A (beginning) Review of Steve Bell’s new cd, Keening for Dawn: Christmastide (Signpost Music, 2012).
by Brian Walsh
I have a confession.
I hate Christmas music. And it isn’t just the overly jolly Santa Claus stuff that puts me off. No, it is even the Christmas carols when they start showing up in every store that I enter from the middle of October until December 25. Maybe it is the incongruity of these carols showing up in the midst of a consumer frenzy, and maybe it is their close proximity to the secular Christmas songs, but I admit that secular Christmas celebrations have destroyed most of the season for me.
So it should come as no surprise that I generally hate Christmas albums as well. I know, I know, anyone who knows me will immediately bring to mind Bruce Cockburn’s wonderful Christmas album of a few years ago. That was an exception.
Now let me add one more confession. I generally don’t like contemporary Christian music. For me, this is a genre that comes off as too sweet, too pretty, and doesn’t have enough grit to it.
So when Canadian Christian singer/songwriter Steve Bell came out with a Christmas album this year, I knew that this was going to be a hard sell for me. I deeply respect Bell’s artistry. He is a guitarist that should be ranked amongst the best in the country. And his stature as a songwriter has gained him wide respect across this country. He also graciously headlined the show that we had a year ago to launch Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.
But it was a ‘Christmas’ album that he sent me, and that already had a number of strikes against it. So, to honour the gift, I listened to the whole album in one sitting and was immediately blown away. Or perhaps it would be better to say that a close listen to “Keening for the Dawn” was an experience that I found deeply moving, indeed, deeply healing.
You see, while so much of the ‘music of the season’ is sweet and sentimental, this is an album that takes seriously the longing and pain of the Advent season.
The album opens with “Oracles.” Appropriately enough, Bell leads us into his album with a song that gathers together images and metaphors from Isaiah’s prophecies of the One who is to come.
Oh ancient seer your vision told
Of desert highways streaming home
To the mountain of the Lord
Where nations sound a righteous song forevermore.
Highways streaming home – that is what Advent is all about! A people mourning in exile, a people cut off from their home, a people longing for redemption, a people hoping against hope for the nations to join them in a song of righteousness.
But we are so desperately far from such a homecoming.
We are so painfully far from the dawn of such a day of redemption.
And so the title cut sings of “Keening for the Dawn.”
Keening for the dawn. Do you know what “keening” is? To keen is to mourn, indeed, to wail. Palestinian women weeping and wailing as their dead children are carried overhead on the way to burial are keening. And if we are to enter Advent at all, Bell seems to be saying, then we will need to join them, and to join all others who wail in the face of death.
Keening for the dawn as such
Stirs the memory of your touch
We are waiting
Keening for the dawn is something dramatically different from “looking forward to Christmas” as we get our Christmas shopping all done. Indeed, Bell sings that all of the Christmas hullabaloo must be put in its place by this keening.
Wearied eyes take in the sights
Smarting under tinseled lights
We are waiting
But is there any hope? Is it possible that in the midst of all of this impatient waiting that we might get a glimpse of fulfillment, even through the false glare of the tinseled lights?
Can these Christmas carols that have been so stripped of meaning for me speak anew, even beside the cheap Christmas sentimentality all around us?
Yes, insists, Steve Bell. Why else would he have produced a Christmas album?
Break the too familiar word
Hearing strains we’ve never heard
A double edge that pierces through the pain
All that we shall see fulfilled
The dawning day we see your face again.
And really that’s what the rest of the album accomplishes. Bell opens our ears and our hearts to break through the familiar words so that we might hear strains that we’ve never heard before, that we might see fulfillment, see the face of the Messiah in the dawning day.
Keening for the Dawn might someday become an album that you would put on in the background during the Advent season. But not right away. No, this is an album that invites you to a deeper place, to a more profound spiritual discipline of embracing Advent.
I plan to come back to this album at various times throughout this Advent. So this is just a beginning review. Why don’t you get a copy of the album from Steve’s website and listen along with me.
Keening for the Dawn. Now that is what Advent is all about.