NEAL MORSE: Life & Times

I can hear it now. “Oh great, here comes Jeff again, talking about Neal Morse again. Is that all he listens to?” Oh, maybe you don’t know me quite that well yet, but it does sound like something my kids would say, so it fits either way. So let’s do it!

Released By: Radiant Records
Release Date: February 16th, 2018
Genre: Acoustic

2018 Life & Times Tour Date

Neal Morse, the man with the golden touch musically. He seems capable of doing most anything, and when he does, it is beautiful and top-notch. His musical ventures never seem to cease, but continue to grow and expand. He is probably best known as being a big name in the modern prog rock scene due to the popularity of Spock’s Beard, that he and his brother Alan were instrumental in forming back in 1992, but has sense produced an overwhelming amount of amazing solo releases in the same musical vein. So if you want prog, Neal is the man.

Neal Morse with Transatlantic

Need more prog? Check his other band, Transatlantic (left), a super group basically, feature Neal alongside of other top-notch amazing musicians from other famous musicians in the prog scene.

Need some radio flavored commercial rock? Well step right up to some Flying Colors (below), another super group of types, where Neal is again joined by some amazing talent from other popular bands and have produced two (so far) of the most perfectly crafted releases filled with hooks and harmonies galore.

Need a little Christian praise music? Neal has released…I’ve lost track…six? seven? praise albums. I’m telling you, the man must live and breath masterfully crafted music.

Neal Morse with Flying Colors

On top of all of that, his main solo work since 2003 (when he started focusing on making music more related to his Christian faith), now tagges as the Neal Morse Band, continues to churn out some of the most fantastical releases, nine so far, that cover all kinds of styles — rock, hard rock, metal and prog — to the praise of fans worldwide.

With all of that going on, and considering the intense and complex musical arrangements he usually creates, it is no surprise to find the man, at times, slows down and writes and records some equally as amazing simple, singer-songwriter flavored releases. That would be a style along the lines of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Still & Nash and the like. Often flowing into a soft rock flavor, the general idea is a more stripped down, laid back, acoustic flavored beautiful music. If you can’t handle slowing down like that, this album may not be for you, and you can simply choose from his other musical ventures mentioned above — but you’re missing out on some real beauty here.

Life & Times is the second time in the last few years that Neal has given us a more laid back release like this. 2014’s Songs from November hit the scene to mixed reviews (sadly), and was to me a breath of fresh air filled with tracks revealing intimate and more touching lyrics than is usually able to be offered through hard rock and prog. I found Songs from November to be a phenomenal release that I still listen to frequently to this day. This new one, while only in my possession a couple weeks, is growing to that feeling too.

The beauty and splendor that came through on Songs of November is likewise shining through here, though overall musically the feeling is just a bit more stripped-down this time around. Filled with melodies, harmonies and touching lyrics and delivery, Life & Times should move you and bless you with themes that, while personal and often related to Neal, are topics and events that most all humans can identify with on some level.

The opening track Livin’ Lightly essentially sets the pace and flavor for the whole album, letting you know:

I thought I’d write a song to tell you all the way I feel, but it ain’t no big deal.

I just thought I’d lay it down and try my best to keep it real

like a little Neil…Young.

And I hope it makes you feel just a little lazy, like if you take a little time and lay your crazy down.

That thought pretty much sums up the feel and direction of this whole release in my opinion — slow down, relax, enjoy, relate, love. Which leads us into track two, “Good Love is On the Way,” a relationship song of young love which includes the humorous line “he’s got his man-bun working,” so you know it is a classic. The keys and strings/cellos added to this slightly upbeat tune cause it to flow so smoothly and lovely to bring the story alive.

“Joanna” is a slow paced, somewhat melancholy song of missing love. “Joanna, I thought it was me you would give your life to; Joanna I’ll always believe that one day I’ll find you” is the line that makes me wonder who exactly this missing Joanna is. The music draws you in, the lyrics paint the picture, and the hooks touch the heart.

“Selfie in the Square” is one of my favorites for sure. On first listen, my teen daughter was in the room, and overheard him sing the chorus, and exclaimed “sorry, he is too old to be talking about selfies.” Teens, ha! The song seems definitely autobiographical about life on the road. In this case, he is on tour, in Luxembourg with a day off, and misses his wife. He describes the sights and sounds of the area and how her presence would make things much different. He misses her, and so resigns to simply take a selfie in the square and post it to her. Simply lovely.

