56. Tribal Opera – iDEoLA

TRIBAL OPERA (1987)

iDEoLA (Mark Heard)

On Mark Heard “Stop the Dominoes” the poet lamented…

I’m too sacred for the sinners
And the saints wish I would leave

But this was not supposed to be the case for Heard working under the pseudonym iDEoLA on the newly created What? Records  in 1987. This was to be a label dedicated to allow Christian artist the free expression to write and perform what they wanted and would include a strong relationship with mainstream counterpart A&M to market, distribute and promote the releases to the mainstream radio and record market. Label mates Tonio K. and Dave Perkins were perfect fits for this type of fledgling project. But unfortunately for all involved (including the consumer) the dreams never truly  materialized.

But what we are left with, though, is one the best singular recordings in CCM. This is one of the few releases in this countdown by an artist with only one release. Of course with iDEoLA that isn’t quite accurate as the mastermind and singular performer is the late Mark Heard.

Musically this was quite a departure for Heard as his previously releases were acoustic or electric driven folk, rock and blues. But like Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwod Mac), to whom Heard is often compared, he felt free as an artist to expand his musical horizons while remaining true to his core, which is songwriting. There will be many who will disagree, but I am firmly convinced that Mark Heard was the very best songwriter in Christian Music and rivaled the very best in all of music including Bruce Cockburn, Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan.

Musically this is electric and eclectic. Both world music and rock and roll. Samples, steel drum sounds, electronic bass and both acoustic and electric guitars. The comparisons to the aforementioned Lindsey Buckingham and Peter Gabriel are fair and complimentary. But hidden within the punctuated production and world rhythms are some of Heard’s finest lyrics and melodies.

In a musical format not noted for deeper thoughts of the human condition Heard starts, “I Am an Emotional Man,” a transparent revelation that beneath the image, guitars and sample machines is a man with emotions that are out of step with the accepted 1980′s facades.

in the primal jungle streets
where the sky is smothered
two-legged creatures breathe and eat
bruising one another

i wish i’d never been told
that the species has souls

i am an emotional man
emotional man with obsolete tears
i guess i’m just an emotional man
emotional man with out-of-place feelings

The first, and I believe, only pop radio single follows with “Is It Any Wonder.” I remember hearing the single months before the album came out and there was some sort of contest to “guess” who the artist behind the band was. I was working at a large Christian Bookstore at the time and won the contest. I always assumed there weren’t too many Christian Bookstore workers that knew who Mark Heard was.

It made sense to make this tune the first single as it is clearly the most accessible and pop driven tune. It was almost like the first time I heard Springsteen’s, “Dancing in the Dark.” It was a folk/Americana rocker placed on top of a straight dance beat. But somehow it worked. But unlike Springsteen, Heard actually had something worth saying.

i had a dream, it was a mystery
i dreamed of science and of history
i dreamed that since we stood up out of the dust
we formed our words on lips of beauty and trust
i should’ve known better than that
i should’ve known better than that
everything looks different in the morning

is it any wonder
is it any wonder
is it any wonder we dare to live in our dreams

“Watching the Ships Go Down” laments the world of failing love and true lack of real attachment in intimate and emotional relationships. This sense of isolation that pervades society is under the microscope as Heard denotes:

take each other for granted
it’s only love we tell ourselves
it’s only emotion
untamed as any ocean
with the wind at our backs
and time on our side
breakers crashing on rocks
we assume that we’ll survive

watching the ship go down

the percussive rhythms of “Talk to Me” are hypnotic as the repetitive chorus. One of the most “tribal” songs on the album, but male backing vocal choir in the verses is set against the hard and staccato solo voice of Heard.

“Go Ask the Dead Man” continues to be a personal favorite. This also infuses the American rock rhythm and African chanting call and response as it lyrically depicts the struggles of seeking answers to life’s great questions. But the answers given are like the blind leading the blind unless one asks the right person.

