It seems incongruous at first. Bluegrass guitar and claw-hammer banjo. Used in a meditation on the lofty themes of the nature of knowledge, this instrumentation results in a song that sounds as if it would be more at home on a front porch in some Appalachian hollow than in the lofty halls of the academy, where Steve Bell’s muse for this song, N.T. Wright, spends his time.
Yet this opening song, the title track on Bell’s newest project, Wouldn’t You Love to Know? accomplishes precisely what the lyrics suggest: “If the essence of a thing / Begs to hear your tender wooing / Wouldn’t you love to know?” Lyrically evoking Wright’s deeply biblical insight that knowledge is inseparable, indeed impossible, without love, the song hooks us with both an urgency and wistfulness. In an age where the “severing damage” of violent mastery has been done, there is an urgency to knowing the world in love. But there is no love without wistful wooing.
To know as you are known
Merely love as you are loved
Gently turn this fertile loam
To unearth the fragrance of the lover’s drug
A world created in love, overflowing with the Creator’s love, can only be known in love. Just put your spade into the soil, turn the loam and smell the fragrance of the Creator’s love.
‘Tribulations not withstanding’
The second track, “In Praise of Decay,” plays off of a Malcolm Guite poem by the same name. Themes of knowing and wisdom continue to emerge, deepened by imagery of growth, decay and love. While human sinfulness has a “manufactured grim disgrace” that betrays our beginning “with viral acts of greed and waste,” the artist can still see that “planted in the midst of these bewildering displays / Lies a garden tended by the lover’s grace.” And so we are called anew to such gentle gardening, “of letting go and planting seeds” because “Blessed are the ones who harrow wisdom of the past.” Harrowing wisdom, uncovering a lost wisdom, turning that fertile loam anew to kinder and wiser ways of living, cultivating “the seeds of love / the shoot of faith / the tree of hope.”
Without arrogance, but with deep humility, Steve Bell continues to grow into the role of a wizened elder, an artist of profound wisdom in our midst. There is no cheap sentimentality to this album, no easy answers, no platitudes of love that cover up the real pain and sorrow of our time. In the profoundly beautiful song, “The Strange Blessing of Bearing,” the artist sings,
Love enwombed in God’s creation
Fortifies the soul’s elation
Hearts on fire to love attending
Tribulations not withstanding
Indeed, only in the fire of such tribulations might our hearts be on fire to attend to the love longing to be born anew in God’s creation.
Cultural critique & celebration
Wouldn’t You Love to Know? is an album of music and poetry, and more. The accompanying book goes beyond liner notes. In telling the story of each song, Bell invites us both into the creative process of his songwriting and opens up paths of deeper reflection, even meditation. Moreover, the book itself is beautifully and evocatively designed by Roberta Landreth, and includes a powerful portrait of Steve Bell by artist Roger Schmidt. If you know Bell at all, you will know of his infectious and delightful smile. This portrait captures another side of Steve Bell – a serious gaze, almost a scowl, in the face of all that has been lost in the past years.
This is a wonderful album. From the incisive cultural critique of “Long Shadows,” to Steve’s tender testimony to the life of his father in “In Memoriam,” the Taizé-like chants of “Do Not Judge” and “Together,” and the marching band celebration of new creation hope in “The Home of Our God,” this work of art is a gift. This is not an album for easy listening. Bell invites us to put in the work of paying close attention, dwelling in the imagery, drinking in the meanings, letting the music wash over us, take us where it will. From the pensive to the whimsical, with prophetic insight and priestly care, this is art for such a time as this.
You can purchase Bell’s new CD here.