John Calvin perceptively described the collection of Psalms in the Bible as “the anatomy of all the parts of the soul”; he saw that “there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as a mirror“.
And yet the Psalms do not simply lay us bare. They also direct us to sing to our God out of those very emotions and contexts. Calvin went on: “there is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this religious exercise“. The Psalms are our God-given songbook, calling us to join in and praise God from the messy realities of our lives.
That’s why anything that gets us singing and reflecting on the Psalms must count as precious for our lives as 24-7 worshippers of God. And that’s why I love this new album from songwriter Matt Searles, ‘From the River to the Ends of the Earth’.
I’d stumbled upon Matt’s first album, ‘Now and Not Yet’, after a friend recommended it. Having never previously heard of him, I loved it, and subsequently reviewed it here. Unsurprisingly for a self-made debut, it was a simple affair with a raw acoustic sound; bare, yet beautiful for it.
Consequently, one of the first things you notice with this second album is the bigger, richer sound. Searles mobilises a full band (including accordion and bouzouki), and the songs have all been professionally produced and mastered. As if to make the point, the album opens with the only track from the previous record, ‘Be at Rest’ (Psalm 116), albeit completely re-worked. Drums and electric guitars kick in, and instead of a mellow lilt we have an infectiously chirpy anthem of delight.
Nine further psalms follow-on, all set to music by Searles, and there are some real gems in there. One of the standout tracks is ‘Creator, Sustainer’, a version of Psalm 104 which Bob Kauflin has described as “outstanding”. Beautifully arranged opening bars of bass and Hammond erupt into an anthemic chorus joyfully declaring “Creator, Sustainer, you’re robed in glorious splendour, O Lord how great you are”.
Just as stunning, but very different in tone is ‘Mighty’, a version of Psalm 93. It focuses on God’s sure reign over the course of three verses, before leading the heart in response with the gripping building refrain, “Storms may come and floods may rise; be our refuge Lord most high“.
The record is entirely made-up of psalms that particularly focus on God’s kingly reign, with Searles hand-picking both some of the ‘royal’ psalms describing the Davidic king, as well as those that focus on the majesty and rule of God. The sense of theme effectively comes through as you listen to the album as a whole, and as a result I felt encouraged to rejoice in God’s rule over both my life, as well as his world. Following the lead of Isaac Watts (not forgetting the apostles themselves!), Searles also sensitively and meaningfully crafts his rewordings of the Psalms to highlight their fulfilment in the God who has revealed himself ultimately in the risen and ascended King Jesus. Perhaps nowhere is this seen better than in his version of Psalm 72, ‘Let Your Kingdom Come’, where each verse culminates by focusing the listener on the character and work of Jesus, the king who brings about all that was promised.
Perhaps like the Psalms themselves, I wonder if part of the strength of Searles’ songwriting is that he knows when not to say more than is necessary. Having recently been an assistant pastor, and now working on a Masters specialising in the Psalms, Searles’ pastor’s heart comes through. That precious combination of substance, simplicity and singability makes for songs that you naturally find yourself joining in with, whilst simultaneously being pastored by.
As with the previous album, Matt takes a back seat on the actual recording, leaving vocals in this case to Tim O’Connor and Yvonne Lyon. As an established solo artist on the Scottish circuit herself, Lyon’s voice wonderfully showcases Searles’ gift for song-writing. Her husband, DL, is also behind a lot of the instrumentation and production, as well as, according to Searles, being the one who really made this album happen.
And good job he did, I say! Calvin riled against the Pope of his day for depriving the church of the psalms, accusing him of distorting them into a “murmuring … without any understanding”. Ours may not be the same situation, but we are certainly poorer without the psalms on our lips. As such ‘From the River to the Ends of the Earth’ makes for a fantastic follow-up from Matt Searles and a precious aid to our praising. Available for £10 from his website where you can listen to all the tracks, it’ll also make for a brilliant Christmas gift!
Full disclosure: The artist sent me a copy of this album for free, but I hope this is still a fair and honest review!