Poet Priest dropped earlier today, but it’s already making waves. Even the most casual affirmations seem to eclipse anything I might have to say here. The press is quick. And trying to add something to the conversation here is certainly a challenge, indeed one that usually doesn’t show up.
To say this album has been highly-anticipated is an understatement. Cherry Blossoms was my first taste of Squyre’s work this past year, and “The Pestle and the Mortar” was easily my most-played track from any artist for 2020, serving as my emotional crutch in large part for many moments of fear and anxiety.
The album’s release follows several tracks debuting as singles: “Dead Horse”, “You Bring the Morning”, “River of Fire”, “Before You God”, and “Love Never Fails” all set the bar high for the full record. Of course, half of the album now needs to be mentally recontextualized to the specific track order and other songs.
In short, this is arguably a worship album – but far from any sort of commercial equivalent. These songs are uncomfortably honest and raw, maybe not to the degree some might claim, but it’s certainly refreshing. Squyres appropriately employs his own brand of poetry thoroughly across these tracks. But musically, the album is just as interesting. It builds on the foundation laid by Cherry Blossoms, but it easily pole vaults over its predecessor.
“Dead Horse” opens things up, and this is what I can only describe as a power move. It’s a pensive, emotionally-driven track with incredible lyrics. In my mind, it’s the type of song that would work well as a closing track. Putting this front and center is a point of confidence in what follows. Were the rest of the tracks passable, this album would burn out quickly.
Here is my harvest of heartbreak
Here is my threshing of tears
I’d give you my dream but I lost it
Down in the locust years
Still praise is the song that I’m singing
Even though sorrow’s my tune
My love is only a whisper now
But nothing is wasted with you
What a way to open an album. This is a striking lament, but its laced with hope. It’s the intertwined nature of how pain produces endurance and hope. It’s a reminder that though life may lay us bare, the Lord is faithful. Even when our faith is weak, He is true to us.
But this is only the first verse of a lyrically-dense song, and this is the first song of a lyrically-dense album. Squyres puts his best foot forward.
Musically, much of the album sits somewhere in the vein of folk, new wave, and gospel. These are charismatic-adjacent church songs. None of this is surprising – Squyres leads worship at the church pastored by John Mark McMillan’s father, and it’s only natural there would be some sonic overlap.
But Squyres’ wordplay is more astonishing and daring than McMillan’s. He uses all sorts of imagery, much consisting of the poor, rural, and suffering populace, as a backdrop to God’s grace and providence.
Undeniably, this album plays on mood – it takes a humble posture. People have drawn comparisons to Bob Dylan, and given I’ve yet to dive into Dylan’s catalog, I’ll have to take their word for it. These are songs that rely on subtle, cinematic dynamics to incredible effect.
The controversially-named “No Resurrection” is surprisingly theologically-verbose.
Bury my afflictions
With my unrighteous years
I don’t want no resurrection
To raise any of my tears
It’s a beautiful sentiment – that the new life will be free of pain and suffering. The things that haunt us endlessly will come to pass, be it our own sins or present challenges.
Squyres is not afraid of difficult topics in the slightest, though many are mentioned nonchalantly. Take “You Bring the Morning”:
You bring the stillborn baby to my shoulder
You bring your sorrow to every fallen soldier
You bring your passion to the graves that we stand over
Young love that we lost, we will find as we grow older
Elsewhere, there are mentions of miscarriages, divorce, and disobedience. These are, at least partially, not personal narrative. But these difficult instances are all treated with respect for their emotional weight. They’re always paired with reassurance and hope as well. This isn’t a needlessly-bleak album, nor is it vainly joyful.
“Love Never Fails” is a particular powerful track, dispelling many misconceptions of God’s nature:
A weapon will prosper
A levy will break
The heartbreaker gives you
More than you can take
The trouble in trusting
A savior not seen
You find out he don’t fail when he don’t intervene
This is a huge challenge to the prosperity Gospel: life will have instances where we CAN’T face our circumstances, surely not on our own strength. And God’s ways are inherently unlike ours – even when the things we pray for don’t come to pass, the Lord is sovereign.
“Kingfisher” is perhaps the most moving track of the album. It’s a bit forward lyrically, speaking to an encounter with nature and resulting ruminations. But even within this, some powerful truths are buried beneath captivating strings and a booming crescendo.
Like horses foaming with the sweat of captives breaking free
Like mother’s milk into the belly of a broken reed
I go out walking on the mountain where the thunder rolls
I smell the rain of heaven coming to the earth below
I see a kingfisher ascending to his rightful throne
The meek inheriting a city they can call their own
It feels like a punch in the gut in the best way. It is a maranatha longing for the day of consummation. It’s a celebration of the beauty of God’s creation and an acknowledgement of heaven’s inverted Kingdom.
“River of Fire” is not necessarily as compelling, but it feels like a proper bookend when paired with “Dead Horse”.
Early I marveled that I was alive
Early afflicted, a thorn in my side
Under this glory I learned to believe
Somehow always feeling, what eyes could not see
River of fire cut me through
River of fire make me true
Much like the opening song, we see faith in its most vulnerable moments. Affliction, thorns, lack of site. There’s an ask for God’s power and presence to arrive. All of this culminates to a gospel choir end with a repeated refrain of “Holy Spirit come again”. Much like “Cherry Blossoms” of his first album, this song has a springtime, blooming feel. It feels verdant and lively, and subtle synth really helps cement this feeling.
Admittedly, it’s hard to sum up the impact of this album. Squyres had high ambition for this project and frankly, he nailed it. Poet Priest is incredibly well-rounded, musically-diverse, and lyrically-intense. Again, I wouldn’t argue Squyres is unique in his honest approach – but it’s still rare enough that I can’t help but admire his approach and eloquence and he wrestles like Jacob with the ways of God. Cherry Blossoms pales in comparison to this new set of tracks, and that’s saying something. My only complaint would be there are a few statements that are a bit theologically-suspect. But understanding this as a poetic, artistic work first and foremost, it’s also easy to see how I might misread a few things. I wouldn’t say any of this detracts from the songs being incredibly captivating and powerful. I don’t cry much, and I’m honestly wishing I was experiencing this album in a different mindset than where I’m at currently. But even in numbness, doubt, and exhaustion, Poet Priest is like a wrecking ball to all manner of emotional barricades. This will undeniably be one of the best releases this year.