Musical settings of the Psalms have existed for as long as, well, the Psalms themselves. After all, they were the ancient Israelites' hymnbook. But in the hands of many contemporary musicians, the Psalms have been neutered, transformed into wispy, ethereal sighs and coos. The powerful drama so evident on the page—the tug of war between intense pain and fleeting hope, the wrestling with injustice and senseless death, the crying out for mercy and forgiveness—has largely been absent. Aaron Strumpel's new album, Elephants (Thirsty Dirt), intends to restore the blood and desperation.
Sensing that a new musical vocabulary was needed to reestablish the Psalter's tone and context, Strumpel employs a bevy of abrasive sounds and influences. Trumpets blat and squeal, piano chords cascade, and band members bang on anything and everything in a tribal frenzy. In "One Twenty One," Strumpel sings a litany of woes—his strength has been sapped, his back has been broken, his hands have been bloodied—before he launches into the catharsis of the psalm proper. When he finally sings, "I lift my eyes up to the mountains / From where does my help come?"—the opening words of Psalm 121—the effect is like a healing balm. "Fifty One" features a lovely ascending piano line that masks the sorrowful confession of David's words. Perhaps best of all is "In Babylon," a fairly straightforward reading of Psalm 137—a song of the homeless exiles—until it erupts, at the two-minute mark, into a chilling wail. These are groanings too deep for words. They are a stark reminder that lamentation is part and parcel of the human experience, and that the Psalms' authors were well acquainted with grief.
Elephants is not for the faint of heart, but those who are looking for solace and hope in God—another hallmark of the Psalms—will not be disappointed. This is an album that retains the disturbing picture that life is messy and full of pain and disappointment, and that hope and faith are hard-won victories. It's a stunning achievement.
Andy Whitman, senior contributing editor for Paste magazine
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