When one thinks of comforting Scripture, Jeremiah is not on anyone’s list for a quick read filled with warm fuzzies. The constant warnings of Jerusalem’s destruction if it did not change its ways made Jeremiah the original Debbie Downer; the prophet least likely to be invited to parties. The message God gave Jeremiah to deliver didn’t thrill him, as detailed in Jeremiah 20:7-9:
You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.
Jeremiah did as commanded, along the way discarding any hopes of popularity and eventually staying alive. The book containing his prophesies is a sobering reminder that God’s patience does have limits, even for His chosen people. Turning away from Him will inevitably bring about paying the piper, and the piper exacts a terrible price.
Worship leader Rachel Wilhelm’s new album “Jeremiah” uses the prophet of doom as source material for a rich exploration of modern liturgical music embracing both contemporary stylings and the rich heritage formed by the great hymn writers. It is music equally at home being listened to or sung in church.
“Jeremiah” finds Wilhelm adding potent Americana strains into her folk and contemplative traditional-oriented worship music musical palette. As I’ve noted before, Wilhelm’s artistry has much in common with the quieter, more melodic side of classic progressive rock as embodied by bands such as Camel and Renaissance. On “Jeremiah,” she uses instrumentation such as banjo not in a kitschy fashion but rather to drive home a song’s point.
What separates “Jeremiah” from its contemporaries is its providing intelligent comfort. Wilhelm is a skilled tunesmith, weaving deceptively simple melodies designed to complement the words. This is a far more difficult task than usually imagined. Wilhelm avoids overwrought theatrics in favor of sturdy compositions appealing to heart and mind, not working known cliches to evoke an emotional response. In this, she reaches far deeper into the listener than an artist striving for surface reaction. Wilhelm’s music speaks to the soul with authentic creativity, not in a cheap, manipulative manner. Her greatest gift is enabling the listener to escape a standard musical experience and instead do what the great hymn writers over the centuries have worked toward: music and words combining to bring one into worship’s true heart.
If the album has a flaw, it is Wilhelm being overly inclusive of other artists involved with the recording. Devin Pogue, who co-wrote four of the album’s songs with Wilhelm, takes the lead vocal on three of them. He’s not a bad singer, but he’s not in Wilhelm’s class with her warm, plaintive, inviting style. It’s a minor quibble, but the album would have been even stronger had Wilhelm been more selfish and hogged the mic. One artist on the album who definitely is not in the way is guitar master Phil Keaggy. In lieu of the liquid fire single-note runs that have enthralled audiences for decades, on multiple songs, he adds unobtrusive sonic textures and shades, making already enticing songs even richer.
“Jeremiah” is not bubblegum background music for those seeking a surface rush rather than profound enlightenment. It is a superbly crafted work of art. “Jeremiah” pulls off the challenging feat of being musically accomplished and staying true to its vision of inviting the listener into thoughtful worship. In a world of autotuned monotony and disposable plastic formula pseudo-music chasing chart success, Rachel Wilhelm stands out as a true artist, sharing her immense gift with us. She deserves all the support that one can muster.
The album is available on CD and as a download from the artist’s Bandcamp page.