NEAL MORSE — Lifeline (review)

NEAL MORSE — Lifeline album cover Album · 2008 · Non-Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
2.5/5 ·
One of the strengths of Neal Morse's solo career is that he's managed to avoid getting stuck in the sort of very limited lyrical rut that much Christian rock tends to occupy. Less imaginative acts in that field would restrict themselves to a fairly limited set of themes ("accept Christ"/"renounce sin"/"praise God", rinse, repeat), but at least as far as his prog-oriented albums go, Neal largely avoids that. (He's also churned out numerous albums of straight-ahead worship music, but that's fine - in that case he's literally preaching to the choir, nobody who is not very keen on hearing that content is going to touch those albums to begin with.)

In fact, his early prog solo albums were all concept albums of one sort of another, allowing him to explore a range of themes, theology, and history which added a certain depth to proceedings which makes them artistically interesting even if you're not inclined to go along with his religious perspective. Testimony was an autobiographical piece about his conversion, One was an adaptation of the Prodigal Son story, "?" explored the Tabernacle In the Wilderness, whilst Sola Scriptura contemplated the theological revolution brought about by Martin Luther.

Lifeline, in fact, is his first prog-based solo album to not have a strong central concept adding a little extra weight to proceeding... or maybe the concept is that there is no concept, just a set of self-contained songs on exactly that sort of "accept Christ"/"renounce sin"/"praise God" clutch of themes I mentioned earlier.

In some respects this shouldn't be totally surprising - Neal had been fairly clearly telling us where his personal perspective was for years at this point. Nonetheless, the comparative simplicity of the lyrics seems to accompany a dip in the quality of the musical backing. It's not that it's out-and-out bad - but it's all very much Neal Morse business as usual, and the compositions are usually designed to reach this climactic moment where the song's message is hammered home through excessive repetition of a particular lyric. With the exception of Leviathan, which is pretty badass throughout, the songs all tend to either have these prog moments which fade away to be replaced with fairly generic Christian rock, or start out in that place to begin with and kind of stay there (God's Love being an example of the latter).

It's not the Christian content that bugs me here - I enjoyed all the four Christian-themed prog concept albums I named above, after all - so much as it's the sense of being preached at, which is stronger here than it was on any previous Neal Morse release. It's not that the music has become a complete afterthought next to the message - but the message is getting in the way of the music a bit more than it used to.

I have to wonder, listening to Lifeline, whether Neal's compositional well was starting to run dry at this point: as well as writing the vast majority of the first six Spock's Beard albums, he'd also penned almost all the songs on his first five prog solo albums and was also churning out albums in other genres at the same time. It's notable that his next prog project after this was getting Transatlantic back together and producing The Whirlwind, whose composition was credited to Transatlantic as a whole, and his next solo prog album (Testimony 2) wouldn't come out until 2011: perhaps he had, at long last, reached the point where he needed to slow down his prog output a bit and recharge his creative batteries.

As it stands, Lifeline is an alright Christian prog album from an artist whose standards are usually higher than this.
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