Guest post by Stephen Williams

I was sitting in an empty office building sometime early in 2012 when I first listened to the music of Josh Garrels. It was hour five of my twelve-hour nightshift, and I was struggling to stay awake and bored out of my mind when I decided to check out this artist who had been appearing every now and again in my social media newsfeeds. I was not sleepy or bored for long.

We all have had similar moments, I think—memories of that first time we encountered someone’s music and were immediately, perhaps irrevocably, affected. We were left wondering how we could have ever fully considered life or death or love or sadness without being informed by this or that artist’s unique perspective. These experiences are often few and far between—mercifully so, I think—and this enlarges our gratitude for them when they do happen.

I hope to express some of that gratitude in the next few paragraphs. I am no music critic, nor do I really aspire to be. Besides, I am by nature far too effusive in my commendations and reticent in my critiques to ever be an effective one, anyway. But nevertheless, Garrels’ music has had a profound influence in fashioning the lenses through which I have come to see the world—or more specifically, the lenses through which I have come to better process life’s joyous and painful brilliances.

A truly complete artist

We often remember great artists by those aspects of their craft that they most fully perfect—Hendrix for his instrumental genius, Springsteen for his showmanship, Bono for his bleeding heart, and Dylan for his lyrics—but Garrels manages to combine all of these elements with a consistent excellence that is hard to compartmentalize. He is, in my opinion, a truly complete artist—a first-rate instrumentalist and a creative composer, not to mention one of those gifted performers whose on-stage personality complements his music rather than detracting from it. He is certainly a superb lyricist.

Garrels’ voice is likely the first thing to stand out upon an initial introduction to his work. It is not merely a vehicle for his lyrics, nor does it rely on other elements of his artistry to give it distinction. It stands as an instrument of its own, alongside his adroit guitar picking and his penchant for mixing in a hip-hop beat to complete any number of his tracks. His frequent use of falsetto has a slack-jawing effect, even for those of us who have been acquainted with it for years; his song “Colors” off of the album Home left me and several friends legitimately speechless upon our first listen. It is rare to find an artist whose sheer musical talents are both excellent in form and eclectic in nature, and nowhere is this rarity made more evident than when I describe him to friends as folk singer who likes to rap and stick soothing instrumental interludes into the middle of his albums.

I was privileged to witness those talents at two concerts over the past several years—Garrels was unaccompanied at the first and brought a band with him to the second. But on each night I was struck by the humility with which he approached both his music and his audience. Nowhere to be found was the sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle narcissism that often will accompany an artist to the stage. It seemed clear that he wished merely to present his music as a gift to the audience and to avoid presenting himself for approbation. This posture was compelling, and the end of each concert found me experiencing a deeper appreciation for the character behind the lyrics that had come to mean so much to me.

Not home yet

And speaking of his lyrics, I must admit that I am entirely clueless as to how to do them justice in a mere few hundred words. They have been continual sources of hope, comfort, and challenge to me and to so many of my friends, and it is within their stanzas that my gratitude is most clearly centered. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to “Farther Along” and “Ulysses” from Love, War, and the Sea in Between and “At the Table” from Home over the last half-decade—particularly during seasons of upheaval, uncertainty, and transition. I’ve been convicted by Jacaranda’s “Zion and Babylon,” and I’ve even watched with intense amusement as multiple engaged couples have tried calling dibs on Home’s “Heaven’s Knife” for their respective first dances.

In sum, I have observed Garrels’ lyrics to be consistently enriching, and I think this effectiveness has at least two general explanations. First, his lyrics engage life’s fears, disappointments, doubts, and aches while avoiding the typical saccharine tropes that would avoid or dismiss them. Second, his voice is sympathetic, I think, to the cynical temptations that spring from life’s many burdens, yet he refuses to allow the listener the safety of wallowing in his present state through constant reminders that the journey is not over yet. Indeed, hopeful, patient sojourning such a major theme throughout Garrels’ discography that it would be impossible to discuss his music apart from it. It is evident even from the very first track of his first album (“Fire by Night” in Over Oceans), and the theme continues to wind its way through each successive record, taking on new expressions without becoming the least bit tiresome. In my untrained opinion, this alone is quite an artistic feat.

I could easily go on from here, but that would keep you away from experiencing this man’s music yourself. For my part, I am grateful to have had him as a travelling companion, and I trust he will be such a friend to many more folks along the road. Love is indeed the burden that will carry us back Home.

P.S. I can think of no better way to begin the season of Advent and Christmas music than by checking out his upcoming Christmas album, The Light Came Down, which releases on Thanksgiving Day.

Featured image by Nicole Manson, taken from Josh Garrels’ Facebook page.

About the author

Stephen Williams was born and raised in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and received a B.A. in Government from Patrick Henry College in 2012. Stephen lives in Phoenix, Arizona, teaching fifth-graders and pursuing his lifelong dream of living in the American West. In his spare time, you’ll likely find him reading, chasing the sunset with his camera in tow, or enjoying the beautiful game of baseball.