79. Satellite Sky – Mark Heard
SATELLITE SKY (1992)
Record Executive: So son, you want to record a huh? What kind of record.
Artist: It’s going to be a 15 song rock album with country/folk and Americana influences written and recorded almost exclusively on mandolin!
Fortunately the above conversation took place in the head of Mark Heard as, at the time, he was his own record company executive and artist. And by allowing himself the freedom to write what he wanted, he provided listeners with a brilliant work that sounds amazing 20 years later.
In the late Spring of 1992, Mark Heard came to a Diamante Music sales conference to perform some new songs that would be released a few weeks later on Satellite Sky. He pulled out his electric 1939 National Steel mandolin and began to play.
The album starts with one of my all time favorite Mark Heard songs, “Tip of My Tongue.” The mandolin carries a “big Country” like epic sound and melody as Heard’s most passionate voice screams out his desire to properly communicate and how words can be so inadequate when the message is so impressive. I find the chorus to be possibly Heard’s finest vocal performance and a great way to kick the album in gear.
The title track follows with little break between songs and carries the same Springsteenesque rock and roll. It should be noted here that unlike many Heard albums this one was a very large effort of guest musicians and friends. This gives the album a real “band” feel and an authentic rock vibe. Michael Been, David Raven, Fergus marsh (Bruce Cockburn’s band), Buddy Miller, David Miner, Sam Phillips and the “much unheralded” Pam Dwinell-Miner all contribute.
The song looks to the future that was supposed to come during his lifetime and what should Heard’s own children expect to find during theirs.
Whether “Big Wheels Roll” is about the music industry or just “industry” itself is not the issue. Rather the steel and cold that permeates society and chokes the dreamers is lamented as the fallout reveals itself in the current human condition.
The “human condition” is a common theme in Heard’s writings and no artist in CCM has ever examined it quite like Heard. No song expresses this better than “Orphan’s of God.” Julie and Buddy Miller would later brilliantly cover this song. Those that question, brood and struggle with their situation and lovingly referred to as God’s orphans; those who cannot or dare not fit nicely into currently safe categories.
Never seen as a big “hook” writer, “Another Day in Limbo” possesses just that; a huge hook that is utterly unforgettable. Built around the familiar Big Country type e-bow guitar sound created by the electric mandolin, the groove is so mercilessly driven forward as the song builds vocally into a great chorus.
Probably one of the more “forgotten” Mark Heard songs, “Language of Love” is actually one of the commercial ventures in his playlist and weaves its way from a “River” era Springsteen like melody (complete with organ accompaniment) to a Tonio K. or T-Bone Burnett like chorus. The organ is an awesome addition and fills in the song to make it much larger than it really is.
“Freight Train to Nowhere” is just a good old-fashioned kick ass rock and roll song. It’s fitting that VoL would alter cover it with a much more aggressive rock vibe arrangement. Heard’s penchant for a brilliant twist of a phrase is evident here as he sings “the wages of spend is debt” and “She can’t give a damn on cue” with a sly wrinkle in his tongue.
What would appear to be album filler in the hands of a lesser artist, “Long Way Down” becomes an impassioned and brilliant performance. The song builds and builds and if his name was Tom Petty it would have found its way into the Top 40!
Heard’s own frailty and struggle is examined in “A Broken Man.” The lack of seeing the miraculous in the common is brilliantly described in the line “one day’s miracle is another day’s rut.” Heard’s constant theme of just always being on the “outside” is once again explored here as well.
“Love Is So Blind” is enchantingly beautiful both lyrically and melodically. The Spirit weaves its way through the downtown streets at night to sing to infidels and thieves because she is blind to the circumstance and loves with question.
“Hammers and Nails” could have appeared and number of albums by The Call with its almost spoken verses and huge and passionate chorus. It has a real Michael Been quality about it. Taking the weapons of the crucifixion as metaphors, heard examines God’s piecing love; hammers and nails.
Considered by many the strongest song on the album and by many as one of Heard’s finest work, “We Know Too Much.” The aforementioned Michael been would later do a staggering impressive cover of the song, but it’s the heart of the song that resonates no matter the arrangement and performance.
“Lost on Purpose” bring a return to the early 80’s song of Mark heard with its Lindsey Buckingham feel and melody. This could have been a lost track from “Victims of the Age.”
“Nothing But the Wind” examines the unending grace of a God who covers the tracks where we’ve been and remembers them no more.
But it is with the album’s closer, “Treasure of a Broken land” where we truly find Heard at his brilliant apex. Leaving his final encore to be his finest. The over 6-minute epic in no way suffers from its length. There is not a single unneeded note or word. This is what songwriting brilliance is meant to be. The irony of this resurrection themed song is striking and lasting.
During the previously mentioned performance at the Diamante sales conference he mentioned that was going “finally get out there” and to do several shows over the Summer culminating at one of his favorite places to play, JPUSA’s Cornerstone festival outside of Chicago. It would be there that he would suffer a heart attack on stage, return for an encore, be rushed to a hospital and a few short weeks later pass away.