on "To Heaven and Back" serve as apt metaphors for our spiritual conditions as well. Take Been's tortured persona out of "Think It Over" and you might hear the voice of a jilted God, like in the Old Testament book of Hosea, pleading for his faithless lover's return. In "Criminal," the album's first single for Christian radio, Been sings in the voice of Christ reflecting on the injustice of his crucifixion. But regardless of whether the songs address love or politics or our relationship with God, underlying them is an utter confidence in grace, and an undeniable yearning for faithfulness. In "Confession," the disc's closing track, Been is characteristically open in his plaintive declaration to both love and God: "I would rather die than hurt/fail/shame you." This sentiment is the bedrock of these difficult, glorious, passionate songs and it is one that doesn't easily fade from the listener.
"I suppose I could have written cheesy pop songs for movie soundtracks and hit radio," says Been. "When I was young that's what I wanted to do. But when I sat down to write, only these songs would come. I guess the band is called The Call for a reason."
Written by Candace 1999