With God on Our Side

Today's Pop-Gospel Albums Affirm the Persistence of Faith Through Adversity

Such strategically broad appeal is more than matched by Aaron Neville on his pop-gospel release Believe (EMI Gospel). But Neville is not a gospel artist per se. That's why his approach to devotional music is so intriguing when judged against the work of self-identified saints and preachers. Neville's angelic tenor, embellished with occasional blue triplets, is as lovely on Hank Williams's "I Saw the Light" as on a version of "Ave Maria." Because he doesn't have to prove himself saved or sanctified, he takes on the intrinsic authority of whatever song he sings. What makes his reworking of "Oh Happy Day" a triumph is how he doesn't adhere to some straitlaced rule book of gospel execution. Each of the artists here is a bit rebellious in that respect, but Neville—with his tattoos, gangster lean, and biker physique—is at ease with this rebelliousness in a way currently impossible for the "elect" of any church.

Unburdened by doctrinal disputes and freed of the responsibilities of congregational leadership, Aaron Neville gives voice to a breezier, happier form of faith. His work may lack an aura of supernatural genius and iron discipline, but it glows with the lambent grace of genuine humility so difficult for the most talented and influential defenders of Black Judeo-Christian traditions to attain.

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