The two most highly thought of songs kick off the second half of the project. The first, “Love is Bigger Than Life” is one of the most upbeat songs on the album, both musically and lyrically. The driving tribal beat mixes with a memorable chorus to accentuate Heard’s best vocals. One may even mistake it for a “love song.”

it can bite you like a snake
joy most poisonous
it can stalk you like a ghost
quieter than air
it can shake you when you wake
arrow to the heart
it can change you while you sleep
slowly but surely

heartbeats drown out the weather
two hearts beat better and better

The albums central theme and lyrical center is “How To Grown Up Big and Strong.” This song has been covered by several artists and deservedly so. It may ranks as one of Heard’s best compositions.

strong man strangle universe
he drown the stars
blinded by the mission of a thousand wars
he fit and dominant
not wonder why
he love the battlecry

strong man is survivor
he live to pound
little wooden crosses in the bloody ground
he fit and dominant
he stand a chance
he not bow to circumstance

and the world keep on turning
and the sun keep on burnring
and the children keep learning
how to grow up big and strong

I remember going to a Christian Nightclub in Orange County back when this album was released. Heard performed to a crowd that was completely unfamiliar with his music except for myself and a few of my friends. This was a crowd more interested in Chris Eaton, Leon Patillo, Kim Boyce and Russ Taff and simply did not get what Heard was doing. That was until he performed “Everybody Dances.”  Of course they had no idea what they were dancing to and the songs lyrics flew several feet above the meat market ceiling, but in the wry Mark Heard way, he played it three times during his set.

The album finishes with two more songs regarding the human condition. “Why Can’t We Just Say No” looks at those who move forward toward an inevitable end and apparently do nothing to change their direction. “Hold Back the Tears” expresses the frustration of a society that simply does not allow transparency for fear of rejection or persecution.

It should be noted here just how stellar the production of this project. It was easily one of the finest produced albums for its time and still sound sonically strong.

Despite the electronic and manufactured feel of the project musically it lyrically carries the stamp of the raw emotion connected to the struggles of the human condition. In fact, it is these raw and very personal lyrics couched within a very artificial setting that makes them so impacting and worthy of our attention.

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  1. Don
    June 2, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    There is no stopping Low5point now! He is taking over the internets!

    I heard Mark and Pat Terry were into XTC at the time – there is some resemblance in this album. (I think my friend heard that from Pat Terry around this time after a concert).

    Thanks for the write up. I don’t know why I feel compelled to add a blurb to all my favorite albums, but I am really enjoying your blog!

    • low5point
      June 2, 2011 at 7:11 pm

      I’m going to guess that most of the rest of the albums may fall under the favorite category. Maybe not all, but many.

  2. adam
    June 2, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    I remember in the late 80’s, I found copies of this used all over. Thank goodness I bought one. Seeing what they go for on Amazon today, I wish I’d bought ’em all 🙂

  3. aarjayaitch
    June 2, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    I just listened to this again earlier today. Not surprising as it is still an all-time favorite. “Go Ask The Dead Man”would have to go very high on my list of The Coolest Songs Ever Made.

  4. Brett C
    June 3, 2011 at 5:25 am

    I remember the buzz surrounding this release at the time for those that were listening (I was :-)). Unfortunately not many others were listening and boy did they miss out. Mark Heard is THE Man! All his albums are great and this is one of the best.

    • Brett C
      June 8, 2011 at 11:52 am

      Oh and it’s a What? Records release so of course it is a AYSO, they all are, period!

  5. Charles
    June 3, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    I like this LP. Musically, it’s a very fun album, and lyrically, it’s a very engaging and spiritually challenging album. I wish Mark Heard had received more recognition for his talents as a musician, songwriter, producer…
    I agree with Brett C. I never listened to a Mark Heard album/project that I didn’t like.

  6. Don
    June 3, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    I confess I didn’t like this album much when it came out. I think Mark was my favorite artist at the time (maybe still is) but this album just didn’t sound good to me. Maybe I didn’t give it a chance to sink in – it was a big stylistic shift for him. I will have to go back and listen some more – since it is so roundly appreciated by you all.

  7. Shawn McLaughlin
    June 4, 2011 at 6:59 am

    Dave really IS on a roll. How could he possibly write so many reviews of such great length in so short a time? ; )

    XTC, Lindsey Buckingham……two groups that were mainstays of my musical diet growing up. No wonder I liked this despite the strong electronic vibe.

  8. adam
    July 6, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    “Watching the Ship Go Down” was one of my faves, as was “How to Grow Up Big and Strong,” which was covered by Olivia Newton John (seriously, it’s on YouTube).

    • low5point
      July 6, 2011 at 4:30 pm

      The ONJ version also appears on the Mark heard Tribute album

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