One of the great ironies of contemporary worship is that it rides the undercurrent of a fear for humanity. Most worship albums are meticulously produced and "error-free," resulting in a polished sound that is easy to digest, but sometimes the stories that music must tell require something less safe. Joy & Sorrow Meet is inspired by the incredible, recent trials of folk/gospel artist Weston Skaggs' life, namely the birth complications of his daughter, the near-death experience of his wife, and the adoption of his son. It is these events that allow Skaggs to artistically explore what it means to worship God in the midst of life's complexities.
The vulnerability of this record can easily be observed by the noisy "behind-the-scenes" vocal snips present in bluesy hymn "Let A Song Go" and the introspective "Blush," however, the more subtle nature of this aspect is found in the musical risks that Skaggs takes. "Glory To Your Name" starts off with a jovial orchestral percussion theme and expands into a variety of sounds that depict the beauty of nature. Perhaps the most technically shocking moment on the album is the unplugged strumming of an electric guitar during the bridge. This decision simultaneously causes the listener to wonder why Skaggs arranged the song this way while also appreciating its uniqueness.
Going into this album, listeners might expect a binary excursion on the pros and cons of life, but there is an incredibly easygoing and lighthearted mood that persists throughout. This stance is summed up in the powerful titular line found in "Hammer and Nails," "Hallelujah, when joy and sorrow meet / Hallelujah, in His hands and in His feet." Skaggs is able to look back on the struggles that led to these songs and realize that Jesus was the center of it all, allowing him to genuinely fit the tracklist neatly within this concept. Whether it's the smooth country vibes of "Lay It Down," the large-scale gospel of "Home, Pt. 1," or the Johnny Cash-esque energy of "Down In My Soul," the musical eclecticism is all bound together by a spirit of jubilee.
For the most part, the lyrics of each song reflect this festivity. "Lay It Down" features lines that might be a bit hokey, but they do represent the happiness that Skaggs must feel: "Lord, I surrender/I don't need a thing/When even the flowers/Are clothed like a King." Though more restrained in nature, "Greater Than You Know" and "Out of the Wreckage" both center on a similar plea to not worry since God's love is expansive enough to give us hope. The two-part narrative of the prodigal son ("Home, Pt. 1" and "Home, Pt. 2") admits that there is more to the story than just a happy ending, but the conclusion that Skaggs arrives at serves as the most heartfelt idea of the album: "'Cause even when you've burned down every bridge from here to home / This I know / He'll never leave His children alone."
Skaggs also takes some time to deviate from the theme and look for fault within himself in swung acoustic tune "Blush." Though not entirely fit for most worship services, his critique of apathy is one that all Christians can and should relate to: "Maybe I should ache a little more for the pain in the world / For the bombs and the bullets and the hate that continue to whirl / For the woman that I pass on the east side each morning / Carrying her heels home in shame / Maybe I should ache a little more for the pain in the world."
Another approach that differs from popular worship trends lies in Skaggs' lower vocal register. He spends a lot more time there than one would expect, but this is welcomed since it allows for people with lower voices to sing along and bucks the thought that worship is only emotional when it is belted out at the top of one's range. It also lets Skaggs' falsetto and Sufjan Stevens-like vibrato shine in unexpected moments.
Despite the discrete instrumentation and stylistic choices, the hymn-like presentation of many of the songs can make them hard to distinguish. Since this is an independent album, the production quality can vary. "Hammer and Nails" feels the most rushed, as the percussive accents come across as overbearing and the vocals are often very faint, which is a shame since there is a barbershop quartet-like quality to the vocal parts of the chorus that could be drawn out more. The noisiness and imperfections work most of the time, but listeners will likely question why the people involved in the production didn't ask for a more appropriate take for several songs.
Additionally, the social commentary found in "Pocket-Sized God" feels out of place. Though the tune is both fun and necessary in its complaints (dwell on "My friend, if you need some help feeling right / Or writing political posts / Try a pocket-sized God / He'll have your back and go where you want to go" for a few moments), it does not tonally match up with the rest of the album's worshipful environment and it catches the listener off-guard as the penultimate track. Nevertheless, it still comes across as genuine and perhaps even timely in today's societal climate.
Joy & Sorrow Meet closes with a poppier anthem, "Creation Will Sing Your Song," that brings the album full circle. Ending with an ambient bed of strings and pads, the memorable melody directly connects back to several lyrics of earlier songs. It becomes clear that Skaggs wants the listener to understand that this entire work is the result of a specific passage within his life. Skaggs has taken these stories and poetically generalized them so that we can all join in on singing the song of life and of God.
- Review date: 3/10/17, written by Mason Haynie of Jesusfreakhideout.com