(El & L Records, CD)
To many, “religion” is something of a four-letter word. Thanks to the headline-grabbing exploits of fanatics of all denominational stripes, even the most innocent expressions of faith are often viewed with skepticism. It’s a sad state, really. The violent atrocities and intellect-numbing fascism purveyed by a zealous few have skewed our broader perception of the divine. Historically, religious devotion has been the inspiration for many of the world’s great artistic triumphs. And why not? One’s relationship to God — regardless of what name you give him/her — is intensely personal. But lost in the furor over religious extremism is the simple truth that many of us turn to a higher power for one basic, human need: comfort.
With his latest solo album, 1000 Doors, Vermont native Elden Kelly — now based in Michigan — offers comfort by turning his eye inward on his own faith. The record comprises 10 “original musical settings” — i.e., “songs” — for voice and guitar based on the sacred 19th-century writings of Bahá’í. For the uninitiated, Bahá’í is a sort of Whitman’s Sampler of divinity. The monotheistic religion’s basic tenet is that each of the world’s major faiths is essentially the same at its core, and that each religion’s prophet — Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna and Bahá’í founder Bahá’u’lláh — is but an evolution of the last, divine messenger sent to fill a specific need at a specific time. Nifty.
Kelly approaches his source material with humble reverence. Much like Sufjan Stevens’ numerous musical explorations of Christianity, Kelly is quietly awed by God’s grace. The result is an intimate collection of works that, whatever your religious inclinations or disinclinations, makes for a stirring listen.
From opening invocation “The Word” through the disc’s benediction, “The Seven Valleys,” Kelly displays near blessed control of his abilities. In both style and tone, his voice evokes memories of another grace-struck tunesmith, Jeff Buckley. The late singer is an obvious influence. And at the risk of musical sacrilege, Kelly boasts similarly emotive chops. Though not always as otherworldly as Buckley — occasionally Kelly’s ideas outstrip his ability — by and large he possesses the same knack for soothing and soaring lines. His voice is literally divinely inspired, and it can alternately raise gooseflesh and calm the wayward soul. I might not sign up for the Bahá’í newsletter, but if Kelly were singing it I would certainly listen.