Gospel music has always been central to the fiercely-original blues of Kelly Joe Phelps. "Brother Sinner & the Whale," however, is his most spiritual album yet.
Admirers of Phelps revere his music for his unvarnished growl, his artistic risk taking (see the radical reworking of blues, folk and rock on "Sky Like a Broken Clock") and his singular approach to the acoustic lap-slide guitar. But for his first album in three years, Phelps repositions himself and his guitar, taking up the more familiar bottleneck slide and revealing his skillful Mississippi John Hurt-styled finger-picking.
"Brother Sinner & the Whale" is profoundly traditional, conservative and Christian even, but not in an ideological sense. Phelps is conserving the roots of gospel, the actual beliefs that motivate the best of the music and the message. He's making music and writing songs that express the deep human fellowship and humility that is (or was) the core value of Christian teaching. All of the songs, save the old standard "I've Been Converted," are original, but they draw directly from biblical sources and from the deathless gospel music of Blind Willie Johnson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Louvin and Monroe Brothers. Because Phelps is a musician first and a born-again sinner second, the album never comes off as preachy; Phelps' gospel is always deeply felt.
For a secular audience, even one familiar with Phelps' longstanding connection to the holy blues, Phelps' turn towards these biblical sources may be disconcerting. And yet, when delivered in that gravel-wrapped-in-silk voice and driven by his expressive guitar playing, the images can resonate across divides. Sometimes his lyrics are literal and direct, as on "Hope in the Lord to Provide," and just as often they're personal and difficult. On "Sometimes a Drifter" he meditates on both the smallness and the vastness of a single life, of one man's work, and on the devastating "Down to the Praying Ground" he just lays bare everything that haunts him and turns to a power he can't hope to understand. That power is wholly a mystery; it can't be explained, but it can be sung.