Moving Toward Immortality: Shad Delivers(RS rating: five stars)
Sergeant Peppers. Highway 61. Tommy. Dark Side of The Moon. And now, Movegrass. Glen Shad has made some big talk in his day, but this time he has produced the goods, and then some. Not since "The Wall" has anyone attempted a conceptual album of such scope, and truth be told, this work eclipses that one several times over.
Movegrass is a three-disc affair, bearing the titles "Origins," "Movement," and "Arrival." The music contained therein is simply brilliant and always unpredictable, never ceasing to throw the listener off balance at every turn.
This is of course an autobiographical tale, and we begin with Shad's humble origins in the woods of northern Arkansas. The first half hour of "Origins" is made up mostly of down-home front-porch bluegrass, played by a lineup of musicians as fine as any in that genre today. Guests on this section include Jerry Douglas, Tim O'Brien, Del McCoury and none other than Steve Earle, to name a few. The straight-ahead bluegrass lasts for only about four songs, however, until we hear that Shad has ulterior motives. Eventually the music doesn't stop between the songs any more, instead giving way to brilliant segues that sound like Bill Monroe on acid.
Eventually we reach Shad's adolescent years and the inevitable angst to be encountered. But this is anything but predictable teen-in-pain music. For this section, Shad brought in his occasional musical collaborator, Steve Unruh. In Shad's view, there was no one better for the job. "Steve has a great understanding of the feeling I was trying to get across here, not to mention the fact that his sense of sequencing is uncanny and he's a fantastic vocalist to boot," Shad says. This section also features little-known vocalist Joshua Hull, an old friend of Shad's who used to sing opera in Chicago. There are some amazing vocal fireworks to be found in the two a capella songs with Shad, Uruh, and Hull.
On disc 2, "Movement," we progress from teen anguish to young love,showcased by three timeless duets. Each of these represents one of Shad's three failed marriages. On "You Were my Everything," about Shad's first wife Sharleena, he is joined by Emmylou Harris. Subsequent duets are with Lucinda Williams and Sheryl Crow. The latter deals with his third wife, Misty, who drowned in Table Rock Lake under circumstances which are still shrouded in mystery and ambiguous detail.
The second half of disc 2 is easily the darkest part of the work depicting Shad's struggles with a recurring hard drug problem, especially with heroin. "All I can say is that this was rock bottom for me, and I brought in musicians who I thought would be able to portray that effectively," Shad says. The result is a fabulous expolosion of neo-metal thrashgrass featuring guest vocals by Slayer vocalist Tom Araya and Kid Rock, and guitar work by James Hetfield. "Christmas Eve Lying in a St. Louis Gutter," the climax of this section, features a vocal trio by Shad, Araya, and Kid Rock that sounds as if it were forged in the very fires of hell. Unspeakably effective. Nothing like this has been heard before. Shad is fearlessly breaking new musical ground here and none of us will ever be the same as a result.
Disc 3, "Arrival," begins with an ultra-mellow set of songs dealing with his time spent sequestered at a religious compound in Aspen, in which he recovered from his emotional bankruptcy and found his new spirituality, Movementarianism, which is the central principle for his life and the inspiration for this work. At this point the typical mainstream listener may think that Shad has gone off the deep end, but the Movementarian themes of the remainder of the work are remarkably transparent. "I realize that not everyone has progressed as far as I have spiritually," Shad explains,"and so I was very careful not to make my Message of the Movement overbearing." Instead, the religious themes are veiled in cloudy symbolism which can work at any level that the listener wishes.
The climax of the entire work, "Revelation," is a masterpiece in its own right. Not since the "Ode to Joy" movement of Beethoven's Ninth symphony has a piece of music come along that is so utterly transcendent as to almost defy description. This section begins with an 8-minute introduction which features an astounding 30 simultaneous banjo parts, no two alike, all played by Shad and dubbed together in the studio. This leads into an ecstatic performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir that needs to be heard to be believed.
Listening to Movegrass leaves the listener utterly spent, emotionally exhausted, and changed forever. In the hands of any other artist, this album would have been an overblown, self-indulgent mockery. But in Shad's hands the opposite is true. Glen Shad has achieved true immortality with this release.