Whenever I described Woven Hand’s music in the past, I could usually get away with referencing the O Brother, Where Are Thou soundtrack, Flannery O’Connor, an Old Testament prophet, and maybe a hellfire and brimstone sermon or two. However, with Mosaic, such a description seems woefully inaccurate. Primarily because Mosaic finds David Eugene Edwards abandoning much of the dark American roots music that could always be heard at Woven Hand’s (and before that, Sixteen Horsepower’s) core.
Well, “abandoned” might be too strong of a word. It might be more accurate to say that Edwards has truly gone back to his roots, sidestepping rootsy Americana altogether and returning back to the Old Country.
Previous records conjured up images of haunted bayous, smoke-filled revival tents in hidden Appalachian valleys, and the desert spaces of the American South. Mosaic, however, takes the listener through black German forests, ivy-covered cathedrals lying in ruins, and weathered hovels in the stark grips of a Scandinavian winter.
There are moments throughout Mosaic where I could swear I’m listening to classic Dead Can Dance circa In The Realm Of The Dying Sun or such apocalyptic folk acts as Current 93, Death In June, and even The Revolutionary Army Of The Infant Jesus.
It can make for an absolutely gripping listen, as much as anything Edwards has done to date. “Breathing Bull” sets the eerie mood; the haunting whistles and drones filter through, sounding like twilight settling on abandoned forest roads, forlorn birds crying out overhead. But the drones and bagpipes that open up “Winter Shaker” are simply ominous, and become more so with each passing second, until Edwards’ quaking voice comes in with some of the most abstract yet worship-ful lyrics in his career.
Make no mistake about it, Mosaic is a praise and worship album, albeit one that would leave most CCM and Nashville types a-trembling and agape. It’s a logical progression, as each Woven Hand album has been more direct with regards to Edwards’ Christianity that the previous one. And Mosaic is the most upfront yet. The weight of conviction that Edwards brings to bear in his voice and lyrics on this album can be downright chilling, such as when Edwards cries out “All His glory” or “Alleluia” on “Winter Shaker.”
“Twig” lifts words from St. Ambrose’ “Eternal Creator Of The World,” a 4th century text that praises God for His sovereignty over nature while offering prayers for grace and mercy. The song’s wheezing organs lend it a solemn, monastic air that Church father would almost certainly appreciate.
“Whistling Girl“ ‘s lyrics could easily come from the Psalms, referencing common grace even as Edwards laments the fallenness of human nature (“Inside the home folk pine grow/Where hearts are fire sparks are thrown/It is all that glitters/This terrible weakness”). And “Full Armour” takes one of the most common images in the church (or at least in Sunday School) — the armor of the Lord — goes through it word by word, and in the end, subverts it (“In full armour He turns my cheek/In full armour contrite and meek”).
Even those songs that aren’t explicitly praising the Lord are reverent to the core. “Swedish Purse” could easily be a spooky praise song for Edwards’ wife (“She has made place for me/And life for those our children”), but it ends with Edwards once again imploring the Lord for mercy (“Again I am away at sea… Father how far am I/It seems forever as the crow flies”).
The greatest strength of Edwards’ music has always been the conviction that he brings to bear, but in Mosaic’s case, that’s also its greatest weakness. As stirring and gripping as it can be, the album also becomes a bit overbearing by its final third or so. “Elktooth” slogs along as Edwards bitterly groans through clenched teeth about the dangers of double-minded men, and “Slota Prow” literally finds Edwards singing in tongues. But these songs move at a nigh-funereal step, the weight of conviction having stilled Edwards’ fiery recklessness.
Mosaic seems to be about the extent of Edwards’ current direction, and it seems difficult to imagine where he’ll go next from here without treading the same ground again and again. This isn’t necessarily a big deal, as the man has reinvented himself plenty of times already, but it’s still a niggling thought as you make your way through the album.
In short, Mosaic displays both the greatest strengths of Woven Hand’s music as well as its greatest weaknesses. At its best, Mosaic easily contains some of Edwards’ finest compositions to date — “Winter Shaker“ ‘s Joy Division-esque bassline gets me every time, as do the rolling piano and banjo melodies of “Whistling Girl” — but the same things that make it so strong often slow it to a crawl, striking up a pace that might be described as “tedious.” Which is a word one never wants to associate with Woven Hand’s music.