RICK ELIAS AND THE CONFESSIONS
In late 1989 I was working for the Benson Company and was about ready to leave to go with the fledgling Frontline Music Group as they had decided to go on their own for distribution. During the final sales conference before the announcements of their departure I was having a few beers with Mike MacLane and Kent Songer of Frontline in their hotel room.
Mike asked if I wanted to hear something new that was going to be the big push for the new distribution company after they went out on their own. OF COURSE I DID!
We went down to Kent’s car in the parking garage of the hotel and Mike put in a blank cassette. Initially there was simply an acoustic guitar riff for several seconds. Then boom! A power chord followed a little heavier acoustic guitar with some seriously soulful, rocker vocals laid on top until a raucous and jangling chorus erupted and I was hooked. For the next thirty minutes or so I was introduced to what was to becomes Rick Elias and the Confessions.
Impressed didn’t even begin to describe what I was hearing. passionate vocals, stirring and at times unnerving lyrics, a blistering full frontal assault of Americana rock and roll that echoed the best of Springsteen, Mellencamp, Dylan and even the Violent Femmes. There was rough edged rock and subtle, nearly whispering vocals that were simply captivating. There were melodies both original and accessible. There were simply some of the best songs I had heard in a very long time. This would go down as one of the debut albums in CCM history.
Rick would go on to record two more studio project, the fabulous “10 Stories” and the understated, “Blink.” He would also gain notoriety for writing several songs for the tom hanks directed “That Thing You Do” in which he also appeared as the traveling band director. To most CCM fans he is one of the founding members of Rich Mullins’ “Ragamuffin Band.”
But in 1990 Christian music needed an authentic rock voice and Rick Elias was it. From vocals hat always felt like were at the edge of breaking with a Lou Reed meets John Mellencamp fervor. But the amazing musicianship and guttural btu passionate vocals would be lost if the lyrical content could not contend. Not only did they contend they were the perfect marriage.
As Elias struggled to keep his voice in check his subjects were those who have always struggled to find a voice of their own. These are not songs of the pristine and pretty stained glass pictures adorning the cathedrals, these are images and shadows of those longings and torments that haunt the alleys and dusty roads. These were a confessional in three minutes.
I was nothing/I was wild
Both man and child
And I’ll crawl into your arms with a guilty smile
I stand accused of a crime
It’s the truth I ain’t lying
This is my – confession of love
In Streets of Rome the vagabond does not struggle to see past white picket fences the guard not only the intrusion of the unwanted but attempt to mask that ugly truth hidden behind them. The truth that man will slave for that which he cannot keep and ignore that which has ultimate meaning. Melodic harmonica and a jangly mandolin are juxtaposed against the stinging reality of the songs content making a wonderful audio example of the lyrics message.
Underneath each finely manicured garden
Lives a stripped down bag of bones
And the gold they extract
They will only give back
To the goons in charge of all
All those gold lined street of Rome
Rick would have several songs from the record chart on Christian rock radio including one of the strongest cuts on the project, “The Word is Love.” In an evangelical word that makes political demands and teaches unBiblical principles regarding wealth and stature Elias loses his voice proclaiming the missing ingredient.
Don’t want no statues/No movie stars
Don’t need more saints/In luxury cars
I don’t want nobody/Pointing at me
Asking for my money/Say they’ll set me free
I only want one word/From high above
I only want one word…
The word is love…the word is love
It is not uncommon for Elias to make mention of his difficult upbringing and to phrase these struggles within the content of his songs, both figuratively and literally. these struggles are evident in the characters that populate the stirring final three songs that really should be listened to without a break. These final three songs are poignant and difficult, especially the first of the three, “Without One Word.”
In this song Elias takes on the character of a man imprisoned both by his actions and by the demons that haunt him and keep him realizing the state of grace.The songs starts in a very folk driven acoustic way similar almost to Springsteen’s Nebraska.
There’s a house where prisoners worship
Where honest men confess
I admit I was a theif
To the darkness in my chest
I admitted to the thrill to the killing I had done
It was funny man, it was tragic
The kind of person I’d become
The possible glimmer of hope for this individual is lost and the depravity of his internal sin is revealed in the chorus and his calloused heart could find no hope.
I would help you up a letter
And watch you dangle from a rope
And I would shine a light upon you
To make you see a ray of hope
I’d scratch and kick the love you’d give
Watch you bleed, lied down and hurt
Than I’d change my mind and kiss you
And say it all without one word.
He is blinded by his own position and reaches a climax that is not the norm for a song found the Christian music market. The hopelessness of many is too real and the market has shied away from this reality. Despite a bridge where the subject pleads he’s sorry finds an unfortunate and frightening result. With nearly no instrumentation Elias whispers.
In a house where prisoners worship
A heart beats scared to death
I got down on my knees
And claimed my innocence under my breath
I knelt there from betrayal
I put my temple to the gun
I felt finger twitch
And it was over…it was done
The following song, “Stones,” takes a similar character whose past was littered with memories that included a “time when these veins were thirsty” and a time when life “collapsed on myself like a human black hole.” But the hope that rises as with the music, this time more rock than folk, breathes hope into the picture.
Don’t ask me to sing like a caged pink canary
When I’m burning for freedom, not just sanctuary
Somebody roll away the stone
The second verse is a staggering work of images coiled together that spring out at the listener once unveiled in full.
I had a vision last night
The old man died in a broken down shack
While many miles away here in LA
I only felt the warm sun on my back
As I laid in the suite they were known to provide
I felt along dark shroud glowing down inside me
Than I opened up my window, uncovered my eyes
And I let out a scream from behind this disguise
While that warm sun burned hot, my wounds were cauterized
And it burned away scars that mask could never hide
Let the wind and the rain blows these four walls to hell
Someone hold me come mornin’
Somebody roll away the stone
But then the song takes a stark and riveting turn. After some truly creative guitar work and a driving climax the music all but stops leaving Elias’ voice to carry
There are no secrets in the city of angels
Only stories told revealing fears…
I am David
I would murder the innocent to have what I desire
I a Peter
Who would drown, out of faith, when he walked upon the water
Black as coal, yet made white as snow
By the red, red blood
The red, red blood
There are no secrets
There are no se – crets
The final words barely escape Elias’ lips. The authentic emotion and cracking voice reveal one, unlike the previous song, who is broken and humbled. Repentant. This song flows directly musically and lyrically into the album’s clincher, “Stripped.” With a stripped down instrumentation of lightly strummed acoustic guitar, hallow harmonica and Elias’ struggling voice we here”
Rain down your tender mercies
Cleanse my heart of dark secrecy
You know how soon I’d buy back one second if I could…
I am stripped, I am naked
I am humbled but not betrayed
Still a tear mirrors the reflection
Of every blemish and every stain
I am stripped
But not afraid.
It is this moment of stark reality when the repentant realizes his frailty and nakedness before an almighty creator. But there is love and compassion Elias breaks down and embraces this reality.
Cause your face to shine upon me Father
Let Your hand brush my hand and i will be free
Now I am stripped…
Still Your love, beyond expression
Laid bares my hearts remains
Elias’ wrote earlier his rejection of a father that did not treat him well, so to finally embrace a heavenly Father is both beautiful and surprising. In a rare surprise CCM Magazine included this album among their Top 100 of All Time. It is well deserved.