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Life & Times - Neal Morse

As a music journalist, I find a lot of music; some good, some not so good. I find things that peak my interest, and I find things that make me rejoice in the fact that I have ears that work. But, every once in a while something comes along that changes you. As you listen to the set of sounds and songs, you know that the direction of your life has changed. Imagine life without songs like “Stairway To Heaven” or your favorite Crosby, Stills, and Nash tune. The part of your life that’s enriched by song would be different, lesser. Putting those songs into someone’s ears can change them. It’s really what the power of music is all about.
As soon as I put this Life & Times record on the speakers I knew my life would be different. Whenever I take long road trips I always end up with Jim Croce at the wheel, specifically his You Don’t Mess Around With Jim record. I sing along to it, and it gives me a certain warm and secure feeling that nothing else does. This is a record that hits me in a very similar way, though. It’s light and easy. It’s fun and frolicking. It’s warm and meaningful as well. I can honestly envision Jim at 10 and Neal at 2 on my next road trip.

From the opening track, “Livin’ Lightly,” I felt like I was being wrapped in a warm, fuzzy blanket. This is prog god Neal Morse stripping everything down to its simplest form and singing everything from his soul. In “Livin’ Lightly” he sings about keeping it simple and keeping "the crashes on the cymbals down," and that’s exactly what he does. The nifty wordplay of lines like “try my best to keep it real, like a little Neil….. Young” is just one of the great things that makes Morse a songwriting genius. Morse writes songs that perfectly reflect his proficiency as a vocalist, too. I think Morse is a talented singer, but I don’t think he’s too much better than average. It’s how he writes these songs that makes his vocal approach sound incredible. The songs are fairly simple, as is Morse’s voice. His often stiff and annunciated style is exactly what these songs need. The light and dreamy background vocals in songs like “She’s Changed Her Mind” and “Wave On The Ocean” make my inner self take flight, too. “Wave On The Ocean” makes me close my eyes to begin with, but when Morse delivers “Man, I can feel it! A love that feels so free, and it’s keeping me alive,” they close a little tighter. 

Photo by Joey Pippin

Most of this release is light and upbeat, but there are a few moments where it turns to darker themes - most notably “He Died At Home”. This is a powerful song that just might get your eyes watering. The story of a soldier coming home after being on the battlefield and committing suicide isn’t something that you might expect to be pleasant, but with Morse telling the tale you feel like you’re at least being comforted. It’s brilliantly worded and sung with poise and grace. “Joanna” is another song that has a melancholic theme of missing a loved one, but this too has a very warm and comforting hand to lead you through it. But most of this stuff is poppy and fun with some great introspective, storytelling lyrics. “Good Love Is On The Way,” “Selfie In The Square,” and “She’s Changed Her Mind” are

beautiful songs that I will have running through my mind until the day I die. They’re just fun to sing, and they make you happy when you hear them. “Manchester” is one that might be the most fun on the record. The lyrics of the super catchy chorus start with “Manchester by the sea,” and later change to “Manchester’s got no sea” after Morse tells the story of having a friend in the UK straighten him out about the geography. It’s a little silly, a lot fun, and a whole lot catchy. And my favorite song on the record is “Lay Low,” simply because of its traveling theme. “I’m gonna lay low for a while, step out of the system, gonna go find that miracle mile. I’m gonna lay low for a while, head out on the highway of my soul.” This is one that will remain in regular rotation whenever I fire up the engine and hit the road. And perhaps the finest written song on the record is one called “Old Alabama”. A song about going back to the simple and friendly way of life in Alabama, Morse shares lead vocal duties with singer Julie Harrison. It’s a beautiful contrast of tone, with Harrison in the high range and Morse coming across with a tone reminiscent of The Eagles’ Don Henley. When they harmonize on the elegantly written chorus it’s pure magic.

With all this talk about stripping the music down and keeping things simple, I want to make a point of saying that the musicianship here is extraordinary as well. Morse proves that he doesn't need to fill every second with complex instrumental runs to be effective. The small string arrangements, the patient and passionate guitar accents, and the light percussion make this an absolutely gorgeous record.

I want to thank Neal Morse for making this music. It really is monumental. It’s a collection of songs that makes me wonder what life was like before I heard them. That’s special. That’s something really special. 

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