Teaser: The final archiving of a tortured prophet is a welcome revelation, although nothing would have changed - he was always too different to be welcomed in the bourgeois world of CCM.
Paste Music, with the cooperation of Fingerprint Records, has done us a great service with what is believed to be the final compilation of the recorded work of Mark Heard, the peripatetic troubadour turned studio whiz who became THE voice for a clan of edgy Christians in the seventies and eighties. Hammers & Nails is the accompanying “soundtrack” for Matthew Dickerson’s deeply researched chronicle of the same title, published by Cornerstone Press and, like the book, the CD tells us a lot of what we already figured out and a significant little that we craved to learn.
For example, “Hold Me Closer,” is typically more than what Dickerson calls “a gentle love song in the confessional vein.” The song represents Heard at his lyrical best, exuding a warmth while at the same time chafing over the fallen and failing world: “Disregard the violins,” he croons, “In a fight that only two can win.” The poignant vulnerability of Heard’s latter works (such as in “I Always Do,” played here in a stripped-down fashion) endeared him to an audience that relished his almost painfully honest maturation from young cultural apostle to middle-aged visionary of self-reflection.
Three of the revelatory tunes that are highlights of this CD are the previously unreleased “I Hang My Head” and “I Might Have Felt That Way,” and the recognizable “Everything Is Alright,” originally sung by Phil Keaggy on Sunday’s Child. “Hang” first reminds us that Heard was a master of the rock/pop arrangement, using his electric guitar to provide a sonic culture for his word growth. Secondly, we rediscover the brutal honesty of self loathing that created a crucial rhetorical balance for Heard’s cultural rants. “Felt” rides one of Heard’s best acoustic guitar riffs to reveal a one-sided view of the generation gap. “Everything,” in the voice of its author, becomes a much more poignant testimony of the life of the artist. Among the rock and roll of Sunday’s Child, the song became a victim of Keaggy’s McCartneyesque sweetness (and could have been easily replaced with Heard’s more rocky “Your World or Mine,” which would have fit the tone of that album better).
We are also reminded of Heard’s studio ability that testified to his superb rock sophistication, evinced more by the “finished” material on the final third of this CD that was released earlier and then [was] (putting 'was' as part of the verb) added to this collection. Surely Buddy Miller had something significant to do with the ambiance of “Shaky Situation,” but we had listened to guitar layering and pristine background vocal mixing in earlier albums anyway. Heard had demonstrated his facility with sounds in his iDEoLA project, and here we also get the wondrously electronic “Jericho,” released on a Myrrh compilation but under the name of “Lee Cahuenga.” (Odd, how Mark could never put his name on the truly experimental music of his career.)
And we get his story telling, usually through personification. “Shaking” appears to be about an intriguing woman, a female savant perhaps, who “lives out East a way…with summer flowers in her hair” but “you don’t wanna know her or get on her bad side” or she’ll have you “shaking.” In the swinging “When His Luck Runs Out,” the male counterpart is more stereotypical, having “two of anything you could name” yet “just one step away from being down and out.”
But of all these long-awaited songs, the one that opens the album represents the whole of Heard’s art the best. “Seasons of Words” (which would have made a cool title for this CD) has an Ashes and Light folk-rock air that slightly masks the dour viewpoint of the singer. Loaded with imagery and irony, Heard’s voice peals the hour of tears that is distracted by the noise of modern rhetoric: “Children play and children cry/Simple things summon the tears in their eyes/We might’ve been so young/But for the constant drone/That’s making us old…”
It was a bad heart that made Mark Heard old before his time, but it could have easily been that “drone” of Christian institutional mediocrity that dragged his spirit, and then his flesh, to what we like to think was an untimely death. Thank God for the technology that has allowed us to enter this prophet’s world and keeps his voice ringing in our ears.