Gavin Bryars is not a rock star. He’s a modern classical composer, well-known for his albums based upon unusual themes. For example, he released as album based upon the legend of the Titanic’s string ensemble that played as the ship was sinking, an album that came out several years before the movie. This particular album, however, is entirely based upon a recording of an English tramp singing this simple chorus: “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet/Never failed me yet/Jesus’ blood never failed me yet/There’s one thing I know/For He loves me so…”
This chorus is looped and played over and over again for the entire 74 minutes of the album. However, Bryars creates a beautiful string arrangement that develops slowly underneath the recording, a string arrangement that is sparse, yet serene and nostalgic. As the album progresses, the strings grow more powerful and in tune with the tramp singing, as more instruments join in. In the end, the tramp is joined in his singing by Tom Waits. Some people will probably be put off by Waits’ voice. At times, he sounds like a drunken sailor. However, his voice holds a strength and grit that the tramp’s warbly and thin voice lacks.
It might sound boring, listening to the tramp’s voice over and over again like that, even with the string arrangements. However, I have listened to this album many times and I still don’t find it boring or repetitive. I find it to be quite peaceful and relaxing; I often listen to it when I go to sleep. Maybe it’s the off-kilter way the tramp sings the chorus, or the very words he’s singing.
Bryars does an excellent job with this album, writing pieces that strengthen and bolster the tramp’s voice without overpowering it. His arrangements are subtle, restrained, and dignified, letting the spotlight shine on the tramp. More importantly, this album does not trivialize what the tramp is singing. The words he is singing are never presented in a mocking or derisive way. They are presented as is, and the listener can derive from them what they want. However, Bryars does include an example of the power contained within the tramp’s singing. In the liner notes, he writes:
When I copied the loop… I left the door of the recording studio open… while I went downstairs to get a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual, and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping. I was puzzled until I realized that the tape was still playing and they had been overcome by the old man’s unaccompanied singing.
We could argue why people find this recording of a tramp singing this chorus so powerful. However, it most likely has to do with the fact that this man, utterly destitute by the world’s standards, still has the faith in his Lord and Saviour to sing these words.
It brought tears to my eyes while writing this review.
This review originally appeared on the Campus Impact homepage.