Gone, but Not Forgotten
Copyright 1998 by Release Magazine
Death is rarely convenient. When Rich Mullins died Sept. 19, 1997, not only were fans robbed of future poetry, songwriting and performances, but his new record label was left in an awkward position. Although work had begun on a new record with his brilliant friends the Ragamuffins (taking their name from a book by Brennan Manning), all that remained was a weakly-recorded demo. Out of respect for Rich's art and ministry, and for fans who want so much to hear Rich's final recordings, the Ragamuffins make the best of a bad situation with The Jesus Record. The double-disc set includes that original demo tape, just Rich's lone voice accompanied by one simple, acoustic instrument (trading off between piano and guitar). The second disc features the same songs, fleshed out with a full band and guest vocalists, including Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Phil Keaggy and Ashley Cleveland.
With the poor recording of Rich singing these songs (all but-the monumental "Man of No Reputation," which Rich had intended to record later), it was impossible to build an album around more than one of his vocal tracks (even The Beatles could only pull it off twice). But either half of The Jesus Record alone would seem incomplete: The Rich half, with the system noise and telltale thumps and clicks of a simple tape recorder, carries a great deal of sentimental value, but is hardly a full work of art in its own right; the Ragamuffins half, while fuller and more accomplished, would seem empty without more of Rich's voice.
Together, the two discs strike a balance. The finished half displays the Ragamuffins in fine form, demonstrating why Rich, often canny enough to surround himself with great artists, considered these fine, fine performers (every last one of 'em) worthy of his band.
Rick Elias takes lead vocals on several songs, including a brilliantly world-weary reading of "Man of No Reputation. " The Ragamuffins share leads on the playful, country-flavored "You Did Not Have a Home," with Elias, Mark Robertson and Jimmy A trading off leads and then blending harmonies; then the three are joined by Phil Keaggy on the jangly "All the Way to Kingdom Come."
Ashley Cleveland gives a subdued performance on the dramatic "Jesus." Amy Grant delivers a low, nearly breathy voice on the stately "Nothing is Beyond You." Michael W. Smith brings a soulful approach to "Heaven in His Eyes." The final song, "Where I Am," starts with Rich's original demo, and the Ragamuffins build around it, with Michael and Amy and an informal choir sharing vocals.
It's difficult to listen to the The Jesus Record without a lump in your throat. It's also impossible to listen without considerig the shadow of tragedy surrounding it. It's a selfish reaction, of course, if we believe Rich is home with his Lord - but it is a loss to us, nonetheless. It's also frustrating to think of that great, lost record - the individual components are here, but forever split into separate halves. Fortunately, with the final arrangements so closely following the path Rich carved on his original cassette tape, you find yourself closing your eyes and imagining what the final product might have been like.
As a tribute to the music and to the Lord he served, The Jesus Record is appropriate. Each of the 10 songs revolves around Christ. As with the four Gospels, which reflect four different facets of His character, The Jesus Project seems to closely follow a Christ that Rich so desperately tried to follow in life - a Christ who, like Rich, rarely behaved within the confines of society's expectations. The Jesus we see in The Jesus Record spent time with sinners, hung with thieves, was never preoccupied with owning things and didn't even have a home on Earth.
It's likely Rich would be uncomforable with someone reading so much into so simple of a record. As he so often shunned the spotlight in life, it's especially appropriate his final record so obviously spotlights Jesus. Yet, it's impossible to listen to "Where I Am" - with Rich's reedy, tape-recorded voice leading his friends in a chorus based on Chnst's promise He was preparing a home for us - without feeling a certain pang of extra meaning. The song is in the voice of Christ, promising those of us who tarry, there will be a home for us in Heaven; it is also a reminder Rich is already there.