Here’s the best way to sum up the new Neal Morse Band album.
- If you loved SNOW, you might or might not love THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM.
- If you loved SOLA SCRIPTURA, you’ll definitely love THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM.
- If you loved THE GRAND EXPERIMENT, you’ll think THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM is good, but not great.
- If you have not heard of any of the albums mentioned above, but you’d like to try some of Neal Morse’s music, you definitely DO NOT want to start with THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM.
Every one of Neal Morse’s post-Spock’s Beard album seemed to get better and better: TESTIMONY; ONE; ?; LIFELINE; TESTIMONY 2; and MOMENTUM. With the exception of SOLA SCRIPTURA, Morse seemed incapable of making a mistake. Though I dislike SOLA SCRIPTURA not only for its themes and lyrics and for its music being over-the-top bombast, I was certainly willing to forgive these problems — especially given the honest spirit in which the album was written, produced, and performed.
What about THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM, then?
If you look at all the reviews that have come out about the brand-new Neal Morse album, THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM, you’ll notice that they are not only each positive, but that they also overwhelmingly gush over this two-CD set album. Most have given it perfect reviews (or very nearly perfect).
How you hear this album and judge it will be determined by how much you loved SNOW and and how much you loved SOLA SCRIPTURA. If you were taken with the long form of SNOW and the deeply religious themes of SOLA SCRIPTURA, you’ll absolutely love the new album, THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM, an album based on the famous early-modern Christian masterpiece, PILGRIM’S PROGRESS (1676), by John Bunyan, a proto-evangelical who fought against the established Church of England. The story—a dream—follows in the humanist tradition of Thomas More and Erasmus from a century and a half earlier. As such, it presents an extremely complicated story with a number of allegorical figures and imaginary places, coming in and out of the narrative.
Somewhat like the new album, SNOW also possessed an extremely complicated, nuanced, artful and moving tale of a man who found himself a prophet. SOLA SCRIPTURA, however, was an over-the-top exercise in beating Reformation theology (much of it simply wrong from a historical standpoint) into its listeners.
When Morse keeps his Christianity as art, he’s extraordinary. When, however, he sets out to write a Christian album, he’s much less successful. The difference is that an album such as THE GRAND EXPERIMENT is a gorgeous work of Christian art, while SOLA SCRIPTURA is a piece of Christian propaganda. One could make a similar comparison, for example, with J.R.R. Tolkien’s, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, a gorgeous work of Christian art, with CS Lewis’s THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, a piece of Christian propaganda. In the former, Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf, each represent the three offices of Christ: priest, king, and prophet. In the latter, Aslan is simply a feline Jesus. The former trilogy is layered, nuanced, and interesting. The latter, however, is blatant and in-your-face. Both offer wonderful stories, with some preferring Tolkien and others Lewis, while many of us love both for a variety of different reasons.
As art, THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM is somewhere between SNOW and SOLA SCRIPTURA in its themes as well as in its flow. Morse very ably uses the various original characters and places of Bunyon’s work to introduce music that reflects every pop and rock style from The Beatles, to the Moody Blues, to XTC, to Deep Purple, to Kansas, and to ELP. Indeed, at times, there’s even a bit of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR thrown in.
Additionally, having seen live the current lineup of Morse’s band three times now, I know how incredible each of the players is. Gillette has to be one of the finest young guitarists in the world, while Portnoy is the best drummer, now that Peart has retired. Frankly, Portnoy just gets better and better as he ages.
Morse is not capable of doing anything that’s not excellent. But when it comes to him, his art ranges from what is either over the top to what is subtle and voluptuous. As such, THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM is far closer to SOLA SCRIPTURA than it is to any other Neal Morse solo album.
If you’re new to Morse, do NOT start here. Start with THE GRAND EXPERIMENT, his finest by far.