Want something to tear at your heart strings? A simple song, and a touching story that is vividly laid out about William, a soldier who survived military life and war, but then “He Died at Home.” Life after war changed him:

He loved the Army, it’s all he ever wanted

To serve his country, and look death in the face undaunted

But after a couple of tours the fire in him died

You can’t watch friends be killed and stay the same inside

He told his mom “you’d hate me if you knew the things I’ve done”

I will never hate you, you are my beloved son

He said “No mom, the son you loved died somewhere over there”

But William didn’t die in the combat zone, He died at home

Post traumatic stress disorder was the problem, drugs didn’t help, and he ultimately took his own life to stop the voices in his head.

“She Changed Her Mind Again” touches on how early love is unpredictable. He gives the girl time to think it out, and she’s changed her mind again, and now says she loves him. A lovely little love-song ditty.

I admit, on first listen, “Wave on the Ocean,” with its repetitive bass line and simple song structure struck me as less favorable. However, on repeat listens it drew me in, as it builds into an island or Calypso feel that is near impossible to not start dancing and singing along with it. “You make me feel like a wave on the ocean…man I can feel it, a love that feels so free, and it’s keeping me alive” — just feel it and enjoy.

“You, Me and Everything” again may be autobiographical, looking at the good old days when he was a “broken down musician with a zero cash flow.” And through all of the struggles, they had each other. “Manchester” is another upbeat fun time about a sunny day in Manchester by the sea, where like in the selfie song he vividly describes the beauty of the area and waiting for his love. Halfway through, the song takes a cute twist in the story line, thanks to Neal’s friend in the UK. I won’t spoil it, check it out.

“Lay Low” is like a return to the opening track, where he just wants to lay low for a while, slow down, unplugged from the world and from rock and roll and concentrate on love and the important things in life; with the insightful line “It’s what we give for free that gives us freedom.” The shuffle feel of the music gives it a country pop sound and sets the laid back groove that drives this song home and makes you want to lay low as well.

“Old Alabama” is a yearning for home song, with hauntingly beautiful female guest vocals on the first verse and throughout the chorus which brings a different life than found usually in Neal’s music, and adds great contrast when Neal comes in subsequent verses. The message? No matter where life takes you, a yearning to go back to the state of ones childhood can call out to anyone. “Got a postcard, picture perfect, of a time and a place that I once called home… Familiar smiles and blue sky for miles, and as I looked at the picture it spoke to me, said come on home… Headed down to old Alabama…I’ve got friends in Old Alabama, that’s where I belong.” Another laid back track with a mildly country flair that comes out just marvelous.

The album closes out with one of the most important songs on the album in my opinion, and it affects me in a way very similar to the track “My Time of Dying” from the November album. “If I Only Had a Day” discusses what he would do if he only had a year, month, week, and day left to live. Things would change, life and actions would change, and he looks at how he would live, relationships that he would seek to restored with family and loved ones. “No one here is promised tomorrow, each day is the first, or your last day on Earth.” Not a somber song as one might expect, but actually slightly upbeat to make you ponder the topic. A favorite for sure and one that almost ranks up there with heart changers like “Cat’s in the Cradle” (Harry Chapin).

Neal is a most accomplished musician, and “musical genius” is often used alongside his name. His back catalog of music is beyond impressive. His talent and musical variety is beyond amazing. And never one to be locked in a box, his risk-taking at times like this show his commitment to making music as art and as an emotional vehicle. It also shows that and he is not content with simply sticking to the same direction, and just how diverse his talent really goes. He has the chops to create and perform the overly-complex tracks as well as the simple and lovely music we have here.

While I may have initially been expecting a Songs from November part 2, which contained tracks of an only-slightly more upbeat nature, it did not take long before I  fell in love with Life & Times. It is touching at times, inspiring at times, tearful at times, fun at times, and thought engaging at most every turn — it is the whole package emotionally. And while Neal’s hard rocking fans may cringe, I pray they would consider slowing down and take a chance at enjoying livin’ lightly for a bit. It is worth it.

Neal solo photo shot by Joey Pippin

About Author