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On Nov. 27, Pope Francis will release “Wake Up!” a collection of his speeches set to music. While much has been made of Francis’ dropping a prog-rock album, that’s not entirely the case. Producer and musical director Don Giulio Neroni told Rolling Stone that in making the album, he tried to be “strongly faithful” to the personality of His Holiness, “the pope of dialogue, open doors, hospitality.”
Lest there be any confusion, the pontiff does not sing or play an instrument on “Wake Up!” His presence is confined to recorded excerpts of his public (and rapturously received) speeches. Much of the music is arranged to support these spoken word passages, and it aspires to be appropriately immense. At times, the sweep and simplicity of “Wake Up!” makes it resemble the soundtrack to “Titanic.” Only one song could be called prog-rock, and in saying that, I’m so sorry to disappoint.
Francis uses many languages to communicate his message. “Wake Up!” features only one piece in English. The rest are in Latin, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. In each we hear a righteous man, confident with the masses, affable and yet authoritative in his delivery. There can be no doubt that his various messages — about environmentalism, faith, equality and compassion — are sincerely held and movingly delivered. His record, however, doesn’t come across so successfully.
“Wake Up!” is a musical vehicle with two speeds. The first is an instrumental soundtrack for the pontiff’s spoken words. The other is a collection of songs, written about and recorded around more of his homilies. What they have in common, generally, is the accessibility and blandness of a waiting room.
Most of the instruments, including the many cinematic cymbal rolls, are synthesized. This is probably because the project might not have had the budget for full orchestration. There have been other papal albums: 1979’s “Pope John Paul II Sings at the Festival of Sacrosong,” 1994’s “El Rosario del Papa” and 1999’s “Abba Pater.” The most recent (despite not featuring any Abba songs) sold the best but was hardly considered a hit.
“We shipped 1 million units, and we sold about 40,000,” Infinity record executive Ron Alexenburg told Billboard. Another industry man put it differently: The pope “shipped gold and returned platinum.” In the digital age, such archaic concerns as record returns are no longer an issue. Regardless, it is likely that “Wake Up!” was recorded for relatively little money.
Musically, the album is similar to but more animated than what one would hear during a yoga class or massage session. Its goal is to calm and uplift, although neither happens at the expense of the other. The music seldom betrays human qualities like exuberance or frailty, and this apparent perfection is distancing, even if six of the 11 song titles have exclamation points. The melodies are as sentimental and momentous as the closing credits of an anime series. Thankfully, only one song falls prey to the snare drum posturing of a Brooklyn hipster band.
Some highlights include:
The first track, “Annuntio Vobis Gaudium Magnum!” (“I Bring You Tidings of Great Joy!”) opens with a sustained organ chord, followed by an evocative, soaring, synthesized pan flute. It feels, for a moment, like the Alan Parsons Project in its ’70s heyday. After the pope speaks (in Italian, to an adoring crowd), a female chorus sings a worshipful folk melody in unison harmonies. This is followed by a kind of Gregorian chant call and response, recalling Enigma’s massive international hit from 1992, “Sadeness (Part 1),” without, of course, any of the heavy breathing.
“Salve Regina” is more tonally dense, with layered percussion and exotic flute. The Brazilian vibe (Francis is speaking in Portuguese) and dervish string section at times give it the menace of an obscure James Bond soundtrack. It wasn’t clear, to me at least, if this is a cover of the medieval Marian hymn, composed by Hermann of Reichenau. If so, it would be quite the update.
The album’s most full-on funk is reserved for “La Iglesia No Puede Ser Una ONG!” (“The Church Is Not an NGO”) which begins with conga and snaky electric bass. This momentum is quickly lost to strings, harp and a chorus of happy voices and disappears completely when Francis begins to speak. Still, there is the shadow of “Help Me Somebody” from David Byrne and Brian Eno’s “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts”: a speaker of moral authority placed into a booty-shake groove. In fact, with its world music influence and stylistic pastiche, “Wake Up!” often presents as a diluted Byrne album. The holy father, however, is never in the service of the song. The music on his record is there to support and underscore the message. Likewise, there is little of Byrne’s acquisitive inventiveness in the writing or arranging.
Music industry types would call “Wake Up! Go! Go! Forward!” the song of interest, which is the new term of art for “single.” It is the track premiered by Rolling Stone and the most musically interesting of the album. It’s anthemic and mildly prog and may be the first Vatican-approved blending of papacy and amp distortion. The electric guitars — and there are lots of them — achieve a scale reminiscent of the stadium-size guitar solo on Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Francis speaks in English, his halting cadence sounding (with no disrespect intended) a little like Christopher Walken. “Wake up!” he says and admonishes us not to dull “our sensibility to the beauty of holiness.''
Many of the songs on “Wake Up!” were composed by Tony Pagliuca, the founder of the 1970s band Le Orme. His work back then featured Bach-inflected organ and pastoral piano, resembling contemporaries Genesis and Jethro Tull. Le Orme was part of Italy’s prog-rock scene, and it’s impossible to think of that time and place without mentioning the band Goblin, famous for its Dario Argento horror soundtracks. Both groups were heavily influenced by American and British prog-rock. Similar sounds occasionally surface on “Wake Up!” such as piano arpeggios that are eerily similar to the beginning of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” most famous for its place on the soundtrack for “The Exorcist.”
What might be most noteworthy about “Wake Up!” is how groundbreaking it is. This is the pope, after all, the bishop of Rome and the leader of the ancient Catholic Church. For such a figure to release an album of music at all is scarcely precedented, much less one that incorporates popular musical forms of the last few decades. Perhaps, by century’s end, we’ll have a pope who makes an actual prog-rock record. As with this record, that would be at least interesting, if not glorious.