Her new album will become the soundtrack for many to the Year of Mercy
A voice descends over lingering strings, reciting the first line of an ancient Gregorian chant: Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. “Where charity and love are, God is there.”
Some music historians trace “Ubi Caritas” – associated with the Eucharist and the now expanded footwashing rite of Holy Thursday – to as far back as the 4th century. But Audrey Assad’s new record Inheritance recasts the chant with a stirring original melody, thundering drums, and all the sweetness and sadness of a Gaelic folk tune.
The hymns of Inheritance grew out of a crowdsourcing project started by Assad last year. After leaving her label to become independent, she invited her fans to vote on thirty candidates for a new, wide-ranging collection of hymns.
But certain tracks were inevitable for the songwriter, who grew up singing and playing piano in a Plymouth Brethren community before converting to Catholicism at 24. “Ubi Caritas” – which not only opens the album, but draws it to a close – was one of them. “‘Ubi Caritas’ is the first track because it is a prayer about unity and charity,” she explains. “My bringing together hymns from Protestant and Catholic traditions was a purposeful move, and because of that, ‘Ubi Caritas’ seemed fitting as a place to begin (and end) thematically speaking.”
But Assad didn’t just have her eye on older, more formal hymns. Another choice was “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” by avante-garde composer Gavin Bryars, who looped a brief stanza sung by homeless man in the early 70s (and later recruited Tom Waits to sing along), while “I Wonder As I Wander” – a 20th century Appalachian folk hymn that she recorded live – was a personal favorite.
These two atmospheric songs do more than convey the expanse of the Church through time; they also show the expanse of the Church through social class, balancing out the “high church hymnody” with rugged, anonymous folk songs. “I made a very intentional choice to include a few folk hymns that originated with people living in poverty or under oppression,” Assad says. “I did this because I wanted to pull songs from a variety of places to create a holistic, caste-less collection.”
The result is just that: a compelling work of Christian ecumenism. And in Assad’s hands, this collection of hymns from wildly different people and places are shown to be bound together by a single trait: serenity. With a few drum-heavy tracks in tow, it’s more an active, triumphant serenity than passive one; still, throughout the album – and especially in elegant takes on 19th century hymns like “It Is Well With My Soul” and “How Can I Keep From Singing” – there always shines a gentle, even consoling quality in the music.
But that quality came at a cost.
“I was in a pretty dismal place emotionally and spiritually at the time I recorded Inheritance, Assad confesses. “Making it was very difficult because my spiritual life at that time felt rather like trying to walk through head-high snow. My ‘dark night of the soul’ had, at that point, been upwards of five years in the making.
“During the recording process, I had to schedule extra studio time to finish the vocals, because I simply couldn’t seem to get the words out. I felt…choked. There were many tears. Looking back on it now, after some very deep and significant inner healing has transpired at the hands of our Lord, I see that making Inheritance was a big part of that very healing. My instincts to return to some of the songs of my youth were good – the hymns were deeply agitating to me. They stirred up painful memories and difficult emotions and confusing reactions, and I was driven to seek healing. I find it incredibly beautiful that there is a tone of serenity throughout the record, especially since there was nothing serene in the making of it for me. Perhaps I might best attribute that to the Holy Spirit.”
Assad went on to contribute two original songs to the album. The first, the haunting “Even Unto Death”, was inspired by the execution of the 21 Coptic Martyrs in February 2015 (“It was my attempt to adopt the prayer of the martyrs as my own”), while the intimate and moving “New Every Morning” draws inspiration from a more theological place, weaving together verses of creation, the fall, and redemption around a refrain of forgiveness. “‘New Every Morning’ takes a birds-eye view of history,” she explains, “and points to the Cross as the timeless moment of revelation that it is – in all seasons, ages, and eras, it is mystically made present in the Eucharist, revealing the love of the Father.”
Inheritance is filled with these kinds of priceless meditations on the fundamentals of Christian life, and will become the soundtrack for many to the Year of Mercy. But it also testifies to music’s own “mystical” power. This is the simple but essential truth that Assad wants everyone to take away from the album: “that music matters.”
“I did not compose most of these songs, but the sonic landscapes themselves were labors of love and would be, I believe, a witness to Beauty, Goodness, and Truth even if there were no words there. But at the same time, the great pieces I tremblingly undertook to arrange are worth so much and offer so much to believers. They are worth saving, celebrating, and singing today just as they were when they were written. I hope I have made a worthy contribution to the Church’s canon of music with this album, and I am honored that I got a chance to try.”
Inheritance is more than just a worthy contribution; it’s an invaluable gift.
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher and cultural commentator at AleteiaandWord on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish and Real Clear Religion.