Heath McNease - The Weight of Glory: Songs Inspired by the Works of C. S. Lewis
Artist: Heath McNease
Album: The Weight of Glory: Songs Inspired by the Works of C. S. Lewis
Release Date: August 14, 2012
Reviewer: Lee Brown
- The Great Divorce
- A Grief Observed
- Mere Christianity
- The Problem of Pain
- The Four Loves
- Screwtape Letters
- Till We Have Faces
- Surprised by Joy
- The World’s Last Night
- Weight of Glory
Before we get into what makes this album so spectacular, allow me to explain why this review is being published almost two months after the album itself was released. Back in August I was in the midst of being a new father, completing the last month of my Master’s degree, and working on other reviews for the site. For all these reasons and more, I was only ever able to bust out a nice little interview with Heath about his then pending release The Weight of Glory.
But this album never left my head. In the time since it came out, I’ve been assigned half a dozen albums to review and purchased several stellar new addictions to listen to just for the enjoyment of it (Lecrae, Becoming the Archetype, and As I Lay Dying among them!). And yet as my plate cleared of my most recent run of reviews, it wasn’t any of the above albums that I wanted to dive back into… it was Heath’s love letter to the writings of C. S. Lewis. If that doesn’t speak volumes, I don’t know what else will… but I’m certainly going to try.
First of all, C. S. Lewis is inarguably the most influential Christian thinker since St. Augustine of Hippo, who lived over 1,500 years ago. Pick up almost any Christian book and a quote from Lewis is almost guaranteed to be found somewhere in the mix. Dozens of recording artists have named or themed albums (The W’s Trouble With X, Becoming the Archetype’s Dichotomy), songs (Phish’s “Prince Caspian”), or even the entire band name (Sixpence None the Richer) after Lewis’s writings. Let us not leave out those big-budget adaptations of his Chronicles of Narnia children’s books, where Liam Neeson voices Aslan. In light of this, any attempt to craft a musical work based entirely on Jack’s (what Clive Staples Lewis preferred his friends call him) writings immediately and imminently runs the risk of death by comparison.
The amazing thing is, not only does Heath produce a fantastically pleasing musical experience, he also captures the essence, theme, and thrust of each of the discourses, novels, and/or characters each track is based upon. Therefore, fans of C. S. Lewis’ incomparable corpus will find new joys with each passing track and fans of deeply entertaining musical fare will discover an album worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Professor Lewis.
For those who have read this far and still expect that this is one of Heath’s hip-hop flavored albums, allow me to here inform you that this album is clearly singer-songwriter in genre. The album is heavily driven by an acoustic guitar and features the piano on most every track. While there are drum tracks used throughout, they never overtake the acoustic experience.
Each track on the album is based upon an individual writing (or character, in the case of “Edmund”) of Lewis’. From “The Great Divorce” all the way through to the title track, “The Weight of Glory,” Heath brings some of the most powerful and catchy songs he has ever produced. For Heath to capture the literary heart in such powerful ways is amazing enough, but to produce so many songs together that will easily get stuck in your head and heart, took something of a master’s touch.
In order not to end up writing the longest review of my career (present or future), I will forgo the practice of breaking down each song and instead bring your focus to a handful of tracks that elevate this album to the first 5 star rating I have ever given. Rest assured, however, knowing that even the tracks that don’t get specific mention are worthy of the overall rating.
The album begins with “The Great Divorce.” “The Great Divorce” was Lewis’ examination of heaven, hell, and purgatory (yes, purgatory) that many compare to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Heath’s love letter to this writing sets the tone of the overall album for grasping both the simple and the sublime in the same breath. Musically, it is polished and comes with one of many hooks on the album that will draw you in and stay in your head for weeks.
“A Greif Observed” brings a somber and harrowing look at the moment in Jack’s life where he lost the greatest love of his life; his wife Joy. The track is powerfully resplendent and somber all at once. Heath picks up on the many questions Jack presented to God, including his struggle in knowing that his desire to wish her back from before the throne of God would be a selfish and evil thing… though that was all he could desire for so long.
“Mere Christianity,” possibly Lewis’s most popular non-fiction work, is at once an apologetic (defense of the faith against those outside of it) and a polemic (defense of proper faith to those inside of it) look at the Christian faith through the eyes of a “simple” lay thinker. The song has a catchy coffee house vibe going for it, complete with claps driving the beat along. As with the rest of the album, the hook is catchy and powerful. Most importantly, however, this is the only track on the album to feature Heath rapping. Because it is only used once in the album, its insertion in this song makes it feel fresh and even more important. Heath also uses his rapping talents strategically as he covers Lewis’ famous argument that Jesus could never be considered merely a “good” man/teacher/example. Because He claimed to be God, He must either be crazy, a liar, or exactly who He said He was (Liar, Lunatic, or Lord to fit Lewis’ vernacular).
“The Screwtape Letters” is another of Lewis’s most popular and powerful pieces. The book is written from the purview of a “senior” demon who is writing to a younger demon that has been charged with attacking a specific life. Most famously, Lewis is said to have disliked writing this book more than any because of the frame of mind he had to get into to write as a demon.
The song “The Screwtape Letters,” however, takes the perspective of the man being afflicted by the demons. By starting the song with the line, “The safest road to hell is just the gentle slope, no signs or guides along the way,” shows McNease’s intense attention to the details, as well as the broad themes Lewis provides. Musically, the track is slightly upbeat and Heath’s voice is polished to a high degree. Those only familiar with his rapping may be surprised at just how great his vocals can be in “pure” singing. Perhaps the only recorded material based on this book that could surpass what McNease has recorded would be the book on tape version read by Monty Python’s own John Cleese.
The last track I’ll highlight, though many other are deserving, is “Edmund.” “Edmund” has the distinction of being the only track not based upon a writing, but on a character. Edmund Pevensie is one of the key characters of the Chronicles of Naria series of books. In terms of the song, McNease focuses in on Edmund’s act of betrayal as he aligns himself with the White Witch. As such, the song shares its dark moments of intense introspection as Edmund reflects on betraying his brother. The most powerful moment is where McNease compares Edmund to Judas (an apt comparison, as Lewis had Aslan as the Christ-figure and Edmund as the cause of his death at the hands of the White Witch).
Overall: Heath McNease made a bold move in choosing to tackle the works of one of the most beloved and intelligent thinkers this world has ever seen. The payoff, however, is huge. The choice to avoid making The Weight of Glory a hip-hop album was wise and led to an amazing compilation of acoustic based masterpieces. Nearly ever song on the album is powerful, supremely intelligent, and catchy. IVM considers a “5 star” rating to be “Career defining” and this album lives up to that label in every way. You owe it to yourself to sit down with a good (C. S. Lewis) book and give several long listens to The Weight of Glory. Since you can get it for free from McNease’s bandcamp page, there is no excuse not to get this incredible album. That said, this album is worth supporting the artist with an actual donation.
RIYL: C. S. Lewis, Chris Rice, Josh Garrells, Heath McNease (the rapper version)