Known throughout the music industry as one of the most talented and prolific progressive-rock songwriters and artists, Neal Morse has the deft ability to craft songs that are musically complex, melodically compelling, and lyrically deep.
For most fans, he came to prominence upon the founding of one of the most well-respected and influential prog rock bands of all time – Spock’s Beard. That band would join Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree and The Flower Kings as the pantheon of a heavier version of prog-rock and would influence the next generation of players. Morse also continued to release solo albums and also formed another influential band, Transatlantic alongside then-Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy and members of Marillion and The Flower Kings, solidifying his musical pedigree.
The creative partnership with Portnoy continues to this day, as the very busy drummer, who has since left Dream Theater to work on a host of projects, including The Winery Dogs, Metal Allegiance and more recently Sons of Apollo, has appeared on a plethora of Morse’s recordings over the last 18 years.
Morse’s new album, Life & Times, which is set to be released on Feb. 16 on Radiant Records (through Metal Blade/Sony) is a stripped down, but equally evocative collection of music, that focuses more on thoughtfulness and reflection than on instrumental dexterity and nimbleness.
“This album has been brewing for a while. I am always writing songs and I write a lot of different kinds of songs, I always have. I don’t always write prog songs, obviously, or prog pieces. When my family and I go on vacation we listen to a lot of mellow music, or ‘feel good’ music. And I really like it, I like the way it makes me feel. So, with some of the tracks on this album, that was the goal. I wanted to make an album that you can put on and has a cool vibe. It still has depth, but I was going for the simpler groove and vibe. It’s the singer/songwriter album I always wanted to make,” Morse said.
Faith has been an integral part of Morse’s life and career for more than 15 years. Since becoming a fervent adherent to Christianity, this faith has permeated much of the music he has created, beginning with the masterful Testimony album completed in 2003, and including the spectacular prog-rock epic The Similitude of a Dream, with the Neal Morse Band in the fall of 2016.
While genuine and heartfelt, for much of Morse’s works the religious tone and topicality is generally expressions of his own thoughts and feelings as opposed to outright and overt proselytizing. This carries forth on Life & Times as well where it’s more about Morse celebrating life, pondering deeper, existential questions and just opening his heart and soul to his creative muse.
“It really is a mixed bag of music. Some of the songs have been around for a while. Old Alabama is from the early 1990s. What happened was that on my last tour with the Neal Morse Band I started writing songs during the day, a lot of which were about whatever I was just feeling or observing during that day. You can hear that on Selfie in the Square, where I am just writing about what I was seeing at a square in Luxembourg, while Manchester came after I just took a stroll through that city. I really enjoyed that process and found many of the songs were along that similar vein,” he explained.
“That was going to be the whole album – all these sorts of observational, slice-of-life songs. But then I went back through my phone, all the way back to 2013 in some cases, and checked out every little song idea and that’s where I found some ideas that led to You and Me and Everything as well as [lead-off track] Livin’ Lightly. I thought I’d write a song and try my best to make you feel what I am feeling, or something like that. And though that was cool and then there was this other little idea about living lightly and I put those two together.
“The impetus for the album, the real catalyst, were the songs that I was writing on tour, Then I thought, ‘okay I will make a singer/songwriter album and started looking around for whatever else I had.’ While I don’t think the album is overtly existential, one reviewer did put it that it seemed like I was taking stock – just kind of looking at where I was going and hey this is great, God’s brought me to a beautiful place.”
One song in particular, He Died at Home, deviates somewhat from the methodology and point of view of the other songs. But it is possibly the most powerful and poignant track on Life & Times.
“The catalyst for that happened on the Similitude tour when I got a text that a friend of a friend who was ex-military had passed away. He had a troubled life and committed suicide. And then I remembered I was at a prayer meeting at Fort Campbell in Clarksville, Tennessee and a lady said, ‘would you pray for our servicemen, we’re going to a funeral almost every week.’ And they just say, ‘they died at home,’” he said.
“I Googled soldier suicide because I didn’t really know that much about the topic and I found an article about a soldier named William Busbee who had committed suicide after coming home from Afghanistan. I wrote the song mainly based on that article but also based on some of these other experiences.”
Coming to his faith transformed Morse’s health, well-being and revitalized his artistic spirit to a great degree, as he has been amazingly prolific over the last 15 years, releasing more than an album a year, including various solo projects, Transatlantic and worship albums.
“What really changed me and what has really lifted the sadness out of my heart, as I wrote about on the Testimony album the line ‘I woke up one day and realized I wasn’t sad any more’ – was Jesus; was becoming a Christian. That’s what really has given me the lasting change that I needed. And it’s still going on. God is still dealing with me about things, cleansing me from attitudes and conditions of the heart: anger about this thing, envy about that thing. It’s an ongoing process but that’s the thing that has made the difference for me and continues to make the difference,” he explained.
“The idea is to present the good news in such a way that someone can receive it. If somebody comes into a restaurant, you try to have it be a nice environment and you want it to be conducive and welcoming, so they will enjoy eating the meal. You don’t want people to come into the restaurant and you just slap them in the face with the piece of meat. There are times where you have to give hard messages for people, but again it would be on God’s timing an God would prepare people’s hearts to receive it. For me, writing and performing music is really just about sharing and trying to be a good steward of what God has given me.”
Morse admits for many years, earlier in his career when he was renowned for his work with iconic prog-rock legends Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic, he fell into the stereotypical rock and roll lifestyle and was heading towards the bad end of a downward spiral.
“I was playing in night clubs and partying a lot and slept around a lot and it was all something I tried to stop but just couldn’t stop. I tried to quit smoking and I couldn’t quit smoking, so my voice wasn’t very good. I just kind of lived with this self-destructive stuff that I couldn’t quit, and I came to the Lord over time. He just kind of took those things out of my life, slowly. It wasn’t like I walked to the altar and everything changed. There was a lot to work on,” he said.
“The biggest thing was I always was feeling like a failure, but it was more than a feeling, I believed it was who I was. I didn’t think it was a feeling, I thought it was a fact. And so along with that came depression and drinking and all kinds of things, and trying to survive life just thinking, ‘well, I am never going to fulfill who I am, and I am always going to be disappointed and I am always going to be sad that my life didn’t really turn out.’ And I didn’t think anything was going to change that.”
Obviously, it did as his faith continues to transform his life for the better.
Morse will be touring in support of Life & Times, and it will truly be a solo tour as he will perform alone on stage.
“It’s just me with a guitar and keyboard and looping pedal and a little bit of percussion. I will be doing as much as I feel I can with all of that. Nothing will be pre-recorded, everything will be done right in front of people and that makes it much more enjoyable for me too. I can kind of create a track to solo to, which is a lot more fun. Soloing on an acoustic guitar over nothing is a little weird to me,” he said with a chuckle.
“The thing that’s really fun about looping is it can be spontaneous. Every time I do Livin’ Lightly I do it a little different. That said, you can only do so much, and you can really only do what the song will allow you to do. I am going to try very hard not to overdo it; it’s very easy to get carried away.”
At present, Morse said he is coming to Canada towards the end of the late winter/early spring, playing in Quebec City on April 18 (venue to be determined), the next night in Montreal at Le Café Campus before wrapping up at The Great Hall in Toronto on April 21.
For more information on Morse and his various projects, visit http://www.nealmorse.com,
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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