The genre of gospel music has changed quite a bit in the past hundred years. Traditionally, gospel music was typified by the great choirs, men and women singing in unison and creating ethereal tones that transported people with their simple, soulful eloquence and vertical lyrics. Gradually, however, as the face of music itself changed and new genres were birthed, groups like the Blind Boys of Alabama would rise up and gather together the sounds of rhythm and blues until Andrae Crouch came along and brought even more change. In more recent days, artists like Kirk Franklin and Tye Tribbett, among others, have marched onto the scene, merging the contemporary pop and hip hop sounds with those traditional notes into a new brand of gospel.
Peter Link is yet another artist set to add his fingerprint to the soul of gospel music. Link’s resume is varied, boasting experience as an award-winning composer, lyricist, record producer, and performer, among other things. He’s written scores for film and television as well as for large-scale Broadway productions and it’s that theatrical element which plays heavily into his arrangements on his latest work, Goin’ Home: On Heaven and Beyond. In his own words, the recording was written as a “gospel cantata,” as a composition of music written and based around a spiritual text.
In this case, that text, or subject matter as it may be, is the subject of Heaven or of passing from this life to the next. Link shares that after a spiritual reading regarding those who had not prepared for their transition from life to death, “I thought to myself, “I’d like to go through that experience, when it comes, fully aware and alert, expectant joyful, and filled with spiritual curiosity. When it comes to that transition, we Americans tend to look the other way and pretend that it doesn’t exist. I don’t want to be like that." Thus, Link’s recording carries a sense of straightforwardness and offers a head on look into the face of death and what he believes lies beyond.
The recording opens up with a classic choral feel, mining the traditions of the gospel genre with “Goin’ Home (Opening)” but quickly opens up into something more modern with the funky bass guitar and blowing horns of “To My Father’s House,” strengthened by powerful lead vocals and a much more contemporary feel. Things slow down a bit with the entry of “Heaven” which again boasts great vocals alongside a building arrangement. The theology of the song takes the road less traveled from more traditional sects and offers a unique perspective here as well.
More funk in the intro and a touch of an island feel color “I Ain’t Gonna Grieve My Lord No More/I Got a Robe,” which, sadly, is one of the album’s least powerful tracks. The arrangement and delivery, with a male and female vocalist trading duties, just falls short, the song seeming trite and childish in the midst of these heavier topics. Perhaps that sense of new childhood is what is implied but, sadly, it fails.
Thankfully, there’s more to be heard and songs like “There’s a Mountain in My Way,” with its rousing piano work and big horns that stand out alongside a Latin-fueled bridge jam, “In Dat Great Gettin’ Up Mornin’,” and the traditional that segues into the modern take of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” that keep the train rolling. The latter in particular fares rather well, particularly as it builds, adding in a solid and successful infusion of hip hop into the arrangement and bridging the gap.
Without context, the rest of Link’s album falters however, as pieces like “Embrace the Rainbow,” “I Can’t Go Home,” and “What Could Have Been” tap far more into that theatrical bent and feel as though they don’t fit the overall template. Taken in context, though, the tracks make far more sense, seen as pieces of Link’s “gospel cantata” vision and holding their own.
In an overall sense, Peter Link’s Goin’ Home: On Heaven and Beyond is a work that reflects very much the heartbeat and experience of its composer. From the high profile performers heard to the varied arrangements that tackle multiple genre choices, Link’s passion and heart is heard here. And as an album it works pretty well. But one can only imagine that the artist envisions this recording as a live performance and that is something that would be well worth seeing.